Friday, March 14, 2008

Where Others Fear To Tread

Through Fear by Martin Gommel
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Sometimes, it can be frightening to be a teacher, and it can really be frightening when the schools that hire you are in turmoil. Yesterday, while listening to NPR's All Things Considered, March 13, 2008, I heard that teachers will be dismissed, programs closed and students shuttled to classes not of their own choosing. I empathize with the teachers in California who will be laid off soon.

This terrible disservice and governmental disrespect, in California, for their children and those dedicated to teaching them, reminded me of a similar experience that happened to me early in my teaching career. Fortunately, the majority of the teachers in the state where I taught stood together in the face of (seemingly) more powerful groups. No one is more powerful than those dedicated to a righteous cause to help the teachers who teach our children.

I faced the most frightening experience early in my teaching career when our teacher professional group recommended a one day walkout to let the Louisiana state legislature know what the effect of our finding jobs in other states would do to their schools.

Amazing! I thought. I just started teaching two years before. Why me? Why should I get involved. I could be fired for participating in the walkout, but our salaries were a pittance compared to teachers in other states. For instance, my salary was 30% less in Louisiana than it would have been in Kansas, at that time. Just as today, teachers made thirty to fifty percent of what other college graduates with similar training were making.

The members of the Lousiana state legislature appeared deaf to requests from schools, teachers and the public, so there we were. A statewide teacher's walkout was called, and the state's school administrators figured out that a majority of teachers really were prepared to meet at the state capitol, in Baton Rouge, and take our case directly to the legislature.

Some of the teachers in my school were only teaching as a hobby or to occupy their time. It seemed to me that they were not as effective as they could be if they had dedicated more effort to their teaching. They could hide within the status quo, so they were definitely opposed to the teacher walkout. The other teachers, mostly the more experienced teachers who really dedicated themselves to their work, were going to the state capitol, in Baton Rouge.

Even though I knew that the walkout was right, I had to think about whether I would participate. A few days before we were to converge on the state legislature, I decided that I would go to the state capitol, supporting my students, my community, myself and my peers.

Right up to the Friday afternoon before we were going to walkout, during the following week, the press was reporting that the teachers could face firing if they walked out. It didn't matter, we were determined. When the governor realized that thousands of teachers would walkout, he called off school for the entire day.

Since school was closed all over the state, the problem of firing thousands of teachers was averted, but we still had not achieved our goal: convincing the legislature that teachers were serious about the necessary pay raise.

On the day of the proposed walkout, I traveled for hours to get to the state house, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Being there was a humbling experience that I will never forget. There really were thousands of teachers. Everywhere, on the streets, green spaces, sidewalks and other flat spaces. As far as the eye could see, there were teachers.

We had come to show our support for those Louisiana legislators who were trying to do right by the the children of Louisiana. There were speeches, group discussions, and most people had their signs. It was a truly historic, appropriate use of the right to assemble and petition the government with grievances. Teachers made their point, and the very next year we received an increase in the base salary.

The teachers in California can always make their point TOGETHER. When they work together, teachers can achieve any goal in education. When they really listen to each other....not just talk at each other.

Listening is a skill that teachers must constantly hone. By doing so, we will successfully achieve our goals for the future of education with the help of our real network.

Teachers go where no one else will go. They work with all children where they find them, and take them where they know they should be.

Teachers follow when others will not answer the calling. Everyone says that they would love to teach, but they usually admit that they couldn't stand up to the rigors and economic distress of the teaching life.

Teachers expand their families to include other people's children, spending hours grading or working at home each evening, weekends and holidays with their school family.

Teachers do what no other professionally trained college graduate will do today: TEACH, yet even when our ranks are dwindling and our hopes for semi-autonomy seem far, far, away...maybe even in another galaxy, states like California are committing unspeakable acts that further undermine teacher confidence in the public system.

What are these unspeakable acts? The continuing destruction of the California Public School System. Watching from another state, this story of California teachers seems like a Greek Tragedy, water torture or death by pinprick, but now it seems that so many multiple pinpricks have created gashes in the California educational

Teachers are being ripped from their students, and students are being displaced, all in an effort to squeeze ten percent cuts from the already distressed public school system.

What can we do to help California teachers survive this unnatural disaster? We can connect with our social networks, and lend our support to our colleagues in California. We can find organizations that will help us support teachers in some way that will work for the California teachers.

I would like to ask these important questions, as a starting place for discourse about this crisis in California Public Schools:
Can the teachers being laid off depend on their peers who aren't being laid off?
Can they depend on their unions?

From a distance, it doesn't seem that they can. This is a sad time in our public life as many teachers think they only are looking out for themselves. In my experience, as a teacher, this tactic is not reliable in the long run. When they ignore injustice in their ranks, it really makes the bystander teachers more vulnerable, because the governmental agents learn that no one will complain if more children, teachers and communities are mistreated.


stoneTeacher said...

Exactly so. These appalling circumstances are why I joined a union: to work together with other teachers, and stop teachers' conditions being eroded.

samccoy said...


Unfortunately, here in the United States of America, the so-called Free Market and Libertarian Conservatives have convinced many teachers that they will be stronger on their own, as individuals. Then the social conservatives have convinced their teacher followers that they should not support NEA(National Education Association) or AFT(American Federation of Teachers) because of their stand on topics like a woman's personal right to privacy.

Also, in my opinion, the school administrators forget they were teachers first, and they were to lead their fellow teachers. During the last decades of the 20th century, they began to form their own groups, like the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).

It seems to me, neither group, teachers nor administrators, has yet to figure out they are being divided for someone else's benefit! It certainly doesn't seem to be helping our educational system for our children, teachers and communities.

I hope, we will begin to see a turnaround in union memberships over the next few years. Possibly, a new type of group will form to help teachers, students, administrators, communities and other interested stakeholders.

In the meantime, the unions themselves don't seem to be able to put up much of a defense. It is sad.

When I first began teaching, a monthly, local meeting of the National Education Association could fill a large basketball gymnasium...usually hundreds of a rural county school had to be 80% or more of the entire teaching staff.

I was always amazed and proud to be a part of an important movement in education.

On a limb with Claudia said...

It's such a tough time. Teachers get so little support and schools get so little funding. It's not hard to see why so many kids drop out.

Something has to change - if even our attitude toward education. But how?