I have started three drafts of a blog entry on the current political environment vis-a-vis education.
I gave up three times.
The conversation right now is too close to me. It is too disheartening. It is even shocking.
As the granddaughter, niece and daughter of teachers, as an educator myself who has always valued education and the myriad opportunities it brings, I guess I’ve been a little sheltered from the vitriol of the anti-school crowd. Not completely, of course.
My mother often brought home horror stories about angry parents, aloof administrators, and indifferent students. My aunt teaches second grade at a public school in Terre Haute, the methamphetamine capital of the world. She always talks about her 7-year-old students whose parents could care less if their kids come to school. Hell, my grandfather actually had Charles Manson in class for a brief spell before he got kicked out for ditching. Even before I went to college, I knew that many people had low opinions of a formal education.
And the further I went into my own academic career, the more first-hand experience I collected myself. The summer after I graduated with my bachelor degree, I went to a party with some old high school pals and made the mistake of enthusiastically admitting I was now a college grad. One of the guys I was talking to actually rolled his eyes, snorted and walked away. When I questioned his girlfriend about his behavior, she shrugged. “We’re not big on college snobs,” she replied. I was speechless.
By the time I got to grad school, I realized that, sadly, there were some circles in which I needed to keep my education to myself. When certain people asked me what I was up to, I would just talk about the two jobs I was working and leave out the classes I was taking.
Nowadays, when people ask me what I do, I try to gauge the situation, anticipate their reaction. If I’m not sure their reaction will be positive, I just say I’m a teacher. Sometimes, though, they’ll ask further, and I have to admit I teach English at a university. And then I get the “Ooooh, well, I’ll try to watch my grammar” comment. Like I’m going to correct their usage. I rarely correct even my own children; I don’t correct friends. Ever.
Despite all these experiences, the current discussions about education and teachers and their unions still leave me speechless. What can I say? Can I even be remotely objective?
Of course not.
Obviously, education is important to me. And it should be important to all Americans. It’s part of what makes the American dream possible. We must have a baseline of education to succeed in life. We have to learn how to read. We have to learn how to do basic math. We have to learn enough history to understand what’s come before, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. We have to learn the scientific method.
At a minimum, everyone should learn these things. The U.S. has to have a literate population to maintain its democracy. Thomas Jefferson understood that: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
We have to have a literate population to innovate and boost our economy. Even the most creative people will not get anywhere if they cannot articulate their great ideas.
We have to a have a literate population to protect our nation. Our military needs soldiers and officers who know their history, know multiple languages, know good communication skills.
Education is important to the success and stability of our nation.
So when people want to cut funding of our schools, when people want to bash public school teachers as lazy, glorified babysitters, when people want to privatize our schools because they’re not performing as they think they should, I am flabbergasted.
Our government needs to get its priorities straight. Get back to basics: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For me, “life” means “health” and “safety.” I want my government to provide a bottom-line, safety-net type of health system, and I want my government to keep us safe from our enemies within and without.
“Liberty” is more complicated, but for me, its about getting to choose our leaders and those leaders’ supporting the Bill of Rights.
And then there’s “pursuit of happiness.” Now, I know that education does not make everybody happy. My kindergartner told me just today that she hates school. I know that higher education is not for everyone. I certainly do not look down my nose at people who choose or cannot afford college. My husband left school at age 16; he’s one of the most brilliant people I know, and he also appreciates the value of a good education. You don’t need a degree to be educated, but not appreciating education makes you stupid.
Education allows us to succeed in business. It allows us to get better jobs and make more money. Education helps us to pursue property, which is, of course, the original source of the phrase from which Jefferson co-opted his famous Declaration (John Locke).
And the current education system, while certainly not perfect, its not in such bad shape that it needs to be completely abandoned. Are there bad schools? Oh yes. Do I know how to fix them? No, but taking away their money and marginalizing the teachers is definitely not the answer! Are there bad teachers? You bet. But I can count on one hand, the number of bad teachers I’ve had in seventeen years of education. In fact, I can think of just two. Two!
On the other hand, I can think of a hundred really good teachers I have had the privilege to know, either as their student or as a friend. My mom won student-voted awards almost every year of her 30-year career. Even today, people who had her as a teacher come up to me and sing her praises. She worked her tail off for three decades. All those “vacations” and “breaks” people complain about teachers’ enjoying. Yeah, my mom spent most of those “days off,” locked in her room, grading endless piles of essays. I remember Thanksgivings, Easter Sundays, and Mother’s Days, when we would visit family in Terre Haute, my mom spent the two hours in the car grading and doing lesson plans.
One of my favorite teachers of all time was a lady named Karen. She taught three preps – sophomore AP literature, junior composition, and an awesome class called humanities. I was fortunate to have her twice as a teacher. She was amazing in the classroom. But she was also one of my mom’s best friends, so I got to see behind the scenes. I saw her in tears my senior year, her first year teaching the brand-new humanities course. She was crying on my mom’s shoulder because she was working so hard, prepping all her classes, developing this new curriculum, grading and dealing with all the usual administrative crap. She felt like she was missing her sons’ childhoods. If I hadn’t walked into my mom’s classroom after school that day, I’d have had no idea she was under such stress. She was flawless in front of her students.
And then there were my band directors. The first two years I was in band, I didn’t give much thought to how much time these three men put into their music program. My senior year, though, I was a drum major, and I spent a lot of time with them. In the summer. On Monday evenings. On Thursday evenings. On Friday evenings when we had football games. Every Saturday from August to November when we had contests. They chose the marching drill, the musical selections, the uniforms, the flags, the staff. They coordinated 350 teenagers, teaching us music, marching routines and dealing with our teenage angst. They dealt with stage parents and vengeful judges. I cannot imagine how many hours they put into that program. And, oh, yeah, they also had to teach music classes, grade papers, and all that stuff too. They earned every dollar they got paid, and I know it wasn’t as much as it could’ve been if they’d taken their degrees and put all those hours into a private business. I know for a fact that band was the only reason many kids stayed in school at all.
Teachers are alright.
The cuts in funding, the swipes at teachers’ unions, the pushes for privatization (vouchers and charter schools) reveal some seriously screwed-up priorities in our country.
We’d better get our heads on straight and start investing in our future. Education is key. If we forget that, we sacrifice our future because part of our electorate has a chip on its shoulder and another part is senior voters who would rather protect their assets than educate our nation’s children.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (or property if you swing that way) is the bottom line. Education is the path.