I am going to try my best to write this post, but I make no promises about either my clarity or my fluency. My fury may run away with me and the shaking in my hands will likely cause some serious spelling mistakes. I’ve been fuming for two hours, trying to corral my thoughts as I flew through my Saturday morning chores.
I have been debating whether to write my rage out here, or on the blog that is supposed to be all about teaching. Hell, maybe I’ll post it in both places. If it comes out even partially lucid, I may put it in an envelope and send it off to Mitt Romney, all marked up with red ink and exclamation points.
I was on my way downtown a couple of hours ago, doing my usual Saturday morning food shopping. I had my radio tuned to a political station, and heard an interview with the candidate. He was asked what he would do to end poverty in struggling communities, and he answered at first with typical conservative ideas. He would, of course, take money out of federal anti-poverty programs and send it to the communities themselves. He would let them solve their own problems, rather than trying to adhere to federal mandates. Not surprising, not outrageous, no big deal.
But then he said this, more or less. He said that he would improve the economic life of poor communities by improving education. (OK, I’m with him so far). “See, the thing is,” said the ex-Governor, “It’s time to put the focus of education on the needs of the children, instead of trying to meet the demands of the teachers and the teachers union.”
The Mittster went on to explain that in rich and middle class towns, parents can move around from place to place, settling where there are good schools. Or they can “go to parochial or private schools, and pay that tuition.” (Oh, sure. That’s so easy to do.) ” That’s not true for poor people! When you’re poor, you can’t move to a place where there are better schools. So we have to improve public schools in low economic communities.”
That was the moment when I felt the flush come over my face, and I had visions of a blood pressure cuff exploding on my arm. I tried to keep my eyes on the road, but all I could think was “You mean, inner city schools are failing because the teacher’s are too demanding, and get too many perks?? It’s not because the buildings are falling down, there’s no money for books, the lights are dim, there are no extracurriculars and the home lives of the kids are in total chaos? REALLY? It’s all because teacher’s want health insurance?”
I tuned back into the radio, trying to hear over the sound of my galloping heart.
“We have research on this! We know how to do this!”, Mitt crowed. “We’ve studied places where education is more successful, like Finland and Denmark!” He explained that studies have shown that when the most successful schools are studied, it is not the amount of money spent that matters, or the size of the classes. Surprise! Research shows that class size is not at all related to educational success, says Mr. Out of Touch with Reality. No, you silly people! What matters is the achievement level of the teacher in front of the class. And it seems that in the aforementioned countries, teachers are often drawn from the top 5% of college graduates, whereas here (again, this is the world according to Mitt), here we “often draw from the bottom 5%.”
This was the part where I had to pull over because I had started to cry. I parked near our old town common, put my hands over my face, and just cried.
If you know me, or have read some of this week’s other posts, you know what a long and challenging week of teaching I have had. I am not complaining: this is what teachers do. But to have given 60 hours, my heart, my soul, my sleep and every ounce of my energy, only to hear that my colleagues and I are perceived to have been “drawn from the bottom”, was simply more than I could take.
The Man Who Would Be President then went on to prove his utter lack of understanding of the free market. He explained that his plan to draw the “best and brightest” to the field of education would be to increase starting salaries for teachers. That, I believe, IS a great idea. In order to afford this, however, Mitt claims that money would have to be drawn away from retirement plans, pensions and health insurance packages. In other words, we have to bust the demands of the unions, which work to protect the retirement rights of teachers. Are. You. Kidding.
I wiped my face, took a deep breath, and finished my shopping. But I have been crafting a letter ever since. This is what I have to say to Mr. Romney, and to all those in leadership positions who agree with him.
Dear Mr. Romney, et al
I write this letter to challenge your positions on the best way to improve public education, a goal which I support with every ounce of my strength, every single day , as I face the challenges of classroom teaching.
I write this letter because you have no idea what you are talking about; I seriously doubt that you have spent more than twenty minutes in a real live, unscripted classroom in the past thirty years. Did you ever even attend public school?
Classroom size absolutely matters. You probably don’t know this, but teachers are expected to “differentiate” every lesson to meet the needs of every individual child. We are expected to, and we should, speak with each and every child every single day. We want to have a private conference with each child each week to edit writing, to improve reading fluency and to check on math progress. You tell me that doing all of those things with 30 kids is the same as doing it with 18. I can promise you that I do not reach every child effectively when class sizes go over 20. Over 25? Forget about it.
You want to draw “the best and the brightest” to our profession? Here’s a clue for you: you’re going to have to offer BOTH a reasonable salary and the assurance of some kind of retirement security. If you’re going to compete with the business world, the medical world, and the technology world for the services of that top 5%, you damn well better offer a decent salary package, including benefits and retirement security. That’s not unreasonable, its the “free market”. Aren’t you supposed to be the guy who is the expert in this stuff?
Exactly what is it that you believe the unions have gotten for us that is taking money away from starting salaries? What are these luxuries that we should forgo? We pay for our own continuing education. We receive no bonuses. Unlike professionals in other fields, we don’t get business trips, free lunches, cell phones, vehicles, credit cards for business expenses or free samples of anything. For God’s sake, we buy our own classroom tissues half the time! When we retire, we get back the money we have paid in to the system, plus some money from our employers. We don’t get Social Security. Did you even know that?
Mr. Romney, I am the mother of a young teacher. Would you like to hear how many of my colleagues asked me whether I tried to discourage her from becoming an educator? It wasn’t because they think the job is too hard, or because they think we don’t get paid enough. It wasn’t because they don’t like children. It was because they know that the leadership of this nation looks down on our profession and constantly denigrates those who practice it.
May I suggest, Sir, that if you really want to improve education in all American communities, you stop hating teachers and start showing us the respect that we deserve.
The truth is, you see, you really can’t value education and despise educators at the same time.
I have to wonder how often Danish and Finnish leaders demand that teachers be held accountable for “our broken educational system” or “our failing schools”. How often do teachers in those countries find themselves the target of political posturing by those in charge? And it must be pointed out, Mr. Romney, that in those countries, education is federally funded. Schools in poorer towns are not struggling to pay teacher salaries and buy basic supplies. In those largely socialist nations, retirement benefits for all workers, including teachers, are both generous and provided by the federal government.
Maybe you’re right in one thing; maybe we should try to learn from those stories of success.
A deeply discouraged and demoralized American teacher