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If we don’t, who will?

December 6, 2010

Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things. — Russell Baker

I keep a note on my computer. It reads, “If I don’t, who will?”

"I said, 'Somebody should do something about that.' Then I realized, I am Somebody." -Lily Tomlin

A little worn, but the message is clear.

It summarizes a lot about how I think about life; while it’s good and right to trust in (most) other people, it’s not a good idea to assume they will magically get around to doing some thing or another that I think should be done. If I take something seriously enough to complain about it, then I should take it seriously enough to do something about it.

It’s pretty obvious that that’s how I feel about improving public education. Quality education for all is tremendously important to our individual and collective well-being; large-scale mis-education threatens us just as much. So, an honest accounting of what’s going on in our schools, how it came to be, and what we want for ourselves and our future is essential for making improvements. Even after such an accounting, there will be differences of opinion and approach, and that’s good– different communities in different places should have the space to create what they want for themselves and their children. But that foundation, an honest accounting, is shockingly difficult to come by.

In my work as a teacher and activist, I’ve met incredible people who work tirelessly to serve children. But I’ve also encountered people who actively deceive others about the state of our schools and how they can be improved, in order to advance their interests at the expense of the common good. More often, I meet people who are unaware of what’s going on, either because they’re disconnected from the situation, they’ve been deceived, or because they maintain a certain willful ignorance in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed– or having to confront things they find uncomfortable or inconvenient. And there are those who know better, but say and do nothing. That combination of deception, ignorance, and silence makes it incredibly difficult to create lasting positive change.

But we can’t do anything about deceptive or ignorant people unless we end the silence.

Take the example of due process rights for teachers. Thanks to a relentless messaging campaign, many people believe that these protections exist to allow “bad” teachers to keep their jobs. This idea could not be further from the truth, yet people believe it wholeheartedly because they don’t know any better– and those of us who do often keep silent.

Like due process in the rest of our legal system, due process rights for teachers exist not to protect the guilty, but the innocent. The world is not, nor will it ever be, a place where decent people have nothing to fear because they’ve done nothing wrong. Good people always need to be vigilant against those who have no qualms about doing the wrong thing for their own personal gain. We need these protections because whennot if– people with power decide to use that power for ill, there needs to be a process through which the aggrieved can plead their cases and have a chance (though, sadly, not a guarantee…) of receiving justice.

This shouldn’t be difficult to explain or understand. So why don’t we?

Where teachers are concerned, perhaps some of us remain silent, or even jump on the “tenure”-bashing bandwagon because we don’t want to be associated with the “whiners” or “bad teachers” who have to worry about accountability. Some of us may still cling to the belief that, as one misguided person opined at a recent DPS board meeting, that “the good teachers have nothing to worry about.”

Let’s be clear about something, folks: that is 100% not true. In any situation where corrupt and ignorant people hold the balance of power, good and wise people have the most to fear. (After all, we’re the only thing standing between them and victory.) If we define a good teacher as one who is knowledgeable, skilled, and ethical in the performance of his or her craft, then such teachers absolutely do need to worry if they work in a sick environment.

And too many schools have become sick environments. There’s no other way to describe places where:

  • the mandated curriculum and teaching practices are often drastically out of step with what is known about how people learn
  • children have little to no time to play (especially if they don’t pass the tests), and people are openly hostile to the idea that joy and learning can co-exist, or the idea that creativity is as important as basic skills
  • children are so anxious about work and tests that they cry and vomit in class. (There’s also something pathological about a paper that reports on such occurrences as if they’re positive developments…)
  • bullying is committed not only by errant children, but by school leaders
  • parents are pressured to medicate their young children, while older students illegally procure the same drugs in order to survive the schooling experience
  • teachers who routinely work 10 to 12 hours a day have trouble keeping up with all of the demands on their time and energy, and develop severe health problems like exhaustion, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, and anxiety as a result
  • children who routinely work 10 to 12 hours a day have trouble keeping up with all of the demands on their time and energy, and develop severe health problems…
  • lying is all but required in order to keep your job, and competitive/punitive assessment practices for students and teachers create such desperation that cheating is increasingly common.
  • the most “accountable” people in the system are the least powerful, being told everything from what to teach and how and when to teach it to the specific manner in which the information on their whiteboards should be arranged (and if you dare to question such things, well…)
  • veteran teachers who found joy in teaching for decades are now itching to retire because their working conditions have deteriorated so badly, while younger teachers leave much sooner, feeling undervalued, burned out and unable to imagine how we might balance such work with families or lives of our own.

Suffering in school has become too common, and much of it is the result of misguided policies that do more to hurt the teaching and learning process than help it. The high-sounding rhetoric from politicians and corporate leaders obscures the reality that the shock-doctrine approach of the corporate reform model has not worked as advertised, and the suffering that it has caused– which would be immoral regardless of results— is certainly not justified by the barely-even-mediocre results it has produced.

So here is my plea to the parents, students, and teachers affected by these trends: keep speaking up (or start, if you’ve been silent until now)! Organize. Connect with others. Document as much as you can, especially if you witness unethical or illegal things, and share what you know. (Sharing your stories is why this site exists, you know, and there are plenty of other folks who share guests’ perspectives as well.) If we are to have any chance of creating the humane, effective schools our country needs, ones worthy of the children attending them, we can’t afford to continue allowing liars to have the loudest voices in the conversation. We need to set the record straight, before things get even worse.

If we don’t, who will?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Frederika permalink
    December 6, 2010 2:02 pm

    Once again, Sabrina, you have said it all and said it so well. As a veteran classroom teacher of 38 years, as a teacher leader, and a teacher union leader as well, I have seen and heard many of the points that you list to characterize out-of-control schools and situations, in my state and in others. My own school is blessedly free of much of the above, but the pressure is mounting everywhere on students and teachers.

    I sighed in recognition when I saw your point about, “being told everything from what to teach and how and when to teach it to the specific manner in which the information on their whiteboards should be arranged (and if you dare to question such things, well…)” because we just got that memo last week. Teachers are forced to learn ways to play the game–time-consuming and irritating, but heck, I love my job! Really.

    When districts discuss teacher retention, they fail to take any notice of the masses of outstanding veteran staff who have felt compelled in the past three years to leave teaching well before they ever planned to. They leave because of all of the “crap” that is raining down upon them and the practices that are forced upon them. Few leavings are noticed, but these teaching stars are very much missed by their colleagues. Their wisdom, experience, and know-how are gone, and gone for good.

  2. December 6, 2010 9:13 pm

    Thank you for Sabrina for telling it like it is. Silence and apathy are not acceptable.
    We are walking to DC,

  3. December 6, 2010 9:24 pm

    Great post!!!

  4. December 11, 2010 3:03 am

    Sabrina, you have totally hit the nail on the head. One of the most frustrating things about being a fairly new teacher (5 years) is that is is not what I thought I was signing up for. I went to private school for a majority of my life, so I saw many of the lay teachers working happily in their situations even though they were being paid astronomically less than their public school counterparts. I honestly thought that what teaching was.

    Unfortunately, I have been really disappointed. From day one I have had to battle an administration who is fearful to stand up to the draconian measures from the school district. This includes scripted curricula that I feel don’t help my students to literally what/how to write things on my white board. I thought it was insane. I always asked myself, “Am I not the teacher?” I have been a victim of ignorant people “holding the balance of power” when I was fired from a charter school not because I wasn’t making gains with my students (significant), but because “[I] don’t fit in the environment with the rest of the staff, and [I] am simply unmanageable.”

    Through it all I still ask a similar question that you do, “If not me, then who?” I always tell my students that the work I am doing for them has nothing to do with me, it has very much to do with making sure they get with they need. To dispel the myth that great teachers don’t want to work with them. (As modestly as I can say it.)

    I hope to help educate everyone – teacher’s, parents, and communities about the truths that exist for educators everywhere.

  5. February 1, 2011 4:56 pm

    I have to admit, I like Roger Sweeny’s comment on the tenure issue:

    No divorce without due process! Anyone wanting to divorce should be required to keep a record at least a year long of what the other party has done wrong. The divorcing party should be required to give the other party chances to improve, which should also be documented. Divorce should only be granted after evidence is presented at a hearing–and if the divorce is granted, the other party should have the right to appeal.

    We don’t have enough due process!


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