Month: March 2016

The Latest Blame Game: Trump’s Supporters

Recently a Facebook post issued the latest societal ill to be laid at the classroom and therefore the teacher’s door: Trump’s followers. The post asserted that there wouldn’t be as many Trump supporters if education was just doing it’s job. Familiar image of an upset parent poking the teacher in the chest for failing their student who has not attended. The student did not attend because the teacher/school was not “doing it’s job” and by God my taxes pay your salary and if you would just do your job…..

On a recent Colbert show, Stephen estimated that Trump’s voters in the primaries represented about 12% of the voters. Let’s look at what was going on in public education when these supporters were in school.If these voters
are an age range of 30-40, they would have been in high school in the mid 80s to mid 90s. That is, if they went to high school.

Then let’s look at what happened to public education in the mid-80s. Reagan and his party decided to issue a report called “A Nation At Risk”. It claimed that our nation was drowning in the ocean of international competition. This was at a time when the nation’s public schools were doing the most excellent job yet. But a gleam had grown in a monied eye: how about if we can make profit from tax money? How could we do that? We could use educational tax monies through private charter schools and proprietary (for profit) colleges as well as promoting home schooling (it doesn’t cost as much tax money). We can make lots of money by controlling the textbook and testing industries. We can do this if we just destroy people’s confidence in the public education system. Not to mention Reagan’s antiunion movement. The attacks have been relentless and comprehensive, to the point that now no candidate is brave enough to say that education is not broken.

As a counselor in a lower socioeconomic income school, I routinely saw parents remove their students from school if they did not like something. They would pretend they were going to “homeschool” them but they would move to a smaller town. In my state as in many others, there is no monitoring or accountability on homeschoolers. No curriculum plans must be filed; no hourly instruction scheduled; no testing; no validation of instructional credentials. That’s because the state, being the agency constitutionally charged with education, saves a bundle of money if students aren’t in school. They don’t have to pay any ADA (Average Daily Attendance) rates to districts for absent students. To make it even better, the legal age they can drop out is 16 but the district must accept them until they are 21 and keep records on where they go if possible if they leave the previous school. So the district is required by the state for reporting on students that the state says don’t have to be there.

So Trump’s supporters – if they attended, if they earned any credits, if they graduated – were coming through just as this concerted effort to undermine education was getting into full swing. A plethora of media (books, television shows, movies, news reports) emerged about how terrible the system was. And it worked.

Teaching and education is a power vacuum. It depends on community support, both financially and socially. It is a handy political football. Teacher unions lost a lot of leverage. Teaching lost a lot of cooperation and support. Parental anger and frustration found a convenient and close target for their frustrations, be it the economy, joblessness, or other stressors. Not to mention the frustration of being the parent of an adolescent.

Some have said that the conservative movement is reaping the wind from their policies of 15 years ago. If that were true, maybe we would just have a thunderstorm. Their policies began much longer ago, enough for the wind to be a tornado now. So if this is related to education, I’d say it shows that, as usual, educators have done a herculean job in spite of enormous opposition. I’d say we’re lucky if it’s only 12%.


Band-Aids for Teachers

After my mother passed, my middle sister (the one who controlled everyone contrary to birth order theories), sat us down and divided up the boxes of Band-Aids left over in my mother’s closet to make sure no one got more than anyone else.

Previously, my other sister and I had learned, she had absconded with our grandmother’s china cabinet and the diamond earrings Mother had promised me.

The paltry nature of her concerns was a fitting metaphor,  I thought, of the efforts to help teachers in recent years by a well meaning public. Recently Stephen Colbert featured a campaign, #Best School Day, which raised $800,000 for teacher projects. Previously Donors Choose offered a similar opportunity: teachers post their projects and the public can choose which ones to fund. All wonderful shows of support for teachers.

Colbert’s show featured celebrities picking up the tab for a city, state, or educational level projects, more impressive than a car for every teacher a la Oprah.

I am grateful. Don’t get me wrong. But for those outside of education, I just want to suggest how this translates when you are a teacher.

As a teacher, one year a magnanimous corporate leader gave each teacher in our district $100 to spend at an office supply store. That was great, since lack of budgets for teacher supplies are the rule. We wanted to spend it at another office store, however, with much lower prices where we could buy more for our money. We learned that was not to be, since a high level administrator had preferred we spend it at his buddy’s store with higher markups.

I share this to let those who care know that rarely if ever do well meaning gifts accomplish the intention. With direct funding on the surface such as DonorChoice or #Best School Day, the chances are better that the teacher will actually get to spend the money. However I have seen too many times when teachers have developed grants, received the award, and had to fork over monies to the district or go through so many hoops to get the money that it was discouraging. These teachers have also worked extra unpaid hours to come up with the project ideas beyond an already exhausting schedule. And of course this aid is for the students, really, via the teacher.

A second reality that those who care need to understand is the social status this type of effort reveals. Teachers are charity cases, so much so that now states are offering housing because salaries are so low. That’s a great new provision too that is benefitting many teachers. Yet underneath realize what it says about the value of our work.


We would never dream of offering charity to doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. Yet that is how we classify teachers. They are not considered professionals in spite of equal amounts of education. In our cultural mental consciousness, teachers are still babysitters. (Actually if you do the math, babysitters get paid more). The education of children, as with many other human services, is not high status work in our society.

Teachers are often more vilified than praised. It’s great to see some teachers benefitting from positive PR ( even if the celebrities and not the teachers were on stage). On a few good days, we get praise and some extra Band-Aids. We could really use the bigger checks already cashed elsewhere. Society would be richer.



Parable of the Hoop Jumpers

Parable of the Hoop Jumper

Once there was a young man who decided he needed to make more money.

He had been told that he could get a promotion by going to school. So he went to enroll in school but thought he should check on a class first.

When he got to his first class, he read the directions, which to him seemed like a lot.

He went up to the instructor and said, “How little can I get for my money?”

The instructor looked at him in confusion. He asked the student what he meant.

The young man said, “Well, how many classes can I miss and still pass?”

“If I only do half the assignments, can I pass?

“If I submit a term paper I have bought, can I pass?”

“If I fail the exams because I am working two jobs and have a family, can I pass?”

“In other words, how little can I do and still make it? I just need the credit.”

The instructor looked at him for a moment and said, “Wait here just a minute.”

He took out a very old book and began to read to him.

“Once there were many very poor and suffering people in a kingdom. The king could treat them very harshly because they were uneducated. They had very little food or work. They got tired of this and went to a new country where they set up the delicious privilege of learning. Some of them fought and died to be able to go to the schools they set up. And after a person got an education, they spoke better, they were better citizens, they were better parents, they knew how to get along with people, they knew how to read and evaluate a proposal, they contributed to their towns, they had, in short, improved themselves because they have participated in a process called education.”

“Then a businessman came into town. He called the people together and said,

‘You don’t need to know about your history. You don’t need to read the great writers from your culture. You especially don’t need to know anything about anyone from another culture for they are your enemies. All you need to know how to do is this job I want you to do for this small wage. In fact, I plan on sending the lowest paying jobs overseas.

‘Those of you, however, who will sit in a room, pay a lot of money, and wait it out, can get a piece of paper that says you have been to what we call a college. You will then earn more money. Because the idea of college is to train you for a career, not to get an education. You don’t have to train your mind to understand the relationship of ideas, or how one event influences another, or how one situation came out of another, or what will happen if you pursue a course of action. You don’t have to value thinking at all. In fact, we don’t want you to really learn to critically think. We just want you to do your job for us. And some of our jobs need higher skills until we can figure out a way to automate them.

“So just jump through the hoops they give you. Those hoops are called assignments, papers, projects and tests. You don’t have to understand how one lesson relates to the next lesson. You don’t even have to remember anything. You can be watching a movie, taking a selfie, or listening to music while you do the work. Your mind doesn’t have to be on it at all. Just do it and get it over with in the easiest way you know how.”

So the young man decided that even that was too much work. He put his money back in his pocket and switched schools. He enrolled in the free University of YouTube.

Shirley Fessel. All rights reserved. 2016

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Shooting Our Feet

Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher, recently had an excerpt from her new book “The Gift of Failure” published in The Atlantic. She points out that the relentless pressure to achieve has devastated the love for learning that students begin with. This pressure comes from parents, teachers, and society at large.  I appreciate her honesty and am glad she has had the opportunity to be heard.

However she does what too many of us do – she includes herself in the blame. This would be authentic if teachers had not increasingly lost professional autonomy since the 1980s. Schools by definition are always swinging between contradictory mandates that vie with each other at different times, but which leave teachers swinging like a pinata. One end, the more predominant one, says schools must prepare students for life (economic) success and social adjustment. On the other end is the need to uphold the myth that society wants to support individual freedom to pursue one’s own talents and interest. Even teacher unions have not advocated enough for teacher autonomy and power but have lost leverage, along with other unions, to corporate and political forces. A compelling explanation of this development is Michael Apple’s “Teachers and Texts.” (You can read a review of this work at Levin, H. M.. (1988). [Review of Teachers and Texts: A Political Economy of Class and Gender Relations in Education]. American Journal of Education, 96(4), 560–562. Retrieved from 13.49.57-1

The unrealistic expectation of teachers, which I call the “Scapegoat Syndrome”, is that, in spite of all pressures, teachers will somehow rise heroically above conflicting expectations and “save” our precious children from the effects of society at the same time they prepare them to meet them. It is an ongoing outgrowth of the idea our culture holds dear: that whatever social or economic ill we  have can be laid at the classroom door for solving. Of course this is impossible. We go, then, from the Messiah view of teaching to blaming them for failing us. Historically, the role of women, society’s scapegoat.

Nursing, another traditionally female profession, has gained a greater measure of leverage because problems in service delivery are more quickly and visibly felt. Even they, however, are continuing to chafe under impossible demands. Educational fallout takes longer to realize and, unless you are in the profession, less visible. When the fallout begins, the cycle just repeats: it’s the teacher’s fault. Let’s increase the demands and legislate more.

Jessica points out that we have taught her student  “‘that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character.'” We have also taught her that it’s better to quit if success cannot be assured and to worship perfection.

From a woman’s experience, the first statement is different but the second is already too familiar to us. I was raised to believe my intellect made a difference and made me equal. However this has not changed as much as we would like. We still see the ceiling operating. But character? That has been the job of women forever. It’s up to make everyone good. Perfection,  on the other hand, has been our operating principle for a long time. As scapegoats, it is our first tool, a futile but persistent attempt to escape being blamed.

Because education is beholden to public support which has been systematically eroded for greed, teachers must find alternative ways to take professional autonomy back. Some have used the charter school option, but running a school is not the same as teaching. I’d love to hear success stories. But I know the first step is to stop being willing to again take responsibility without authority. Otherwise, we will just keep obeying the order to make bricks without straw, after we wrap our feet.