A Tale of Corpus Christi
What did you do the weekend before last? Well, if you are a teacher of English at the elementary, middle, or secondary level, and if you live in Texas, you may have spent your time at a two-day conference in Corpus Christi, organized by the Texas Association of Literacy Educators, TALE.
However, long before attending, each teacher had to do the following:
- gain permission from their supervisor to be out of the classroom
- pay for the substitute
- prepare for substitute (This takes about twice as long as preparing for her/his own lessons.
Not only must directions be explicit, but everything needed for a successful lesson – manipulatives, papers, copies, pens, everything you can think of – must be collected and arranged and labeled so that whoever substitutes can follow the directions.)
- · pay conference fee
- · pay for travel, lodging, and meals
Unlike corporate life where expense accounts exist, expenses in education are typically covered by the teacher. Let me type that again: Expenses in education are typically covered by the teacher. Why then would a teacher, in addition to extra preparation for the absence and extra grading on her return, want to bear the cost of the conference? Because teachers want their students to succeed.
In order to help students succeed, teachers constantly think about, reflect on, and analyze what occurs in their classrooms. “How could I have made this lesson better?” “What could I have done to make certain even my shyest student volunteered?” “Next time I’m going to start with a paired activity instead of an individual warm-up to try and facilitate more discussion and on a deeper level.” “Next time we do reading circles, I’m going to narrow the selection and create more groups so that each group can be responsible for a different aspect of the same novel.” “How can I effectively incorporate art into my English class without sacrificing the language skills they need?”
And the list goes on and on. You see, what works with one group of students might not work with the another – it might not even work with the same set of students on a different day. Faced with the precariousness of their tasks, knowing that they, like Ferhlengetti’s poets, walk a tightrope everyday with every class, every student, what do teachers do? They spend their own money and their own time to learn.
They learn so they can help their students; they learn so they can help their colleagues; they learn so they can help themselves and because they love to learn. Not all teachers are this way, but those flooding the halls of Texas A&M Corpus Christi were. With notebooks tucked in their bags and laptops secured under their arms, they feasted on the offerings of presenters like me – a doctoral student in my second year – or presenters like my advisor – a twenty-five year doctor of education – or presenters like themselves – teachers who have insights and strategies worth stealing for adaptation.
So while you may have been out the weekend before last enjoying time with the family or with friends, disconnected from work or not, 300 Texas teachers were at a conference, that they paid for, learning sothat they can be better at helping their students learn.
I was one of them for 20 years, but I was frustrated – not with the students, with the intrusiveness of the system—the politicians and pundits wailing about test scores in a global society, demanding that my students be pulled from their exploration of English to be drilled in testing techniques so that they can pass an exam on English created by a committee who knows nothing about them and cares nothing about them.
When I left teaching high school English in 2015, the external quest for higher scores had become fully internalized and so it was no longer the pundits and the politicians pushing for higher scores, but the principals and the superintendents and the board members. Instead of helping our students, our next great generations, discover their own unique talents and help them hone their skills, we—those in education, teachers and the administrators who run the district, and those with power over education, politicians and the voters who put them there—are creating generations who know how to take a multiple-choice exam and who pin their self-worth on those scores. Granted, some students gain more than this from their education, but the test and their score is all important. The teacher’s voice on her students’ abilities in her subject and potential in their life is valued so little that, in some cases, her salary, her livelihood, is tied up in her students’ ability to score well in her class and on the test.
Teachers who began teaching before this insanity infected every aspect of our educational system, know that this is insane. But the insanity came in stages, slowly, and we were focused on our students and on their success in and beyond our classrooms. When we finally noticed the craziness, that our profession had been hijacked, we had been so intensified (to use Michael Apple’s term) that there was little if any time to rail against the system and those who try are targeted and labeled, and in danger of losing their livelihood because they care so much about their students’ future that they are willing to put their own and their family’s on the line.
I left the system, packed my my bags and my English degrees, and came back to school to learn the system of Education and to rail against it. What do I hope to accomplish in my railing? A translation of what’s going on in education so that those most vested in it – We, the people – will be able to reclaim it for ourselves, for our children, and for our future.