Having found a brief break in the more explosive news of the day, I return to education issues. This article is something of memoir. Now that I have more than two years distance from teaching, I can afford to drift back, as Lincoln would have said, on the chords of mystic memory. Actually, it’s nearly three years now, because I lost nearly the entire last semester of my career to Covidiocy. I didn’t have the chance to see my students, together in my classroom, on a last day. None of us knew we’d never see each other again, and we played at education for a semester with “distance learning,” that we all knew wasn’t learning at all. Only about a third of my kids even tried.
I return to my first three years at my middle sized Texas high school. That first year I attended a massive conference, in Austin, I think it was, given by the upper ranks of the TEA, the Texas Education Agency. I quickly learned from the angry comments of teachers accosting the upper ranks in a very public manner the TEA was seen not as a help, but as a mortal enemy. After that conference, the TEA didn’t send its headquarters people out among teachers again, perhaps afraid they’d be killed and eaten. Ronald Reagan was right. The most frightening words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” I had no idea yet how much they intended to “help.”
I’ve always believed one’s work should stand on its own merits, and if one is truly good, the people that matter will know it. Each year the yearbook staff would poll students for the most popular teacher in our building. I won that honor for the first three years I was there. The fourth year, they stopped doing it. After a few more years, they took it up again, but only polled senior students. In those days I was teaching Sophomore English. I was never again accorded the honor of being the most popular teacher.
The lesson, gentle readers, is not that I’m wonderful. I’m not patting myself on the back of my brain. But in any human endeavor, there is average, and half of everyone involved is below average. The ranks of the truly excellent are small, and all too often, true excellence is feared and hated, not appreciated and rewarded. It’s a lesson I learned in a variety of ways.
Our principals, for about six years, handed out a “teacher of the month” award, which was a nice little Lucite trophy. I never received one, until one of the assistant principals, who had just spent a period in my classroom prior to writing my annual evaluation, suggested that instead of handing out the award for PR type things, or as a beauty or personality conference, which was what they’d always done before, perhaps they ought to do it because someone was truly a great teacher. They were stunned. They hadn’t thought of that before. He nominated me, and that was the first, and last, time I got the award. They stopped handing them out the next year.
Over the years, the TEA seized more and more power, directing more and more of what principals and teachers were required to do in the far flung schools of Texas, robbing them of more and more autonomy and local control. Texas, you see, has a teacher evaluation system that every school must use. In those days, it was pretty traditional, with much more latitude for principals. It really did, to a large degree, reward people who were really excellent, dedicated and effective teachers.
For most of my career, I was in those ranks. I was at work every day no later than 0700, and usually earlier. I was usually the last to leave after school, and it was a rare week I didn’t spend at least 3-4 hours on grading and preparing lessons, and eight or more hours at school over the weekend doing the same. I worked 60-70 hour weeks. That was necessary because I returned every assignment, graded and with pertinent comments and encouragement, the day after it was turned in. Turn in a paper on Monday, the kids got it back on Tuesday. I figured if they had the industry to do the work, I should have the industry to get it back to them quickly enough for them to remember the assignment, and to learn something from it. I was the only teacher in my building, likely in the district, who did that.
I entered grades for every student in the computer gradebook every day, so their parents—and they—could see, every evening, exactly how they were doing. They could know what assignments they handed in, which they hadn’t, and their current average. I was the only one who did that too. Many teachers waited until the end of each six-week grading period to enter any grades.
I sent out monthly newsletters to all my parents, letting them know exactly what we’d be doing, and I updated my weekly lesson plans no later than Thursday for the coming week. Care to guess how many other teachers did that?
When students were failing, I e-mailed parents with all the information they needed to know why, and did the same for failing students at the end of each grading period. I wasn’t going to chase kids around and beg them to do their work, but I gave them every opportunity, accepted late work as necessary, and even gave kids extra credit opportunities every day. It was possible, and common, for kids in my classes to have more than a 100% average. Our computer gradebooks wouldn’t accept more than 100% for final grading purposes, but the more motivated kids loved it, and competed fiercely for the highest average.
I had a bulletin board of “noteworthy writings,” and posted the work of kids who produced perfect, or nearly so, writings. I also did assignments that allowed kids who would not normally even think of having work posted there to succeed. Every day when they came to class, kids would immediately run to the board to see whose work was posted, and to actually read it. Their future work revealed they actually learned something from that exercise.
We discussed and wrote about an aphorism every day at the beginning of class, to shape their thinking, to get them to understand literature in bite-sized portions. And we had five pointers. If they could translate common Latin words and phrases, or answer other questions, including official Texas state symbols, they’d get five extra credit points for each answer. It helped them learn to think quickly, to make vital associations, and it was loads of fun. “What’s the Texas official sport”? They’d all yell “football!” I’d reply, “No, that’s our religion.” They eventually learned it was rodeo.
There is far more, but I trust you might agree I did reasonably well? Even on the mandatory, high stakes state test, my students scored in the high 90s, the highest in the district.
Then the TEA entirely changed the evaluation system.
In a single year, I was transmogrified from an excellent teacher to an average teacher.
How could that be? Did I change? Become complacent? Fail to teach well? No. The system completely changed.
Regular readers know education has become almost entirely fad based, and that tendency is nearly as destructive as CRT and wokeness in general. You don’t need to know the details, but suffice it to say the State decided there was only one way to teach, and one method, and very specific things that must be done each and every day and in each and every class, and most importantly, every teacher must enthusiastically support the brilliance of the TEA in discovering and imposing this particular fad.
Our principal, an honest man and true leader, was beaten down by it all. He hated it, but kept trying to tell everyone getting an average evaluation score was “rock solid teaching,” and wasn’t a bad thing. We all knew teaching excellence was no longer being evaluated. All that mattered was fealty to the state, saying the right words, putting the right, meaningless signs on the classroom walls, and doing what competent, professional teachers knew to be not only stupid, but destructive to learning.
I never gave in. I kept doing what the kids loved and what actually taught them English. I always told them English was a skills class, skills they needed and would use in every other class and throughout their lives, and we did the practice and hard work necessary to develop and polish those skills. I would pretend to embrace the new wonders of the fads, and they would pretend to give me average marks, but my kids always got my best.
No good deed goes unpunished.
I could do that, gentle readers, because when the new evaluation system was imposed, I had only about four years left before I could retire, fully vested. My principal managed only two more years. The bastards finally wore him down and he couldn’t stand the hypocrisy and lunacy anymore. I’ll never know the full price he paid for defending excellent teachers and sanity, but I know some of it, and a weaker man would never have endured as long. He retired, fully vested, but a few years earlier than he planned.
Then we got the principal from hell, a true believer, and for one and a half more years, I endured, for the final semester we all pretended, and I retired.
I miss the kids. I miss the accomplishment, the wonder of taking kids as they were the first day of school, and leading them to grow and improve throughout the year. I loved the epiphanies, small and great, and having a small influence in the lives of my kids. I loved my classroom, and changed it every year to make it as interesting as possible. I spent thousands on books and loaned them to the kids, a second, but specialized library. But finally, the fools, bureaucrats and ass kissers won, and I left, a few years earlier than planned.
The PFH sold all the bookshelves I made at auction, apparently doing away with the slightest evidence I ever existed. They sold, for a pittance, bookshelves I left, donated to those who followed me, depriving English teachers of bookshelves. I now exist in the memories of my students, their parents, my colleagues, and as a face with an unfamiliar name in two decades of yearbooks, three years as the most popular teacher.
I know many of my colleagues, the ones that matter, miss me and most importantly, my work. I also know the first day of school the year after I retired, there was a new body teaching—or doing whatever they were then allowed to do–in my classroom, my home for two decades. Such is life.
That, you see, gentle readers, is the tragedy. I flatter myself to imagine I did good things for the more than two thousand kids I taught in my career, that I mattered, but I know there were many teachers like me across America, and I wonder how many are being driven out by the fads and the fools and the bureaucrats, and the ass kissers? How many of the average, even the poor, are being lauded as excellent? How many of the excellent are becoming disheartened, will decide excellence, dedication and caring just don’t matter anymore, and will leave the classroom, rendering it a smaller, emptier and far less inspiring place?
And then there is racism, the destruction of merit and accomplishment, and the evil of woke.
The horror of it all is it’s not happening merely in teaching, but in police work, law, medicine, and most other occupations, the occupations that shape the future for good or ill. I fear the future—mine is becoming briefer every day—if we utterly abandon merit and descend fully into stupidity, hatred, tribalism and ignorance.
I still do what I can, gentle readers, to teach here and to stave off that grim future.