An American Girl in Washington

In defense of teachers

Posted in Politics- as I see it by AGinDC on 31 March 2011

The latest news by the stunningly good report from USA Today (was anyone else surprised) that the much-touted success of DCPS in recent years was probably the result of cheating on a massive scale has brought our favorite TFA heroine back into the spotlight.  Fresh off a billion dollar fundraising campaign for her newest venture, StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee was her usual arrogant self when giving a response to those who dare, dare!, investigate, question, and report anything that she has ever been involved with ever.

I have been reading the responses to both the study and the inevitable Rhee-reports into which they evolved.  After a while, I just couldn’t take it anymore.  As one brilliant commenter on VSB put it this morning, I’m putting down the popcorn and picking up the microphone.

One of my favorite things about being a Democrat, and perhaps the sexiest of our President’s many, many sexy qualities is that we understand nuance.  We get that, contrary to popular belief, matters of national and international importance have, shall we say, depth?  They’re not black and white.  There are not two sides, but 20.  Now, as Democrats we are genetically incapable of communicating such nuances, but at least we know they exist.  This doesn’t make us popular.  Michele Bachmann is a viable candidate for President *shudders* because she is the queen of the one-liners, false as they may be.  The Tea Party has made an industry out of selling signs promoting ideas that are batshit crazy, yes, but also easy to grasp.  And the GOP has made themselves rich enough to grant themselves tax cuts by totally ignoring the possibility that grey area exists, anywhere at all.  Nuance does not make for popularity.  Americans, wonderful as we are, do not like to think.  Hard.  We like simple answers, one liners, good vs evil, ying and yang.  We prefer the Marvel comics approach to politics and policy.  Feeding into that is a very, very easy way to get famous.

Michelle Rhee figured this out pretty quickly.

Rhee’s entire life’s work is based on the idea that the entire education system of the most powerful country in the world lands squarely on the backs of a few sad teachers.  Shall we call them Atlas?  Her theory, one that has made her so popular that in this, the most partisan of times she can call both Arne Duncan and Rick Scott her friends, is that all a child needs to succeed is a good teacher.  And, alternatively, that a bad teacher can lose them forever.

I’m going to ignore the obvious questions here, the questions that sent me to law school after Teach For America, the questions we don’t like to ask because they would actually be challenging to fix.  There’s no need to go into all of the ways that the personal life of a six-year-old can affect their ability to memorize sight words.  There’s enough to talk about just sticking to the sad belief that only teachers are at fault.

As a teacher in South Louisiana I worked with teachers who shouldn’t be fired, they should be taken out back and shot.  The alcoholic second grade teacher who kept a bottle of Jack in her desk drawer and made the kids stand – STAND!- on their desks all day.  The coke-snorting principal who was finally arrested for stealing from the school 20 years too late.  The pre-K teacher he stole with.  There isn’t a teacher in the country who hasn’t taught with someone they’d like to suffocate with chalk dust.  And this is where a lot of this vehemence comes from.  Now that the first generation of TFA alums is getting a little power, they are reacting to what was the most jarring, most emotionally scarring, and most simple thing to fix when they were teachers:

Some teachers suck.  Fire them.

But here is something that is seldom, if ever discussed, and something that I personally have never heard Rhee talk about (but please, correct me if I’m wrong):  What does it take to be a good teacher?

I will be the first to shout from the rooftops that Teach For America is an incredible organization, that I have never been more proud of anything than my two years as a corps member, and that my first graders kicked the third grade level’s ass.  TFA teachers are incredible and show remarkable results, as do those of KIPP, The New Teacher Project (which Rhee started and which propelled her to where she is now) and many, many other incredible teachers who may or may not be affiliated with a program.  People talk all of the time about the fact that we’re so good.  But they almost never talk about how.

They don’t talk about the fact that the first things I bought when I saw my classroom were tiles and a hot glue gun so I could clean out the mold in the jagged edges of the window seal and cover it up.  And how I then had to buy a stapler, and tape, and pencils, and crayons, and paper, and a carpet.  And then I had to email my college community and my mother’s friends and anyone else I knew to raise money and collect books for the dusty library with 12 copies of Nancy Drew and a couple of Berenstain Bears books.  They don’t talk about driving 45 minutes to Kinko’s every week to make copies of the textbooks because there weren’t enough, memorizing which dollar store had the best school supplies for when I ran out, writing grants so my kids could have paint and books to take home (thanks Donors Choose and First Book!), lesson planning on weekends, getting to school at 6.30 every morning, working as teacher (academic, gym, and art), pe monitor, lunch lady, dominatrix and snot collector until 5pm, going home for a frozen burrito and an apple, driving 40 minutes to the mall for my second job so I could afford said burrito and apple, and getting home just in time to watch Jay Leno’s opening monologue, cry a little, and go to sleep.  And then getting it up to do it all again.

That teacher with the Jack in her desk drawer?  She’d been teaching for 20 years and sold shoes after school.

Teaching is hard.  It’s exhausting.  And doing it well is excruciating.  It takes time, patience, constant continuing education, diplomacy, comfortable shoes and an intimate knowledge of Excel spreadsheets.  It takes a keen ability to lie, to pretend you couldn’t be happier to be learning contractions when all you want to do is drink a margarita and go to bed.  Teaching at the level that gets TFA-touted results is exhausting for high achieving 21-year-old college graduates still naive enough to think that helping a 12th grader master calculus is going to save the world.  How do you think it feels when you’re 45, have a family- or not, a lot of teachers are single for a reason- have no hopes of retirement, and still spend 1/3 of your paycheck on school supplies?  And now some snot nosed hedge fund managers and pseudo politicians want to blame the failure of the American education system on you????

It’s amazing that we haven’t had a rash of teacher suicides.

It’s really easy to point a finger at the people who spend more time with your children than you do.  It’s easy to say they’re the problem, fire them, hire a new batch of 22-year-olds every two years and pat yourself on the back.

Oh wait, it’s not.  That’s why Rhee cheated.

And you know what?  Easy or not, it’s wrong.  Teachers work their asses off.  Yeah, there are some bad ones.  There are some bad everything.  We had a bad President for eight years.  Why aren’t we blaming him for the fall of the American school system?  Most teachers are good.  Scratch that.  Most teachers started out good.  They wanted to be the best damn teachers out there.  But you know what?  The system caught up with them.  Life caught up with them.  And now they’re tired.  And that bottle of Jack is the only thing keeping them from beating your badly behaved child’s little ass.

So leave the damn teachers alone.  Find another scapegoat.



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