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Monday, June 11, 2012

After The Recall

I have put off writing this essay until it has become a significant mental block preventing me from making progress on other writing projects. The recall vote happened, and it did not go the way I had hoped it would. Of course, my hope was that Governor Walker and a few of the Republican senators would be recalled. While this ultimate scenario did not happen, I did get my more pragmatic wish of a change in control of the state senate. Now what?
I always suspected that if Barrett was elected he would not be able to bring about changes that “made everything right” anyway. Now, we will never know. What I do know is that the governor of my state has acted in a way that diminishes my profession, contradicts my values, limits my rights, and makes my financial future uncertain. What troubles me more is that Governor Walker's position was confirmed by what can be considered a large percentage (in the current political environment) of those who voted.

Some of those votes for Walker were clearly a middle finger aimed at people like me. Some people detest public education, believe my values are too liberal, see my rights as inflated, and think I am overpaid. If I believed that everyone who voted for Walker felt this way, the rest of my life would be spent much like Young Goodman Brown's after his night in the forest (where he comes to believe but not really know for sure that everyone in his town has sold their soul to the devil).

My way of moving forward past this issue is to accept that most people were not intentionally trying to harm me or even “send me a message.” Most people cast their vote out of blind allegiance to one party, in accordance with one fundamental value position, or based on a complex set of factors. The fact that we still only had 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot leads me to believe that we are talking about those most dedicated to democracy and therefore most likely to be informed. I clearly do not agree with the world view of the majority that voted, but I doubt that my individual situation factored into most of those voting decisions.

For now, there is still a job to do. In September the classrooms will be full of students who still need the service I have been trained to provide. I will continue to do that job to the best of my ability.

I will not, however, be willing to give so freely or so blindly to a profession that is so undervalued. It would be foolish to continue to do so. I am cultivating outside interests that hopefully will lead to some additional income, and I am actively pursuing other employment outside of the field of education; some might call it greed, but I do not think that desiring more than $22,400 (take home - $32,500 gross) a year after serving for ten years is greedy, particularly for a job that requires a four year degree, continuing education, and now has no clear path to earn more income.

I am not just being “a greedy teacher who only thinks about money”; no, I am a nearly broke teacher who is living pay check to pay check. Many would say this is “the real world” and I would agree that there are many living in this exact situation. It should not be this way for anyone. This financial stress and anxiety impact every aspect of my life, including my ability to completely dedicate myself to the classroom. Yes, I could get a second job; that would really be great for my ability to focus on teaching and it would also make so much sense to compete with my students for a job that they need. A few years ago I gave up my summer job because I had finally risen to a level where I could live without it. It is only the pay cut forced upon me in the last year and a half that has brought me this level of financial worry again.

Many personal and societal questions linger for me around these financial concerns. Teachers are not the reason this state (or country) are in a financial lull. Why were we (and other public sector workers) now asked to bear the brunt of the financial consequences? When it becomes clear that even those cuts have not and will not fix the economy what gets cut next?  Another part of the "real world" people are quick to point out is that these "financial troubles" have already hit private sector workers.  Why has that happened?  We are living in a time of record corporate profits.  There is no reason that any worker should be living in such financial uncertainty or trying to figure out what to do when a medical crisis strikes.  There has been an incredibly effective campaign to make middle class (and even barely above poverty) wages and access to medical care seem elitist and unsustainable.  I cannot comprehend a society that puts up with such nonsense.

The last issue is the one most difficult for me to resolve. I have come to understand over the last 18 months that WEAC never really was a union; so, what rights have been lost? How has this affected my professional efficacy? I know I can not completely answer either of these questions right now. Only after years of experience and reflection will I be able to comment with authority. What I can say with a certainty is that decisions that affect education will be made without educator input. There are already cases of such decisions being made in districts around the state.

So, here is the new reality: whether I am offering an opinion or being asked directly for one I will need to consider the layers of politics that exist when framing an answer. What does this specific administrator want to hear? What answer best fits with the current politics of the school board? How would the community view this issue? My last consideration will be what I know to be true as an experienced professional. When the choice is between career suicide due to being 100% true to professional principals or making a compromise to save political face (and a job) guess what will usually win out?

While Act 10 did not destroy WEAC as a union (since it was not one to begin with), it did remove what few protections individual teachers had. The notion that “we can all have discussions as professionals” about what is best for the future of education is ridiculous. There is no balance of power and district boards, district administrators, and building administrators are all willing to make arbitrary decisions without teacher input and then blame teachers if things do not work out. This gets into the larger issue of how perception and appearance have taken precedent over actual results in education during the last decade.

I leave this topic for today with a contemplation of some quotes from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melian_dialogue).

The Athenians give the residents of Melos an ultimatum to surrender or be destroyed. They have far more power and might than the Melians; an unnamed Athenian says, “...you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" to try to convince the Melians to give up.

When the Melians refuse and say they believe the gods will be on their side the Athenian continues: "Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do."

Has the world really changed that much since then? Has it really changed that much for us in the last 18 months? Haven't we always been toiling under the tyranny of the majority in some form or another?

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Congratulations Class of 2012!

I have to start out by apologizing to you all; this is only the second graduation in my time here at Mauston High School that I have missed.  My niece is graduating in Wisconsin Rapids today; so, I cannot be in Mauston.

Maybe a note like this is better anyway.  I have always been better able to express difficult ideas in writing than in person.  If I was there today, all I would tell you are the same cliche phrases you have heard countless times by now: "Good luck in college!", "Be proud of what you have done here!", and "Thank you for being a great kid/student/person/etc.."

All of those things are true...for most of you.  Not having to see you face to face I can tell you the truth.  Some of you were a pain in the ass for four years.

YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.  (Writing note: I love sentences like "You know who you are" because I am certain that most of you are seriously considering the possibility that you are one of the students I am talking about.  I could clarify but I want you all to consider the possibility).

All of the glowing, motivational-speaker lines that I would be tempted to say to you in person would be a waste of time because many of them would be aimed at the wrong audience.  I thank those of you who came to class every day, practiced the skills, and absorbed the knowledge because you challenged me to be stronger academically. 

Those of you, however,  who challenged me in every other way need to know that I keep a list of students who have wronged me and I find a way to get even some day.  Just ask the class of 2009.

I AM KIDDING.  The truth is that in all but a few extreme cases you were instantly forgiven, and even in those rare times you were still eventually forgiven.  I understand the reasons why school might not be a priority for you, why getting work done (at all or on time) might be difficult, and why most days you did not want to be here (and acted like you were not).  The world will not care about these things, but I did.

I do need to qualify that forgiveness though; I also never forget.  I never forget because it is part of my job to notice when those behaviors start to collect in a way that indicates some bigger issue that you are dealing with (something that requires intervention).  I never forget because I can not help but take on some of the guilt over your failings in my class (this requires me to forgive myself too).  I can do a lot, but alone I cannot do everything I wish.

So, here is my one motivational line for you; when you find your limits, accept them and forgive yourself for "failing" at that point.  Failing to meet a goal alone does not mean you can never achieve the goal; it does mean you will need help.  Seek help, demand help, and plead for help.  If you get it and still fail, then perhaps it is time for a new goal.

I also never forget because I would then miss out on one of the greatest experiences a teacher can have:  In five years when I meet one of you difficult students out in the world (or even more special, when you come back to visit Mauston High School) and I can see that you have grown to be a productive, passionate, and proud young adult that I never could have envisioned when you were just a sullen, teenage pain in the ass.

Okay, one cheesy motivational line to end this with: I hope for all of you to succeed; I also hope you all have the ability to recognize success when you experience it.

Congratulations class of 2012!