June 24, 2017
Another school year has come to an end, and parents, students, and teachers all around our state are assessing what we have just been through. Some are already peeking forward toward next year. Graduated seniors are either eager to test whether their efforts and decisions over the past thirteen years will pay off, or they are feeling the angst of realizing that they took short cuts, skated by, and/or had their parents bail them out of every little scrape.
Colleges, the military, and employers who are lucky enough to find students from Group A are going to enjoy the fruits of a struggling but still functioning public school system. Those who are saddled with graduates from Group B might as well start getting beds ready in the basement … or at the local county jail. When our parents and school systems fail individual students, they fail all of society. And all of us pay.
This is also the time of year when many teachers assess their career choice. You can find hundreds of articles, blogs, and letters to the editor in which teachers express their frustration, claiming that they love their students, but they hate their job. More and more demands for accountability, which not a single government official or education “expert” has ever figured out how to measure, drive good people from the classroom every year.
Standardized tests, increasing class sizes, more demands for data that measures nothing reliable get in the way of current teachers doing what they love to do and, for all of our sakes, need to do. Even worse, falling salaries, restricted benefits, and a pension system under attack keep bright young people from even considering the profession.
If you’re thinking for a moment that this column is going to beg you for your sympathy and understanding for the nearly impossible job teachers are asked to do, you came to the wrong column. Almost every teacher I know approaches their job with their eyes wide open. Most have long ago given up on the idea that they have chosen one of society’s honored professions.
Sometime during the 1980’s, our society began the process of vilifying unions, middle-class workers, and those who sought to encourage critical thinking. Under the man who disparaged the poor and labeled collective action as un-American, the values that built the world’s strongest middle class began to trickle down the drain. Along with those values went respect for those who did society’s toughest jobs. So if you went into teaching, you went into it in spite of what people thought of the profession — not because of it.
You’re also not going to get a claim that all teachers are great at their job. Like every profession, some people got into teaching for the wrong reasons. Some were never very good at motivating students or promoting the skills our society needs. Some were very good at one point but have burned themselves out on the obstacles tossed in their way:
• Obstacles put there by parents who believe that since they went to school themselves, they know what teaching is.
• Obstacles put there by some legislators whose own educations wouldn’t qualify for them for stocking grocery store shelves.
• Obstacles put there by the religious right who have the most to fear from a society of critical thinkers.
Not all policemen or sheriffs are honorable, and not all bankers have your best interests in mind. So, too, not all teachers are up for the task of taking on society’s biggest challenges. Teachers are, after all, on the front lines of the war against ignorance, hate, racism, apathy, and fear. And when teachers fail, be it by their own shortcomings or because the obstacles put in front of them are simply too daunting, more students end up in Group B than in Group A.
This realization makes the demonization of teachers and public schools very difficult to understand. Instead of supporting students, our state government — and now our federal government, under the frightening tutelage of Betsy DeVos — have us going backward. Despite countless reports of poor achievement, financial misconduct, lack of accountability, and curriculum that spits on the First Amendment, plans to privatize our most important public responsibility keep rolling through Lansing and Washington.
Cyber schools are a proven disaster for our students, and yet the for-profit companies who are raking in piles of your tax dollars have a friend in Amway’s golden goddess. Religious charters also will be receiving your tax dollars under DeVos’ plan. Soon that giant ark that ran aground in Kentucky won’t be the only one fouling our landscape. It’s not hard to argue that the attacks on public education in recent years have always been about curriculum. The more the religious right can get you to pay for teaching your kids their beliefs, the more they will have to spend on private jets and picket signs for our soldiers’ funerals.
Critical thinking begins in our public schools. It happens when schools have the resources to do their job. It happens when teachers have the courage to hang on one more year and do the difficult work certain groups have no interest in them doing. Critical thinking is bad for those who want to feed us their agenda … and that’s what makes teaching society’s most desperately important job. I’m all in. Are you?
You can read more of Mark Pontoni's thoughts on education, politics, sports, and family at www.thegrumblings.com.