Saturday, March 12, 2011

Don't Look Down: A Rant

You know the drill. You roll out of bed and punch the buttons. A soundtrack assaults you with music played at full volume and speed by musicians who are wide awake and pumped up by caffeine, or TV newscasters -- made up, dressed up, wired up and fired up -- who pound you with the cudgel of the latest sex scandal, blockbuster movie, or natural disaster; they wow you with smiles, wit, fashion, celebrity, and cleavage. Between sets and stories the advertisers jump in: tighten up that butt; sculpt those abs; augment those boobs; enlarge that doohickey; you aint good enough the way you are, so step up and drop that crying towel. It is Big Brother reminding you that you better get moving, get with it, that you better hurry up.

You’re not there yet and are given no quarter in time needed to get up to speed. You’re expected to be there already and to stay there – all day and into the night. No, there is no time to rest, much less time to write, in either this day or the long span of years of your working life, no time to rest until you have made equity traders rich with your stock investments drawn from a lifetime of saving and personal sacrifice. Then, in those halcyon days of arthritis and gray hair, you will be free to have a life, get out the notebook, pen that novel, and look down your nose at the rest of us, who are still under the whip of necessity to be up, to be perky, to be optimistic, at the head of the pack, urging others to do and be the same, or else.

Or else no retirement cookie for you.

You know somewhere deep inside that it’s a form of tyranny, this corporate optimism, this unceasing compulsion to be up, on, bright, better, to be an example to the rest of the slackers, doubters, malcontents, carpers, foreigners, liberals, all those losers who have yet to get with the program.

If the terminal speed and the lifestyle that goes with it (bad fast food, high stress, lack of sleep and steroid-free exercise) get you down, don’t worry. Just take a drug: the Purple Pill Prilosec for your gastric acids, the red pill Paxil for your anxiety, the black Zoloft for your depression, ivory Ambien for sleep, blue Viagra to keep you up, large, and in charge. Pfizer’s got your back.

Your secret misery, poor health, and need to be more than you are make the pharmaceutical companies rich, Madison Avenue flush, and Rupert Murdoch dizzy with his galaxy of influence. They like your need to hurry up and get ahead of everyone else, your lack of time to take care of yourself, your family, your community, your planet.

The megaphonic voices keep chiming: don’t stop; don’t look; if you’ve got so much as a sliver of doubt that this is insane, get over it. Distract yourself. Here’s a movie, a video game, some porn. Look lively and make money. Be a success. Get it up.

And, if the trappings of success mean we kill the earth, so what? At least you’ll have a split-level bungalow overlooking an over-fished, poisoned ocean and a Hummer in the garage next to your family set of matching Bush buggies.

So suck it up America. Let’s get behind this need to get ahead. Take no prisoners. This new world is for the winners. We’re gonna win the war against limitations, against nattering nabobs, and against thinking, if just for a moment, even if it kills us.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Give Teachers a Voice

Ed Burns, a long time teacher in Baltimore schools and current producer and writer for the HBO series The Wire, was interviewed on National Public Radio. In that interview, he said he doubted people “could handle going in to an inner city school.” Even “seeing it” would be more than they would believe.

I find these comments telling. Teachers I talk to lately feel that parents, lawmakers, and media have no idea what life is like inside our schools. One teacher told me she felt like she was “in a bubble” and that the rest of the world had no clue about what goes on behind school gates. They feel nobody sees the struggles, the joys, the sorrows, the challenges to teaching, nor does the society at large listen to what it is that teachers have to say.

Policy makers keep loading it on, increasing class size, mandating curricula, decreasing financial and professional support, and making it more difficult to teach in the schools that need it most by sanctioning schools with low test scores. Teachers have to play the role of coach, judge, counselor, cop, sometimes parent, and full time role model. Still, they are held accountable for student achievement on high stakes tests, student behavior, reporting abuse -- and all this while trying to teach.

Teachers in under-performing schools, in particular, have stated that they plan to transfer within three years. The places that NEED the best teachers are driving them away by punishing them for low student performance.

Here’s how it works right now. A good teacher with high standards teaches in a school that has low test scores, very little parental involvement, serious behavior problems, overcrowded classes, few resources, and an increasing list of responsibilities. School X then receives a score of “underperforming,” or “needs improvement.” Little thought is given as to WHY it is underperforming, nor are resources – such as supplemental instruction, time for teacher collaboration, or smaller class size – provided to address causes behind low achievement. The validity of the test is never seriously questioned, nor is it based on research, but that is another issue. The teacher, school, and principal are sanctioned with the underperforming label and told to teach more to the test. Morale drops. The school is stigmatized in the media. The teacher, who knows best what children need, likely transfers.

Every teacher knows that socio-economic level, family involvement, and planning time, as well as good teaching, contribute to success. Teachers know that current policies that focus solely on instructional fixes and narrow, punitive assessments will never work by themselves. We need to commit to improving working conditions, especially in the most difficult schools. Those schools are tied to their communities, and out-of-school issues such as economic opportunity and social welfare are prerequisites for raising achievement. . If we really want to improve education, we need to reward teachers who stick it out in the toughest schools, look beyond the test scores, and give teachers a chance to work with each other to shape thinking, feeling, creative, generous human beings.