“You teach like . . . you’re teaching an art class—it’s meant as a compliment.” Today, a young man in my Composition 122 class said this to me. I take it as a sign. For me, teaching is a form of art. I’ve taught at two community colleges, two four-year universities, and two middle schools. And . . . I’ve earned two excellence in teaching awards. I say this, not just to create a sense of ethos, but to reveal how deeply troubled I am by the state of public education.
There are so many problems with public education currently, it’s hard to justify wanting to be a teacher—which is horrific and sad. In President Obama’s January State of the Union address, he calls for educational leadership to create a society capable of competing on a global scale. Yet this cannot be achieved if things remain they way they are. High-stakes testing is not the answer. Nor is firing whole teaching staffs. Nor is treating public education like a business.
Wisconsin and Rhode Island are just two recent examples of America’s devaluation of education. Teachers’ unions, without a doubt, have created unforeseen problems that affect the quality of education for students. Teachers, like any other profession, ought to do their jobs well in order to keep them. The reason teacher unions exist, however, is because American society has, for a very long time, under-valued the work of educators. In all the years I’ve taught, in all the places I’ve taught, I have never made more than 36, 000 a year. The average citizen outside of education will return with, “Yeah, well, you only work ten months a year. You get off at three every day. Plus, within those ten months you have winter break, snow days, spring break, etc.” And every spouse of an educator could equally return with, “Yeah, but we can never go on vacation, never enjoy a weekend, never go to bed together at night without him carrying along a pile of papers, a laptop, or a book and highlighter.”
It’s not about the money. The rewards of teaching, when things are going well, overfill our cups. What the lack of pay does, though, is create an excuse for society at large to look down upon the profession. I am eternally grateful for the fact that my own husband makes almost three times the amount I currently do. His income allows me to continue doing what I love. Have I earned the lower pay scale, however? Do I deserve to be paid so little in comparison? If we’re looking at levels of education, I have a master’s, and he doesn’t. I’m working on a doctoral degree—and even when I finish that degree, if I choose to work in public education, I still cannot hope to make the same level of pay he is making until I’ve put in a good ten years.
High-stakes testing is meant to create accountability for the system. Instead, it immorally stresses teachers who came to the profession with hope. High-stakes testing steals that hope because it says to educators: “I realize you earned a bachelor’s degree, took a state licensure exam, and put in hours of observation and residency in order to become a teacher, but I just have to make sure you’re doing your job well enough.” High-stakes testing strips teachers of the pride they once held. Do we really think students are not, in return, victimized rather than saved by this approach?
In February of last year, Central Falls High School was, according to high-stakes testing results, failing. The school board voted to fire all of the teachers and start over. Many applauded the move believing it was a sign that society was no longer going to stand for poor teaching performance. After much negotiation between the superintendent, Frances Gallo, and the teacher’s union the teachers were allowed to keep their jobs. Students at the school, however, rallied behind the teachers. There was even a student protest. This tells us there is a disconnect. When we punish teachers for their students’ performance, or lack thereof, we are sending teachers two conflicting messages simultaneously: First, that we believe you have the power to mold students into the globally competitive individuals we want them to become; and secondly, although we believe you have the power to do this, we don’t trust that you can do this. Standardized testing does not take into account diverse influences that impact individual achievement. Socio-economic influences. Second-language learning influences. Disability influences. Emotional influences. These children are children. They are not without souls. They are not empty vessels. We, teachers, cannot simply fill them with the information they need to pass these tests, and we will continue to “fail” in the most economically, culturally, and ability-diverse areas of the nation. It is illogical to believe otherwise.
This month, Wisconsin and Rhode Island, are in the news. Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, has proposed a Union Bill that would radically affect teachers. In Providence, Rhode Island, pink slips are again the issue. All teachers in the district have been given dismissal notices. These decisions are business decisions. They’re brought about because state budgets are in crisis—naturally the first place to cut is public education. Or is it? America needs to figure out what it wants. Do we want to send out a call for “educational leadership” that would help us create a globally competitive standing, or do we want to cripple those who come to the profession out of an almost spiritual calling? Every teacher will tell you it is work. You go home at night thinking about your kids, no matter how old those kids are. You see their faces and hear their laughter—feel their pain, when you close your eyes at night. You wake up early and stay up late because you believe you are doing something purposeful with your life.
I’ll tell you what I want. I want every child in America to be able to say this on his or her college admission essay:
"Going to a university is not about taking enough classes to get a “good” job but about gaining knowledge and experience. I want to become involved in my university and set a positive example for the other generations, my peers, and my younger sister."
This is an excerpt from my own daughter, Keila’s, essay. Imagine if this kind of seed were planted into the heart of every young adult entering college? We really would be creating something wonderful, wouldn’t we? As evident by Keila’s words, there is still hope. The only way to preserve that hope is to stop and re-evaluate the conflicting messages we are sending. Education is either important or it’s not. Teachers are either powerful, caring, professionals, or they are incompetent fools who need to be threatened with loss of their families' incomes in order to perform well.
As for me, despite the overwhelmingly disheartening shadow that threatens to engulf me, I guess I’ll go on doing what I do—teaching like I’m teaching Art.
Jenn Gutiérrez holds an M.F.A in English and Writing. Previous work has appeared in journals such as The Texas Review, The Writer’s Journal, The Acentos Review, Antique Children, and Verdad Magazine. Her 2005 debut collection of poems titled Weightless is available through most online book outlets.