Today is the perfect day to take a drive down to San Francisco: the sky is blue, the air is crisp, and a tiny bit of snow (the first in 30 years) dusted the City this morning. But while my friends and colleagues rally today in San Francisco (and across the country) for our fellow workers in Wisconsin, I am at home, working. I would rather be in San Francisco — I am an activist and protestor at heart — but my work, as it so often does, has crept into my weekend. And so this is what I will be doing today as I rally from my kitchen table:
1. Grading papers. No, I don’t mean the “right/wrong,” “true/false,” “noun/verb” kind of grading. Instead of “grading papers,” I really should say “responding to papers,” but most people wouldn’t know what that means. I teach English, which translates to reading and writing. And although the state assesses my students’ reading and writing with multiple choice tests, I know that the best work and assessments I can have my students do is read, read, read (a lot), write about what they read (a lot), and then write, write, write (a lot). And my role? To read their writing and give them thoughtful, constructive, questioning, prodding feedback. And that takes time. While I might attempt to do some of this work during the school week, my best responding calls for a clear head and alert mind, which I rarely have after a day of working with 8th graders.
2. Working on my master’s degree. I am in the fourth semester of a master’s degree program in Education (Curriculum, Teaching and Learning), which means that most of my weekends are spent reading research and writing papers. There are some who think teachers with master’s degrees should no longer receive a bonus (they question whether or not a master’s degree has any impact on the teacher’s students), so why am I spending all this extra time and money going back to school?
- It’s not the money, that’s for sure. My school district offers teachers a small stipend ($1100./year) for either a master’s degree or National Board Certification. I earned National Board Certification in 2005, so when I complete my thesis next fall, I won’t see an increase in my paycheck for the added degree.
- It’s the kids. Effectively teaching writing and literature to 150 8th graders each year, adolescents who represent a wide range of cultures, abilities, gifts, struggles and dreams, is a challenge of magnificent proportion. This challenge has taken me on a career-long journey to identify, adopt and hone the strategies, methods and curriculum that will bring the most success to my students. This ongoing professional endeavor has led to certification from the California Association for the Gifted, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Bay Area Writing Project, plus nearly 20 years of reading books and participating in conferences and workshops, and now working towards a master’s degree. While “data” may not confirm the value of this degree, I can certainly speak to the significant impact this work has already had on my classroom and my students.
- It’s the teaching. My degree emphasis is Educational Technology, which means I have been reading research on the tremendous impact that new technologies are having on today’s youth, as well as the profound effect they can have in our classrooms. Integrating blogging into my 8th graders’ curriculum has already opened my eyes to the powerful potential that new technologies can bring to my students, and since then e-mail and Google docs (and soon digital storytelling) have revolutionized my classroom, my teaching and the potential for my students to learn 21st century media and new technology skills in schools that too often look like the 20th century. Without the research and work associated with my master’s program, I am sure that my students would still be writing with pencil and paper, wondering when their tech-savvy lives would be reflected in their classrooms.
So while my heart is with those across the country who are standing tall and proud for our embattled colleagues in Wisconsin, the rest of my body is here in my kitchen, working to provide my students with the best education I can possibly give them.
When I first met my husband, he was teaching at a small, private school. On more than one occasion I joked that if he wanted to marry me, he had to get a job at a “real” school. There was nothing wrong with his school, but I just didn’t see private schools in our future. I had always assumed that my teacher/coach husband would join me in the world of public school education. By the time we were married, we had both started our journeys as public school teachers. Now, 25 years later, I can say with all honesty and enthusiasm that I love public schools! And this is why:
- Equal Opportunity: Although our country holds to the ideal that “all are created equal,” we know that any semblance of equality disappears as early as preschool. But our public school system strives to provide every child, no matter where they come from or what they do or do not have, equal opportunities to earn a quality education. And that makes me proud.
- Diversity: Since public schools welcome all students, it means that our classrooms mirror the population of our communities. My students’ parents are construction workers, chefs, writers, grape pickers, business people, artists, teachers, domestic workers, winery owners, bus drivers, Pixar animators, university professors, prison guards, secretaries and unemployed adults searching for their next job. And their children sit together in class, study together in the library, eat together in the cafeteria and now blog together online. And while birds of a feather do tend to flock together, our students have the opportunity to chill with a different bird every day in our diverse public schools. And that makes me proud.
- Democracy: Dating clear back to the founding fathers, a public school system has been considered one of the most critical elements necessary for the success of America. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. . . . the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected,” and, ”If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” I am part of a system that endeavors to provide the knowledge and skills for all students to actively and wisely participate in their communities and government. And that makes me proud.
- Parents: When the parents in my school volunteer and donate, I know that they do it because they believe in our school, they care about the system and they want to do their part to make it even better. They aren’t obligated by a system that “strongly encourages” (i.e., requires) parents to give of their time, talents and money; they do it because they know that their child’s school is a village — a village that is made stronger when all of its residents contribute. Parents of my students have generously given of their time, their resources (copy paper, boxes of tissue, Staples gift cards) and – best of all – their homemade goodies at the holidays. They give because they care, and that makes me grateful.
- Loyalty: The town I live in is neatly divided, at one time by railroad tracks, but now by the freeway, east and west. Each side of town has a sprinkling of elementary schools, plus a middle school and high school of its own. We have a traditional cross-town rivalry that is bandied about in grocery stores, churches, soccer games and the local newspaper. My middle-school students wear their east side school colors and mascot with pride, and they look forward to the day they promote from our school and don the colors of the high school down the street. But navigating adolescence takes a toll on even the coolest of kids; our public schools provide a community of support that teaches them that they are cared for by their entire town… well, the east side of town anyway.
- My students: After two decades in middle school classrooms, I continue to be amazed by my students. They are 13 years old, battling adolescent hormones, self-consciousness, and the humiliation of parents, yet every day they make me laugh. They inspire me, challenge me, test me and reward me. They write, illustrate and bind books for children in Uganda. They pen poetry honoring parents, grandparents, pets and friends. They publish magazines filled with writing on topics that matter to them: fashion, friendship, cars, music, video games, dogs, books, movies and food. They would rather be hanging with their friends, yet they give me their best. They say they don’t like school, yet they laugh and write and read and teach me what matters. I raise the bar, and they jump. I say I’m sad, and they get quiet. I say well done, and they smile. They act too cool to care, yet when June comes, they bring their grandma over to meet me, they sign my yearbook, and they hug me. And eventually they friend me on Facebook. They invite me to their graduation, they contact me from college, they remember me even when school fades from their memory. They make me so very proud.
In this season of bash the public schools and throw the teachers under the bus, I am especially proud to be a public school teacher. I know that in times of devastated school budgets and rhetoric of blame, my students and my colleagues and my school and I continue to do professional, inspirational work. And thanks to groups like Save our Schools, America’s public schools will continue to strive to be the ideal system envisioned by Horace Mann, the father of public education: ”a school that would be available and equal for all, part of the birth-right of every American child, for rich and poor alike.” Through public schools, poverty and crime would decline and social harmony would be attained. If we are ever to see that vision realized, it will be through the fully funded, nationally supported, public education system that I do love.