Tuesday, August 2, 2011
August 2, 2011 [Tribute Post 20]: Inspiring Public School Teachers
Unfortunately overshadowed by the debt ceiling nonsense was the July 30th Save Our Schools march in Washington, and especially the speech delivered by actor and all-around impressive guy Matt Damon at that march. See the first link below for the full text of the speech, which weaves together Damon’s individual experiences, his Mom’s life and efforts, and his educational perspective and arguments about as well as could possibly be imagined in such a brief text. Damon makes a compelling case against standardized (and especially high-stakes) testing, a position I certainly share; but even if we leave that issue aside, he also argues—not only with his words but also in his very identity—for a greater appreciation of the work done by and the hugely powerful influence of teachers, and most especially (at least in his case, as in mine) public school teachers.
Most of my first half-dozen Tribute Posts here focused on inspiring teachers, many of them from my 15 years in the Charlottesville Virginia public schools: that would include my high school English and writing teacher Mr. Heartwell; my elementary school History teacher and Camp Virginia guru Mr. Kirby; my middle school English teacher Mr. Hickerson; and my high school Calculus teacher Mrs. Perkins. I could (and perhaps down the road will) write at least as many additional Tributes to other, equally inspiring teachers from those years, among them: Mrs. Sturgill, who taught middle and then high school sciences into her 70s when she could have long before retired (not least because her husband was a prominent physician at and director of the University of Virginia hospital); Mrs. Banks, who included Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (!) on the syllabus of her amazing 8th grade English class; Mrs. Frankel, who made the nuances and power of American history come alive without sacrificing the slightest bit of rigor in our AP US course; Mrs. Wilroy, the very young and very passionate 9th and 10th grade English teacher whose talents and commitment I should have vocally appreciated much more fully than I did; and Dr. King, the legendary principal at my elementary school who passed away far too young but has continued to influence his students positively through a college scholarship fund.
Our national narratives about public education have been dominated for at least two decades now by two pretty destructive threads. The more recent is also the more overtly partisan and divisive, the perspective that public school teachers (like all public employees) are overpaid and over-coddled, leeches who benefit from the system far more than they give to it, thanks in large part to their even more leech-y teachers’ unions; I believe that at least as many Americans oppose this narrative as support it, which doesn’t lessen its potential destructiveness but does make it slightly less horrific to think about. But the longer-term narrative, the one about holding schools and teachers accountable—the narrative that is the direct source for high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind and every other imposed method of assessing whether schools and teachers are doing their jobs (and then penalizing them if they’re not)—is both far more broadly accepted (how can it be bad to hold someone accountable?) and far more dangerous and destructive. After all, at that narrative’s core is the idea that if our public schools are failing, that’s due, whether in part or in large part or in sum, to the failures of those who work in them, and thus ultimately of public school teachers. Like Damon, I reject that narrative wholeheartedly, partly from my own experiences with such schools and teachers, but partly because I know that for far too long we as a society have given them far too little support (financial and otherwise). If anything, it’s astounding, and very inspiring, that we still have so many great public school teachers—and it is something we had for damn sure better not take for granted.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Damon’s amazing speech: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/matt-damons-clear-headed-speech-to-teachers-rally/2011/07/30/gIQAG9Q6jI_blog.html?fb_ref=NetworkNews&fb_source=profile_oneline
2) What looks to be a pretty positive website in support of inspiring teachers everywhere: http://www.inspiringteachers.com/index.html
3) OPEN: Any great teachers you’d nominate?