You have to live it to get it

15 Feb

I live in South Florida, bad driving capital of the South. Conventional wisdom says it’s because of the influx of drivers from other places who’ve all learned to drive under different rules. Or sometimes no rules at all. Despite its dangers, I walk places as frequently as possible, including the grocery store across the street. The other day I was doing my daily cross-the-street maneuver with permission from the “walking man” street sign. As I walked in front of impatient drivers stuck at red, three different cars turning right into to my path (with “green” lights) attempted to run me over. They gave me “the NERVE of YOU!” looks as they slowed down to avoid vehicular manslaughter. I gestured at the pedestrian walking man to prove my rights. They were not concerned. It was all about them getting where they’re going as fast as possible. The only thing that would change that is if they were in that crosswalk with me as 1500 lb. boxes of metal lunged at them with no apologies.

But they likely never walk anywhere, so that perspective shift may never happen. And thus the cycle of impatience and blame will continue.

Nothing truly matters to us until if affects us personally. We might think we empathize with others, but we don’t actually get it until it lives with us every day. This is the strange position politicians are in–trying to solve problems they don’t fully understand.

I know how expensive healthcare is for small businesses because my dad owns a small business of himself and two employees. I also know how grateful he is to finally be on Medicare. For the period of time I had a “pre-existing condition” and paid insurance out-of-pocket while in graduate school, I realized how high the burden would be if I had a family to support as well. But since knowing and living with my type I diabetic husband, I finally GET IT. Even though he works for a major university with group health insurance, he still battles with the  insurance company every six months to maintain his insulin supply. Every time he bargains over how the insulin will be delivered, and how much they will or will not cover, I cringe. I also realize that I’ve been sheltered from the reality of our healthcare crisis. I’ve never had a permanent disease that will result in death if I don’t get medication. It’s one thing to read about it–it’s quite another to watch the love of your life stress over whether or not he’ll have to pay $250 more per month to NOT DIE.

In a similar vein, I recently learned that merit pay for teachers (at least the way the state of Florida is going to implement it) is purely a political move. The “reward good teachers” promise made at the stump is great lip service for politicians making deals with education specialists and testing companies. The way our pay scale was presented to us through a district training is that 6%-89% of teachers will be rated “Effective.” So only those in the 90-99th percentile are even eligible to earn the coveted rating of “Highly Effective,” the only rating that earns you a raise. How that raise is determined is based on 60% teacher instructional practices (as determined by a model sponsored by a paid education consultant) and 40% student achievement. It’s how the 40% is determined that will make your head spin. My district is going to implement this plan before they have standardized tests for every subject. This means that if you teach a subject or grade level that doesn’t have a state test yet, then your 40% will be determined by the school grade (in Florida we get graded A-F based on test scores, attendance, enrollment in upper level classes, etc.)

Yes, you read that correctly. You could be a highly effective theater or Spanish teacher who doesn’t get a raise because you teach in a high-needs school whose grade is a C or lower. Where’s your incentive to teach in a high-needs school? Where’s your incentive to look out for anyone but yourself?

I’ve been coping with a lot of guilt over not wanting to teach anymore. When I got laid off I was a little relieved because it forced me to find out my new path. Then the fear of not having a job took me over and when I was offered a position a few months later, I was temporarily excited. You know, “grateful to have a job.”

Only after several weeks, I wasn’t so grateful. Hello, guilty, my old friend…

It wasn’t until this year that I experienced real burn out with classroom teaching. This is my second year of all-classroom teaching and no advising. Deep down I knew the advising (although with its own stress) kept me from cascading into the reality that as much as I tried to convince myself that public school education is my lifetime calling, I’m not sure that it is. I think it was for a decade, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. And I’m not even saying I’ll never go back.

In addition to lacking a creative outlet at work, this year I ended up with a schedule of mostly low-level freshmen during a year when class sizes went through the roof. Everything going out, and very little coming in. Ending your day with 38 boisterous ninth graders who are only in your “journalism” class because they didn’t sign up for history feels more like corralling than teaching. That wasn’t even my worst class last semester.

Fight or Leave

If I knew I wanted be a classroom teacher for 19 more years, I’d be much more prepared for the fight that will likely continue for another five years (or however long it takes people to realize one-size fits all standardized testing is not the answer). Instead I’m battling a serious ultimatum, because teachers who stay will have to fight. And fighting for what you’re not sure you want to do anymore feels awkward. And it’s not fair to my colleagues who know this is their life’s work, the ones who deserve more money and better treatment. Instead this War on Teachers will give them uncertain, irregular pay that is determined by too many factors they can’t control. Don’t believe the hype that merit pay will allow us to fire bad teachers and keep good ones in the profession in order to boost student achievement. This is something I once would have agreed with because the kids motivated me. However, after all the research I’ve read and especially now that I’ve seen how the fourth largest state plans to implement merit pay, I see it for the political ruse that it is. I laugh now when I think how Michelle Rhee was on to something when she said that the problem with education isn’t the kids, it’s the adults.

The kids are always going to make it hard on teachers: that’s their job. When the adults decide it’s their job to make it even harder by micromanaging the minutia of their classrooms, it leaves many teachers with little left to give to the kids. It’s like drinking hot coffee with a perpetual burnt tongue and then being asked to smile as the district and state pour an entire pot into your face. “Teach on!”

When people try to dissect your craft into too many pieces, it stops feeling like it’s yours anymore. It feels more like a Skeksie draining a Gelfling of its essence. And this Gelfling is in a Dr. Seuss-esque slump.

“And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.”

–Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go

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One Response to “You have to live it to get it”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Of ants and orchids « GOING SOFLO - September 18, 2012

    […] to teachers all over the country; I became impassioned; I formed discussion groups; I wrote things. Then I spent too much of last year in misery because I kept trying to stop the ants from getting […]

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