Thursday, May 8, 2014

Scattered Thinking: School Funding and Talk about Teachers

Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about politics and teacher pay in Morgan County, West Virginia, where I was then a teacher. In that post, I represented myself only, my own (limited) ideas only, and in no way meant to convey “truth” in a quantifiable sense. The same is true of this post—these words are representative only of my own thoughts, and as such, are by nature incomplete. This is scattered thinking, and to be clear, I am not speaking for anyone but me, and, to quote myself, these issues are bigger than a single blog post can address.  

At the time I wrote that first post, I felt blessed and lucky to be a teacher in a county that valued education, in a community that supported creativity, and to be making a difference in my home state, a place I love. I came to Berkeley Springs High School as a first year teacher. I remember clutching a book to keep my hands from shaking in front of my classroom on the first day of the school year; I also remember being transformed over my years there. I was given rich opportunities to teach and learn, and I worked with my colleagues to help students do amazing things: present and defend senior portfolios, engage in community service, pass AP exams and state tests, earn academic and athletic scholarships, leave and (sometimes) come back to thank their teachers. And I grew, too: in my eight years in Morgan County, I went from a trembling novice to a teacher-leader, participating in national and international programs and fellowships and earning National Board Teacher Certification. My life changed immeasurably because I spent the first years of my career in Morgan County Schools.

Since 2009, I have moved from West Virginia, earned a doctoral degree, and am working in teacher preparation in higher education. I would come back home if I could. Still, though, I am tied in deep, indissoluble ways to Morgan County and the school system and community there that made me the teacher I am; I felt valued and as if I was doing a critically important job. The community in Morgan County showed support for schools through a special excess levy voted into effect during election cycles since 1958. That is, until May 2013, when the levy was voted down for the first time in over 50 years. Following the levy defeat, the county school leadership regrouped, revised and lowered the levy amount, and petitioned the state for a special session re-vote, which was allowed. Now, with the revote approaching, the public political discussion on this divided issue has become horribly divisive.

Before I continue, I should probably note that my parents are not college graduates. They both graduated from high school in a small coal town in West Virginia, and they both received vocational training—my mother at a two-year nursing school and my father in the United States Air Force (my mother insisted he not go into the mines). Education was something I did not have a choice about—it was clear from the beginning that I was to go to college. I, unlike some others, had the expectation and support from my parents to do so. So I went, graduated with an English degree, went back, earned a masters’ degree in education, went back, earned a PhD. The expectations my parents had for me set a course for my life. As a child of working class parents who were themselves the children of miners, I am an anomaly. Many kids are not fortunate enough to have those expectations.

As a teacher now removed from the county that shaped me, I have been listening quietly to the conversation around schools and funding. In Morgan County now, the anti-levy public voice has become disparaging of teachers, who are painted as selfish and greedy. The anti-levy voice is also harshly critical of “outsiders,” especially teachers, who, evidently swoop in from parts unknown to swindle seniors and hard working single parents and to line their own pockets with taxpayer money under the guise of supporting schools. The pro-levy public voice has been vocally supportive of teachers and students, has held rallies and information sessions, and has also had its share of not-so-nice things to say. I am not writing here to represent either side—I am no longer a resident of the county, so I am not an accurate representative. For the sake of transparency, however, if I were there, I would vote for the levy, without a doubt. I see it as my civic duty to support the things that contribute to community and the betterment of it, and schools, in my opinion, are fundamental. Yes, my position is biased, but I am speaking for myself. Again: this post is my voice only, not the voice of the levy supporters in Morgan County*.

When I hear anti-levy voices say things like “My parents were against the levy, and so am I.” I think about what might have happened to me if my parents had not made education a priority in our home. Although I grew up in a college town, I did not feel support for education from my community. In fact, when I went to my school counselor for help filling out college applications, she sent me away, saying, “Honey, I think you really should consider vocational school instead of college.” I was an above average student in terms of my grades, but my background, or my appearance (or something else I could not readily discern) labeled me. That label told my teachers and counselors that I was not college material, that I was not meant to succeed academically, or to rise above the educational level my parents had attained.

I did not see this happen to students at Berkeley Springs High School. Instead, I saw teachers working as hard as they could to educate kids and help them achieve—even when those same students’ parents did not. I saw teachers caring for kids in ways that they were not cared for at home. I saw mentorship and kindness and modeling of what it means to be a critically thinking adult in a democratic society. I saw technological innovation—students responsible for our wired infrastructure. I saw creativity—students responsible for a broadcast news show, community art shows, productions of Shakespeare, music, and dance. I saw leadership—students responsible for exceling in academics, as state Advanced Placement scholars, state FCCLA officers, athletes: young people engaged in civic participation in our community. I saw hard work—students responsible for fundraisers, greenhouse growth, ecological surveys, mathematical equations, persuasive research papers, and on and on… I also saw teachers responsible for students: as learners and as people in a changing world. All this I remember, and with five years of distance from it, I am sure there is so much more I have missed.

The point—or maybe a point—is this: these kind of engagements happen in schools where teachers care for kids, and that (to some extent) is independent of money. Howevera recent report connects quality teaching and retention of teachers to equitable compensation. With competitive pay and funding for resources, teachers and kids can do more, AND in climates where teachers are valued, learning is valued, and schools are a priority, learning flourishes. And that is what I experienced in Morgan County.

It was a difficult decision for me to leave. I knew I needed to keep growing, and I left as a learner on a journey. My leaving was made easier, though, because I knew the person who was coming to replace me—a Morgan County native, and a Berkeley Springs High School graduate who had sat in my classes, who had been nurtured as a student by the same school system that nurtured me as a teacher. That legacy, I thought, would continue. That legacy was made possible by a community that cared about learning and kids—and showed that support partly through maintaining an excess levy.

Now, I hear talk coming from Morgan County that intentionally maligns those who, across the nation, are the highest educated and lowest paid professionals—teachers. Teachers do so much more than just instruct classes: they spend their weekends and evenings responding to student work, they spend time engaged with parents and community members, they spend their summers in professional development, and they often spend more time with kids than their own parents do. They aren’t spending money, they are spending themselves. I don't know what the solution is, and I don't presume to tell others how to vote. What I do know is this: those who see teachers merely as glorified babysitters are truly, truly the most uneducated. Teachers are people who make a difference, and this talk—talk that openly that demeans them—is more damaging to a community than any tax election or funding distribution, and it speaks to the underlying lack of respect for those who care for kids, who care for Morgan County, and who care for the nation. 

 *Information about Morgan County’s levy, programs and supports the levy makes possible for teachers and students, as well as information about what will be lost is available here. Other information is available here. And here.
Opposing views are available here, and also in the very colorful voice of a local school board candidate, as represented on his Facebook page. These are just some of the views aside from my own.