Now, one of the primary purposes of going on vacation, as anyone would attest, is to leave your job at home and clear your mind. With the first day of school bearing down on me next week, however, I have actually found inspiration for my work even as I was wandering through the Midwest in full tourist mode.
Visiting the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska, on a hot, breezy August afternoon, it was impossible for me as a history teacher not to stare into the distance (in a place where, as Molly Ivins once wrote of West Texas, the world is 87.3 percent sky) and wonder how Daniel Freeman and those that followed must've wondered "what the Hell have I gotten myself into?" as they pondered how to make this patch of prairie a working farm, as per the conditions of the Homestead Act.
As my wife talked to an incredibly nice lady at the quilt shop in Lake City, Iowa (which, endearingly, bills itself as a town that has "everything but a lake"), we got a real feel for just how deeply the rainless summer has impacted folks in her state. The corn is pretty much a goner, she conceded, though they hoped they could salvage the soybean crops. I could see that working its way into a government conversation about the intersection between science, economics, and the role of the government in trying to help its farmers survive when mother nature is doing her damnedest to tie them to the train tracks.
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U.S. History lessons screamed at me not only at Homestead, but at the Arch in St. Louis, the Wilson's Creek battlefield outside of Springfield, Missouri, and in the solemn quiet of the National Memorial in Oklahoma City, where I explained to two children not yet born on that horrific April morning in 1995 why the Murrah Building matters in the scope of contemporary American history, and to explain the terrible relevance of those 168 empty chairs.
So, even as I slowly feel the batteries being recharged in a way that can only be done by extended time at leisure with the family (I also checked off a bucket list item by playing catch with my son in the outfield at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa), I also found myself filled with inspiration for things to enhance my classroom as the 2012-2013 term looms on the immediate horizon.
And across America, thousands of teachers draw from their summers' similar inspiration, from travel, from literature, and even from the day-to-day vagaries of life.
Which made this story all the more infuriating:
In deference to a world enthralled by shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the public school district in Washington has hired a reality television company to produce videos intended to improve the skills of its teachers.I don't know what is more freaking infuriating about this story: the fact that D.C.'s school honchos think that teachers can only be drawn to "great teaching" by "quick jump cuts, slick screen labels and a jaunty soundtrack," or the fact that it is being financed by a Gates Foundation grant that would undoubtedly be better used to alleviate school overcrowding by paying the salaries of a couple of dozen school teachers (the grant comes in just under a cool million bucks).
The 80 videos, 5 to 15 minutes in length, are peppered with quick jump cuts, slick screen labels and a jaunty soundtrack.
Slick videos don't inspire great teaching. Neither does the regressive mindset that teachers are so brain-dead and mentally weak that they need professional development to look like a reality show on the teevee to hold their attention.
Not surprisingly, the genesis for this concept of vid-based professional development came from the charter school movement, which if you listen to Republicans (and a disgustingly high percentage of Democrats) is the only place from which sound educational ideas can ever, ever emanate.
What this D.C. initiative doesn't seem to get is that (a) teachers are generally not Kardashian junkies with the attention span of a gnat (you can really explain a great content-based lesson in five freaking minutes?!), and (b) teachers are naturally pretty inquisitive, and would undoubtedly be better served by release time to actually discuss how to ply their craft with their colleagues.
While I am on the subject, though: You know what else doesn't inspire great teaching? Vile shit like this, and the fact that the "brains" behind said advertisement is considered a trusted advisor to elected Republicans and Democrats alike.
Diane Ravitch does a lovely job of eviscerating the primary point of this pathetic attempt at topical parody, but the fact that its creator has the ear of far too many elected politicians is another pitchfork in the backs of American teachers, who have worked far harder (and far longer) on average in the classroom than her three-year cup of coffee from which she has now earned quite a handsome living as a professional teacher-basher.
By and large, teachers are surprisingly easy to satisfy. Treat us like professionals, respect our time and our judgment. Not that different than professionals in law, or medicine, or architecture, or whatever the heck it is you do for a living. In the political arena, the last two years have been brutal ones for teachers, who have found their wages stagnant, their job security shaky, and a renewed wave of vicious teacher-bashing being tossed from all corners. This didn't just happen—indeed, it was the subject of a Sunday Kos essay I wrote 17 months ago.
As I get ready to re-enter the classroom for what will be the start of my 16th year in the craft, I would like to say I am as idealistic as I was in September of 1997. But time, and the tenor of the times, have ripped the rose-colored glasses off. The fact is that, for all the reasons stated above, our teachers don't have it that great these days.
And, hard as it might be to believe, it is not just about the money. As any teacher would tell you, if we were chasing the dollar as our highest calling, we'd all be doing something else for a living. A lot of it has to do with the barely concealed contempt that some of the most vocal people in the educational public conversation have for us, and what we do. And it manifests itself in ways that are great (the ripping of collective bargaining from teachers, or evaluation schemes fashioned by politicians who, to be blunt, know precisely dick about how to measure educational growth), and small (absurdly insulting "development" plans like the D.C. schools' new video collection).
My fear? There may be a reckoning soon for all of this professional disrespect. Good teachers are going to bail, and potentially great ones will never choose the profession, at all.
When that happens (not if, but when, assuming we continue on our current trajectory), we all lose.