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 Like the building I'm leaving behind, my wiring is out of date.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).