Caught in the Whirlwind
A teacher living in the era of education reform may survive, but it will not be unscathed. The current school year has unleashed a barrage of attacks on everything a classroom teacher values and stands for. This blitzkrieg has caused me to hunker down and get centered before daring to pick up the pen (hit the keyboard?) again.
Budget Cuts-A dramatic reduction in counseling, clerical, and custodial staff has left my school with a skeleton crew of employees to meet the needs of our 2,100 students. Classrooms go unswept, hallways and stairwells are acquiring an odd smell, teachers are hoarding supplies, and to top it off, hot food in the cafeteria is a rarity. It’s not safe to have 10 people monitoring thousands of kids during lunch and nutrition yet that is exactly the state of our security situation. Students have only one set of bathrooms to use, down from two, resulting in an increase in class tardiness due to their trek across the campus. Parents face longer wait times to complete office business, phones do not get answered as frequently, and there is a backlog of paperwork and records to be attended to.
Instruction-30% of our staff is new to middle school having been shuffled around the district due to layoffs and “bumping” caused by the closing out of central office positions. As such, many teachers are learning the course material for the very first time. Support for these teachers is reduced since department chairs have to pick up clerical duties due to reduction of…clerical staff, deal with more classroom management issues instead of referring them to counselors. Our students may have experienced teachers in front of them but depth of content knowledge is what makes a difference in student learning. Our students have less access to content knowledge experts and learning is impacted.
Safety Net-There are no hard stats, but veteran teachers and security staff have discussed the increase in severe emotional problems faced by our students this year. Suicide attempts, drug abuse, depression, stress and anxiety have turned some of our students into the walking wounded. Two popular students lost their lives this year to drugs and violence, a condition faced by all students who live in the community of South Central Los Angeles. But counselors now carry a 700:1 load and community mental health services face further cuts in the federal budget.
Teachers-Threats of reconstitution, placement on the failing schools list, and letters of intent by charter companies to initiate a takeover of our school have left teachers drawing from their reserve of fortitude. I had always respected the quiet leadership of my colleagues, but it has grown exponentially as I witness their strength and resilience in the face of all the turbulence around them. Lesson planning continues. Field trips go on. Extracurricular trips such as the Catalina Island expedition are still a go. Yet the fact remains, that in less than 12 months, the Los Angeles school board will decide whether our school will remain public or become a charter, a decision that will impact the lives and careers of hundreds of teachers, counselors, secretaries, and janitors. Education reform may separate me from the community I have dedicated my career to serving.
Change will occur, as that is the only constant, but my thoughts are with my students, who have been deprived of so much during their short lives. I search the internet, read the newspapers, look for signs of moral outrage that we as Americans must feel when we see the most vulnerable of our own in distress. I look to our political leaders for hope, but they are telling me that it is my fault the students are not performing, and I must face the consequences.
So how do we keep our chin up, our head above water? By seeing the students’ eyes light up as they master a new skill. By hearing our culminating 8th graders say they don’t want to leave the school because they love the teachers and their peers. By quietly smiling as kids say to themselves at dismissal, “this class always go by so fast!” not knowing this is the ultimate compliment a teacher can receive.
Teachers need look no further than their own students to replenish the fortitude needed to triumph in the war against public education.