Blogger’s Warning: This post ain’t full of rainbows and unicorns. If you’re looking for a sunshine-and-candy-corn wrapped around an apples-and-hope kind of post, close your browser and walk away.
When Nancy Flanagan—one of my closest professional mentors and friends—asked me to take part in We Love Public Education day, a grassroots attempt to push back against the never-ending crush of negative rhetoric spun by the Oprahgandists of the world, my thoughts immediately turned to Maggie.
Maggie was a first year teacher in a high-poverty school outside of Atlanta a few years ago whose eyes were opened to the challenges of life after two short weeks in the classroom.
As a part of a longer letter to her college mentor, she wrote:
I have learned that most kids do not go home to mom or dad and get help with homework--they go home to an empty house.
It's hard to understand how some of these students survive in the living conditions they were born into. Not that I didn't know it already... but I see how lucky I am to have had the "tooth fairy," "Santa Claus," stuffed animals, clean clothes, food, candy, tv, air conditioning, a clean bed, and parents always around.
Sometimes I get home and it's hard for me to get my mind off of my children and whether or not they are safe, being fed, etc.
While there is so much sadness in these children's lives, they are, for the most part, incredibly happy children (at school). We have our times where discipline must be enforced, but these children are so good at keeping their lives a secret... no one would ever guess that these children are living a silent war that begins at 2:15 everyday.
What Maggie—and most of the general public—didn’t realize is that there are thousands of teachers living the same silent war every day.
They are the dedicated professionals who commit themselves to working in high-needs communities because they care about giving every child—including those that our society is only-too-ready to throw away—a fighting chance to overcome the circumstances of their young lives.
Mary Ward is one of those teachers. Working in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, Mary’s schools have been buried under criticism for the better part of a decade. Despite hearing over and over again that she’s a failure, Mary perseveres on behalf of her students because she knows that no one else will.
Renee Moore is one of those teachers. Spending her entire career in the Mississippi Delta—one of the poorest regions of our country—Renee wrestles with injustice every single day, refusing to quit on the kids that need her the most.
Maggie and Mary and Renee are what I love about public education.
Working in almost impossible circumstances, criticized at every turn for THEIR failures, and surrounded by students who have little hope without an education, they’re almost singlehandedly pushing back against the systematic failure of American society.
But as a started to organize my thoughts about Maggie and Mary and Renee, I quickly realized how little the general public really knows—or cares—about their challenges.
Take the right wing radio host here in Raleigh, who described teachers as “these despicable people who are trying to indoctrinate our kids” the other day. “What are we going to do about them?” his rant continued. “When will we stop letting them walk all over us?”
Really, Mr. Right Wing Radio Man? Teachers are despicable people that something needs to be done about?
Those are hardly the adjectives and actions that I’d use to describe three women who have spent their lives saving students from society’s social wreckage.
Or take Waxx Mann, the anonymous commenter on this post about teacher quality in Washington DC, who wrote:
Most teachers in this area are incompetent and lacking...and they don’t have the drive or inner fundamentals to actually lead a classroom or children..
And anyway i know more about this than most..my mother was a teacher for 31 years and her students come back decades later and wanted their children in her class before she retired.
Really, Waxx Mann? You know more about the challenges of working in high needs schools because your MOTHER was a teacher?
Go and spend a day with Maggie, Mary and Renee and then tell me how incompetent and lacking the teachers in our high needs schools are. Better yet, go and work in their classrooms every day for a decade.
Until then, keep your mom out of it.
Or take RiShawn Biddle, the education pundit and open critic of public schools who I wrestled with on Twitter yesterday.
Check out this exchange from a much larger conversation on the challenges of high needs schools where RiShawn---a guy who takes frequent pot shots at public school teachers and schools----argues that tutoring a few times a week gives him first-hand knowledge of the challenges of urban education:
Me: And if you really want to make a difference for high needs kids, you'd start teaching instead of preaching. #truth
Biddle: Oh dude, stop. For one, I do reading tutoring with kids. So yeah, I do more than just preach.
Me: I love it when a guy who tutors a bit believes that he knows everything there is to know about schools! #aintthateasy
Biddle: Try harder. A lot harder. And by the way: It's tutoring in poor urban districts.
Me: Do you really think that teachers in those same poor urban districts would consider you their equal? #nope
Biddle: And yes, it is as hard to do reading tutoring with kids who are reading at second grade level in fifth grade as it is to teach.
Really, RiShawan? Tutoring a couple of kids that are below grade level is just as hard as teaching in a high needs school?
Try working with those same kids in classrooms of 30+ students—some who are reading on the second grade level and others who are reading on the 8th grade level. Figure out how to help the handful who come to school hungry or without even the most basic supplies every day.
Settle the student down who saw his uncle arrested for dealing and console the student who feels abandoned by her drug addled mother all while trying to move the rest of your students forward through an impossibly large curriculum.
Then, throw in a few students with behavioral and emotional problems, give up half your current salary, take away any remedial resources that might actually help you do the work, turn off the heat in the room where you’re working, and offer to have your performance numbers published by the local newspapers.
Finally, do it every day, all day for 30 years.
Then you’ll have a better understanding of just what Maggie and Mary and Renee are doing.
As I wrestled my way through each of these arguments yesterday, I realized that we’re screwed.
Public education has no real chance in the face of such an under-informed public—and no matter how hard we work to raise awareness, our efforts are never going to change the minds of people like Mr. Right Wing Radio Man, Waxx Mann and My Buddy Biddle.
What’s frightening, though, is that Mr. Right Wing Radio Man, Waxx Mann and My Buddy Biddle have audiences. They’re pushing their lies to our neighbors…and our neighbors are listening.