Tag Archives: The Corporate Takeover of Public Schools

CAREER DAY 2013: WHY TEACH?

The next generation of teachers must be warrior who defend the pass at Thermopylae.

The next generation of teachers must be warriors who defend the pass at Thermopylae.

Today was career day at my school. There used to be a time when I delivered a spiel to my students about the teaching profession. This year, however, I thought it best to keep my mouth closed lest my foot find its way in. If I were to give a spiel, it would probably go something like this:

“Good morning. As many of you might know, I am a high school history teacher. How many of you have ever considered being a teacher? That is what I thought.

There was a time when becoming a history teacher seemed like a good idea. My mother raised me by herself. She was a firm believer in the notion of education as the great equalizer. Everything she did was for the sake of getting me an education. This was certainly the most fundamental factor steering me towards a career in teaching, although I did not know it at the time.

For someone from my background, teaching was a step up. It was a way to move from the poor class to the middle class. When I got my first teaching job, I felt I had achieved a dream. It is strange for me to see these kids from middle-class and privileged backgrounds today who treat teaching as some sort of temporary charity work. I had always seen it as a career, a vocation and something to be cherished.

But money was the furthest thing from my mind. I grew up with exclusively black and Hispanic friends. Like many urban children coming of age in the early 1990s, I embraced the hip-hop culture. Groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were our heroes. We looked up to them not because they were “gangsta” but because they were conscious. They spoke about history and gave us a sense that knowing the past was important. I was always drawn to the respect that groups like them received for their intelligence.

As a junior in Brooklyn Technical High School, I learned about other forms of respect as well. One day, me and my three best friends went to a Wendy’s in downtown Brooklyn to take advantage of some bargain hamburgers. As we were feasting, a group of at least 10 street toughs surrounded us brandishing box cutters. For whatever reason, they took a bad shine to our crew and let it be known that we were toast as soon as we stood up to leave. Suddenly, one of them recognized one of my friends. They smiled and gave each other a pound (a dap or handshake, if you will), at which point the menacing crew exited the establishment. It turns out that my friend’s father was the kid’s math teacher, a man who was respected by some real tough hombres.

This type of respect impressed me. A man did not have to be violent or aggressive to be respected. Respect can be earned from being a part of the community.

Boys like myself who grew up without fathers usually have to scrape the meaning of manhood together from bits and pieces they pick up from the outside: the media, the streets and our friends. I suppose my image of manhood consisted of conscious rappers and upstanding members of the community. While I was fortunate enough to internalize the right lessons, I realized that youth like the ones who almost hurt us that day might be internalizing the wrong ones.

Being a history teacher, therefore, would be the culmination of everything I knew about manhood. If I could gain the respect of my students, perhaps I could use history as a way to help the next generation unlock the meaning of the world around them. Perhaps I could help set some wayward youth on the right path. Perhaps, above all, I could be a role model myself. I could be Chuck D, KRS-1 and my friend’s father all rolled up into one.

These were the things going through my mind when I decided to be a teacher.

As I started my career, I began to become obsessed with history. Not only did I appreciate it for its own sake, I appreciated it for how I could make it relevant to the lives of my students. Public Enemy was constrained by verses, beats and rhyme schemes. I, on other hand, could let the history fly freely through lesson planning. Not even the silly Regents Exam could hold me back from being the best history teacher in the city.

Teaching started out as a personal mission for me. Thirteen years later, I can safely say that it remains so. I still wake up in the morning excited to share the secrets of the past with my students. Every day is different. Every day has its own dynamic. Every day is another brushstroke helping paint a picture of the world for my students that they will never encounter anywhere else. You might understand why, at this point, I do not use the textbook.

Everything used in my class comes out of my own brain. All of the lessons, notes, handouts, questions, exams and projects are my creations. The job does not end when I leave the building. Once I go home, I might relax for a half hour before I start grading homework assignments. The weekend is nothing more than an opportunity for me to write the next unit, the next homework sheet and the next batch of lessons for one of my preps. If I am lucky I might have the time to read a book, always history or philosophy or a literary novel. All of the girlfriends I have had, the ones who were not teachers anyway, questioned why I was working so much when off the clock. I am 34 years old and have never been married. I am married to my work.

In those moments when I am not planning or grading or reading I am on the internet reading and writing. Part of being a teacher, the part of my career that developed too late, is keeping abreast of what is happening in the world of public schooling. If we do not like what is happening, and we never do, it is our duty to speak against it.

There is too much not to like. Teachers are under attack everywhere. There are people who believe we get paid too much, work too little and are not being held “accountable”. They say schools are “failing” and we are to blame for it. Can you imagine that? Their solutions to these so-called “problems” are the scary part: closing public schools, more testing and no job security.

None of this would be too bad if these people who wish to reform the school system actually believed the stuff they say. Unfortunately, their cures for what ails the system are merely fronts for another agenda. In the end, these people do not want you to get an education at all. They are corporate types that would much rather go back to the days when children worked.  Barring that, they want to turn education into a series of barks and bubbles. They want to train you, train all of us, to bark on command. They want you to spend every waking hour training to fill in bubbles, the “correct” bubbles as determined by them, your corporate masters.

Is it not obvious at this point? Good barkers and bubblers are good workers and consumers. If left up to them, none of us would have the capacity to think. They wish to disarm our intellect. A thoroughly vegetated population is a population easily controlled.

The stakes have certainly risen since the days when I thought that my only job was to be a role model. You want to teach? Be prepared to wake up early, sleep late, get paid less, do more, have control over nothing and be blamed for everything. Don’t get me wrong, we need teachers but we need teachers who are warriors. It is not enough any longer to love a subject or an age group, carve out a nice little career for yourself and then retire secure in the thought that you made a difference. There will be none of that any longer. Everything you do, whether you are at school, at home or in the grocery store, must revolve around the preservation of this institution we call “education”.

If, after hearing all of this, you still want to be a teacher, then you might be what we need. If not just remember that, one day, you will have children of your own who need a school in which to learn.

WHY MARY THORSON’S STRUGGLE IS OUR STRUGGLE

HaroldMelvinAndTheBluenotes

Readers of this blog should be familiar with the story of Mary Thorson. She is the Illinois physical education teacher who took her own life on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. As the film Dying to Teach shows, as well as the piece I wrote last year entitled The Killing of Mary Thorson, Mary’s suicide was an outgrowth of harassment she faced at her school. Her harassment came not from the students she loved but from administrators who seemed bent on making her life a living hell.

Her family and friends have been devastated by the loss. While nothing will bring Mary back, some compensation might lie in exposing the circumstances behind what drove Mary to suicide. In this age of education deform, the systematic harassment of teachers is widespread. There are no accurate statistics on the rate of teacher suicides across the country. The best Mary’s loved ones could hope for, and the best anyone who dares to dedicate their lives to teaching could hope for, is to call attention to her story as a way of shedding light on what is happening in our public schools. Indeed, if the responses to my piece regarding the offensive math questions is any indication, teachers have not seen such a hostile environment since the day Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. Any teacher worth their salt knows exactly what drove Mary to such depression.

The first step was when Myra Richardson made the film Dying to Teach. Things improved when, at the last minute, I was invited to Washington, D.C. to give a short speech introducing the film at the annual Save Our Schools conference.These things, combined with my modest article, were small steps in calling attention to Mary’s story.

It has been a struggle ever since to get a major media outlet to really dig deep into the events leading up to Mary’s death. Then, not too long ago, a breakthrough occurred when CBS reporter Pamela Jones of Chicago started to take an interest in Mary’s story.

Ms. Jones saw Myra Richardson’s film, spoke to Mary’s parents and, by all accounts, wanted to give some honest coverage to this tragedy. She went to Mary’s school, Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, Illinois, to speak with the superintendent, Dr. Gregory Jackson. As we might recall, it was Dr. Jackson’s actions that seemingly played the major role in the misery Mary faced at work on a daily basis.

However, Ms. Jones was greeted with an unpleasant surprise when she arrived at the school. Nobody would grant her an interview: not a teacher, not a secretary, not a principal and certainly not Dr. Jackson. Instead, she was intercepted by someone speaking legalese who warned her to back off lest people’s jobs be endangered. Whose jobs would be endangered and why remains a mystery, although we can take a few guesses.

For my part, I find the actions of Cottage Grove Middle School to be bizarre to say the least. After all, they lost a member of their community, someone who, by all accounts, was loved and respected by her students. Regardless of Mary’s standing at the school at the time, what happened was a tragedy for them. The very least they could have done was to make a brief statement about how the loss of Mary Thorson devastated both students and staff.

This is what someone with a heart might expect anyway. However, as we know, school districts are not places with heart. They are cold, inefficient bureaucracies. They become even more so when they have something to hide. This seems like the most logical explanation for the cold shoulder received by Ms. Jones.

If she was not going to be able to get anything out of the school district, Ms. Jones was at least going to speak with Mary’s parents. She invited the Thorsons, who live in Indiana, to make the 5-hour drive over the border into Chicago for an interview. The Thorsons arrived, gave their heartfelt side of the story and Ms. Jones then spliced pieces of the interview with clips from Myra Richardson’s movie. It was supposed to air that very evening.

The key word is supposed to. At the last minute, Ms. Jones was told by an angry editor that the piece was not going to air. All of Ms. Jones’ legwork, all of the Thorsons’ time and emotional energy, was wasted for no good reason. There still has been no explanation for why her editor nixed the piece.

Perhaps the editor was worried about painting Dr. Jackson and the school district in a bad light, opening them up to a defamation lawsuit?

Perhaps, just like here in New York City, the media was afraid of upsetting the school district and, therefore, losing their privileged “access” to information and future scoops.

As someone who knows his fair share of reporters in the Tri-State area, this seems to be the number one concern of those working the education beat here. No matter what the issue is, or where the truth lies, their number one concern is not to alienate those with power within the school district. That is why sensationalized stories about teachers are rampant, the same types of stories about administrators are less rampant and stories about the educational malpractice practiced by Bloomberg, Walcott and Tweed is barely covered at all.

We can only speculate as to why CBS Chicago pulled the plug on the story. We can only speculate as to why Cottage Grove was so silent about the death of one of their own. What we do not have to speculate over is how difficult it is for teachers to get a fair hearing in the media. The Killing of Mary Thorson, much like the killing of Rigoberto Ruelas, is not an isolated incident. They are symptoms of a much deeper problem. These tragedies were outgrowths of the same environment that led to the termination of Christine Rubino and the hateful comments left by the supporters of Aziza Harding.

America hates teachers because America hates learning. How can anyone who tries to instill ideas in the next generation stand a chance in this country that brought us Fox News and reality television?

America hates teachers because America hates unions.  How can a nation of workers, most of whom are vastly underpaid, hate unions so much? It is because we also hate learning. We do not see how attacking one group of workers leads to attacks on all workers. We do not see it because we do not know how to think.

America hates teachers because Americans hate taking responsibility for things. Why hold ourselves accountable for rearing our children or alleviating poverty if we can just pass it all off on teachers?

The battle to shed real light on the true story surrounding Mary Thorson’s murder continues. Mary’s parents will never give up. Mary’s loved ones will never give up. Myra Richardson will never give up. As long as eyes are on this website, I will never give up. I sincerely hope that Pamela Jones of CBS will not give up either. Her heart is in the right place. Even though she has been temporarily cowed by her bosses at CBS she is in the right and, I like to think,  the right always triumphs in the long run.

The Killing of Mary Thorson is a tragic microcosm of the killing of our public schools, the killing of the next generation, the killing of the working class and the killing of our nation. This mass murder is taking place at the behest of very powerful and very wealthy interests who wish to subjugate the rest of us under the boot of unaccountable private power.

We can only fight back against this with enlightenment and education. We can enlighten others on an individual basis everyday. We can also hope to enlighten by getting the media spotlight for a split second and, like a bolt of lightning, illuminate the darkness around us ever-so-briefly.

The struggle of the Thorson family is our struggle. Together we can ensure that Mary Thorson was not killed in vain.