Saturday, November 10, 2007

I Pledge Allegiance

To whom do we owe allegiance, as educators? It seems like a simple question, and most of you out there who are teachers--if not all of you--will say "the kids," to the point where it really needs to be capitalized (The Kids) and maybe even have a registered trademark symbol after it.

And we all believe it. Why not? And we're all good and committed educators, so I take your word for it, and I hope you take mine.

And yet, we know that there are some not-so-good and not-so-committed educators out there, all of whom probably say--and believe--the same thing. And so...what's the difference between us and them? And are we so sure there is a difference?

What does it mean to commit yourself to serving the kids? And who are the kids, anyway? Your kids, in your class? Or all the kids in the school, regardless of whether you see them or not? Or all the kids in the district, regardless of whether you ever meet them or not?

When I was teaching, I saw countless instances of teachers shutting their ears and their doors to one initiative or directive after another, to do what they considered best for their students. I was one of them. In my more traditional school, when I thought the principal was wrong about something (and that was daily), I did what I thought was right. In my more collaborative and progressive school, when I thought my colleagues were wrong, I stopped meeting with them to plan lessons. And believe me, I was no loose cannon. I was merely doing what everyone around me was doing.

I've seen principals try to create a sense of school unity and spirit among teachers, but those moments are rare, and usually fruitless. The system is not set up for that. One's allegiance, as a teacher, is with the union, not the school. After all, you can be removed from a school and sent elsewhere fairly easily, when someone with more seniority comes along. You can choose to move to another school yourself, and bump someone else from their position because you have more seniority. Seniority can force administrators to make staffing decisions that are harmful to the students or the school, because the desires of the teachers outweigh...everything. And in the hard times, the bad times, you're expected to walk out and go on strike with your union brethren (and sistren), regardless of what may be going on in your school. It is utterly irrelevant whether or not your administration is taking good care of you and your colleagues. That team is not important. It should not even be thought of as a team.

The union doesn't want you to feel allegiance to your school--because allegiance is a big word--a heavy word. When you pledge your allegiance to someone or something, you are handing over more than what is comfortable. You are handing over--to some extent--your autonomy. You are saying that their needs are your needs; their fight is your fight, and that you will do what is necessary for the common cause. When you pledge allegiance to your country, and your country calls, you are expected to answer--with your life, if necessary. We do not--or we should not--make such pledges lightly. And no teacher union wants you to feel that kind of a bond with your school or your principal. It weakens the union's collective bargaining strength. It is supposed to be us against them--labor vs. management--and you may not--you must not--make a separate peace.

Except, in fact, there is no "us." Because teachers, in most of the schools I've known and visited, do not feel any sense of collegiality, comradeship, or common cause. Where money is concerned, they'll throw their lot in with the union. In all other cases, it's every man for himself. And woman. And, therefore, sadly, child. Other teachers may be acceptable to eat lunch with from time to time--but don't ask me to make any sacrifices for them...or to limit my own autonomy for some so-called "greater good."

So, as we said at the beginning, we ally ourselves with our kids. Or we say we do. I wonder how true it is. I've seen so many teachers fight bitterly and angrily for the right to continue doing what they've always been doing, and in so many cases, I've felt as though what is driving the fight is the desire to do what they want to do. "Don't talk to me about need. This is what I want." I've seen teachers scream against core curriculum because they are afraid they'll lose their freedom and creativity in the though the adult's freedom and creativity are the ends in though the teacher's pleasure and amusement is more important than the student's learning. I've seen teachers scream at a superintendent that their individual happiness and contentment is a more important concern than the economic viability of the district as a whole. Give me a raise, though the heavens fall.

I've seen this before. When I worked with a small, not-for-profit theater company, we had actors who were bitterly offended about not getting paid for their work. I would have loved to pay them, and myself. But we were a tiny, shoestring business, raising just barely enough money to put on our shows. From where I stood, as a company officer, we were all working very hard just to raise enough money to let these people do what they loved doing. From where they stood, though, it didn't matter how much more hard work was required, as long as no one expected them to do it; they wanted the cash. "Pay me a stipend, even if we have to cancel the show."

Lunacy? Of course. But it shows where their ultimate allegiance lay. And because they could not see beyond themselves, they ended up hurting...themselves.

What if a curriculum audit found that what you were doing in your classroom, while fascinating to some students and personally rewarding to you, did not fit in with what was being done elsewhere at that grade level--and that, as a consequence, the students in your classes were moving on to the next year under- or mis-prepared...and were having trouble right now in other core classes because of what you were or were not doing? Would you teach different material? What if a comparison of test scores made it alarmingly clear that something about your pedagogical choices and techniques was less effective than those of your neighbors--that certain practices you disliked were yielding better results than those you liked? Would you teach a different way?

Of course you would. You are all wonderful people. But don't kid yourselves--not everyone would. I've seen scores of teachers who have refused to budge an inch, even when presented with information that what they were doing was harmful to students in the context beyond their classrooms. Because to them, in their real, day-to-day lives, there was no context beyond their own classrooms. They were islands. It was just them and their kids.

Of course, they claimed that everyone outside their classroom was a fool, and that no one outside really knew their kids--knew what they needed. But it was a lie. They simply used the kids as a front--as a mask. They did what they wanted to do, because they wanted to do it.

Don't get me wrong--these are also teachers who stay late, who work hard, who spend their own money on classroom supplies and books. This is not about laziness, or lack of commitment. It is about limited commitment. It is about the inability or unwillingness to commit to anything beyond a specified orbit--beyond the place where you are in ultimate control.

And just like with my actor friends, that illustion of ultimate control ultimately hurts them. Because when every teacher is a free agent, doing whatever he or she thinks is best, then every September is utter chaos. Five times a day, thirty kids erupt into the room with no common language, no common skills, no common background. And the teachers bitch and moan about all the other teachers--the lack of discipline, the idiocy of the choices. For months they roll their eyes and say "what were they thinking?"

Well, you know what they were thinking. They were thinking, "I'm alone in this." They were thinking, "I know what's best." They were thinking, "I do what makes me happy."

Pogo Possum warned us, years ago: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

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