WHAT IS EDUCATION? BY HT NIEBERGALL (math teacher at Fremont High since 1966)
Below is a mass letter that Herb sent out shortly after the reconstitution of Fremont was announced. Herb has taught at Fremont since Lyndon B. Johnson was president of the United States. The term SLC stands for Small Learning Community. Herb was in the SLC People, Power and Passion which was one of the most successful SLCs at Fremont. Alas at Fremont the bureaucrats make sure nothing successful lasts for long. You might be asking yourself, “How in the world did Herb get rehired at Fremont?” The answer is simple : fear. Herb had taught generations of south LA students math and students who are now grandparents regularly showed up to see him. In other words, the administration couldn’t afford the public outcry that would contradict their carefully crafted lie that teachers at Fremont were “failures.” It was very fortunate for the students at Fremont that Herb was rehired.
To: The Universe (B of E’s, supers, secretaries, all concerned or not)
Re: What is Education?
From: H T Niebergall
Teacher Fremont High School
(SLC P 3)
Looking at the on line New Fremont slide show, the proposed block schedule will make it more difficult than it is now, with our busted up 3 track schedule, to prepare AP Calculus students to pass the national exam.
The outlined plan will emphasize math and English. If we are committed to a useful educated citizenry as founder Thomas Jefferson was, then we need to vastly improve government and history education, not their isolated facts and dates, but their theory and practice, and how they relate to the reality of today.
The outline says everyone is locked into the same “pacing plan” aligned to the “standards”. Who decides what a standard is? Here is an example of what D7 Super had us spend 30 minutes a day on about 12 years ago ( the purpose being to dramatically raise test scores).
1. What was our first president George Washington’s birth year?
A. 1923 B. 1832 C. 1732 D. 1632
“Teachers” were directed to have students eliminate two “obviously wrong” choices then guess from what remained.
What facts does one really need to know? When the bank made a error in my account interest one summer, the experienced loan officer correcting the error involving a 30 and 31 day month, in 365 day year, after many complex calculations she put her calculator down, added by hand and said the bank owed me $117.43. I said I calculated $116.43. She said “Isn’t 8 and 8, 17!? So I lost a dollar.
When an interviewer was surprised when Albert Einstein did not remember a certain physical constant, he replied, “Why should I need to remember what I can look up in books!” (Have you, my readers of these comments, learned the net skills necessary to find what Thomas Jefferson said about the purpose of education, or were only tested on remembering what number he was, and can you then also find Washington’s birth year? I always remember it because it is the 3 place decimal approximation to the square root of 3)
Right now, today, can you calculate the slope of a line from its equation or its graph? That question is on exams from the CAHSEE thru AP Calculus. Many of my former students have become teachers and administrators for LAUSD. 30 years ago they could answer the slope question. But like the bank officer most would make a small error in calculating it today. And none of them had to pass an exit exam or worry about AYP. If they had good grades, they received “free money” to go to college and they graduated to pursue a variety of professions, yet our school then as now ranked low in the state in graduation rate and students going on to higher education. And what they had then and we still have now is a cadre of inspiring teachers, one is now a well known feminist lawyer, and many moved on to be top LAUSD officials.
When I started teaching, an LAUSD math teacher had written a text book (Mathematics A Human Endeavor) followed by a series of books that were used widely through out the district. They contained “Inspiring Math” lessons, many of which I modified and still use. But our new outline has us teaching “Accelerated Math”, which will re-run slope of line until the student will remember it long enough to raise state test scores and that skill then will soon be forgotten, all this at the expense of necessary and useful education (ref. Thomas Jefferson).
Our country does not support education as it did for the 40 years after WW II.
The false Texas “Miracle in Education” along with the text book and test makers corporations helped propel the election of a president that gave us NCLB. Now with “Race To The Top”, we are leaving many behind.
What is more important, the dates of the French Revolution, or the causes, results, and how they relate to events in today’s world? Are we helping our students learn how to find and use information that will stop the “disaster course” the world now finds its self on? If the Secretary Of Education wants to help us, he will advise the “Commander In Chief” to move all our “troops” involved in destructive actions to Haiti, and clear to the rubble in 6 months (not 3 years as now projected) and help rebuild hospitals, schools, and homes in 3 years or less. Hey now, wouldn’t that have the whole world saying WOW!!, look what the old US of A is doing for humanity. Only when other countries stop seeing us as “Economic Terrorists” of the world, will we stop being attacked by the recipients of those actions.
Nazi Germany had a great and successful nation wide educational plan that suited its goals. The world sat back and saw fields of youth in lock step calisthenics and passing all their exams for “The Father Land”. A system of education that developed a generation of rule followers that were given and learned all the “right answers”, and obeyed directions without critical analysis as to where they were being led.
I teach inspiring math, not accelerated math.
As the Teamsters changed from mules to trucks, corporations must re-tool from our present “War Machine” economy to a “Building and Recycle Machine” economy for all. We must “ educate”, not“ train”, our children so they know how to understand and use information to develop solutions to the “greed and injustice mentality” of today that if not stopped is capable of destroying “Space Ship Earth” (ref: Buckminster Fuller)
And finally redo the New Fremont outline to emphasize a broad “relevant” educational foundation that has a world view, an outline that will allow our teachers the freedom to implement their vision of a better world, allow constructive criticism and revision of the plan, and changed procedures to rid the profession of the less than proficient persons.
Myself personally, I am not going to teach students to “stand in line”, memorize answers and follow directions without questioning the reasons why.
I would like to stay at Fremont.
I would like the many excellent teachers now applying to transfer to stay at Fremont.
I would like the People making the changes to use their Power in a Passionate way for the benefit of all involved. ( our P 3 philosophy is forever)
Thank You For Your Consideration,
H T Niebergall
Even one of our strongest union teachers at my Los Angeles high school has bought into the “rich folks hoax” i.e. the testing mania that is killing education for urban students. The title of my post is taken from a song by Rodriguez who was made famous by the movie Searching for Sugarman and whose music I have become addicted to.
As for my colleague, he seems to surrender more each day. “It’s the world we live in,” he declares, every time someone attempts to challenge the content of the test prep/ intervention class we have during 4th period. Michigan is also learning to live in this world as the Lansing, Michigan district and teacher’s union decided they could do without art, PE and music in elementary school. But hey, that’s the world they live in, right? The union in Lansing, Michigan sold out the soul of education but then received a cruel reprieve. PE, music and art won’t be cut after all, but the educators who teach the subjects will. How you ask? Well, the academic classroom teachers will teach them! I laugh when I imagine myself in their position trying to teach PE or art. This social studies teacher would be a fish out of water. And the decline of education continues. The one tiny bright spot is Seattle, whose superintendent announced no teachers would be punished for boycotting their version of the CST, the MAP. Apparently, Garfield High teachers in Seattle decided they didn’t have to live in a world where students are labeled by a test score. And they won.
I decided that after viewing the soul- sucking, context- devoid readings I am supposed to “teach” for the three weeks leading up to the CST that will supposedly dramatically increase our scores that I can’t play along. I can’t surrender. You see all teachers are supposed to “teach” readings and standard multiple choice questions by using “context clues.” In fact every day the lesson objective on the outline is “Students use context clues…” But I already know from looking at the readings that they will bore students to tears, even though they were created with the best of intentions. “Our students,” former LAUSD local district official Sylvia Rousseau told Fremont teachers in 2005 in a rare moment of candor, “have been basiced to death.” So how would three weeks of more of the same change anything?
What made the situation even more alarming was when one teacher declared that students don’t even have to understand 1/2 of the reading to get the standardized test questions right- all students needed to do, he stated excitedly, was use “context clues.” What does that say about the quality of the questions that are being asked and the test itself for that matter? Obviously any assessment of reading that does not require students to really understand the text is not valid. But students must comprehend 90% of words in a text to truly understand it. That’s what I learned in my Reading Specialist program and also what I have observed among my own students. So apparently understanding and analyzing text are no longer important. Only “testing strategies” matter.
Sure, context clues are important. And students should have some understanding of testing strategies. But am I to understand that the readings are only a means to higher test scores? Apparently, reading for knowledge, enlightenment and self-fulfillment is no longer a reading goal.
In addition, we have a population of students who are frequently absent with many personal problems who often don’t realize their amazing talents. Even when I tell them. Even when I tell their parents. So much stress, so much drama permeates their lives that school seems for many to be an afterthought. We have AP and college level students who simply aren’t dialed into school and test prepping them only makes it worse as well as insulting their individual talents that seem to get too often pushed into the background in the voracious, single-minded search for an increased API score. There is Angel, who is a beautiful writer and shows up to school about once every two weeks. There is another student also college ready who announced she is pregnant. She missed the last week and a half of school last quarter. We have students who are wonderful singers, and at least one student who has started her own business. She is from Korea but is also half latina, very mature but rarely shows to school. All of these kids could be on full four-year scholarships to college. So why oh why are we focused on test prep and not on changing those behaviors that sabotage their future success? I’ll never understand it. I had two absolutely brilliant male students who dropped out to work. It happens all the time.
They don’t need test prep. They need a counselor to visit their homes and have a sit down with the folks. Dr. Deasy, our school doesn’t need to be stressed over test scores. We need two full-time counselors and a psychiatric social worker who can visit homes. Right now we only have two different counselors who are part time at our school. We need Driver’s Ed back in school so students might have a practical reason to read- to pass the written part of the driver’s test and negotiate the DMV. Not to mention my many male students with tickets galore for driving without a license. Why did I get these benefits in school but today’s kids don’t? We need to ditch the “tablet for every student” idea and go for the high-tech union apprenticeship jobs that are still plentiful in Los Angeles. Why don’t we have these programs in our schools in the LAUSD? And whatever happened to those wonderful, talented industrial arts teachers?
So I am using my Easter break to put together my own “test prep.” I like to call it “Reading is Revolutionary.” I have gathered some readings and poetry that will help students in the long term- and I actually plan to provide them with context. The first is from a column in a local weekly paper. It’s an article called “Life after Life,” about a man sentenced to life in prison in the late 1970′s who was released shortly after Obama’s election. Expecting a world he left in the late 70′s, he encounters cell phones, computers and much more. “Everything is different,” he declares. But he is also determined not to go back to prison and has a good start on a new life. Another lifer released early used his time in prison to get an AA degree and take graphic design classes. And that’s when he thought he was really doing life. Lots for students to ponder there.
The next is an excerpt from a book called Craig and Joan: Two Lives for Peace about two young people who committed suicide over their grief about the Vietnam War. It left their friends anguished and their school completely silent about the shocking event. No teacher brought it up, even those who were visibly upset. It was obviously official school policy to pretend the tragedy never happened. Another tragic part of this story is that the Vietnam War is over and Craig and Joan never lived to see that because of the decision they made. What good did their choices do for their families and society? The writing prompt students will have to answer is the following: Is taking your own life for a cause a noble, dramatic sign of protest or is it a selfish, futile and meaningless act?
Another is an article called Precious, about Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles which deals with the tragic situation of pit bulls in Los Angeles in an honest way that does not patronize the working class residents of the area formerly known as “south central.” The story begins with the sentence “Precious is such a bitch,” and continues with “The compact young blonde struts the patio inside the iron gates just behind the Modernica furniture factory in downtown’s Industrial District. Precious is subtly clever, looking for vulnerability: She’ll push your buttons, then put you in check just to let you know who’s in charge. Everybody knows she’s the shot caller.” Lots to chew on just in those three sentences. (Excuse the pun). I plan of course to have students answer some basic questions that require understanding and analysis but I also plan to have them write, write, write. They will write an interior monologue as if they are Precious and tell her life story, imagining what her life was like before Animal Services found her chained, weighing 19 pounds and covered with maggots on Normandie Ave in Los Angeles. In a community where animal abandonment is routine, perhaps this will plant a positive seed.
The beauty of this is that I can defend my actions with the same eduspeak tossed at teachers during the last 15 years: These lessons are culturally relevant, at an i + 1 level, use students own background and communities as well as being high- interest materials. Wow, I think I’m getting the hang of this “eduspeak” thing.
Would going along with the “rich folks hoax” of test prep be easier? Sure, but I realized my students don’t deserve a teacher who “goes along” to get a paycheck. They deserve so much more. Like what the “reformers” own kids get in their schools which is not test prep, but an enriching educational experience. And I plan to give it to them.
To my esteemed colleagues who sincerely believe this test preparation leading to an artificial jump in test scores will keep the district off our backs, believe me, it won’t. It didn’t work at Fremont, nor HPHS. The march of privatization is upon us. You want me to do a sales job on the kids. You want me to tell them on Tuesday morning that this CST test is vitally important and they must do well. But I can’t do that because it’s a lie. It’s a lie. They’ve already been cheated out of the education middle class kids get. Why would I just keep lying to students who are years behind in reading because they have less access to whole text? Why would I lie to students who still don’t know how to create an email account or attach a file – two basic skills you must have in this information age that middle class kids learn in elementary school and believe me that all the reformers’ kids learn even as they crack the whip for you to do more, more more test prep.
Whenever I feel personally pressured to move ahead to “cover” more material that might be on the CST, I stop and ask myself this question “What is education?” And I inevitably turn to Herb Niebergall’s eloquent essay he wrote when it was announced that Fremont would be reconstituted. (Herb has taught at Fremont since 1966) I will repost it above. I know what education isn’t. It’s not teaching less about cultures and more about world wars because that’s “what is on the CST” and because wars are overrepresented in the 10th grade world history standards. The genocide in the Congo is about to surpass the genocide of European Jews, Gypsies and others in the 1930′s and 1940′s. So what, do I just ignore that because it’s “not in the standards?” How does that serve my students - the same students who don’t know who the Vice President is or how many states are in the union. But they’ve received the same test prep you’re touting now for years.
In yoga practice, we are taught to let go of what no longer serves us. It doesn’t serve me to fraudulently educate my students. And it most certainly doesn’t serve them.
Teachers, be not afraid to stand up and speak out no matter what the consequences.
We can only preach to the choir for so long. Even if we have not yet been subjected to the worst of the education “reform” agenda here in California, our colleagues in other states have, most notably, Florida, Chicago, Arizona and Wisconsin. In Florida and Chicago, hundreds of schools are being closed and charters are being opened. It matters not that thousands of parents show up to “meetings” in which the dasterdly decisions have already been made. They are ignored. Tax dollars in Florida and Chicago will be spent to open charter schools. I guess the parents will have no choice but to send their kids to these “public” schools that of course will have lower -paid, non -unionized teachers who will be teaching to a script.
We know what happened in Wisconsin and in Arizona teachers lost permanent status two years ago and can’t teach ethnic studies courses. They also can’t have any materials in other languages in their classrooms. Diane Ravitch along with Anthony Cody and several others have started the Network for Public Education. Please support it. It costs 20 dollars to become a member. Recall that the charter reform groups are being funded with deep pockets such as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Gates Foundation. But collectively, if teachers and their supporters join for 20 dollars each or join as an activist at 50 dollars we can finally do more than talk to each other.
Wendy Kopp gave a fascinating interview to Cornell West and Tavis Smiley on Pacifica Radio this morning. She was shocked, shocked I say that “after 20 years, we have not been able to close the achievement gap!” This may have been an older show as the interview was preceded by an interview with Diane Ravitch and Jonathon Kozol who has a new book out. Kozol had strong condemnation for Teach For America, claiming that the organization sends “glamorous young people” with five weeks of training into the neediest schools. The kids naturally fall in love with these hip young Harvard grads but then the students are- as Kozol puts it - ”abandoned” in two years when the TFA’ers have paid off their student loans. It was the strongest anti-TFA language I have heard but also the most accurate.
Next up in the interview queue was Kopp, who copiously praised all the education “reformers” and her own Teach for America as doing important work. She then lashed out in frustration at no one in particular that “after 20 years we haven’t closed the achievement gap at all.” But instead of reflection or a reevaluation of privatizing education and demonizing veteran educators she confidently claimed she had the solution which she declared is working in a small number of “model, transformational schools.” She claimed that high expectations with a high achieving school culture and extra help for those students in “difficult circumstances” (did she mean poverty?) are working in these “transformational schools.”
I keep coming back to why it is that certain miracle reformers and teachers claim to have the answers but yet can’t seem to broaden their successes. It is because the real evidence and real stats tell the tale. As Diane Ravitch stated in her earlier interview students from “comfortable homes” who do not live in poverty always outperform those students living in crime-ravaged, poor areas. When you dig into the “successes” you discover certain exceptions, such as in the case of Geoffrey Canada and his supposed over the top graduation rate, who is able to send under- performing students from his school to the local public schools he so despises which then are demonized as failing. His school does however, have a medical clinic, preschool and 1:1 tutoring which are only dreams for most urban public schools, whose teachers often have to sweep and mop their own classrooms. Then there is Jaime Escalante, whose students attended a math enrichment class at a local college before entering his Calculus class. He also had strong administrative support for his program. And who could forget the”Freedom Writer” teacher my students so adore who left teaching after four years.
Yet when you look at who is doing the deepest work in the classroom, it is the veteran teachers who have stayed and who work with students in both high and low-income areas. By deepest work, I mean after doing a ton of planning, honestly being able to say to oneself “this isn’t working “and planning again. It’s taking risks and knowing that your students may tell you “this is boring” but when they make the connections it’s forever.
I do a little lesson on the Yalta Conference from the Center for Learning. Some students get frustrated by it because it does require some heavy thinking. (One of my brightest students put her head down on the desk 3/4 of the way through the lesson saying she couldn’t take it anymore then lifted her head and screamed “Roosevelt was an idiot!”). Of course it appears that Roosevelt gave Stalin the farm at Yalta until you remember that the Soviets lost 20 million people in World War II and Stalin was already occupying the nations between the Soviet Union and Germany. Am I defending Stalin? Hardly. By this time, I should have moved on to the Cold War because my pacing sucks, but I never spend less than 6 weeks on the Rise of Dictators, WW II and the Bomb, the Holocaust and Nuremberg Trials. My next lesson is about the dropping of the atomic bomb by Truman and includes short quotes by those involved including Truman’s Chief of Staff who disagreed with his decision. After that lesson students come to understand that the bomb may have been dropped for political reasons so that Truman would not have to negotiate over the Pacific region with the Soviets the way Roosevelt had to negotiate with them over Europe. Students gain a much deeper understanding of these events just beyond simple pro and con about whether dropping the bomb was justified. My point? I couldn’t have taught this deeply after just 2 years or even 4 years and especially not after just a 5 week training program.
My other point is that 1/2 of the class was absent that day which is typical. Why? Various reasons particular to areas of poverty. Had to visit their probation officer, ditching, babysitting, depression, pregnant. All of the above and more. So they never got the benefit of the lesson on the bomb or making the connection with Yalta. One of my students in Career Development class wrote an essay telling me that teen pregnancy was a “gift from God.” I made the mistake of trying to use logic in discussing the issue with her. What about allowing yourself to grow up first I implored? What about the importance of two parents? What about being able to support yourself on a living wage first? None of it was to any avail. She acknowledged all of my points but stood firm in hers. I see potential that will go unfulfilled.
Wendy Kopp would say that this is my fault, or my union’s fault. Our school which has probably one of the hardest-working principals in the district would not be “transformational enough.” Yet our principal last week visited one of our students who was shot twice in the chest and barely made it out alive. Middle class and upper class communities don’t contend with this.
Thus I can’t in good conscience push test scores as a value on my students. The “reformers” send their kids to schools where testing is either not done, or not used to judge teachers. Yet they demand the factory education for our students while their kids get the Cadillac treatment. It makes no sense. You want me to tell my students that their school sucks because they didn’t do well enough on tests they have no incentive to take after they sat in a claustrophobic classroom for four days straight determining the difference between two types of pine cones? Enough. I can’t take the charade any longer.
So the ink on the tentative agreement is barely dry and already the fallout can be felt, even though at my Options school, it will be far less pernicious than at regular schools in the district. Yes, Deasy did not get away with his “30%” standardized test results for use in our evaluations but already the insidious nature of testing has begun to eat away around the edges at the trust and cohesiveness of our staff with two teachers who see themselves as better able to motivate students to do well on the tests setting themselves up as the heroes who will save us from a low API score.
They put forth a plan that the students who have been with us before norm day- whose scores will count toward our API- will be tested by “teachers who are better able to motivate their students to do well on the test.” In other words because the cool, hip, popular teachers who “know how to relate to kids” are standing in the room while the kids are tested, our CST scores and API will magically rise. It’s disgusting and insulting to the rest of the teaching staff, but certainly not surprising as testing becomes more important than the educational and humanistic experience of school. It is also an unfortunate tool for teachers who need the validation that they are liked by their students. I don’t happen to need that validation- I have a life and also recognize that students often aren’t mature enough to know who really effective teachers are. I know because I was one of those kids. It was only when I went back to college at age 34 and realized that my writing almost never needed revision and remembered what a sonnet was – skills I got waaaayyyyy back in Mrs. Morrison’s 9th and 10th grade English classes – imagine that- when I realized who the “good teachers” really were. Mrs. Morrison wasn’t cool and hip, she was older and nerdy, but her classes were the gift that keep on giving to this day. But I never recognized that back then, because I was a kid with little life experience. I know better now and so will the students who tell me my class is “boring.” It doesn’t faze me- but it apparently fazes some of my colleagues.
I tested students last year and all were well-behaved and tried hard. They tanked on the World History CST but that is due to the overwhelming number of standards, the fact that I spend more time on each standard than other teachers and the transience rate. Our scores overall dropped from the year our principal started to the following year. The first year she cleaned house of gang members and mean kids- apparently there were plenty of those and of course the scores would rise. The management of the school also improved with more support for student discipline and more programs for kids. That also probably played a role.
But as I pointed out to the group of teachers a nd administrators who were meeting to discuss our intervention class and upcoming CST schedule, test scores in South LA are constantly fluctuating, to which I received an arrogant and insulting reply from a fellow teacher implying that test scores dropped when the last social studies teacher left and I came on board. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alienated from teaching as I did at that moment. My value is judged by whether I am popular enough with the kids that they will magically and with gusto, pass their CST because they love me so much- but apparently they don’t love me or a few other teachers enough so therefore we will be relegated to testing kids whose test scores won’t count because they entered after norm day. Testing “competition” at least for those teachers who choose to engage in it has become akin to a middle school girls popularity contest. This is where we are today in education. “I’m more popular than you.” I didn’t try to challenge this assertion, only the validity of it as it applies to the CST.
I guess what these teachers don’t understand is that they are big fishes in a little pond. At Fremont, I worked with at least 28 social studies colleagues with very different teaching styles. We ranged in age from early twenties to those in their sixties. Many have amazing and interesting life stories and experience that they shared with their kids. That didn’t include test prep. Having self-annointed ”superior” teachers deciding whether students will adore me or some of my other colleagues enough to perform like trained seals on a multiple choice test is a low point in my experience as a teacher-almost as low as the reconstitution at Fremont. I am not alone in my concern about testing driving a wedge between teachers:
The National Association of Secondary School Principals posted these remarks from a veteran teacher on their blog:
- “Tested teachers like me carry a grudge on their shoulders, rightfully convinced that we’re bearing the brunt of today’s accountability culture.
- Teachers in untested subjects carry a grudge on their shoulders, rightfully convinced that their work is marginalized by a system that cares little for any kind of learning or expression that can’t be measured by a test.
- Faculties are divided, and divided faculties are rarely effective at ensuring student success.”
A veteran 2nd grade teacher in Rhode Island resigned in a You Tube video because he can’t take the test -driven agenda:
|Posted by Chuck Olynyk on December 31, 2012 at 12:40 PM||\|
Today is Sunday, December 30, 2012 and Day 356 of Year Three. Technically. I went to bed a few hours ago, but whether it is being sick or just my brain refusing to shut up, I’m awake after midnight on a Sunday morning and I’m too warm. There was also what I call a fever dream about my dead friend and shooting buddy. He used to find high humor in shooting behind me as I was frantically reloading at Lytle Creek, back before laws were enforced and we could go shooting at this hidden canyon. The game was to put all my black powder weapons on a table, shoot them all as rapidly as possible and time the reloading process. As I said, Brad thought it was the height of humor to shoot behind and yell, “Indians are coming!” Silly as it was, I miss that. (For the record, 39 seconds on my .50 flintlock rifle when I was really practiced) I haven’t fired a weapon since his suicide.
I don’t know if people are still afraid that someone armed with a gun will burst suddenly into a school and do great harm, or if this is intellectual posturing, or merely another excuse to argue about how guns are dealt with in our country versus other problems. I keep hearing from people who see the world like Bill Murray’s Frank Cross pushing his promo in the movie “Scrooged”:
Frank Cross: “That isn’t good enough! They’ve got to be so scared to miss it, so terrified! Now, if I were in charge—and I AM… Perhaps I can help you. Here’s what I’d do. Grace, cue it up.” Promo runs, as Frank mouths the words: “Acid rain.” Shot of someone burning from acid. “Drug addiction. International terrorism. Freeway killers. Now, more than ever… we must remember the true meaning of Christmas. Don’t miss Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, ‘Scrooge.’ Your life may just depend on it.” I also love that it is “Scrooge” and not “A Christmas Carol.” That sure smacked of education reform.
Fear is being stirred up to a fever pitch during the last two weeks. Nothing is scarier than to realize just how vulnerable you are, to realize what you cherish can be taken away. People will do or say anything to protect those they love. (Mr. Colling, seeking revenge upon Steg, a predator in the neighborhood: “I can take your money. I can take your life.” Steg offers up his stolen money, to which Mr. Collings replies, “No.”—“Due South,” Season One, “An Eye For an Eye”)
Those drums of militancy in the background add something to fear. “Don’t think you can take away our guns…” Not that I would advocate that. After all, I’m the guy who’s been going to air museums, posting pictures of planes and turrets. (In my defense, though, with the turret picture, I also posted “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”)
That being said…
Remember those days so long ago when people used the old saw, “Those that can’t do, teach”? Remember when we were told that most people who are public school teachers are lazy and incompetent, hence the need for school reform? (How special. The couple that raised their kids by cell phone as they sat in bars four to five days per week, but always had a story which began, “Hey, Chuck, you’re a teacher. There’s this STUPID teacher who can’t teach my kid…” just sat down beside me). Remember the stories of teachers who had that bottle hidden in the desk? Every one of us had a teacher we swore drank. How many of our kids complain about a teacher’s temper? (“He’s always in a bad mood…” “She’s crazy…” And let’s not even mention what some of my girls automatically say about the mood of a teacher who is a woman… Just remember, I didn’t say that…)
Oh, one more little thing to think about. What if you miss? Brad got me to load quickly, but I wasn’t too accurate while shooting in a hurry. What if someone misses? I think back to that time in the gym with the carjacker hiding amongst the kids. Thank God he stood up and moved into a relatively open area, where trained professionals were. But what if he hadn’t? And in a classroom, what if that bullet goes through a wall?
So, with all the baggage of just how incompetent we are in our chosen profession, why would anyone want to mandate guns in the hands of the people they consider losers and in the classroom?
Let’s carry it a little further—just out in the open and not concealed, eh? Teachers going through training? What if they are fully credentialed? And they don’t make the cut? Does that invalidate a credential? Or will your grouping on target become a part of the credentialing process, as important as awareness of English Language Learners or children with Special Needs?
Before I became a teacher, I used to work as a case manager for Federal inmates. I prepared intake reports, evaluations, release paperwork on Federal prisoners who were sent to a halfway house run by a private corporation for the BOP (Bureau of Prisons, the Feds). We never received the training that correctional officers went through. We simply took what was being sent from T.I. (Terminal Island), Boron, Lompoc, Pleasanton and McNeil Island in Washington before it was closed down. No training. Some of my friends thought I was risking my life every day, even if I didn’t realize it.
I eventually ended up with the job of writing all the release paperwork because I was one of two people who had graduated from college. That made me qualified enough because others had never finished college (nor high school, in some cases…).
However, it was a facility that, although it contracted with the Federal government, specifically through the BOP, we were definitely NOT Federal officers. We were NOT trained in any way.
Yet we were deciding the fates of Federal inmates. We decided who would be released, or if their time at the facility would be extended… or if they went back behind the wall (translation: “We couldn’t control you, so you finish your sentence inside and get dumped on the street after your release date.”)
We were not supposed to be armed, which the inmates knew. For most of my time in that neighborhood, I went unarmed. The inmates knew it. The only inmate who ever threatened me with a weapon backed off, probably because I was young and stupid and God protects children and fools and ships named Enterprise. It wasn’t because of any training I received, but how I reacted out of pure instinct. Inmates never tried that with me again, but I always wondered how it would have played out if someone else had been in the situation? Or if it had been another inmate.
I mentioned that I did not carry a weapon most of the time. Truth to tell, I did so in time, probably from a combination of youth and fear of the neighborhood. After all, it was the turf of Pomona’s Twelfth Street gang, which made the news… at least in Pomona. After a time, I found myself unable to leave it at home. I felt vulnerable without it. Yes, it was illegal, but I justified my fear, for lack of a better word, of the gang violence in the neighborhood where the halfway house was, to extend to other areas of my life.
Tonight, I re-watched an episode of “Due South,” a series about a Mountie who is stationed at the consulate in Chicago, and evolves into the quasi-partner of a streetwise Chicago cop. It’s a buddy series, a series of fathers and sons, the son, Constable Benton Fraser, learning who his (murdered) father, Sgt. Robert Fraser, was through both the journals the elder Fraser kept, and his ghostly visits to his son. There is a scene in the episode, “The Duel,” where the Chicago cop, Ray Vecchio, beats up a mobster, someone he grew up with and who now runs the neighborhood. Ray can choose to live in fear. Instead, as he sits on his bed, he removes the clip from his gun, locks the gun in a drawer, places the clip on the dresser, then goes to bed.
In the following and concluding scene, Fraser reads his father’s journal: “When I took him in, his eyes were pure hatred. As the door to the prison slammed shut behind me, I can still hear his voice and the words he spit out at me, ‘I’ll find you Fraser if it’s the last thing I do. I’ll track you down and kill you wherever you go.’ That night in my cabin I lay there and thought about fear and what it does to a man. How it eats his insides out and takes the best from him. I listen to the wind make the ice flows creak outside and the wolves bay and a thousand other sounds of the winter night. And as I listened to my heart beat, I released the fear inside me little by little until it was no longer there. And then I closed my eyes and slept soundly until morning.”—Sgt. Robert Fraser, journal entry, “Due South,” Season One, “The Deal.”
It reminded me of what it felt like to put the gun away. It had become a crutch during the time I worked at the halfway house. I had to realize that carrying a gun wasn’t the answer to easing my fears.
After 9/11, we were told over and over, amidst heightened security, that we had to continue to live normally. Some people never have… I had to try to embrace it. That’s why, on the day of Christmas Eve, when I had to go to the Pomona Courthouse, I had to make a joke out of it:
After I set it off with my laptop, my camera, the bag, my keys, my change: “If you set off the metal detector one more time, you’re buying me lunch.”
Thought: how many times do I have to do it to buy you dinner? What I said: “Sorry.”
She asked, “Is that a Roosevelt sticker on your laptop?”
“Yes, it matches my shirt.” I was wearing last year’s softball shirt, which I pointed at.
Eyes narrowed, eyebrows lowered, with intense scrutiny, “Are you being funny?”
“Oh, God, I hope so…” When in doubt, play the fool.
A smile. “I want a Roosevelt sticker.”
“Yours. As soon as I get back from vacation. I have the utmost respect for the law.” She snorted.
My point? This, too, shall pass, and, as much as I like guns, I don’t believe that I will ever have to carry one. Nor should any of us.
After a wonderful hike in Haines Canyon today, I arrived home, checked my email and found a letter to the editor written by Mat Taylor in response to yet another teacher- loving tome from the LA Times titled The ABC’s of Firing Teachers. (sarcasm intended). They never learn. They just never do. It’s not about firing the few poor ones, it’s keeping the competent ones. You’d think with us being overpaid and all with “Cadillac benefits” and “three months off a year” we’d have people beating down the doors to teach. Fact is, the district is always short of math and science teachers and forces some unlucky RIF’d teachers to sub their old positions.
“Teachers who appeal their firing are entitled to a hearing before a panel composed of an administrative law judge and two teachers chosen especially for the case at hand,” the LA Times complains. Well, duh. That’s because only other teachers who have been in the classroom can understand the dynamics of what happens there.
“Appeals often drag on for years — during which the school district must pay the teachers’ salaries and benefits — and almost invariably favor the teachers. Because of lobbying by the teachers unions, a couple of bills to streamline the process, at least in some circumstances, never made it out of the last legislative session.” That’s because teachers are often the target of false accusations, especially those that demand the most from their students. It happened to me my first year teaching and the student got another teacher involved who happened to have a relative high up in LAUSD. Fortunately for me, this student had problems with other teachers and his mom had supported me in the past. But it almost got ugly. Without the support of my teacher mentor- yes Fremont assigned new teachers mentors for about a year (how lucky was I?) – who met with the principal and supported me, I could have lost my job. I had no protections; I was still probationary. I had literally completely forgotten the incident but was doing some cleaning and shredding of files over the holiday break and found all the paper work dated 2003. I was going to shred everything but then remembered that Deasy had said he would have principals open and look at every file going back, well- forever. Luckily for me, my administrator, a wonderful AP who has since left the district, said he was just going to put a note in my file that we had talked about an incident. I don’t think the note ever made it into my file. The teacher who tried to make trouble for me disappeared a few months later- he was on an emergency credential and because of NCLB could not work without a real one. And I kept teaching and things improved. By my seventh year Fremont was home- until of course, reconstitution.
What I remember most about Fremont was the striking number of wonderful teachers who just up and left- sometimes at the end of a track, sometimes smack dab in the middle of a track. It might have been the fact that they didn’t have their own classrooms and had to travel across campus pushing a cart. It might have been being told they were going to teach one subject, and when they got back after being off track, being assigned an entirely different subject. So they had spent their off track time prepping for, say English 9 and now they are teaching Expository Comp. Most likely they wouldn’t be able to get materials right away, were given no supplies and then given many preps. I was very lucky at Fremont; my situation was usually very stable, but if any of the above had happened to me, I might have just up and left as well. Then there were the classrooms with no air conditioning or heat or internet access.
One year we had a 50% turnover. It was tragic. I remember so many fine teachers, most of their names escaping me, and no one in administration seemed to care that they left. I remember a Ms. Lucas (we had a few). This one was blond and taught English and wore 50′s style skirts. She left to travel the world- can’t blame her. We had a fantastic health teacher who came and went in one year- he is now teaching in the burbs. Can’t blame him. Then I remembered a young Asian teacher who had been at the Mont for about 4 years. She had four preps and had been forced to travel period by period the entire year before which was totally against the contract. I found her the first day of B track in 2005 crying and angry in the quad. She was told she was traveling yet again and this time had five preps- three different levels of ELD, and English 10 class and an AP class. What a morale killer. Some of us intervened on her behalf and the situation was corrected- but it was too late. Her husband, who had a good job told her to quit, that he would support her. So just like that, about 300 students got a sub and Fremont lost yet another competent teacher. It happened over and over and over-and over.
Then, because of Small Learning Communities (SLC’s), Fremont actually began to stabilize. Schedules became more predictable and teachers traveled less often. Kids became more invested in the school. AP classes increased. Sounds awesome right? Apparently the district can’t stand success because Fremont was reconstituted at the end of 2010 at the height of its stability and quality. Get the picture? Then, two new high schools opened in succession, triggering another mini-reconstitution at Fremont, that from all reports was even nastier than the last one Veteran teachers were displaced, regardless of talent or experience. Many had deep talent in areas such as drama but to the young guns, that didn’t matter. But hey, let’s look on the bright side, at least everyone would have a classroom, right? Nah, the district decided to “renovate” Fremont, forcing many teachers into bungalows. No conspiracies here of course. Notice that no matter what, there is never any stability for teachers or students at Fremont.
I’ll never convince those who think teachers are in it for the money or the time off that working conditions matter. Heck, 50% of Fremont’s staff walked away from 4 months off a year, a steady paycheck, fully paid health benefits and a pension. Why? Because working conditions matter. Stability matters. School management matters. Teachers matter. Veteran teachers matter. Not to the LA Times of course. But that’s to be expected.