Thursday, April 25, 2013

-30- Marks the End & A New Beginning

Writer's note: After much thought and consideration, I finally decided to retire at the end of the school year. Below is a column that more or less gives my reasons why. And while I am ending my teaching career, I have several new beginnings I am excited about and will write about later. And, of course, I am hoping this decision will provide more opportunities to devote to blogging… again. 


For years now in my teaching career, I’ve felt like Lucy Ricardo working on the candy assembly line, but without the benefit of eating all that chocolate.
It doesn’t help that our schools tend to look like factories filled with teachers who fanatically and frenetically try to keep pace in an environment that rewards uniformity.

Like Lucy, I have found myself working at warp speed, expected to churn out cookie-cutter children all wrapped up and ready to go as “lifelong learners,” “productive citizens” or whatever other education buzzword is trending at the time. This, of course, must occur in a “stimulating and challenging environment” and be packaged in a neat little box lined with a “better future.”

At the educational factory, the operative words are “standards” and “measurements” and “outcomes” – all topped off with standardized testing to make sure everything and everyone is properly and uniformly measured. Over the years, I’ve watched more young teachers than I can count run a white flag up their own standard and quickly retreat to another profession.

Like Lucy, they’ve said in so many words: “Listen, Ethel, I think we’re fighting a losing game.”

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a study cleverly entitled, “The Widget Effect.” The report showed how administrators and school systems treat teachers, not as individual professionals, “but rather as interchangeable parts.”  

The study called us “widgets” and predicted that public education would never really improve until administrators and policymakers quit viewing teachers that way. Finally, someone was singing my song.

I’m not sure how this widget thing has become so entrenched in our educational system. It’s not like it works anywhere else. If someone swapped a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett with a mediocre-no-name CEO, the results would be, well, quite different.

So why do we think we can swap out the Gloria Shields, the Mary Pulliams and the Dow Tates of our little educational world with interchangeable widgets and still yield the same results?

The widget metaphor has stuck with me like an obnoxious radio jingle. I haven’t been able to shake it off or ignore it. Instead, it’s made me only that much more defiant. Just because school feels like a factory, that doesn’t mean I have to act like a widget.

So I’ve tried to work harder and smarter, and eventually, that’s meant I’ve also worked longer hours. I’ve tried to do more, achieve more and be more until I’ve begun to feel like I belong in that Army recruiting commercial.

I’ve attended seminars, taught workshops and learned new things to bring to my classroom. I’ve embraced the latest technology, joined committees, mentored others and blogged religiously about my trials, tribulations and successes.

Rebelling against widgetry earns you a certain stature. I’ve been called many things. Some good, some bad and some that rhyme with what my students call me, Richie. The worst, though, has come when I’ve been brusquely dismissed as not being a “real teacher” because, you know, I teach an elective – another word for “pointless” in widget-speak.

I’ve survived three school districts, more than a half-dozen superintendents and eight principals. Every year, I’ve struggled to show that somehow my work matters in my classroom and my student publications.

No interchangeable widget here. No sirree, Missy. Not me.

Along the way, I’ve managed to stay married to one man, raised my own two children, gained weight, lost weight, battled a kidney disease, watched cancer erase both parents, walked 60 miles for the Three-Day for the Cure, written a book, championed the First Amendment and become fearless.

Most importantly, during that time, I’ve had the privilege of engaging in the education of hundreds of children, and because of them, I’ve become a better, stronger person – one who cannot and will not be unceremoniously reduced to a widget.

And so because I am too stubborn to succumb to The Widget Effect, this year marks the end of my career in public education. Twenty-seven years has earned me a graceful exit rather than a retreat. No white flags here. I may not have prevailed, but I have endured.

That’s probably the best outcome anyone could hope for in a broken system waiting to get fixed. The assembly line may have beaten Lucy, but it didn’t break me.