In fall of 1988 I was a freshman journalism major at the University of Louisiana in Monroe (the Northeast State University) and the presidential candidate George H. W. Bush used the phrase “a thousands points of light” as part of his campaign to call Americans to good works.
The image the phrase invoked in my mind was a map of the United States of America with little points of light popping out like a Light Bright game. Every time someone jumped on board to help, a new pin would be pushed in and light would come forth. (I loved my Light Bright game.) I changed my major and I became a teacher to be a point of light. I became a teacher not for tenure or holidays. I became a teacher to change the world.
This past weekend I had a “Light Bright” experience as I, like many educators, are trying to wrap my head around all of the rapid changes happening in our profession. I attended the 12th Annual TAP convention. I have been to the TAP conference before and I always leave inspired. What I enjoy about this conference is the brainpower in the room. There are educators of all levels, policy makers, journalists, philanthropists, and citizens holding conversations, which span various viewpoints and demonstrate reforming education is a complex task. Mr. Lowell Milken has a knack for bringing the very best together for deep and thought-provoking conversations. There I was in a room with over a thousand points of light, a thousand people wanting more for our children, and I was awed and inspired. These people represent the vision of a world-class education system.
Tomorrow on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol, thousands will gather for what is assured to be not quite as civil of an event. Reform will be the topic of debate. According to the media there will be two sides, Gov. Jindal versus the teachers. The teachers are already being demonized for missing school tomorrow and Jindal has burned so many bridges with educators there will be few open minds. However, I believe both sides simply want the same thing, which is a strong education system. How can we be so at odds with each other?
Drowned in all the politics, and yes there is nothing more political than education, are those of us who became teachers because we love children. We actually support reform and we support being held accountable. We are not so stupid as to believe all teachers are equally “good” or equally “bad”. We have spent our careers knowing who we would like to teach our own children and which teachers we would rather our children avoid. We know the secrets, but we just keep going forward hoping to make a difference in our classrooms. We close our doors and keep quiet, because we fear things we can’t control.
We fear being held accountable for things beyond our grasp. We fear being publicly tarred and feathered through published test scores. We know we have little control. We control not the curriculum, testing, or the programs chosen for our schools. We do not control our students' home lives or their parents. We are hustled through one-size fits all professional development sessions and told to do it this way or that way with little to no input from us concerning our needs. We seek professional growth on our own, especially those who are at the top of their abilities. We outgrow others and we fear anyone knowing for fear of being rejected by our peers. We network and try to learn, but the mandates keep coming and we keep trying to absorb them. We teach with few resources and supplies. We buy our own copy paper. We buy our students needed supplies. We go to school without air conditioning or heat on occasion. We buy our own dry erase boards and our own dry erase pens. We buy food and clothing for our students. We know when planning a field trip, we will pay the way of at least a child or two. We sit complacently as parents belittle us and we smile when they praise us. We send emails, newsletters, maintain our websites, and write positive pieces for the local newspapers. We keep rolling, because we are not here for anyone, but our students.
We fear the very children these reforms are trying to assist will actually end any hope they have, for what teacher in his/her right mind would volunteer to teach a child reading four or five grade levels below expectations, wearing an ankle bracelet for a criminal conviction, and who threatens the teacher’s life, when the success of a child determines employment? What private school will take a child convicted of rape or assault? Teachers will be flocking to find jobs teaching kids like mine, good solid middle class kids with parents who can afford private tutors, private lessons, trips, books, and great educational experiences. Forget teaching struggling students, because even if we bring their skills up two or three grade levels, our school is still failing.
We fear administrators who have no clue about solid instruction. We hate the days where everyone received an “S” in every category on the instructional observation instrument, but we also fear the day when our careers hinge on the administrator’s evaluation who thinks we fuss a little too much about the bi-polar student who is constantly stabbing his peers with scissors. We fear the administrator who we respect and adore will grow tired of fighting our battles for us trying to find help for the clinically depressed child or against a mandate that does not work for our school. We fear we may not be good enough and that there is no one out there who can help us. We fear parents who sue us and children who threaten to shoot us. We fear being judged by our peers and we fear being judged by our students. We fear never having enough time for our own families, because teaching is an 18-hour job when done well. We fear our personal children will see this profession as a burden rather than a blessing.
Tomorrow teachers will descend on Baton Rouge. I wonder what would have happened ten years ago if the unions would have acknowledged serious reform efforts were needed. I wonder what would have happened if we would have embraced systems like TAP, which not only have value-added scores and stringent evaluations, but also strong professional development and focus on creating a school-based leadership teams whose purpose is to work within the needs of a specific school. I wonder what would have happened if we would have found ways to reroute money to hire expert teachers instead of more disciplinarians. I wonder what would have happened if our representatives from the governor to school board members would have taught for a day in the lowest performing schools. I wonder what would have happened if teachers would have admitted we needed to reform our own profession and worked to help those falling through the cracks by asking help from those who are rocking their classrooms to success. I wonder what would have happened if parents were held accountable for truancy and lack of supplies. I wonder what would happen if the court systems would have began garnishing wages or welfare money of parents whose children do not attend school, who are suspended, or who fail state-mandated exams. I wonder what would have happened if children in abusive homes actually had services to help them instead of allowing them to languish for years. I wonder would have happened if instead of pointing fingers at teachers, we would all realize we have a stake in education and a responsibility to each other.
Tomorrow many teachers will make decisions about their futures. What a shame it would be to lose wonderful educators because the various sides can’t come together to find some common ground. Politicians will not acknowledge there are those who really understand teaching and learning. Educators will not acknowledge our system is flawed. Parents will not acknowledge their children are their responsibility and their input has a tremendous impact on their children’s success. The media will not acknowledge sensationalizing everything is harming everyone. Can we all stop playing a playground sort of game? Let’s stop the bullying and whining, stomping and crying, and just play nice.
There are so many points of light in this state. There are fabulous schools and fantastic systems succeeding. There are isolated points of lights in various classrooms making a difference in the lives of children. We would love to shine, but the current atmosphere is dimming our light and eventually each of us will burn out. How sad that day will be for all of the children who are living in darkness. I entered this profession to change the world. I am just a teacher and I am not done yet.