Dear Texas Legislature….

Dear Texas Legislature:

We are currently in the midst of our yearly exercise in testing our students to see if they have learned what they are supposed to have learned. Now, you’ve probably heard the complaints that we don’t test the way we teach, and that the test isn’t reasonable because it doesn’t represent anything that happens in the world after education. So as I thought about those things while I was monitoring actively today, I came up with a way to help you deal with that problem. What if, the next time you passed legislation related to education, you deliberated and voted on it like we teach and test kids?

So, since this seems like an outlandish statement, let me see if I can explain my plan. First of all, the legislation will be voted on the first day of the last week of the legislative session. Prior to that time, the Legislature will be able to examine the issue by holding hearings, calling witnesses, and doing all those things you do before you vote on any issue. Information is important, as teachers we fully understand that. However, once the voting is about to begin, you will have no more hearings or discussion about the issue.

Now, the legislation will be crafted by an organization that will be known informally as the Legislative Writing Service. They will listen to all of the information presented at the different hearings and create a bill that has between 40 – 50 decision points. Each decision point will include possible legislative language written by four groups: TEA, Business and professional lobbyists, Teachers’ organizations, parent advocate groups. The specific “answers” for the decision point will not be labeled so that you can read it and make the best decision based on all the discussion up to that point.

On the voting day, you will be brought in to read through the legislation and make your decision points. You will be in groups of no larger than 30 legislators. You will turn in all your electronic devices to elected members of the executive and judiciary branches who will monitor the the voting on the legislation. While most students who take the STAAR have 4 hours to finish their test, some have extended time and can work on their test for 8 hours. Since you are legislators, I think you should be given 8 hours to make your decisions. Don’t worry about lunch. We will have people bring you a cheeseburger or something like that.

Once you have finished your voting, you will wait for results. Please don’t think about talking to the others. We expect quiet until everyone in your group is finished. Even then, you will stay in your room until all the other rooms are finished voting. This is imperative t omaintain confidentiality. The results of all the voting will be the finished bill. Results of the voting will be released to the public so that each of the organizations and every member of the public can give each legislator a grade based on their performance.

Teachers’ Rights

This essay may get me in trouble…

I grew up in the North. The town I grew up in, ok, really a village, while not outwardly prejudiced had some issues with racism. I didn’t know about most of those issues until later, and learned about them when I found out that my dad had broken some barriers. After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, my dad broke a barrier by selling a house to a black family. Now, it seems like nothing. Back then it was a big deal. That being said, in the North you didn’t see the Confederate Battle Flag known as the Stars and Bars very often. When I came down to Texas to go to school, I began seeing it around more often. Back then we didn’t have the internet – yes this was before the internet was developed; I AM that old! Most of the instances of the flag were on bumper stickers that included phrases like “The South is gonna do it again.”

I always laughed a bit derisively when I saw those flags. All I could think of was the question, “What? Rise up and fight a losing war over a terrible cause?” I was too polite to ask that question out loud, of course, but I did not have much sympathy with that idea. To me it represented the desire to enslave people, or at least treat them like second class citizens legally. (Remember, the village I grew up in had some issues back then, but they were not in the law. The South had actually encoded their hatred into the laws we know of as the Jim Crow laws at an earlier date.) I had never heard the so called States’ Rights arguments.

As I grew older, people started waving the Confederate Battle Flag around a lot more, but now they were singing a strange tune. They started talking about this being a symbol of states’ rights and standing up against tyranny. If I brought up the Civil War (or War Between the States as some prefer) they kept repeating the mantra of “states’ rights” as the cause for that war. I try to be curious and open to new ideas, so I looked at things and for the life of me, I couldn’t find any issue of states’ rights other than the right to enslave people during that time. In fact, recently my son pointed out that people in the South were furious when certain states in the North voted not to enforce the Fugitive Slaves Act which called on the states to return escaped slaves to their owners in the South. Those states apparently didn’t have the right to act against slavery?

In recent weeks controversy has erupted over the flag because of the murders in Charlestown, S.C. In the discussion about that issue, Texas standards on teaching about the Civil War have come to light. Yes, I’m a teacher, but since I don’t teach History, I hadn’t seen these standards. According to the Washington Post:

And when it comes to the Civil War, children are supposed to learn that the conflict was caused by “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” — written deliberately in that order to telegraph slavery’s secondary role in driving the conflict, according to some members of the state board of education.

I’m guessing that primary documents like the Texas Ordinance of Secession will be taboo in history classes. Especially words like these:

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated States to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquillity and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?

And if you read the whole thing, it actually gets worse. Still believe that states’ rights, other than the “right” to hold slaves, is the cause? If you keep reading you will see in that Ordinance a direct attack on states’ rights when the exercise of states’ rights is opposed to slavery. And if you check the official documents relating to the secession of the other states in the Confederacy, I think you will find that their treatment of slavery is similar.

So let me just say that as a teacher I have rights. While I am not tasked to teach the version of the causes of the Civil War that are promulgated according to the standards of the State of Texas, when asked questions or given the opportunity, I will direct students towards those sources such as the Texas Ordinance of Secession – a primary document, rather than a textbook that was crafted to meet standards that skirt the truth. And lest you write me off as just another liberal educator, I am a conservative. I stopped calling myself a Republican a few years back because so many in the Republican party tend to move to close to the middle of the aisle. As a conservative, I value the truth. Only as we face the hate that actually happened then can we find ways to stop the hate now.

So go ahead and fly those Confederate flags. I wouldn’t ask you to stop using them – that’s your right…to look foolish. It’s your right to display that article of hate under the First Amendment. Please don’t act surprised or claim to be innocent, though, when others point out that the flag represents the Civil War’s number one issue: the right to enslave people.

Intensity

I know that I take a light-hearted approach to my job on this blog. I talk about Mike Mann and his know it all attitude. I joke about retiring, and not writing because it came close to actually happening. The truth is, though, that I am very intense about my job. I have a responsibility to teach kids. I recognize that they are at a tough age to work with, but I have always found a way to believe that the kids were better off with me being there as a teacher. Today was not one of those days. I’ve been told to “let it slide off my shoulders,” and I know I should. I can’t. I am too passionate about my subject matter and too passionate about my kids to be able to take a day like today and forget it. That’s not good for me. It’s not good for my health. It’s not good for my relationship with my wife. I get frustrated when kids don’t take advantage of their opportunities. I can’t deal with outright disrespect. What’s even worse is when other kids laugh at the kid or kids showing that disrespect. That cuts deeply because they’re participating in the disrespect. Kids that I’ve sweated over. Kids that I’ve cared for. They’d rather have a cheap laugh than develop themselves than to show respect. Our kids overall are making great strides. The job we have is even tougher than ever when we deal with kids who refuse to show respect. What they fail to realize is that they are disrespecting themselves most of all. That’s what bothers me. They have so much opportunity and they won’t take advantage of it. I’m going to have to find a way to deal with it effectively, or I’m going to have to re-evaluate where I am in my career. If kids aren’t better because I’m there, I shouldn’t be there. That’s when the retirement issues come into play. Last week those thoughts waited until Wednesday, and even then they weren’t too intense. This week…already highly intense….praying for changes.

The Return….

When I was writing last year, it was a joke based on the idea that I could retire, but wouldn’t be doing that. I was having fun with this until there was almost a situation where I would have had to retire. (Personal reasons – no one at the school was forcing me out or anything.) With that, the musings and speculations became less of a joke and more of a reality…and I couldn’t keep up with the discussion because I didn’t really want to retire, but it looked like I might. My principal was very happy when I told her after things were settled that I was coming back. I was happy about it too.

Then, this year happened. This has been the toughest year I’ve ever had physically. My schedule was the hardest I could imagine. There were some communication failures, and I am as much to blame as anyone about those, but I was feeling left out, ignored and was wondering why I didn’t retire after all. We got our scores back and missed getting out of our “Improvement Required” status by less than one percentage point on one area. That was disheartening too.

But, our principal hired great new people as part of our reconstitution process. I’m still trying to get to know all of them, but they seem to be a fun loving bunch. (I think that I need to get together with a couple of them and then we need to work one of those maps that we clear by saying “Mischief Managed.”) Our scores seem to be heading a lot higher. The disappointment turned to determination and the intensity returned. Then, Mike Mann (not the real name) stepped in. Mike knows everything. Don’t you just love people like that? He let us know that we, not only our school, but practically every teacher in the district, was doing things wrong, but that he, great guy that he was, would fix us with ease. He could tell us every little thing to do to fix all of us rotten teachers. (Ok, he didn’t use those exact words, but you get the point.)

Are Mike’s ideas bad? No, not all of them. Does something need to be done? Of course. That being said, ticking off all the teachers in the district and demanding that they change the way they are doing things just before state testing doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do. Making those demands “non-negotiable” doesn’t seem like a process learned in any Dale Carnegie course. Changing the word “non-negotiable” to “expectations” just leaves most of us with the question of “what’s the difference?”

One of our teachers is getting all kinds of advice from Mike, or is it that expectations are being passed along, or is the advice non-negotiable. Anyway, as a result of Mike’s advice, he is asking her to print out a lot of stuff in color. Only there’s a problem. She doesn’t have a color printer in her room at school. So she goes from color printer to color printer like a wandering vagabond seeking someone who will let her use their color printer. It seems to me that if you set demands, negotiable or not, give binding advice or set expectations, you should be the one to pay for the materials to meet those expectations. Do you remember that desire I had at the beginning of the year to retire – yep, it’s rearing its ugly head again. Come on Mike, you know how to do this; you know everything. Pony up the money so that we can meet your expectations.

Now, the optimistic side of me, the side that doesn’t want to retire, sees a challenge. I get a curriculum from an outside source. It’s set up a certain way. Mike would understandably not like the way we go through it. Perhaps I can be inspired to revamp and redo the curriculum so that I can flip the classroom and be the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage. If I can find a way to flip the classroom, perhaps I can enjoy the victory of meeting this challenge and keep on teaching. I really want four more years after this one – if I can keep on going.