“Send these the homeless, tempest tossed, to me”

Have we, as a nation, forgotten the spirit of the poem by Emma Lazarus that adorns our beloved Statue of Liberty? This country has a history rich in human migration that has proved to be a crucial part of our social tapestry. Our culture is enriched by our diversity, not harmed by it.

Fear of the ‘other’ is an unbecoming trait to most Americans. Having spent nearly a quarter-century in local public high schools where more than a hundred nationalities are represented and dozens of languages spoken in the hallways, it was impossible to do more than sit with mouth agape upon hearing the Chief Executive’s latest cringe worthy observations about the nations-of-origin for the innumerable exemplary immigrants that have graced my classroom.

This is not to suggest that many parents lacked ample cause to flee their homelands. However, we would all do well to remember that many of those nations so recklessly disparaged by our President have endured centuries of occupation by the European colonial powers who ruthlessly pillaged the natural resources of those lands, subjected their peoples to servitude and attempted to erase their languages and cultures from history. America was all too frequently complicit.

A bit more compassion for refugees might be in order since, as reported by The Guardian, children as young as seven continue to toil in open pit-mines to furnish cobalt for our lithium batteries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, subsistence wages, perilous conditions, extortion and intimidation are rampant according to Amnesty international. Would you accept such a fate for your children?  

As Nobel laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, once observed, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Human rights must be accorded to everyone, or you may not profess to believe that we are all equal.

Pick any geopolitical hotspot from the last three decades, and it might surprise you to discover the number of students that appeared on my class lists whose parents were seeking asylum. It might also surprise you how many of those children graduated from public school having obtained college credit in my Advanced Placement classes.

Every year, one composition was devoted to relating a life-altering event. Twice in my career, a student described the massacre of his/her native village. The young man had concealed himself in a haystack for days until he heard his uncle’s voice. The young woman was placed in a closet when the soldiers came, and later was spirited away to relatives in the United States. Somehow, both remained optimists and excelled in their studies.

Another young woman wrote an eloquent essay about the untimely death of her father. In dire straits, she came here to live with extended family. That essay was so perfectly executed –not a single missing agreement or ill-advised word choice — that the misty-eyed French teacher set aside the red pen for the only time in his career.

What can be said about the eldest of three brothers who, forced to flee a homeland rife with political corruption and ravaged by natural calamities, arrives in a new country and works nights to help support the family and turns in impeccably completed assignments by day while finishing off his requirements for a high school diploma? Well, for starters, our nation will be improved when he becomes a citizen.

The President has advocated for merit-based immigration and stoked the cauldrons of fear against Islam. His patently offensive generalizations about broad swaths of humanity speak for themselves and run counter to the American tradition of an open and egalitarian society. His reversal of Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) makes political pawns of thousands of Dreamers and suggests that American promises have no value.

The overwhelming majority of immigrants are seeking the American Dream of a better life for their children. Their children serve in our military and offer up their lives in gratitude for the opportunity to live under the Constitution. Since the turn of the century, 33 of 85 American recipients of a Nobel Prize have been immigrants.

America must never extinguish “the lamp beside the golden door”.  

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[A slightly reworked editorial piece from the Prince George’s Sentinel (01/18/2018)]

How do teachers come to loathe the vocation they once loved?

     It is insufficient to point out that our society is NOT completely rational. Quite to the contrary, in the real world educators might be justified in seeking restraint orders to protect themselves from society-at-large. Even when the best of us find our way into the classroom, seldom do more than five years elapse before we understand that success in the classroom requires an unsustainable level of personal sacrifice. Even those for whom intangible rewards satisfy their emotional needs eventually find themselves exhausted by the constant edicts to do more for every child. This is how teachers end up settling for “something”  [read that: “anything”?] else. 

     During my quarter-century as a classroom instructor, the opening of the school year invariably saw some representative of the educational leadership team stand before the faculty and exhort classroom instructors to extend themselves beyond the limits of human endurance with a hale and hearty “Do it for the children!” Administrators would implore, with the force of a moral imperative, that teachers expend whatever effort might be required to reach each-and-every child despite that pile of unfulfilled wishlists in the principal’s inbox.

     Guilt is the poorest of motivators for those who already give all they have. 

     Do folks really believe that teachers remain in the classroom because of the great pay, lucrative benefits and retirement packages, stellar working climate and reasonable work load? No, for most career educators, the love of their subject matter and the joy of the daily interactions in the classroom keep them hanging around despite the myriad challenges…teachers have been doing so since time immemorial. The harshest critics of teachers have no idea what drives rank-and-file teachers to devote such energy to children! 

     Persistence and grit are reinforced in those moments when a student’s eyes sparkle with a sense of wonder or accomplishment. Students occasionally return years later to share how much they loved your class or how much they learned there. These little rewards render bearable the innumerable daily aggravations.

     Infrequent morsels of positive feedback suffice to keep some teachers around for a while, but after a decade or so, when buried once more up to the neck in papers to be corrected prior to tomorrow’s deadline for semester grades for 100 plus students, ideals begin to matter a bit less. So long, written assessments; hello, multiple choice!

     Theater performers complain about the weekly matinée; teachers are compelled, on a daily basis, to do three, four, five, and even six shows a day. What is more, teachers must conceive, write, produce, direct, decorate, block, and perform every show. Furthermore, first period might be a drama, period two a musical, and period three a farce. Then the teacher must assess whether the audience was attentive and do an encore for those who dozed. So long, public service; hello, private sector!

     Teachers are locked in a room for nearly 300 minutes a day with thirty children who become indignant when directed to use their transit time between classes for biological needs. Teachers sometimes relent and write that hall pass. Meanwhile, teachers themselves are forbidden to abandon their classes for even the most basic of human needs. So long, bladder infections; hello, bathroom breaks!

     Sure… teachers have a nine-week hiatus in the summer, but more than one study has shown that teachers work more hours during the 40 weeks that school is in session than other jobs require in a 50-week work year. Therefore, the summer hiatus is necessary to recuperate from the damage inflicted by the potboiler school year. And while summer should be a time for teacher reflection on the improvement of instruction, most teachers supplement their income with summer jobs and usually for significantly less than a teacher’s rate of compensation.

     A few teachers may get the chance to work in their field, but the deplorably infrequent “professional” opportunities for curriculum writing are paid at a per-diem rate that is half that of regular pay for any save the most junior teacher. Go ahead! Suggest to your doctor, lawyer, plumber or electrician that time or services beyond the contract be billed at half the regular rate. Do you hear them laughing?

     True, it has never been solely about the money for teachers. Still, vows of poverty & eternal toil were not included in the paperwork to accept the position of classroom instructor.

How does that old song go?
 “…you load sixteen tons,
and what do you get?
Another day older,
and deeper in debt.”

     It is discouraging when college classmates, with fewer credentials, make twice your annual salary, and wonder out loud “Why on earth are you still in the classroom?” It is disheartening when blue-collar union brethren go on strike and teachers discover that the average striking union truck driver earns 30 percent more than the average teacher (who does not, by the way, even have the right to strike!). Nothing against truck drivers receiving their just due, but they do park their trucks at quitting time.

     Ask any parent if they want their child’s teacher to give rigorous assignments and assessments. You can rest assured the response will be affirmative. And while parents have been known to demand that schools give their children more work, they seldom bother to ascertain when teachers will be reviewing that student work and offering feedback that is prompt and appropriate. It certainly will never be accomplished in the contractually allotted 50 minutes for planning.

     Thank goodness that a job well done occasionally delivers its own rewards.

     One day, though, retirement looms large on horizon. Teachers look at those yearly statements of retirement benefits and wonder how they will survive on the deferred income set aside at the retirement agency. Hence, it is incumbent on teachers to set aside even more than the customary 6% of their less-than-professional compensation in order to maintain their standard of living at retirement.

     Now, hear this! 

     Teachers always “do it for the children”! They always have; they always will. Not much else keeps teachers going into their classroom every day. Were it not for the moral certitude that our services enrich the next generation, who among us would endure inadequate compensation, interminable labor, and a conspicuous lack of the most rudimentary resources needed to accomplish the assigned task of reaching every child.   Like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, many would prefer not to do so, and that is reflected by the more than half of instructors who depart the profession within five years.

     So, cease dangling before educators their own well-practiced altruism as a motivational tool: a simple “thank you” would be preferred. Always working within the confines of “The Heroic Model of Teaching” suggests that other reasonable aspirations will remain somehow always beyond the reach of committed professionals. It also suggests, as one colleague recently offered, that “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the Prince George’s Journal in January, 2000. It has been revised for clarity and readability…]