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.”

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