Some outstanding southern California public school teachers I know are enduring the annual ritual of getting undeserved termination letters, the consequence of our state's budget crisis. They usually get their jobs back in a few months, though sometimes not.
Those who were watching the ABC evening news last night got the additional shock of ex-Nixon aide Diane Sawyer leading with Bill Gates' criticism of public schools giving automatic raises to teachers who have seniority and advanced degrees. Teachers already feel they're being scapegoated in the battles between states and public employee unions. They can't be pleased that the Lord High Nerd of the Universe has appeared to lend some momentum to Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker's bid to take away teachers' rights to non-salary collective bargaining.
For decades, conservatives such as Walker have been zeroing in on our allegedly poor teachers and their pernicious unions. Is it just because they think educators are a bunch of liberals? If so, that's often what you get when you under-compensate the highly educated. If you want to bring up the money teacher unions give to politicians, I'll bring up Citizens United, and we'll call that one a draw.
But teachers have those fat contracts we've been hearing about, you say. Turns out the union bosses have only won them $40,000-$44,000 a year (the national averages for elementary and high school teachers). While Gates has a point about giving them (or anyone) automatic raises, revoking most of their bargaining rights, as Walker proposes, is overkill. Instead, our elected representatives might consider getting a clue and negotiating with all their employees during revenue peaks on the assumption that recessions are right around the corner. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey argued as much this week. (I'd pay public school teachers $80,000-$100,000 and base all tenure and raises on merit. Lucky for taxpayers, nobody cares what I think.)
Conservatives are also suspicious of public education's doctrines of secularism and multiculturalism. Today's war against teacher unions appears to be a continuation by other means of the battles over prayer in schools and creationism vs. evolution. It's in this area where some conservatives betray a latent statist mindset. Many of them apparently think public school teachers are supposed to do parents' jobs as well as their own.
I've been teaching religion at a private school for five years. While I lack the gifts, experience, and endurance of colleagues who teach all day long, I've learned a thing or two about the opportunities and limitations of being a classroom teacher. Great ones can make a big difference in students' lives. But great parents make all the difference. If a student comes to school with good manners and work habits, she'll take value home whether I'm having a good day or not. Without those qualities, there's not too much the most inspired teacher can to do to compensate. When students bring along religious faith, a grounding in evolutionary biology, or any other homespun perspective, the teacher won't be able to change their minds even if he wants to. Just try telling a child that mom or dad is wrong.
Though we talk about faith in a broad and inclusive way, St. John's is a Christian school. The children come to chapel every day, and to reclaim their attention during New Testament class, I sometimes belt out the Gloria in excelsis. Are the parents of our Jewish and Muslim students afraid we're trying to convert them? Of course not. Parents who pay attention to their children's social, ethical, and academic formation help prepare them to maintain their individuality and thrive in any setting. They won't be a tabula rasa for the NEA, the Episcopal Church, or anyone else. In the end, what worries me even more than some conservative parents' distrust of teachers is their apparent lack of faith in themselves.
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