I Hate When You Put on the God Costume

Omnipotence – an agency or force of unlimited power

George Sr. - Arrested Development - Wearing the God Costume

I was told at a forum that I went to on education reform by a man who had a PHD in Education Policy that, “teachers are the most important factor in aiding whether or not a student succeeds.” I was struck by this comment. Not because I haven’t heard it before, but because someone with a PHD in education policy would ever utter those words. I thought to myself, Me? The most important factor in student success? I must be God.

Rhetoric regarding education reform is full of this level of unrealistic omnipotence. There is an alarming level of complacency in the idea that the teacher is the centre of education and the answer to failing schools is centred on addressing the inadequacies in the teachers across the country. Moreover, the omnipotent rhetoric doesn’t end with just attacking teacher “ineffectiveness;” it also exists in discussing the solutions to fixing failing schools.

Education reform will not come to past if there is a continued filter of omnipotence that guides rhetoric and policy. Rhee argued in her Student’s First Mission Statement that “[o]nce inside the school, a great teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s education. While there are many factors that influence a student’s ability to learn, a great teacher can help any student overcome those barriers and realize their full potential.” Can Michelle Rhee explain to a teacher how they are supposed to help a student “overcome” living in a home with lead paint and being subjected to lead poisoning through their developmental years? Can Michelle explain to a teacher how to help a student “overcome” the barrier of a father who is sexually abusing her, and the local child protective services say, “There is no evidence to prove that this child has been abused, because she is sexually active?” Can Michelle Rhee explain to a teacher how to help a student overcome the “barrier” that is in place for a student who is so exhausted when he comes to school because his parents get in physical altercations that keep him up nightly? These are all examples of students that I’ve had in the past, whose “barriers” stifled their “full potential.” The student with lead poisoning had to be placed a severe learning-disabled self-contained classroom, because he only read at the second grade level (he was in 10th grade). The student, whom was being abused by her father, killed herself because despite my (and other teachers) best efforts, she felt that no one could save her. The student, who witnessed daily domestic violence, watched his mother being killed and went into a deep depression because he was essentially an orphan. As much as these situations pained me, and still do to this day, I know that I did my best to help these students. It is my awareness that I am not omnipotent that keeps me going to help the students who have a lesser degree of personal circumstances. However, to Michelle Rhee, I am an ineffective teacher because each of those students was failing my class when their lives changed forever.

I wish I could say that these are unique problems that many teachers, who work in the toughest schools in this country, deal with. The problems that plague our schools are so much deeper than any one inadequate teacher, the bureaucracy of the teachers unions, the layout the teacher evaluation system, and the rigour of the state standardized tests. The problems that plague schools are historic, economic, racial, and societal. This is why I am confident that Michelle’s “RHEEforms” aren’t omnipotent, regardless of the number of billionaires, media outlets, and filmmakers that are on her side. There is no simple solution, and the mere fact that the Student First’s mission statement is nonchalant in “the factors that influence a student’s ability to learn” implies that solutions are omnipotent.

Principals? Administrators? the Federal Government? Angels?

The Student’s First blog featured a video that was a compilation of teachers, who were concerned about school reform, and one teacher’s comments gave me pause.

“When we have to contract out how many hours a teacher spends, how many hours they get paid after school…how many hours they have to be on school premises…that is not putting kids first.” – Barbara, Learning Specialist

Additionally, in an interview with nj.com, Michelle Rhee argues:

“I don’t think we need to reform tenure. I don’t think there is a need for tenure. Teachers need to understand they are not going to be discriminated against. If they feel they’ve been unfairly terminated, they need to have a process by which they can address that issue. School districts need to ensure firings are not happening in an unfair manner. But all of those things can happen without tenure being in place. [T]here are federal protections in place against discriminatory firings.”

In both the statements by Barbara and Michelle Rhee there is an “air of omnipotence” that seasons their rhetoric. The “air of omnipotence” is demonstrated here in three forms:

• Teachers are not human; therefore they should give all of their time, effort, and energy towards educating students with little to no compensation.
• Principals and other administrators are infallible; therefore they will not subject teachers to any practices that may be deemed discriminatory.
• If a non-infallible principal happen to slip through, then the omnipotent anti-discrimination laws by the federal government (you know…the law that makes sure that women and men are paid the same) will protect them and their reputation while they go through the courts.

I am sure most of you reading this are thinking that these statements are ludicrous. Nevertheless, this is the nature of their rhetoric. This is what happens when you scapegoat one group of people in a system with a lot of players. There is an unrealistic precedent created that will not lead to the reforms needed. This is why the Due Process (pejoratively known as “Tenure”) and teacher’s unions are important. These two elements of the educational landscape do their best to level the playing field for the people who work with STUDENTS day in and day out. While I will never assert that teacher’s unions are infallible and omnipotent, stripping the landscape of these two entities only serve to leave unrealistic expectations for all players. When I was unfairly fired from a charter school a couple of years ago, I created/adopted a mantra that I will always believe: “As long as schools are run by people, we will always need unions.”

In a Perfect World Part Two

Meet Adam Miranda
How should Adam Miranda handle this situation in a world without unions?

Adam Miranda is very excited! He recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Secondary Mathematics Education. Mr. Miranda was also married soon after his graduation to his high school sweetheart Marissa.

Adam was a December graduate from school so he knew that he should probably apply to be a substitute teacher in Chicago Public Schools until he could secure a position. He lands a position as a substitute for a teacher on maternity leave. He teaches two sections of Algebra One to freshmen and two sections of Geometry to sophomores. While he struggles in the beginning with the students, he eventually wins their trust. The students’ progress during his time as the teacher was more than anyone could have expected. The progress was so extraordinary; the principal offered him a full time job starting in August. Mr. Miranda was excited and eager to get started the next school year. He loved the school and the students and they were eager to have him next year in Algebra Two and Pre-Calculus.

Mr. Miranda rushed home to tell his wife that he had secured a position for the next school year. His wife told him more startling news, that she was pregnant with their first child. Mr. Miranda screamed, “This is the happiest day of my life!” He had a job, which he figured would support his wife and new baby, and the beginning of a new family. During the time leading to the end of the current year, Adam and Marissa discussed their family plans. They both decided that Marissa would stay home with the baby until it was old enough to go to school.

In Late July, Mr. Miranda was getting excited about the prospect of being a full-time teacher. He went to some of the local teacher’s stores to buy materials for his class. His parents threw him a party to celebrate his accomplishment and give him materials for his classroom. Later that week, Mr. Miranda opens the offer letter from the school that he will work at in the fall. In the letter he showed that he would be making $40,000 for the school year. Mr. Miranda was puzzled; he knew that there were first year teachers in the district that made more money. He figured it would be an easy task to ask his principal for an increase in his pay.

The next morning, he went to his school and asked to speak to the principal. Adam explained that he was very excited about the work that he was going to be doing at his school. He followed up by saying, “While, I am excited about my position, I am a little concerned about the pay. My Wife and I are having a baby in a couple of months and we decided that she should stay home with the baby. I am very concerned that we will not able to do this because my starting pay is a little low.” The principal responded, “I appreciate your concern, but after looking at our budget, this is the most that I can give you at this time. We have many other priorities, and we have to balance them. This offer is essentially non-negotiable.” Mr. Miranda thanked the principal for his time and began to think about whether he would have to work a second job or have his wife go to work after she had the baby.

In a Perfect World Part One

In the age of Obama, there have been few things that people on the left and people on the right agree on. The health care bill (aka Obamacare) had elements deemed unconstitutional after a relentless effort by Republican governors/attorney generals to get the entire bill overturned. Congress has been at a virtual standstill on whether or not to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich in this country. However, one thing that many Republicans and Democrats agree on is the need to eliminate or stifle the power/influence of teacher’s unions.

Some of the popular thought about teachers unions include:

“[Unions] are major obstacles to reform.”
-Newsweek – March 19. 2010

“The unions… are ‘special interests protecting the status quo’…pillars of ‘a system that too often rewards mediocrity and incompetence.’”
-City Journal Spring 1997

“This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.”
-Houston Chronicle, 2007

And who couldn’t learn to hate teachers unions without seeing this YouTube video:

A fellow blogger, Sabrina, from The Failing Schools Blog responded to some of these notions in one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve seen in a long time. While I agreed with 100% of the arguments she made in her blog, I figured that I would take Jonthan Alter’s advice.

“It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time.”
-Johnthan Alter, Newsweek Columnist, on Waiting for Superman

I have decided to take the position of reformers like Rhee, Broad, Gates, and legions of other people around the country and think about what it would be like to live in a perfect word. A perfect world? Yes, a world without teacher’s unions.

Over the next three days I will posting stories of hypothetical teachers. Read there stories and vote on what should happen or what these teachers should do…IN A PERFECT WORLD.

Rachel Wood
Rachel Wood is a fifteen-year tenured veteran teacher. She works in a Title I school where 85% of the students receive free and reduced lunch. She has been teaching AP British Literature for the last five years helping her students get an average of a 4 on the final advancement placement exam. Mrs. Wood’s work in an inner-city school in Baltimore is very surprising to the people who knew her since she was child. She grew up in northeast Louisiana. Both of her parents were members of the local white supremacist group there. When Mrs. Wood told her parents that she was going to be a teacher in a inner-city school, teaching mostly African-American and Hispanic students, her parents essentially disowned her.

One day in late March she was excited about an activity that she was going to be doing with her class. She new that the AP examination was close and she wanted to get her students prepared for the writing response. Unfortunately, the period before her class the students participated in an assembly where a famous music artist came to school. When the students returned to class they were still very excited about the events of the last period. Mrs. Wood tried to get the class to settle down as she was ready to get started with the class. She tried turning out the lights, standing silently in front of the class, and even pointing out individual students on their behaviour. She became more frustrated as time went on. All of a sudden she screams loudly, “Please be quiet! We need to get started! What’s more important? You passing the AP exam or a nigger singing a song?” The class goes completely silent. She apologised for the remark and awkwardly returns to teaching.

Later that day she got a note from the principal in the mailbox to see him at the end of the day. The principal called Mrs. Wood in the office. He asked her, “Is it true that you used the “N” word during your AP British Literature class?” Mrs. Wood answered, “Yes, and I apologized for the remark soon after. I was very frustrated and the frustration got the best of me.” The principal explains to Mrs. Wood that there is no room for a racist at this school and she was fired.