Public education in Mississippi, in the United States, is a dead horse many politicians and a large faction of the public refuse to stop beating. By underfunding public schools, shifting support to charter and private schools, and openly bashing teachers for everything from poor test scores to the spiritual collapse of the nation, public school haters have effectively beaten public education and its supporters into submission, yet, they refuse to unsaddle the dead horse and move on. There are others they could pick on, such as themselves, for the less than satisfactory conditions in education and society. Lack of political and public support for underfunded, underappreciated, and undervalued public schools is well documented, but villainizing public educators is far easier than sharing responsibility.
Sitting astride their decomposing steed, they reminisce about their glory days in school. They recall the “good old days” when public schools were home to superhero teachers, angelic students, apple pie baking moms in lacy aprons, uncompromising no-nonsense dads, and principals welding a board of education nicknamed “Old Hickory.” These buckaroos worship at the alter of “The Way it was Back Then” – a time when there were no bad teachers, kids were only mischievously delinquent, and Coca-Cola miraculously taught the world to sing in perfect harmony amid fields of butterflies flitting under skies painted with candy striped rainbows. If you listen to the saddle busters, the world and everything about it was cool and perfect in the “The Way it was Back Then” until public schools kicked prayer out the school house door and messed up everything.
I lived and taught school in “The Way it was Back Then,” but the world singing in perfect harmony and mischievous innocents somehow escaped me. Yes, over time, prayer became less conspicuous in public schools, but only after it disappeared from most homes. Granted, there were many good teachers back then, but no more than there are today. Forty years ago, you were considered a good teacher if you kept a low profile and did not bother anyone, and no one was bothered by you. If you left parents alone, and never troubled them about their child’s behavior or grades, you were a good teacher. You were a good teacher if you did not send discipline referrals to the principal’s office, and if you were popular with all your students, you were considered the best of the best teachers. Little has changed over forty years, teachers still get brownie points for all the above, but today, in the era of accountability, it is much harder for a teacher to be considered good just by laying low out of the principal’s hair.
In a profession where every Joe on the street believes he can do it better, and political and education gurus who haven’t been in a classroom in years, if ever, dictate how to educate kids, today’s teachers must be better than good; they are expected to be perfect. They must have the thick hide of a rhinoceros to withstand twisted evidence they are the problem rather than the solution; they must hold their tongue when factors beyond their control such as poverty, inadequate funding, and apathy in the home toward education are left out of the student failure equation; and they must cower before an accountability system that has become more about judging and dismissing teachers than assessing the strengths and weaknesses of student knowledge. The result is public school educators feel so negatively stigmatized and traumatized they are fleeing the teaching ranks in droves. Forget about recruiting new blood! Why would a bright, energetic, young person with compassion for children want to be a part of a profession in which teachers are expected to be mechanical in their approach to learning, unquestioning before the data gods, submissive to political whims, and tied to research that often is only given the light of day if it is convenient and relevant to the ideology of the status quo. In an era, where selective evidence is used to undermine teacher quality, turn teachers into scapegoats, prescribe quick fixes, and look at school reform as a process rather than a cultural change, it is a true miracle the American public-school teacher has yet to be added to the nation’s extinction list.
I say these things not to be negative, but to illustrate teaching is not for the faint of heart. Even the best teachers I worked with during the “The Way it was Back Then” would not have stayed in the profession more than a year or two if they had been subjected to the distrust and lack of respect today’s teachers face. Also, today, teachers never have a moment of peace from change. They are subjected to change with every new fad, book, article, or political agenda. Of course, change is not all bad, but when it occurs solely for the sake of change itself, to sell books, or is politically motivated, it can be frustrating and even demeaning. Who can blame teachers for rolling their eyes and thinking “this too shall pass” when presented the latest, greatest ideas or programs?
Today, other than change, the only constants in the life of teachers are cutting corners to make financial ends meet for their families, providing parenting in the classroom for kids who don’t get it at home, bringing their “A Game” to class every day regardless of the cards they have been dealt professionally and personally, and being unappreciated and ridiculed for their efforts. Teachers are not perfect. However, they do not deserve to be unfairly judged and persecuted, especially for those things over which they have little or no control. Contrary, to popular misconceptions, teachers are human, and occasionally, they deserve a break as well as a little TLC!
The good news is teachers, with few exceptions, are making a difference in the lives of their students. They sacrifice, jump through hoops, dance sideways, do cartwheels, do whatever it takes to help students learn and become responsible citizens, and they do so despite a never lifting veil of distrust. The cynicism against public schools is sad since so much of it is the result of perceptions caused by clueless negative hearsay. Most school naysayers do not have an inkling as to what goes on in public schools; how could they? With few exceptions, they have not set foot in a public school or any other school since they were high school students themselves. Before anyone gives a blanket condemnation of public schools, it would be nice if they first visited one to see for themselves rather than blindly accept scuttlebutt and data that fails miserably to tell the whole story. Yes, there is work to be done in public schools, the same as there is in private and charter schools as well as any other institution that depends on the human element for success; however, I am confident if the naysayers would put political and personal agendas aside for a closer look, they would be less likely to condemn public schools as a whole.
I taught school during “The Way it was Back Then,” and I will tell anyone who will listen, teachers have come a long way, baby, and the best is yet to come! The challenges will not dwindle and go away; if anything, they will continue to grow, but the overall quality and resiliency of today’s teachers give hope the challenges will be recognized, addressed, and eventually rectified. When it comes to quality teaching for all children, forty years ago was not the “good ole days” as so many seem to believe. We are living the good days; thanks to better prepared, knowledgeable, caring teachers.
There are more challenges to educating children than ever before, but the number of teachers with the knowledge and skills to address those challenges are as great, probably greater, than any time in our history. Therefore, my advice to everyone – teachers, parents, administrators, politicians, and the public – is don’t look back; keep your eyes on the future. Overall, we have good teachers in the driver’s seat, and if we hold on to them, support them, and don’t rock the boat every time there’s an uncomfortable swell, they will get our children and grandchildren safely to their tomorrow. However, we must be willing to give them a chance, and not desert them to wolves with agendas other than doing what is right for children. Although the current mindset toward public school education, it should be clear by now, you cannot beat a good horse to death, and expect to ride it to victory in the race.
©Jack Linton, December 1, 2017