Education Opinion

A Casualty in the War on Public Education

By Anthony Cody — May 31, 2010 4 min read
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When I spoke with Secretary Duncan last week, I tried my best in the few minutes I had to convey my frustration with the way students in high poverty schools are being hurt by the strange brand of accountability that requires schools to be closed, or faculty to be fired in order for the school to receive improvement grants. These students have instability in so many aspects of their lives - the least we can do is build their schools into resilient and powerful places - not give up on them when scores do not climb fast enough.

Chuck Olynyk was on our original phone call as well (though he did not get to speak). It would have been good for Secretary Duncan to hear directly from this man, who has taught for 16 years at Fremont High, earning distinction for truly embodying the history he teaches, by donning period armor to go with the lessons of the day. He is teaching us all what the current forms of reconstitution yield, for teachers and students. Here is his latest report.

Today is Friday, May 28, 2010 and Day 34 of my time left at the Mont.

What touched me yesterday: one of those days where I could put the kids on auto-pilot; they knew what they had to get done, and I didn’t feel like cracking the whip. I noticed one student, we’ll call her J., standing by the open window, looking at the rain. Good kid, done early, no problem. I joined her and asked what was up. Without looking at me, she said, “I don’t know what to do about next year.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing the meaning.

“I don’t want to stay at Fremont.” When I asked why, she said, “All the good teachers are leaving. There won’t be any Aesthetics next year. It’s just going to be all messed up.”

“Are you worried about uniforms?” She looked at me with a non-verbal “Duh.” I like it when kids think past the surface. “No, I’m scared my education will get messed up. I’m going to graduate in two years. I want to be able to go to someplace good.”

“Are you learning anything here? Any of your teachers? Anything in my class?”

J. didn’t answer for a long time. I thought I was getting an ignore, but she was trying to form her words, I guess. “Yeah, A bunch of you are going because you say what they’re doing is wrong and that if you stay, it will be like that priest’s poem (Pastor Martin Niemoller, who wrote “First they came for the Jews...”). You’ll just be going along with it, knowing it’s wrong. You’d be a part of it. You said that you can’t use the excuse, ‘You were just following orders.’”

I tried to find some way to just let her find the words without putting my own words in her mouth. “That’s right.” I thought of a “co-worker” who came into my room to tell me in front of my students, after loudly announcing to the kids months ago that she’d never reapply, that I was wrong for not reapplying, and that what kept her going was to look into “their sweet, young faces.” I remembered telling her it was because of my kids that I knew I couldn’t reapply. But here was the reality. This is one of the casualties of the war on public education. This is one of the victims.

“You don’t know where you’ll be next year?”

I shook my head. “No clue.”

“Siberia?” She smiled a little bit.

“Yeah, just like my grandfather, huh? Nah, no idea. They’ll probably ship me to a middle school or make me a pool teacher.” I was thinking about how this might be the last time I teach about the World Wars and Totalitarian regimes, bringing to life my family’s visions of those times, keeping them alive in a way, and the Cold War and Vietnam and the Fall of the Berlin War. I flashed on Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) last words in “Blade Runner": “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.” Maybe it was the rain, or the time of year.

“So why can’t I leave, too?”

“Do you think that is the answer?”

“I don’t want to be a part of this, either. If it wrong for you, why isn’t it wrong for me?”

That’s the problem with teaching. Sometimes the kids learn the lessons and apply them. This wasn’t coaxing. This wasn’t brainwashing. This wasn’t a trail of breadcrumbs she was supposed to follow to reach a conclusion I wanted. I was teaching for months about right and wrong, about standing up for others, about totalitarian regimes and loss of freedom and how life has no easy answers. And then this child turned into a young woman right before my eyes.

That’s why we do this.

Even a drop of water can wear a hole in a stone.

-- Chuck Olynyk

You can read more of Chuck’s posts at www.savefremont.org, and join in the discussion of alternative approaches to school reform at the Teachers’ Letters to Obama Facebook group here.

What do you think?

image provided by Chuck Olynyk.

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