School Marm Ghetto

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San Francisco has returned education to its roots, by attempting to provide “affordable” housing to its educators.   Like the 1800s, when teachers of the plains and western states were required to live in or near the one room school houses, the city is converting an old school into barracks-like apartments for teachers-only to rent. Of course, the people behind this plan think it is a meaningful, maybe even a humane solution.   At what point will they realize that by providing housing, in the same way they provide housing to low-income families in many other cities, they are literally and conceptually ghetto-izing the job of being an educator?

The Golden Gate City is one of the most interesting, attractive cities in our country, with a rich history and cultural landscape; intriguing foods, distinct villages or boroughs, tantalizing vistas all add to define it as an original.  And for years the variety of dwellings has also allowed its citizens to remain inside its boundaries with generations of people  who have called themselves San Franciscans.

But then the tech companies landed. With the money that many of its workers earn, land and buildings have disappeared into their pockets, which then has allowed a competitve market to open up where property costs have sky rocketed. A place where the average worker-nurses, electricians, teachers-could still live is harder and harder to find inside the city.

Add that teachers are notoriously underpaid for their degrees and expertise, especially new teachers, and the city now has a problem on its hands.  Where do you find people to teach your children, when they can’t live within the community?

So make the teachers commute.  Big deal.  (Except this is not true in any other major city to this degree.  Even teachers in Manhattan can live in Manhattan.) Commuting takes away precious after- and before-school time that teachers use to tutor and connect with their students.  It takes away moments of comradery between faculty and administration which is essential to build a strong school family, an hallmark of a “good school”.  It also removes the teacher from the community, which in my experience, is a wonderful part of teaching.  Kids who run into Ms. Sneed or Coach Bowen at the grocery store or the local burger joint feel a stronger sense of pride, respect, and even identity than those who think teachers fold-up into drawers at the end of the night.   Toss in the stress of the extra hours on the road, fighting traffic, and even the cost of gas and wear and tear on the car, and commuting is forcing some teachers to vacate not just the city, but the profession.

Now realize that all educators are paid with money from property taxes, and you’d think the solution was built into the cause of the problem to begin with.  Land values go up, salaries do too.   Right?  Well, not quite. They have both risen since the techies arrived, but not in comparable rates.  The value of property has risen by 40%, but teacher salaries have risen by 15%.  So Ms. Sneed, young teacher, now makes $4000 more a year, hardly enough to keep up with the newer rents, where the average rent is $4200 a month.  (Because, guess what, the cost of everything inside the city limits has risen, too; food, gas, health activities all range between 25% to even 70% than the rest of the country. )

Enter the politicians.   Recognizing that they were struggling to find educators willing or able to make those commutes, and were limited to a smaller pool of the most-qualified applicants, they made a decision:  “Let’s revamp that old building in town into lofts for teachers. . .”  Yay!

But what they are doing is keeping the educators segregated from the community.   Physically underscoring that teachers don’t fit in with the very children they teach.  Politicians are also labelling them as people who need to live in “the projects.”

NO matter how cute the floors are or how attractive the landscaping is outside, everyone nearby knows. . .”Those folks living there. . .they are the teachers who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else here.”  And if they have kids, their kids will most likely be grouped with other educator’s kids only, much the way kids in the project hang with kids from the project. Teachers living there also seem to hand their independence and privacy over to the city-Managers can come in and monitor, even define, the lifestyles inside the building. . .just as they did over 100 years ago with the young, unmarried women of the 1800s, who lived in the back of the school, and followed a strict code of behavior.

Can you imagine the  uproar if they did the same to any other “degreed” profession?

The worst part about this is that it signifies what the U.S. has been guilty of doing to teachers throughout public schooling-treating us like servants (civil servants, of course) rather than private citizens. We are nearly a class of soldiers, with separate rules of living and now the housing to go with it.

Five Things You Hate about Teachers and What You Can Do About Them. . ..

5. We Have Summers Off.

(And Christmas, and Easter, and Thanksgiving. . . ) so many breaks, you’d expect EVERYone would try to become teachers. I can’t count how many times people work this issue into the conversation once they discover I am a career teacher. Currently, close to two-thirds of newly minted teachers quit the profession within three years of gaining a full-time teaching position, never to return. Maybe they were women with a “Mrs. Degree” who were just waiting for Mister Right to marry them, so they could work at home raising their own kids and not yours. Maybe they landed a rewarding spot on American Idol. But whatever it is, the summer breaks were just not long enough to keep that two-thirds in education for a career.

Just the other day, a man I had just met, literally, said to me, out of the blue, upon discovering I am a teacher, “You know, I hear these complaints about them teacher salaries (I had not been complaining about a thing.). . .Y’all got three months off in the summer, go get a job in the summer if you all want more money instead of sitting on your rear ends.” He said it with a pleasant smile like it is completely socially acceptable to insult someone you just met about their profession as so many people do to teachers.

I just sighed and did not correct his grammar, nor his incorrect count of how much time I have off in the summers. I didn’t even try to discuss how many hours we work in a year stuffed into ten months. . .or how many redundant classes I have to take each Summer.. . .or explore the salary scale/experience/pay-per-hour-worked ratio compared to other careers. I learned to stop doing that a long time ago. I simply smile now and say, “Oh, I agree. Why don’t you go into teaching, so you can enjoy summers off?” and walk away.

4. We can’t be fired.

I know. That dirty thing called tenure. First, be honest: every job has due process, every single one. If you have not enjoyed due process when you were let go, then either you were screwed and you need a lawyer, or you were laid off. Teachers get cut when there are not enough jobs, and we sometimes meet the nasty end of due process. I have known teachers who have lost their jobs for being drunk, stoned, or just bad. I have known drunk docs and immoral lawyers who are still practicing, protected by members of their profession. All it takes in any case is a boss who is willing to do the paper work, willing to go through due process, yet often they are too busy, or too political, or even too lazy to do so.

To fire a teacher brings public scrutiny that doesn’t happen in most jobs. (How often do most jobs and their failings get accounted for in the media? Education is always in the media. In fact, I recently heard yet another dig at tenure on Tim Allen’s latest comedy.)

But imagine you have a principal willing to do the due process and bring on the public scrutiny: to prove someone is a weak teacher is difficult since the standard for quality varies and seems subjective Sure, you’d think that the public would all agree about who is good, but people really don’t. For instance, the guy who curses in class, yells at your kids till they cry, has a high failure rate, but gets great results on Nationally Normed Tests. . .or the teacher who is positive, supportive, motivates quality projects from children, coaches everything, has a high pass rate, but a somewhat questionable result on national tests. . .which educator is best? Not everyone values nationally normed tests as the only indicator of talent in a teacher. Many principals face these conflicts: teachers who have strengths and weaknesses. It is rare to hire perfection, which is what we want in our teachers. And the principal also knows the old adage: the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t know.

Due process takes any boss precious time to document; when a principal finally succeeds at letting the weak teacher go, and then hunts for someone better, he or she takes months sometimes to find a strong applicant. You’d think in this economy, there would be talent climbing out of our pores. But, no, not so. And trying to hire qualified replacements in classically “tough” schools with higher crime, higher failure, is nearly impossible; few apply. So stop thinking that we can’t be fired. We can, just as easily as you. The difference is that when people lose a job in most industries, the boss just makes their colleagues pick up the slack. Principals cannot do that.

3. We were often “C” level students in college or high school.

The most embarrassing statistics prove this true. While that doesn’t describe me or many of my fellow teachers, it is generally correct. What’s worse, teacher’s education programs are notoriously tedious in work load, but lacking in intellectual demands, so we are talking about “C” students in non-rigorous degrees. What are you willing to do about it? You demand excellence from medical students and law students and even engineers, why not education majors? (Well, I personally think there should be no such thing as education majors; I am as appalled as you when I discover one of my children’s teachers is a numbskull).

Much of my explanation about tenure and summer breaks applies here. The trouble is. . .whenever any state does raise standards, folks stop going into the profession (or worse, fewer folks qualify), and then there is a teacher shortage. With that, we are forced to hand out provisional teaching certificates to people with no training at all just to fill the seats. Does this problem exist because academically sound graduates have plenty of work options. . .? School systems are victimized by supply and demand (Not enough high level graduates going into education), by their funds (richer counties hire the better candidates), by even the colleges and what they are doing with their students (some colleges are paper mills).

2. We are with your kids more than you are.

Admit it. When you first sent your babies off to school, aside from the secret joy you felt that you had more free time, or that your day care bill was going down, you were uncomfortable with someone else being so central in your child’s life. Studies in child development show that children shift their hero-identity focus from parent to teacher around first grade. So instead of a child believing your word is like God’s, now it’s “Mrs. Belachik says this. Mrs. Belachik says that. ..” ad nauseum. This does not sit right. In fact this sits so poorly that I have watched my friends and neighbors tear apart teachers behind the closed doors of Bunko Games, Book Clubs, and Scrap booking meets, discussing their children’s teacher’s clothes, their personal lives, wedding faux pas, pregnancies, husbands, as if we teachers are cast members of Housewives of Education County, not the professionals who love their kids. Jealousy is an ugly beast to feed.

Add in that we are around your kids for 8 hours a day in elementary school while you are with them, once they finish their bus rides, perhaps 6 waking hours- some of which they spend away from you with buddies, computers, television. . .You should be a little jealous. Even in high school, teachers seem to spend more time with your kids than you do, since as teens mature, they spend even less time with their parents; today’s families rarely eat, ride in cars, or watch television together.

1. We are the government (who once controlled you.)

I know you try to overcome this truth by acting like you are the boss who pays my salary. Never mind that you pay the salaries of anyone who provides you a good or service. . .what makes you so irritable is that this salary you pay us just pops right out of your paycheck and moves into a system that the media loves to tell you is failing.

Think of how we feel. Imagine when you have been shaped to question any form of government, its intentions, its policies, its spending, its system of “checks and balances”, its buddy politics. . .and then you go to work for that very government. It is your boss.

Most people I know who stand around at cocktail parties complaining about the governor, the president, the Republicans, the Democrats, etc.. are the same ones who complain about education. Ironically, they don’t seem to know that any education system is one of the most political machines out there. Who sets the education budget? The government of that state. Who defines standards? The government of that state (along with people who moved out of the classroom usually within seven years of their teaching career to become politicians/lobbyists on some governor’s panel.) Who runs your local system? A board that campaigns for office. Who puts principles into power over your teachers? That very board. How does one get notice to earn a position of power from the board? Play into that board’s belief system. Who earns leadership roles under those same principals? The ones who say, “Yes!” to his/her every whim, no matter how ridiculous it seems. The system is designed to eliminate individual insight and creativity, and endorse sycophantic behavior. I imagine this is true in the business world too, or comic strips like Dilbert wouldn’t be so popular.

Teachers are at the mercy of any politician who is staging a campaign to his constituents. If you voters make it sound like you want higher standards, he says he will attach pay to performance. He doesn’t care what it does to your kids in the long run; he doesn’t even care if it’s a valid performance evaluation system. (Before you get all up in arms over student testing linked to teachers; I am all for it, once it is fair, infallible, irrefutable, and valid.) If you demand more discipline, then he creates a zero tolerance law. Or the opposite, if you are tired of zero tolerance rules, suddenly there are no rules. . .

And here’s a dirty secret. Many politicians use studies to prove whatever their whims are. Now those same studies were typically performed by students in education programs. . .education programs that are not rigorous. . .education programs that don’t care that the study sample was too small, or even “made up.” Education programs that never truly require validity testing in their published studies. Yes. True. Scary. (Did you not see my answer to number 3?) And if the studies are performed by a group that is not in an education degree track, then the group is trying to make money for their products, or a political lobbying group. The evidential studies the politicians lean on are not standardized studies like the sciences perform. They are filled with flaws, and distortions.

What can you do about a;; of this?

So then here we teachers are, hated for our free summers, hated because we are par-educated, hated because we get to see your kids more than you, hated because we are “the man” and toss in that, even though we suffer from the very government you do, we whimsically were at once in charge of you when you were a student. We gave you tests someone else told us to give, we demanded that you read things that some board approved, and sometimes we were rude to you because we were too busy with the other 37 kids in class. Probably. No wonder you hate us.

Resentment doesn’t bring change. Don’t just vote your people into office; examine the promises they make against reality. (You Floridians once actually believed your governor when he promised to cut the sizes of English classes in half. Californians at one point believed that every kid would get a state provided laptop. HELL, a whole load of people believed The Clintons and then The Bushes that everyone could be above average by this century. Really? Do the math.) Examine who moves into power and why in your entire education system. And definitely pay attention to how the money is spent.

Help come up with a clear cut picture of a good vs. a bad teacher. Discuss this seriously with your friends and coworkers. Principals and parents now have their personal opinions that vary vastly. I have known bad teachers-ones that seem illiterate-whom parents will defend to the end. I have known great teachers whom parents want to lynch simply because they weren’t passing out “A’s” like candy. So collectively, as a country we have to agree with what defines good teaching. As it is now, many of you don’t even agree about norm testing. And if you know of teachers who are truly bad, like grading arbitrarily, sleeping at their desk, drinking from their cupboards, writing illiterately in their email. . .document it, take it to the board, force the principal into due process. Don’t just criticize it.

Require improvement in the talent pool. I personally believe teachers should have to have Bachelor’s degrees in a tough core subject, then complete a rigorous Masters degree in Education before being credentialed. Getting into these graduate programs should require stellar GRE scores, not the current, lower than national average scores. Then, prior to being certified, teachers should pass boards that are as strict as those for other important professionals.

Ask yourself why this profession doesn’t draw/keep its intellectual talent. What can we do to make it more, say, palatable to smarter people? You know the answer to this is very difficult to find, which is why you probably are not a teacher with your summers free. It’s a tough, sometimes completely unrewarding job; as a taxation-based field, it can never offer financial rewards on par with other intellectually demanding careers. My own scores and records could have led me to med school or law school. But I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t care about the money. I hate blood and I hate legalese. My career rewards are my students’ success. But this isn’t enough to draw everyone to teaching.

Since the certification methods are unlikely to change, you must press your administrators to hire folks from the toughest colleges, with the highest scores on whatever test is most current for certification. Make it public. Make it embarrassing if you have to. Right now, pretty much all level colleges, from the “we take anyone with a pulse” community colleges to the private Ivy League offer teaching degrees. Only three in my state now offer law or medical degrees. You want “smarter” teachers, you have to change THAT-selectivity in education programs.

About your jealousy…It doesn’t matter how normal it is for your kids to transfer hero worship to us; even I, as a parent, want to clock a teacher now and then when I think she thinks she knows more about my kid than I do. I completely understand your discomfort. Once I became a mom, I learned how to communicate with parents of my students, for I suddenly related to what they fear. Build a relationship with your child’s teachers. I can tell you as a teacher, for parents who talk to me as a partner, not a servant, not an enemy, not a rival, somehow, I am psychologically unable to neglect their child. I try hard to see my children’s teachers as part of my team and make sure they know it.

There is much you can do to improve education. Do something. Don’t just walk up to a teacher you have just met and unload your personal bitterness. We are not the enemy, no matter how much you hated your 11th grade calculus teacher.