Saturday, September 25, 2010

Teacherphobia and the Failure of Citizen Responsibility

Oprah Winfrey and her current series on education in America has many teachers seeing red. They believe that Oprah and her guests on this topic are blaming teachers for the problems that exist in American schools. Oprah believes she should weigh in on these topics, and that doing so helps children. I'd like to respond to her with a few thoughts, as a person who taught in a high-crime, under-served community here in Pittsburgh.

On Oprah's show, Michelle Rhee, D.C. Chancellor of Education, lays out a scenario in which a principal tells a parent that the teacher is on an improvement plan and hopefully will get better. Rhee's hypothetical parent refuses to leave her child that day in that class. The scenario Rhee lays out immediately shows her ignorance about teaching, teachers and the whole idea of education. Watching that part of Oprah's show ALONE tells me most of what I need to know about Oprah's mission around education and any reason to listen to Rhee.

Every Principal in America could have and should have made that speech to every parent there is. Those of us who are teachers know the truth of the situation: teaching is organic and changes every minute with EVERY child. Finding the right ways to teach each individual child is an on-going process requiring peer and administrative support, not to mention the support of public officials and parents. EVERY teacher is constantly getting better, and, if we are lucky enough to have an administration which serves as an educational leadership team, you could say we are ALL on an improvement plan.

I'd like to lock unsupportive public officials and parents in a room with 26 children who represent the real world I have faced as a teacher. They break down like this: 5 kids who are homeless and/or suffering from PTSD, 15 who are chronically hungry and malnourished, 1 with mental illness, 6 who are suffering from abuse at home, 4 who saw their custodial parent dealing drugs the day before, 18 who will get in a fight that day, 12 who suffer from chronic respiratory ailments, 4 with serious health issues, 20 who have never seen a dentist or an optometrist, 22 who can't decode words but who are under crushing pressure from the school board to achieve on a high-stakes test that decides whether the school will lose teachers, art and music programs and school libraries and librarians. Can't read the test questions? Sorry, state rules disallow teachers from helping. For kids with barriers to education, these standardized tests are exercises in humiliation and stress. They add strength to the growing seed of self-fulfilling prophecy being sown in these kids: that school and education are too hard, a source of crushing failure and ultimately, personally irrelevant.

Let's not only focus on poor children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let's talk for a moment about those children who have every material thing in the world but for whom their parents and grandparents are hazy presences rarely seen. Children who have it all but can't share, are ill-mannered, overly anxious about achievement and ignorant of the intellectual gifts their peers offer. Children who think intelligence is one thing, that achievement is one thing, and who struggle with the impoverished belief that attaining wealth is life's ultimate goal.

Perhaps facing this situation would help unsupportives become aware of what they don't know: that teaching is an art AND a science, that humility in the face of what teachers face daily is REQUIRED, that teachers deserve praise, great pay, good benefits, all the tools they need to do their jobs, and support from the community and the country.

If I could send a message to parents, Oprah, education tzars like Rhee and the country at large, it would be:

Send me children who have learned how to share. Send me children who are well rested, emotionally and physically healthy and well nourished. Send me children who can walk to their neighborhood park, playground and/or library without the fear of being shot. Send me children who can expect to have a family dinner every night at which a caregiver talks to them about their day, and I don't mean the nanny. Send me children who are encouraged to meet others who are not like them, and for whom diversity is a source of strength, not fear. Send me children who have been taught to respect adults. Send me children who are loved well and who are enjoying childhood. I will teach that child beautifully and that child will perform. And if that child doesn't? Send me the resources I need to help that child: speech therapists, social workers, whatever it takes. Don't leave me alone in the trenches.

Oprah and the country at large are placing blame on teachers for things teachers must face alone everyday. That's like blaming the army sergeant for not being able to take an enemy stronghold without any bullets. Oprah's stance is not meant to help children, but to call attention to herself and her production company. If she wanted to, Oprah and others could build health clinics, provide playgrounds, support community centers, build libraries, and send an army of health and service professionals into schools. So could regular Americans. Do your job, Oprah, Rhee, and America, so I can do mine.

Dear Ms. Winfrey