Wednesday, August 3, 2011

In Defense of Teachers, Yet Again

Yesterday during my lunch hour I took the opportunity, as I often do, to check my personal email and saw that a former colleague from New York had posted a brief clip of actor Matt Damon defending teachers to a reporter and her cameraman. She was posing the argument that there are bad teachers (“10% of teachers are bad,” says the cameraman at one point. “Where’d you get that number?” asks Damon’s mom, a teacher, who is standing with him, looking very proud the whole time.)

The interviewer makes the mistake of suggesting that the reason Damon is an actor is the knowledge that if he doesn’t do it he won’t have any income. This sets him off, and he compares her question to what he calls “paternalistic ed policy” that oversimplifies the complex problems facing students, their families and their schools.

Of course, I posted the clip to my Facebook profile page immediately, which set off a flurry of re-posting, “likes” and comments – particularly among my teacher and educational support friends.

Damon’s main point seems to be about having a passion for one’s craft. “Why would anyone choose to work long hours for shitty pay? Teachers teach because they love teaching.”

I agree that a love of teaching is probably why most people do it. In my case, it wasn’t exactly my “calling,” as they say. The circumstances of my life became a kind of confluence of events that led me into being a public school teacher. Once I was there, I loved it, and that love is what kept me there for fifteen years or so.

In order to make a living when I resided in Madrid, Spain in the late 1980’s I did what nearly every American and British expat of my age did: I taught English. (My major in college now began making some sense for the first time.)

Upon returning to New York in 1990, I took out an ad in El Diario La Prensa, the Spanish-language daily, and got a few English teaching gigs that way, mostly with hard-working people from Latin America and the Caribbean who were looking to better their lives, or their children’s lives, by improving their English.

It was my college friend Sonia Murrow who ultimately encouraged me to consider becoming a public school teacher. She was having a good experience teaching Social Studies at a school I’d never heard of, Satellite Academy High School, across Chambers Street from the Tweed Courthouse and City Hall. As fate would have it, they’d hired a teacher who didn’t work out, and Sonia brought me in to meet the Coordinator at the time, Alan Baratz, who had famously asked in a staff meeting, “Does anyone here know anybody who can come in and NOT be a complete disaster?”

And with those words of inspired confidence, my teacher career was born. It hadn’t been my original plan (I was on an actor’s track back then), but it shaped my destiny and made me the person I am today.

I was extremely nervous when I first started, but as I walked the hallways I had the distinct feeling that this was exactly where I was meant to be, and that I’d be there for a long time. In the face of my nervousness, I fell back on the tools I had. In the “nuts & bolts” realm, I had picked up some teaching strategies in Madrid, which did help.

Mostly, though, I used what my parents handed down to me – my sense of humor, and my respect for, and ability to be kind to other people. It sounds simplistic and Pollyanna, I know, but that’s what made me a successful teacher. Tenure didn’t lessen that, or cause me to “coast.” If it changed me or my teaching in any way, it humbled me. I felt as though all the sacrifice and hard work was finally being rewarded, and I felt inspired to do an even better job and, ultimately, to take what I’d learned from the teachers, families and students I’d worked with at Satellite and try to encourage and inspire others with it.

I’ve probably met and worked with thousands of teachers, as a co-worker, administrator, consultant or staff developer at this point in my career, and yes, there are some who should not be teaching kids. I encourage their supervisors to help them looking into other opportunities when I can.

Mostly, though, I meet people who work hard day after day, with the success and future lives of their students squarely at the center of what they do. They are not victims or leeching siphoning off your tax dollars for a paid summer vacation. They’re the ones with a passion for inspiring young people to think, grow and strive, and if we continue to vilify our public school teachers, we’re going to very sorry in many, many ways.

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