Interview with Angela Beeley
Last month I read the powerful statement “Why I’m Mad” by Angela Beeley. Ms. Beeley, a veteran English teacher at Alta Loma High School in California, composed a compelling, insightful analysis of where the profession of teaching rests in today’s political environment. This drew the attention of many concerned educators, parents, and community members who are increasingly involved in the struggles for sound, equitable public education nationwide.
We at Failing Schools knew that we had to connect and engage on the issues we’re collectively facing in public education. We’re fortunate that Ms. Beeley was more than willing to participate. The following interview formed from our communication and proved to be meaningful and insightful. Let’s show a warm welcome, as we continue to seek out thoughtful voices and work towards building a movement.
- What is your history in teaching?
I decided to become a teacher after searching my soul upon graduation from UCLA. I had considered and gained experience in many other fields, but the allure of teaching was contributing to society’s greater good and my fervent love of analyzing, reading and writing. I was fortunate to be accepted to the Claremont Graduate University, where I found a program that really views teaching as a tool for social justice and regards it with an almost missionary zeal. It really matched my own beliefs and motivations. I have been an English teacher and department chair at Alta Loma High School for my entire 18 year career. I have twice earned National Board Certification, which has been the best professional development of my career (although time-consuming and intense).
- Can you describe the community you work and teach within?
I live and work in a very average suburb of Los Angeles. I don’t work with kids of extreme privilege or extreme disadvantage. 36% of our students receive free or reduced lunch and we enroll students of every ethnicity, with the majority Latino (42%) and Caucasian (42% also). One unusual aspect is that I teach at the high school from which I graduated and there is an unusually high number of alum who teach here. There is a sense of history and community in that sense (for a generic bedroom community).
- What’s your sense of the main education issues and concerns in the community where you work?
In California, our schools are assigned an API (Annual Performance Index) each year based on our test scores and that number definitely dictates public perception about which schools are “good” and sets them up for direct competition. Much of our district staff has accepted this definition and strives to compete. We have a pretty firm district culture which accepts that test scores define our success, with pockets of dissension.
My school and department have been slow to adopt such an attitude and so were labeled as “troubled” and put under excruciating pressure to raise test scores. If you question the value or validity of rising test scores, you are seen as soft, lazy, and against accountability. Lately those of us who question the value of the tests have been reading Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System. We also viewed Race to Nowhere. We are gaining a little courage, but we also realize we face a Catch-22. There is very little questioning of testing as a “be-all, end-all” beyond certain educational circles. Thus, if we want to, say, teach more writing or critical thinking, we may face lagging test scores. Then, the public and our government think we aren’t doing our jobs.
We are also faced with a huge budget deficit here which has resulted in humongous class size and promises more draconian cuts, particularly in staffing. It is a stressful and uncertain work environment, which I know is indicative of the larger picture of the recession. Newer teachers are pink-slipped every year, perhaps to be hired back again, but at a new school or teaching a new curriculum. I don’t have to tell fellow teachers how bad this is for teachers and their students.
- What bonds have you been able to build with parents based on educational issues?
I always view parents as my partners and I appreciate the personal support I am given in terms of educating their child. Yet sad to say, I don’t feel much warmth or sympathy from the public regarding educational issues, which I suppose includes parents. We had some parental support when we picketed in front of the school to protest pink slips. I think it is hard for many parents to picture what a difference exists between 37 and 30 students in a class. We are now looking at going down to 160 days of school (from a height of 182), so perhaps when it becomes that blatant, people might wake up. I think people are so concerned with survival of the recession that they are sometimes hostile to any complaint from public employees.
- As both a mother and a teacher can you give us an idea of any sacrifices you have had to make? How do these sacrifices compare with people you know in other professions?
I do make sacrifices and I wish people knew that, but I don’t think my sacrifices are greater than those of people who chose other fields. I have friends in other fields who commute long distances or often travel for work, so I know many people make trade-offs. Yet I wish people could see that I am like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill with paper grading. I wish they knew how never being done grinds on me and every English teacher I know. Among my teacher friends, we have a laundry list of ailments related to stress: hives, heart palpitations, anxiety attacks, depression, Bell’s palsy, and chronic neck and back pain.
Mother’s Day has twice symbolized how much time I spend grading. One year my daughter listed things I like for a little project. Apparently, I like fruit (it’s pretty good, right?), walking (gotta stay healthy), and grading papers (not even remotely!)! Another year, she proudly presented me with something she had purchased at her school’s gift fair: a pen that writes in four colors so that I could grade yet more papers. That pen actually made me sad.
I also know that I traded the ability to earn gobs of money for doing something that I felt contributed to the world, yet offered a modest living and modicum of security. I would never have dreamed when I started that teachers would become public enemy number one. It has just devolved to inconceivable levels.
- What types of local and statewide issues do you find challenging in terms of changes in education that affect you in schools?
Class size! Having 37 students in a class is horrible. Teaching becomes focused on crowd control and it’s not because the students are bad people. There are just enough more people to hide behind to have a side conversation or elude participation. Also, because I am a mere human being, I can’t possibly treat my students to the personalized feedback that would best encourage their growth. I fantasize about having only 10 students and being able to edit all their work so they could become better writers. I just simply can’t do that in the quantity I would like.
- Here in NY State, as well as with teachers around the country, we’re seeing pressure to push more experienced teachers out of the profession. What trends are you noticing where you work?
I have also noticed the mentality that equates years of experience with intractability and expense, rather than a valued resource. If you think about it, it makes a terrible kind of sense. You are hiring cheaper labor that is also less likely to question mandates simply out of fear and/or inexperience. It reminds me of multinational corporations who contract out to hire an isolated, young female work force to produce the cheap goods we buy here in the U.S. Unfortunately, in the public rhetorical imagination, the older teacher is the lazy, unionized one who is giving out the same “dittos” they made in 1985 and biding time until they can retire with that big fat pension.
- What role has your union taken in the struggle being waged around issues in public education?
My union has taken part in larger statewide activities. For example, we just participated in a week of action, one of which was a “grade-in” where we went to public places to grade papers, all wearing red. The hope was to make the public aware that our job doesn’t end at 3:00. At the local level, my union has supported specific candidates for school board. I have participated in distributing door hangers to publicize our support for candidates.
- In your view, what types of principles and themes would real, authentic reform include?
Real, authentic reform would force this country to abandon its love of a simple narrative. An intelligent and well-educated person, or populace, is always suspicious of a simple narrative. The current simple narrative casts teachers (and more importantly their unions) as the villain who twirls his mustache as he plots to keep students from learning. The hero is the politician who is boldly vanquishing the villain and untying the student from the train tracks. This is a much easier story to sell than the truth, which is always multi-faceted. Truth: there are poor teachers and some intractability in unions. Truth: there are teachers who give students their own lunch and work on curriculum all summer. (And there are MANY more of the latter than the former). Truth: we are trying to educate a greater swath of society, huge and heterogeneous, than has ever been attempted in human history. Truth: democracy and education of a citizenry are messy, an experiment, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool. Truth: very deserving students go to public schools where they are cheated by the quality of the education. Truth: there are teachers in those schools working their asses off to provide what they can, which is not enough for children crippled by a lack of societal resources. And among the most important Truths: some students come to school with little to no parental guidance or care, and in some cases, home lives that actually hinder their ability to learn. Without acceptance of the complexity of the situation, true reform is never going to happen.
For true reform to happen, we also must stop looking at multiple-choice testing as the ultimate panacea and measure of what we want our students to learn. The unintended consequences of this obsession are so sad and far-reaching. I would recommend reading Diane Ravitch’s book mentioned above to understand how grave and misguided this is. A deep curriculum, rich with critical thinking, will prepare our students much better than the current testing frenzy. Again, this is messy and not easily quantified. When we search for cheap, easy quantification in education, it will only take us so far.
- There has been a debate in education circles about how to best respond to the attacks on public schools. What measures do you think we need to take in order be heard, respected and ultimately bring about change in the current methods of education reform?
I wish I knew! My friends and I have envisioned a cadre of teachers- friendly, experienced, dedicated, eloquent, quick-witted, and bright as hell- that could be dispensed to news outlets to speak all those complicated truths I mentioned above. It saddens me that people seem to respond so well to sound bites and simple narratives, and maybe we need to fight back against those with some personable, articulate teachers. We are the ones on the ground in this battle and yet our voices aren’t paid heed like they should be. I so appreciate the Failing Schools blog for speaking up!