You know, I’m filled with a lot of emotions right now. We are embroiled in this debate about whose fault it is that many of the most vulnerable students (the poor Black and Latino children) are not performing well in schools across the nation. As a teacher, I have to be accountable and take responsibility for this. Period. The schools need to do more. I need to do more. I need to get more training. I must work with colleagues to find best practices more and implement them consistently. Maybe I should write more grants for the funding we so desperately need, though I hate to beg for anything. I need to be accountable to my students and their parents. Period. This cannot happen in silos and throughout America’s history, it rarely has. Today, I read about a great teacher (and apparently a great person), Rigoberto Ruelas, who committed suicide in California because he was so depressed about test scores being reported that he was just “average” based on his student outcomes and “less effective” than some of the other teachers profiled. When we are at the point of wanting to kill ourselves, we as a society need to take a step back and ask some more questions. Yes, it is possible that there were other factors that drove him to commit suicide, but one thing we know for sure was that he was held “accountable” by the media (or judged, depending on how it’s viewed) and now there is a severe void (and added trauma) in the lives of many of the students he served tirelessly.
Let’s face it, teaching is often a thankless job and one that everyone has an opinion on, but few have the courage, hope or skills to do. The main ones yapping are those sitting on the sidelines. I think that while we are holding the teachers accountable, we need to hold each and every stakeholder accountable as well. When do we stop playing the blame game and stop being so simple? We all know this is a complicated issue that will take the concerted efforts of all of us to actually work and our youth do not have the luxury of waiting for us to cut the bureaucratic bull. Their lives are literally at stake. I’m watching mine struggle and some of them give up, die or commit the crimes each year.
The American public school system needs a lot of work. It’s a mirror of society. The schools need major work and in order for the teachers to be as effective as possible, our schools also need a lot of support from the state in order to have the resources necessary to effectively teach our students. That means books (what a concept), more teachers (no there aren’t enough and we are getting our funding and teachers cut more each year and not just the “bad” ones), better and smaller classrooms with supplies (30-35 kids to a class isn’t teaching, it’s babysitting, and ineffectively, I might add), working technology (what’s the point of bragging about the computer lab when the computers are antiquated or broken?), better oversight and management, and some real accountability aside from “it’s just not in the budget this year” and only stopping by when you are looking for something negative for your reports.
We also need support from the parents. No, I do not need or expect a parent to assist with physics homework, but I do need and expect parents to hold a space for their children to be academically successful and be held accountable as well. Now this one gets trickier because we play two sides on this with little gray area. Either we say, it’s the parents fault totally and they should absorb the blame for being under-educated, horrible parents and their low-functioning child is their own fault. Or we say, these poor parents are working multiple jobs or trying desperately to do the best they can with little support or access to resources. Applaud them and blame the low-life teachers. Both of these scenarios can be true, depending on the parent, but blaming the poor and under-educated for being poor and under-educated is akin to blaming the oppressed for their oppression without ever looking up at the oppressor. That’s an illogical and ineffective strategy rooted in classism and racism.
With that being said, parents must hold a space for their children to be successful. If your child walks into a kindergarten classroom and does not know her or his alphabet or how to count, but can recite Beyonce’s “Put a Ring on It” or the theme to SpongeBob, you are part of the problem because your child is already behind. If you have not made education a priority in your home, not only by words, but by making sure that each day, before television or play, that homework is done and 20 minutes of reading is done, then you are part of the problem. If you allow your teen to stay at home because they don’t feel like coming to school or stay out all night on a school night and expect him or her to function well in class, then dammit, you are part of the problem. School is not a choice. Failure is. Get your child to the school. I cannot get your child’s 5th grade reading scores to a tenth grade reading score in one year. My name is Tina, not Jesus Christ.
The next logical question might be, how did my child get into high school with a 5th grade reading level? Great question! It might be because you didn’t know he or she couldn’t read well even though he or she is in the 10th grade. Take responsibility. If you are checking your child’s work and working with your child’s teacher as a partner, this is a question or topic that should have come up and then been acted on by you and the teacher. Parent-teacher conferences happen at least twice a year (and you can schedule more) and I have sat through many empty “conferences” waiting for parents to do their part and show up. Also, they might already have been behind when they got to 5th grade and that teacher may have brought them up from a 2nd to a 4th grade reading level. You don’t know how that child came into the class and the reality is that though it may look like the teacher was ineffective to you, it might be that that teacher was a miracle worker by increasing your child’s reading level by two years. How about a thank you? Also, another reason why your child may have been shuffled into a high school classroom though he can’t read beyond 5th grade is because you cannot hold back a child for four years. It’s not prison. A 14-year old sitting in class with the other 10-year old 5th graders is creepy and inappropriate. And since they can’t be pushed backwards into 4th grade, then schools usually push them, albeit ill-prepared, ahead. This is a systemic problem. Also, when many teachers suggest testing for learning disabilities, some parents get offended (or suggest that their child is just lazy) and outright refuse it – the very support that the school is trying to provide. In all of these cases, the person who suffers the most is the child and with the help of the teacher and parent, it doesn’t have to be this way. As a person with a background in Educational Policy, I think that we have to start viewing education holistically. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Educating our nation does not and cannot end at the 3 o’ clock school bell. Education and learning is lifelong. So then the question becomes, what are our children being taught once they leave the classroom? What is being reinforced, if it isn’t the class lesson? A child’s mind is always learning something new, so what is it? We need to know because the types of things being taught and reinforced (i.e. how to sell a key, how to roll a blunt, how to car jack) can be just as influential as not learning anything at all.
Now, I work at an alternative high school and so at the high school level, I am working with young adults and I expect more. So there is another stakeholder here that warrants a discussion – the student. When are we also going to hold our students accountable? At what point do we say that they have to be responsible for their actions, deal with hard consequences, and care more about themselves and their lives? Yes, life for many, seems hopeless. Some of these young minds are living tragedies where parents aren’t able to support them, they are being influenced by drugs, violence, sex, and crime every day, and they are caring for their own children or siblings at this point. Life is hard. I get it. However, I don’t believe that we are left in this world with no choices. Your job is to show up to school and then show up prepared mentally ready to work. Stop complaining about “all the work” and do it. My job is to challenge you. Stop rejecting it and open your mind. You are brilliant. You just have to know it and work at it. Yes, it’s hard. Nothing worth having isn’t. Stop coming in high every day (No, it does not make you think better. It is a poor coping mechanism that is making you even more behind and confused in your work). Stop whining about how much you hate school and do what needs to be done so that you can graduate, then you don’t have that complaint anymore. See how easy that was? You can’t rise to low expectations and I refuse to baby you. I’m not your mother. I am your teacher and I will not give up. I will support you. I will encourage you. I will inspire you with my wonderful, dynamic teaching skills. However, I will hold you accountable and call you on your crap, as you should call me on mine. Stop making excuses about why you can’t and start telling me why you can and will. I will help you get there. That’s why I’m here. Give yourself a chance. That’s the only way society will. Trust that you can do it because I already know you can.
Now, back to all of us. Let’s work together – now that we all know what our roles are.
Teachers: Teach passionately and get consistent professional development. Assess yourself frequently and don’t be lazy in the classroom. If you are boring as hell, then of course they are sleep and disengaged. No, you are not a circus act, but it is your job to connect with the students and to motivate them to learn. Monotone lectures will kill even the most talented mind. Remember that horrible college professor that you used to doze off on? Don’t be that guy and wonder why the students aren’t learning or caring. If you are burned out or no longer care, leave. Find a fabulous new career that will utilize your talents. Really, I want you to be happy. Let someone else take over the charge of being a teacher because this is serious work. See parents as allies and reach out to them for support and advice. They have skills, knowledge and insight into their child. Continue to put your heart into it and drown out the naysayers. You know your worth and that many of us are making miracles happen each day. Be accountable.
Administrators: Support and trust your teachers to do our jobs and stop with all the unnecessary and ridiculous mandates that show you don’t really know what we do everyday or even care about your staff. Most of us don’t leave the field of teaching because of the students. We leave because of you and your lack of support or understanding of teacher and student needs. Step your game up and get your ego out of it. This is about the children, not saving your job or future political career. Start being accountable.
States legislators: Fund the schools and stop placing us on the backburner. Period. You are hurting the very children you claim to want to support whenever you are campaigning for re-election. Don’t play politics with the public schools because it says that you care more about the things you are funding (fancy downtown art projects, dog-friendly parks, and other random nonsense that shouldn’t take priority) rather than the poor black, white and brown children that are lagging behind in your district. They need you. Our schools are suffering and you know it. Be accountable.
Parents: Be a parent, not just by loving, sheltering, clothing, and feeding your child. Create a good learning environment at home and hold your child to high standards. Are there more DVDS than books in his or her room? If so, we might need to balance that out or get your children a library card and make them check out books to read weekly. Screw Playstation and new Air Ones. No play and privileges without good grades. Period. Don’t let your children punk or sucker you. Support the efforts of the teacher and the efforts of your children (even when they resist because they will). We NEED YOU. This is a team effort and I shouldn’t have to kill myself (literally and figuratively) before I get your support. When I call, pick up the phone or call me back. Obviously, I want to talk about the betterment of your child. Don’t expect me to raise or be able to effectively discipline your child if you can’t. Be accountable just like you rightfully expect us to be.
Students: Be responsible for your ability to learn and cherish and USE that gift. You are brilliant and I expect you to exercise your right to the freedoms that you have been afforded, like your right to a quality education. Take advantage and ask for support when you need it. We will hold a space for you to learn and be the best person that you are capable of being.
For those who want to hold everyone else accountable, remember to hold yourself accountable. What are you doing to improve the lives of our youth and our teachers? We need everyone’s help. Less finger-pointing and more action. More exposure about the good happening in our public schools while detailing and working on the bad things. And stop this nonsense about how teachers are only here for the money. Whatever jerks say we are here for the money CLEARLY has never taught. It would be laughable if it weren’t such an idiotic assertion.
Finally, I would like to thank all of the teachers that helped me to be the person I am – Mrs. Carter, Mr. Tylinski, Mrs. Pols, and countless others. I remember and love you. I bet some saw you as an “average” public school teacher as well, but I’m here to tell you that you made a winner and a way when I saw none.
To my parents – Thank for ALWAYS pushing education even though you may not have had the best educations yourself. You always said that I should stand on your shoulders and do better than you. You forced me to study even when I wanted to go outside and chase boys instead. You told me those books were my boyfriends and that they were awaiting me at the kitchen table. You held a space for me. Thank you. Despite our poverty, problems and dysfunction, you made the difference. You made me a priority.
Rest in peace, Rigoberto Ruelas. I honor you and the work you did on behalf of our youth. Test scores alone cannot assess the impact we are having in the lives of these children. Your memory is much more than that data. We will continue to carry the torch. Please watch over us.
In love & light, Tina