Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Goodbye, Southern High.


    

     On Thursday, I retire from teaching public high school and tonight I will watch my last group of seniors graduate. Sometime next week, they will start the process of knocking the building down. It's not that the district is taking my retirement that seriously; they were planning on knocking the building down anyway because a new high school (right next door) will be finished this summer.
     Somehow it feels completely appropriate that they are knocking the building down the same year I'm heading off to The Great Pasture of Retirement. Both the building and I are 52, and I suppose if I were to hang around much longer, they'd be taking a bulldozer to me as well. To be blunt, my values are no longer welcome in teaching. Like the building I'm leaving behind, my wiring is out of date. I know that needs some explaining, so here goes:
     My dad was a school teacher before me (and he taught in the very same high school where I have taught for the past 30 years). Back when I was in college, I was majoring in Journalism, but I had my eye on a teaching career. My dad didn't want me to do go into teaching. He was afraid I'd become disgruntled over the small salary he'd had to live off of to raise his family; he didn't want me to make the same mistake. When I broke it to him that I was getting my teaching certificate, he said, “Well, all right, but you know how much it pays. Go ahead and become a teacher, but I never want to hear you complain how much money you're making.” That's been the deal for the last 30 years; I've never complained to him about my salary (even though for better than the past 15 years, my beloved school district was literally the lowest paying district in the state of Ohio).
     So, I didn't become a teacher for the money (nor, for that matter, have I ever met a teacher who did). I became a teacher because I liked the respect and dignity that came with the job. I've said to several principals I've worked with over the years, “Look, I could get a better paying job. I need my respect. If I don't have my dignity, I might as well be a circus clown.” Now, as far as I can tell, everyone has something they are really good at; for me, it's been teaching high school English. You can ask anyone in my family – I'm a lousy plumber, a horrible mechanic, a terrible carpenter, and I couldn't dig a straight ditch to save my life – but put me in a room of snarly teenagers, and I can get them to care about Dickens' “Great Expectations,” and I can get them to feel pretty good about their ability to write. Call it a “gift” or “calling,” but I've been blessed to work in my old high school with the people who would respond to the enthusiasm I'd bring to my lessons.
     Now, it's time to go. Call me cynical (perhaps I am), but the qualities that used to be valued in being a good teacher are no longer relevant in the contemporary classroom. What used to make me a good teacher is that my students knew that I cared about them and that I did my best to make them feel welcome. Now what is being valued in teaching has nothing to do with treating students like human beings. What is now considered the most valuable skill in teaching is the ability to document what you plan on teaching, document what you teach while you're doing it, and document how you plan on reteaching the same material once you've documented that the students didn't master the material the first time you covered it. In other words, it's about faking a ton of bureaucratic paper work so if the need ever arises, the district can prove that you presented the material. How you presented the material, whether it was merely a thick life-sucking packet of tree-killing handouts or through an engaging Socratic discussion makes no difference whatsoever. This is to say, no one cares anymore why students didn't learn anything from your instruction, the administration only cares about the evidence in triplicate that proves you offered the instruction.
     Of course, the logic behind this thinking is madness itself. Clearly, if you test a roomful of students and 90% of the students pass the test, the instruction had to be there or where would the 90% have learned it from? But it's no longer about common sense, teaching now is about cranking out the paperwork. Simply put, humanity is no longer relevant. I can't stay around and teach when my value as a teacher is based on my ability to document what I'm teaching and not on my ability to get my students to care about their own development as citizens and fellow human beings.
     This past January, I had a student whose step-father shot himself in front of the family. When the girl told me what had happened, I hugged her and said, “I'm sorry to hear that you have to go through this. Don't worry about your English grade; you've got bigger things to care about right now. I've got your back; you will pass English this spring.” Was making such a promise ethical? Given the modern obsession with testing and scoring, absolutely not. Was the promise profoundly moral? Give my life's interest in preserving dignity and concern, it absolutely was. The girl in this circumstance is probably the most dramatic example of the need to protect and prize our students' humanity, but I could take you desk by desk and tell a similar story about each of my students: this one has to work til midnight in a fast food restaurant to help her parents pay their rent, this one has been pregnant since February and has no idea if she can handle college and a baby, this one can't concentrate because her boyfriend has been hurting her a lot more lately but doesn't know how to break up with him without getting beat up for trying. Desk after desk, story after story, I know these people. My students are not merely data entry points on some chart they are constructing in Columbus based upon their OGT scores. Nonetheless, if I were to hang around next year, 50% of my next evaluation would come directly from their standardized test scores.
     When I was writing my dissertation on the history and theory of rhetorical authority, I devised a formula for determining “good” authority from “bad” authority. It's not really that complicated: “Good” authority is concerned with the dignity of the people it works with; “Bad” authority is not. I called the good form of authority “pro-agentic” because it takes the agency of other people as its highest responsibility; I called the bad form of authority “pythonic” because like a large and powerful snake, bad authority likes to constrict other people and squeeze them into seeing the world according to its own narrow point of view. The best example I can come up with for the “pythonic ethos,” – that is to say the form of authority that denies the other's humanity to achieve it's own political agenda – is the current educational environment that is only willing to look at the data generated by test scores and the documents that “prove” instruction occurred to determine the worth of a classroom teacher. I think Tina Turner would say, "What's love got to do with it?"
      God help us all; kick me out and knock that building down. There's no longer room for teachers like me – we're as obsolete as blacksmiths in a Ford factory. Once I'm gone ,who is going to teach students that how you treat people is more important that how you can manipulate them into doing what you want? That's a trick question, of course, because it's not on the test.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week (but I won't be a school teacher, I'll just be another Old Fart who pines long and loud about the Good Ole Days).

15 comments:

  1. You are so right, Don. I spoke to a colleague who is retiring and he said, "This is not what we signed up for all those years ago." You both are so right--teaching has now become number crunching and students are not human beings but simply numbers to be counted.

    But there are many teachers who still believe in the dream of what education should be--working to turn students into caring,productive, thinking citizens who care about the world they live in. Each day at lunch I say to my colleagues, "Let's go fight the good fight" and I still believe it.

    Enjoy retirement!

    Susan

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  3. I agree with you completely. I have two children still in school. It's both amazing and frustrating to me how very little they get taught. Instead of instilling the desire to learn, and the ability to do it on your own, the teachers quite literally "teach the test". I understand that it's necessary in today's numbers driven education so that the teachers "prove" that they've taught. I know end of year evaluations now depend on how well your students did on a very limited test. But in the end, my kids aren't getting an education, they are being cheated of what has been, at least for me, a lifelong gift from my teacher's to me, knowledge, love of learning, and the ability to increase that knowledge every day

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  4. I learned a lot from you. When I was in school I had a lot going on at home, but I never let anyone know about it. Even if I wanted to give up and go away, you always had an encouraging word to give to anyone who wanted it. I have to agree teaching is no longer teaching the kids about how to treat others in life, it is about making sure that students follow what they want all the teachers to teach so they can get the students to get good scores so that they can get more money. I have to say that it is all about anymore. I believe like many others that teachers should teach how they want to teach and not have to follow someones rules so they can get more money for everything else, but the teachers, that is where that money should go. I know teachers didn't get into teaching to make money, but to make sure that the kids you all teach will be able to make once they are done with school. Good luck in your retirement, I hope it is a good one, for any of the teachers I had, you were the best and I thank you for that.

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  5. Mr. Dudding, you are right on target. We chose private school for this very reason. I cannot believe that you have been teaching that long. Seems just like yesterday that we were getting in trouble with Miss Boothe.

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  6. Don, as always you continue to reach out and shake people from preconceived notions and hopefully into thinking for themselves. I had this experience some years ago when teaching at a alternative education campus, we had to submit monthly reports of each students progress and how we were implementing their IEP's. It was a wonderful caring and nurturing place for these student who literally fell thru the cracks. After two years the program was closed due to costs, even though the success rate was far better than any other program. Until the value of students who can think, reason and learn are valued higher than test scores it will continue in this trend. Thank you for all the sparks you and others like you have fired in young minds.

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  7. It was an honor and a privilege to be taught by you and your dad. It was your desire to not have a normal class that your peers would dictate by any means. The days of preparing for a test by playing jeopardy or something along those lines kept the classes from being boring by any means. My daughter is currently getting her degree as a special needs teacher and I listen to teachers today. It is never about our teachers but the system of politicians who has forgotten about a challenging profession that should be about learning and making the students learn to face the world not to pass the test that says nothing about who or what you are! You both will be missed and it is the school and students loss because of this system. god bless you and your family

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  8. Congratulations on the retirement.
    I had the privilege of having your father and you both as teachers and enjoyed you both. There will be a place in all of our hearts and live you both have touched.I am proud to have been a student of an institution that provided more than a cookie cutter education. Thanks again.

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  9. You were always one of my favorite teachers. I took every course I could with u because of Ur insight. Being a parent now myself I often find myself asking where have all the good teachers gone and what is wrong withthe school system. The answer is alalways the same no one Cares anymore. If it's not a test its a take home assignment that I pray I understand to explain to my children. When I ask to have a meeting with a teacher I'm back logged and covered in a sheet so they don't have to acknowledge my presence. I want the best for my children like every other parent but how can u have that when the schools frown on open communication? I pray for a change. I pray things go back to the way it was when I was in school. I want my kids to amount to more than just state test scores.

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  10. It's sad that this is what school has become. I have to say I'm glad I don't have children in school anymore but I do have nieces and nephews, which makes me scared for them.
    You were our childrens most favored teacher and you did have an effect on them. Enjoy retirement!

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  11. It makes me sad for future students that aren't going to have so many of you guys teaching that really cared about us. You were extensions of our families and welcomed us into yours... When I compare what we had at Southern Local with my big city counterparts, I am thankful for growing up down there. I am grateful every day for the tools that you guys instilled in us to take care of ourselves and to go out into the world. I even miss the rickety old buildings and wonder if the students in these new climate controlled building will ever know the joy of the only air-conditioning being a single box fan and the lights being turned off. Every teacher I had holds a special place in my heart ... David Pickens

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  12. Don - a sad, sad day that the system has driven you out before your time! Used to be memory loss was the reason good teachers retired! Your career in education had not ended - just morphed into hopefully something more free. May your voice of protest of the current state of affairs be heard well beyond Southern High School.
    "Once I'm gone ,who is going to teach students that how you treat people is more important that how you can manipulate them into doing what you want?" I think you will still be teaching to that standard that is mistakenly NOT on the CCSS.

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  13. Ammie Franko FanninMay 24, 2013 at 3:59 PM

    Mr Dudding, You were one of my favorite teachers. I think my freshman class may have been your first year at Southern. I read your story and agree totally. I pay good money to send my daughter to a private Christian school for many of the reasons that you posted. Alas I do not have extra money for a new car payment but my Daughter is learning how to write in cursive. Public schools in the state of NC do not even teach them how to write. I wish you well and God bless!

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  14. Don it was an honor to be your tech coordinator for 7 years. You are truly one of the most honest decent down to earth individuals I have ever met. I wish you were still teaching mostly for my own selfish reasons lol. It was always nice no matter how any day there went good or bad it was always a lift in spirits for me to talk with you. I still owe you dinner and I look forward to paying my debt soon. Thanks for all you have done Dr. D. your friend Ed Baker.

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  15. Don it was an honor to be your tech coordinator for 7 years. You are truly one of the most honest decent down to earth individuals I have ever met. I wish you were still teaching mostly for my own selfish reasons lol. It was always nice no matter how any day there went good or bad it was always a lift in spirits for me to talk with you. I still owe you dinner and I look forward to paying my debt soon. Thanks for all you have done Dr. D. your friend Ed Baker.

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