"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Job Designed to Be Impossible

The following post showed up on the ARN list, and I asked Oakland teacher, Craig Gordon, for permission to post it. Thanks, Craig:
I am also replying rather late to this thread, but the very burnout and overwhelm Scott mentions below has something to do with it. Our job as teachers is designed to be impossible, and that's what I want to emphasize here. So I will start with PD and end with the fundamental issue connecting PD to everything else.

Scott describes well the cycle of failure to sustain high quality professional development rooted in the same cycle of failure throughout public education: systemic underresourcing. I have seen it consistently at every high school where I have taught in Oakland over the past sixteen years: PD is squeezed into an already-packed schedule, usually at the end of an exhausting day, so that even the best type of PD is likely to collide with resentment and competing needs and concerns. And, as Scott notes, the PD is usually planned and implemented in a top-down manner or by a handful of (often hand-picked) teachers, so the work is unlikely to address the most relevant PD needs.

I could go on about the failures, but most of us on this list know them well. The important point is that it all comes down to a systemic lack of resources, which in this case means a lack of time to plan or engage in meaningful, effective professional development. I happen to think the most valuable type of PD is collaborating with other teachers in developing curriculum, teaching classes, and in addressing schoolwide issues. (Addressing schoolwide issues can only be meaningful, though, if we have the power and the resources to carry out decisions.) An English teacher and I have started working this year on interdisciplinary curriculum for our 11th grade students (in English 3 and U.S. History, which I teach). If we had the time to actually discuss goals, methods, specific students, pedagogy, and more, I think it would be the most wonderful PD of my career. I've seen glimmers of this in our brief opportunities to sit and discuss our common work. But for the most part, we have to meet after school and communicate by phone or email in the evening. We're already exhausted by everything else we're doing (he's a new teacher with four subject preps!), so we just catch as catch can.
Our union has proposed to the district through various channels that new teachers be given an additional conference period to plan, observe, get support, and collaborate with veteran teachers. What a wonderful idea, the district (taken over by the state for the past four years) responds, but of course, it's "too expensive." Then we point out that it would not be "too expensive" if the district (and state) would join us in demanding that Oakland's transnational corporations and $33-billion-dollar-a-year Port be taxed appropriately to fund our rapidly disintegrating school district. The district's reply: "This is more of a funding issue, as opposed to a solution."

So around and around we go, chasing our tail in search of solutions in every area from PD to dropout/push out rates, from class size to crumbling facilities: It's the money! It's the money! It's the money!

And why are Eli Broad, Bill Gates, George Bush, and Ted Kennedy all working together to charterize, privatize, and destroy public schools from Chicago to Oakland to New Orleans? It's the money--- and the power, because under capitalism money is power and vice-versa. Destroy public education, milk it for the short term profits and reap the long-term benefits of controlling the skill sets and ideology of future generations. And maintain power by scapegoating one group or institution for systemic problems and then pretending to implement reforms. It's a tried-and-true recipe, with the final instructions being to repeat the cycle every one or two decades.

We won't tinker our way out of this snowballing disaster by improving PD a little here and there. It's not even sufficient--though it's completely necessary--to publicize the malevolent process that is dismantling public school systems in virtually every urban area of the country. We must also point to an alternative process, a solution to the problem; otherwise most people will throw up their hands in confusion and disgust, because so many of the criticisms of public schools today resonate with their experience. It won't matter that the "concern" expressed by Gates and Broad for poor children of color is laughably hypocritical if it's the only visible "alternative" to what is. We have to pose an alternative vision and show that it is NOT "too expensive."

In Oakland, teachers and others recently picketed the Port of Oakland (again, that's a $33 billion dollar annual revenue stream) to stop war shipments to Iraq and demand money for schools and social services. The ILWU unofficially supported us and longshore workers stayed out that day; the operations at a major shipper (Stevedoring Services of America, SSA) were shut down. In Colombia, 280,000 teachers struck this past week to protest a planned cut in the education budget.

We have to start planning and organizing these kinds of actions to break through the endless tail chasing and to capture the imagination of the majority of people in this country who want to see real educational reform, but are offered crumbs and phony "solutions."
Craig Gordon

Updated 9:45 PM

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