Teaching Profession Opinion

An Offensive Commentator Cannot Sell Inspiration

By John Wilson — October 24, 2012 4 min read
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As a teacher of some of the toughest kids in our public schools, I worked hard to identify their assets and to leverage those assets so these kids could be successful students in school and in life. When I see Steve Perry, founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School and education contributor on CNN, acting tough and pontificating on the education of urban children, I see a person who likes to put down others to enhance his own status. Dr. Perry appears angry and unwilling to listen to any view other than his own. I am never sure if his behavior is simply “theater"---think Rush Limbaugh---or is the result of an outsized ego. It’s hard for me to find Steve Perry’s assets.

This past weekend, Dr. Perry popped up on the MSNBC program hosted by Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, no relation. His schtick was the same: bash teachers and their unions, promote himself as savior, and demonize anyone who disagrees with him. Luckily, the moderator and at least one guest were the children of teachers so they knew better, and they challenged his offensive rhetoric. What worries me is that using Dr. Perry as a commentator without countering with a strong public school voice allows him to skew the public’s perception of the challenges and successes of America’s schools and the men and women who serve students every day.

Steve Perry loves to say that public schools and their advocates, such as unions, are only supporting the adults in the schools while he and other so-called reformers are for the children. Michelle Rhee used that line all the time, but the truth is that they are wrong.

I think of the public school principal in Nevada who almost single-handedly created wrap-around services for her students using donations and her own funds. She got the attention of celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Bieber, and their generosity allowed that school to thrive. I think of the public school teachers who walked their students to safety immediately after the 9-11 attack as well as the heroic deeds of teachers, support staff, and administrators who protected their students from gunshots during horrible incidents of school violence. I think of public school teachers taking money out of their pockets to assure that a hungry child is fed, that instructional supplies are available when the school district overspends on standardized tests, and that college tuition is paid for a high school graduate who dreams of a better life. There are so many stories we can tell to counter the offensive bashing of teachers by Steve Perry.

Dr. Perry’s bashing of the union as caring more for adults than children shows a lack of knowledge of the members of a teachers’ union. As a former union leader, I always found it hard to motivate teachers to organize for higher salaries or better benefits. They always put their students first. However, I could get them to organize if someone was trying to take away those benefits. Teachers believe in fairness and will fight for fairness for all.

Dr. Perry should go visit the NEA and AFT headquarters. There he would see the investment that both unions make in teacher development, innovation, children’s services, and education for all throughout the world. NEA has a Health Information Network that is partnering with other organizations to assure all kids in high-poverty schools get a good breakfast. NEA has a foundation that spends up to $4 million a year on grants to teachers to close achievement gaps and to districts to make systemic change in educating all children. NEA has a Center for Great Public Schools that is fully staffed with excellent professionals to advocate policy and practice to assure every child in America has a great public school to attend. AFT has an innovation fund that is challenging many of their local affiliates to create programs and contract language to assure a great teacher in every classroom. There is so much more that these unions do. Dr. Perry should know NEA and AFT are more than your mother’s and father’s unions.

When Dr. Perry alleges that teachers are overpaid for the time they spend on the job, my blood boils. Teachers are 24/7 when it comes to their students. They think about them all the time. Has Dr. Perry never been to a social gathering with teachers? Making sure students are successful involves much more than the time physically spent with students in the classroom. Time is required for planning, professional development, parent conferences, meetings, field trips, student counseling, home visits, and much more. Do not ever say that teachers only work eight or nine months. It is offensive. Furthermore, do not begrudge a Chicago teacher for making a decent salary and give the impression that all teachers make that same amount. Many teachers in America do not earn more than $30,000. Too many teachers must work second jobs. It is always offensive for someone as rich as Dr. Perry to bemoan a teacher’s decent salary.

For someone who wants to be an inspiration and who demands that teachers in his school be inspiring, Dr. Perry is sorely lacking. He needs to learn that inspiration is not fostered by demeaning remarks and attacks. Teachers and other education personnel are inspired by respect and appreciation for their hard work.

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The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.