Friday, May 31, 2013

Are teachers (inadvertently) helping drive the nails in their own coffins?

"They ran down every lead
They repeated every test
They checked out all the data in their lists
And then the alien anthropologists
Admitted they were still perplexed
But on eliminating every other reason
For our sad demise
They logged the only explanation left
This species has amused itself to death"

                                      (Roger Waters, "Amused to Death")

I was reading Diane Ravitch’s blog this morning, and I came across a post from yesterday (5/30/13), in which Diane quoted a 4th grade teacher who pleaded “Where is the real support for our children?” I’m picturing this teacher with arms extended heavenward, head thrown back (I’m certain rain was pouring down as well, I’m thinking Andy Dufresne, after escaping from Shawshank). Or possibly James T. Kirk yelling “Khaaaaaan! Khaaaaan!”  Or, remember the old lady from the Wendy's commercial asking "Where's the beef?"

Or maybe Mel Gibson’s William Wallace yelling “Freedom!” in that brief moment between his evisceration and his execution.  Ah, yes, that’s the metaphor I was looking for…

Anyway, it’s a very important, very valid, question.  And upon first quick read, I nodded my head along with the 4th grade teacher's letter, saying, “Right on!”

But a very astute poster, writing under the screen name “Ms. Cartwheel Librarian” (there has got to be a story there…) made an observation, singling out one of the sentences in the teacher’s page long commentary, and in the process reminding me to always check the premises of an argument.  This teacher lamented the condition of modern public education, but in the process of doing so, de facto endorsed (or at least condoned) NCLB/RttT’s purported validity as a barometer of school success:
[The 4th grade teacher wrote:] “The principal is a competent and supportive school leader who is simply navigating the academic culture that has developed since NCLB and high stakes testing began.”
[Ms. Cartwheel Librarian commented, after citing the above sentence specifically:] I’m sorry, but we really need to dive in and face the cognitive dissonance inherent in that sentence before we can ever begin to dig out of this mess. Anyone who “simply navigates” their way through this – and moreover forces his underlings to do the same thing – is not “supportive” and not really even “competent”, except to the same extent Adolph Eichmann was “competent” in keeping the trains running on schedule. Every cog in the machine that participates rather than resisting is part of the problem, and the further up the food chain you are, the less excuse you have for “I was only following orders”. This principal needs to be supporting your right – in fact, your duty – to teach science and social studies – not undermining your efforts to do so.
This is a very unpopular sentiment, Ms. Librarian. You don’t blame the victims! You don’t fault teachers for helping to corrupt the system that they so desperately are trying to fix. Most teachers I know would be OUTRAGED at the very notion that they are part of the problem. But – and I hate to say it – Ms. Librarian may well have valid point.

An aside: I try to make it a point in my posts not to attack teachers; I love teachers, and feel that teachers are, more often than not, victims, almost as much as the students, even. However, part of me believes that when teachers participate in the evil without fighting it in an obvious, forceful and meaningful way, their inaction contributes to, and therefore makes them part of, the problem. Acquiescence is justified in many ways, but it is almost always, in my experience, achieved by administrators at the (proverbial) barrel of a (proverbial) gun. The threat of punitive action, that show of force, is usually enough to force teachers to fall in line. I cannot completely begrudge teachers their choice in that situation. Not many people sign up for martyrdom. This was the operating principle behind Nazi success as well, as Ms. Librarian suggests. But in my quieter moments (yes, I have those) it really pisses me off sometimes. This post is the closest I ever expect to get to attacking teachers, but I need to do it, lest my blog turn too partisan and my credibility be shot. In the words of the estimable poet Mr. Robert Zimmerman, "I would not feel so all alone / Everybody must get stoned!"

You’re thinking I’ve lost my mind. How dare I blame teachers for all of our schools’ ills?

Well, for one thing, I'm not.  It's not an all-or-nothing thing.  That's typical of the kind of extremist rhetoric that is part of the problem. It's a matter of degrees, shades of gray.  Maybe even more than 50 of them.

I understand the resistance to the idea. The last half of my 19 years teaching secondary school I felt like that, like I could make a difference, fix the system, shield my students from the coming sh*tstorm, and truth be told, if I could find a system that would pay me what I’m worth (nobody’s hiring above step 3-5 these days, it seems… see my essay on the “Golden Handcuffs” for more on that) I might still be in the game. It’s hard when they literally dangle your livelihood in front of you… “Stay with us and make $60, $70, $80K, plus benefits; or go out there and try your luck as an adjunct college professor, making $20K, $30K if you’re lucky, with no benefits…” A lot of teachers, most I’d guess, would stay put and keep their mouths shut, “play the game.”

I’ve had many teachers tell me that they know what’s going on, but what can they do but focus on “their own four classroom walls?” Comes a time for some people when that’s just not good enough, the crimes are too atrocious to be a part of. Guess what happens if all teachers retreat to their own four walls? The top-down, test-driven, corporate-governmental bureaucracy is given free rein to run roughshod over all, with no resistance. What was it that Martin Niemöller wrote about German intellectuals during the Nazi rise to power? Remember that poem?
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
The simple, sad fact is that teachers that stay, even if they think they’re doing good, even if in their hearts they remain true, even if they think they’re fighting the system in their own little way, MANY (if not MOST) are at least in SOME small way allowing the system to continue as it is simply by continuing to participate in it, and therefore contribute, in however small a way to the problem. Their continued participation confers validity.  And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Something has to change. It’s not a question of “giving up,” it’s an issue of taking the battle to the next level.

Also, in regards to the desire for teachers to stay and “do the very best [they] can,” consider the words of Gandalf the Grey (think of the "ring" as the NCLB/RttT mandates) to Frodo about trying to best an enemy with his own weapon:
Frodo: Take it!
Gandalf: No, Frodo.
Frodo: You must take it!
Gandalf: You cannot offer me this ring!
Frodo: I’m giving it to you!
Gandalf: Don’t… tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo. I would use this ring from a desire to do good… But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.
I’m not saying it can’t be done… but I think we’ve gotten to a point where a principled and public walkout will be more effective and proactive than teachers soldiering on as always… that’s what teachers have been doing for the last generation, soldiering on nobly, and it certainly has not halted the top-down bureaucratic madness, has not made teachers’ lives better, has not made students’ lives better; why assume that it will stop anytime soon without more drastic action?

Lastly, consider this: I don’t know if you’ve read Atlas Shrugged (it is a bit of a hyperbolic commentary on America, but if you suspend your disbelief for 1,100 pages, and endure a lot of long speeches, there is a takeaway that’s worth the effort) — the sentiment of wanting to hang in there, the inner conflict, the mixed feelings, the desire to stay, to do good: these are exactly what drove Dagny Taggart (the main character) to stay as long in her job as she did. Consider her personal journey, and see if it doesn’t map neatly onto that of every frustrated teacher who has watched corporate and governmental interests appropriate all that used to be educator-driven in education. I don’t begrudge ANY teacher his or her sentiments, because they were once mine, and to a certain extent, still are. I’m just presenting an alternative.  A noble alternative, I feel.

I will say that it's a terrible dilemma that teachers get caught in... to a certain very small extent I do grudgingly agree with the "teachers are part of the problem" argument; after all, when it comes down to it, they are the footsoldiers in the very war against them. But I also believe that many teachers stay in the game, like Dagny Taggart, becuase they think they can fight the Powers That Be. And some can, and do, I guess. New teachers who act independently are denied tenure (been there, done that), and often by the time they've made it through 2 or 3 or 5 years, to get their tenure, they've drunk enough of the Kool-Aid to be complacent de facto conspirators, even if in their own hearts and in behind-closed-doors gripe sessions with other educators (whose words and "true" feelings never see the light of day, of course) they claim to maintain their ideals. Experienced teachers are disciplined, receive forced transfers, and are otherwise shamed into compliance.  Frankly, I'm seeing a lot more positive political movement courtesy of the ones who have left the game, the ones who are making a stink, the ones who are opening - not closing - their mouths.

The public, viral, resignations of the last month or two are very Atlas Shrugged (and I'm not a Rand mouthpiece per se, just a reader who calls I like I see it; I just think it's an extremely apt good metaphor) in a good way:
Ellie Rubenstein: read here;
Julie Brissette:  read here;
Kathleen Knauth: read here;
Gerald Conti: read here.
We need more, and higher profile, and more than just New York State (which is corrupt as hell anyway) and Chicagoland (ditto, from what I hear tell).

Teachers of the world, I share your feelings. I really do…I am SOOOOOOOOOO conflicted about this. And I would not ask my former colleagues to lay down their livelihoods until and unless they were ready to make that investment. (I don’t call it a sacrifice. When you sacrifice, by definition, you lose value.) A former colleague of mine recently expressed to me exactly what I suspect most teachers are feeling in this regard:
“I completely agree that we need to take a united stand. However, we are nowhere NEAR united, and I am currently the sole breadwinner in my family of 5. So.....I'm not going to be the one leading this foray.”
I get it, I really do! And it tears me up inside.

My response, however, to those administrators, those bureaucrats, those THUGS, who would make me and my colleague feel that way, is that of Hank Rearden, another central character of Atlas, speaking to his would-be oppressors with the serenity of a Gandhi, and the steely purpose of a man who knows his mission:
Hank:  If you choose to deal with men by means of compulsion, do so. But you will discover that you need the voluntary co-operation of your victims, in many more ways than you can see at present. And your victims should discover that it is their own volition—which you cannot force—that makes you possible. I choose to be consistent and I will obey you in the manner you demand. Whatever you wish me to do, I will do it at the point of a gun. If you sentence me to jail, you will have to send armed men to carry me there—I will not volunteer to move. If you fine me, you will have to seize my property to collect the fine—I will not volunteer to pay it. If you believe that you have the right to force me—use your guns openly. I will not help you to disguise the nature of your action.
And this exchange, between Dagny Taggart, who finally is moved to victoriously quit her post (a. Pardon the split infinitive, and b. No, it's not an oxymoron), and Francisco D'Anconia, a friend who helps her see the light:
Dagny:  It seems monstrously wrong to surrender the world to the looters, and monstrously wrong to live under their rule. I can neither give up nor go back. I can neither exist without work nor work as a serf. I had always thought that any sort of battle was proper, anything, except renunciation. I'm not sure we're right to quit, you and I, when we should have fought them. But there is no way to fight. It's surrender, if we leave—and surrender, if we remain. I don't know what is right any longer.

Francisco:  Check your premises, Dagny. Contradictions don't exist. 
I think Francisco is right, as was dear Ms. Librarian.  Deep within all of our conflicts there is a premise that needs checking, an unfounded assumption that by definition, by deduction, must be wrong.  Ms. Cartwheel librarian called it "cognitive dissonance."  Call it what you want.  Are we brave enough to check ourselves (before we wreck ourselves)?

Or maybe I just like to stir up sh*t more than most people do.

What do you think? I’m just…


  1. I didn't read it all, you have a point...but we have mouths to feed. I am one who gets along with EVERYONE, but was frustrated at my school essentially equiping me a with a rusty screwdriver, a cracked bucket and a brand new circular saw and being told to paint the house. I DID stand up and ask questions about our
    -ill-fitting curricula that we kept re purchasing despite teacher objections
    -our school restructuring and elimintating electives
    -all the extra meetings about nothing, led by unqualified folks assigning busy work, that took away from planning time.

    My challenge was not met with thoughtful dialogue. It was met with a negative review (first ever)and an order of transfer to another building. My colleagues only quietly supported me behind the scenes. Out of fear, none would stand with me even though they agreed.

    So in a sense, yes we are hanging ourselves. We have allowed our unions to be seperate entities to only be in contact with at contract time or to complain when the prinicpal assigned us too much lunch duty. WE are supposed to BE the union and we're not holding ourselves accountable. We're waiting for someone else to do it and we are dying. We let this happen and we lacked the forsight to prevent it.

    I'm not suggesting we would have won a debate. But we could have at least laced up the gloves before laying down.

    1. Your story sounds like mine as that of so many others. I'm thinking of collecting them all and writing book. (Actually half-seriously.)

      I agree -- I stop short of faulting teachers in a more unqualified fashion because what you say is true; administrators' behavior is tantamount to extortion, and when extorted, the sage advice is just do what you're told and don't make the guy with the gun mad.

      My ex-colleague (the one who said “I completely agree that we need to take a united stand. However, we are nowhere NEAR united, and I am currently the sole breadwinner in my family of 5. So.....I'm not going to be the one leading this foray.”) and you have valid points. There's nobility and then there's martyrdom, and a helluva quantum leap between the two.

      You aptly described public education in this sentence: "My colleagues only quietly supported me behind the scenes. Out of fear, none would stand with me even though they agreed." Well, okay, that's two sentences. My point I guess, is that this act, the silence, is viewable as both evil and forgivably justifiable. Like philosophical wave-particle duality. And my absolute disgust with "either-or" thinking (see my post at for more on that topic) keeps me from characterizing it explicitly as one or the other.

      Good comment, thanks for posting :-)