By Claudia Felske – A great man once said (actually it was Tom Brokaw last week on Meet the Press): “There are no rules and all the rules have changed.” He was talking about the trumpification of politics, but he might as well been talking about the state of education since it’s become clear that all the rules in education have indeed changed.
Incidentally, the alternative title for this blog post was “I Just Lost My Two Best Friends.” The two titles are, in essence, one: I lost my two best friends because all the rules in education have changed.
We three began our teaching careers together, same year, same high school. The year was 1993—she, the beautiful new French teacher, he the handsome, smiley guy of the math department, and me somewhere in between. Over the next 22 years, we became best friends, our social lives and families deeply intertwined. Naturally, I assumed we’d also share a retirement banquet decades later.
Now, somehow that dynamic French teacher and that gifted math teacher are no longer in the classrooms down the hall, no longer at my lunch table, no longer in the faculty lot when I arrive in the morning or leave after school. And I’m heartbroken, as are many of their students. It just doesn’t feel right. It feels like someone broke the rules because there were rules after all, unwritten as they were.
Broken Rule #1: Loyalty is a two-way street. Our school district was good to us; and in turn, we were good to our school district. Teaching in a small rural school, we were immune to many problems faced by larger districts. We knew this, and we were grateful for it. We educated generations of students, and we knew our students, our curriculum, and our community inside and out. This was a win for our students, our district, and for us. We could also rely on predictable pay scales with a clear path to increased salaries over the long haul. For all of these reasons, we stayed put. Whenever someone left, it was for one of three reasons: retirement, a serious health issue, or a change of vocation altogether. Teachers didn’t leave in order to teach somewhere else. We were “Lifers,” and many town residents had the same teachers as their parents. Classroom stories were passed down generation to generation like sacred folklore.
Compare that with our current reality: Three of our teachers recently left to teach at other high schools, two left within two weeks of the new school year. And this is hardly an anomaly; it’s happening on a much larger scale in districts across the state. Act 10 and decreased state funding (the “tools” Governor Walker gave localities) have forced many districts to freeze or decrease their payscales. This has led many teachers, with mortgages and college tuitions looming, to surf the job market. Talk to any superintendent or principal in Wisconsin and you’ll hear the same story: I spoke recently with a principal who’d lost 14% of his staff the month before school started. Imagine the long term consequences here: wealthy districts landing the most qualified teachers and poor districts, the least. The gentrification of teaching. Hardly the ingredients of free and equitable public education.
Broken Rule #2: Faculty is family. As cliche as it might sound, faculty was family. The shared goal of providing an excellent education to our students fostered a “we’re in this together” attitude among teachers, an attitude often absent in private industry. Teachers weren’t looking over their shoulders at other teachers or other districts. The new paradigm? Frozen pay scales, lack of bargaining rights, privatization (vouchers and charters) have all contributed to suspicion in the faculty lounge, decreased collegiality, and a greater tendency to view co-workers as transitory acquaintances rather than lifelong friends. All of this has greatly affected morale and job satisfaction.
Broken Rule #3: Kids first. It’s all about the kids, right? While you would be hard pressed to find a single teacher or administrator who would utter anything to the contrary, the reality of education in Wisconsin sings a different song. When hundreds of classrooms across the state began the school year with a substitute teacher instead of a qualified, content-certified teacher, clearly it’s not all about the kids. And it’s the learners who are the biggest losers here, not teachers, administrators or taxpayers. Increasingly viewed as widgets and data points by politicians, textbook and testing agencies (Pearson & the College Board leading the way), and the larger powers that be (ALEC), kids are treated by many as dollar signs instead of the pillars of our future. It’s clearly not all about the kids.
Brokaw was right.
There are no rules, and all the rules have changed.