Letters from the front

Dear Parents,

On the grandest of scales, everything I ever needed to know about Public Education, I learned watching a situation comedy that frequently explored the angst of our human condition.

“M*A*S*H” introduced me to the concept of triage in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Derived from the French verb trier (to sort), triage is a medical protocol designed to cope with the prospect of too few doctors caring for too many casualties on the battlefield. Different from what we currently experience as triage in a modern Emergency Room, trained army medics make life-or-death decisions about which patients might be saved with the resources at hand. Occasionally, the most severely injured are left to die if the heroic measures required to save them might ultimately cost more lives among the less-seriously-injured casualties forced to wait too long for their care. Multiple acute arterial bleeds from numerous shrapnel wounds to internal organs? Sorry, soldier…even attempting to save you will cost the lives of these three less-severe trauma cases over here.

Welcome to life reduced to the existential absurdity of intolerable working conditions adversely affecting the desirable outcome of a maximal effort to save every wounded soldier. Imagine yourself simply administering analgesics and condemning one broken body to death in order to facilitate saving others. How can medical professionals function under such conditions and maintain their sanity? Regrettably, however, this heart-wrenching process has become a metaphor for the modern system of public education.

Today, if teachers are to survive a career in the classroom they must become adept at Educational Triage. Never furnished adequate resources, time or circumstances to reach every student, teachers must all too often cut their losses by occasionally giving up, albeit reluctantly, on students who do not exhibit sufficient resilience to thrive in the classroom. Not enough of a self-starter to crack your book and get your assignments done? Sorry, student, the hours spent arriving at minimal participation will negatively impact the many classmates ready and willing to perform.

Much like the doctor in a battlefield hospital, teachers confront a long roster of  students that is, at best, daunting. Not only is the caseload overwhelming, but far too many of the students on their rolls present perhaps insurmountable challenges. Hence, teachers are frequently forced to choose the interests of the many over the interest of the one. These decisions are not the result of malice, sloth or incompetence. They derive from judicial duress. In the state of Maryland, a judge ruled -and was upheld- that class size “is not a working condition” and therefore “non-negotiable” in the collective bargaining process. Specious legal reasoning may stand up as a narrow interpretation of the law, but it certainly withers under the scrutiny of reason and experience for classroom practitioners.

But surely,” you might exclaim, “our children are far better off than someone lying wounded in a field hospital!”

Truthfully, too many of our children can be tallied among the walking wounded, because the community to which they belong does not currently exhibit the will to lift them from their circumstance and prepare them adequately for the information age.

Neither the county nor the state has demonstrated sufficient resolve to furnish the resources that might transform schools into the one safe place where at-risk children can feel connected in this age of rampant alienation and dissociation. Children are the disenfranchised victims of societal indifference to their plight.

Were your child in legal trouble, would you hire a law clerk who had yet to pass the bar exam? Were your child ill, would you even consider a visit to an unlicensed practitioner? No, you would be looking for the most qualified professional you could find. How has it become acceptable anywhere in America that children can spend more than 1,100 hours each year with inexperienced or marginally-qualified educators?

The demographics suggest that it has become tolerable because it is most consistently the problem of poor children of color and poor children of recent immigrants. We see schools with 100 percent participation in the free/reduced lunch program; coincidentally, those schools also have higher percentages of inexperienced educators. For some reason we have not sufficiently pressured our political leaders to institute the changes necessary to achieve real equity in those schools.

Like it or not, the issue is funding. Affluent jurisdictions almost always manage to fund their schools; they grease the political wheels; they buy influence. Jurisdictions with soci0-economic challenges are seldom able to accomplish that feat.

If a community aspires to no more than the educational equivalent of meatball surgery, then our mission has been nearly accomplished. However, if teachers are to do more than sort those who choose to learn from those who appear unwilling, then we must find an effective and equitable manner by which to fund completely our most challenged schools.

Perhaps you’ve heard the old inspirational saw often trotted out to encourage educators. Two children are walking on the beach. They find hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore. The first child throws one back in the ocean. His companion wonders what possible difference saving one starfish could make. The erstwhile triage specialist responds, “It made a difference to that one.”

A poignant parable… unless your child is among those left as detritus on the beach.


A beleaguered teacher


[Updated from an early Commentary 5/6/99 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal. Despite enacting the Bridge to Excellence Act in Maryland inspired by the Thornton Commission’s findings, staffing ratios remain approximately 20% lower than our neighbors.]

Hopelessness Makes Political Refugees of Educators

A colleague once shared that she was about to leave the teaching profession.  She was a mid-career teacher who just could not take it any longer.  Too much work-centered heartache had taken its toll.  At the point in her career where she should have been hitting her stride as a teacher, she said, “This teaching gig is for the birds.”

“Teaching is not for the birds,” I quipped. “Birds don’t get up early enough!”

It was nice to share a knowing chuckle.  Both of us were early risers who accomplished our best work done in the hours prior to sunrise.  It was during her quiet time before her children awakened where she organized lesson plans.  My papers were corrected over coffee prior to the arrival of the morning newspaper.

Permit me to ask an indiscreet question.  How long it would be before you grew weary of being compensated for only seventy percent of the hours you worked?

What will persuade you, my compatriots?  What will convince you that this society dedicates insufficient resources to the education of children?  What tales of trial and tribulation will reach into your heart and outrage you enough to compel you to immediate political action?

Nationally, over 50% of teachers surrender by year six. Locally, between 10% and 12% of our teachers have been leaving annually for years now.  Some leave to teach elsewhere.  Some leave for other professions.  Changing jobs is not something employees do for amusement or vengeance: Changing employers is listed among the top five sources of stress in the modern world.  So, what has driven educators to become a new class of migrant worker?  The reason for these departures can be summed up in two words: job dissatisfaction.

Compensation is not the sole driver of teacher turnover, although competitive salaries might help retain some in the profession. Working conditions can drive teachers to curse the day they chose their career.

Teacher flight is about

-class sizes that border on the absurd, and being told that class size is NOT a working condition.

-numerous non-instructional duties that steal from time for planning instruction and assessing learning.

-swallowing a sandwich whole at lunch so that you can administer a make-up assessment while simultaneously calling a parent during your so-called half-hour “duty-free lunch”.

-obsolete materials in the library or book room, and stone-age audio/visual devices in the age of laserdiscs and multi-media presentation.

-changing instruction to use the overhead projector in order to save paper only to be told that there is not enough money for the 600 watt lamps required to run the projectors.

-out-of-pocket expenses for classroom decorations and supplies.

-the absence of support personnel.   

-discovering that “wish-lists” are all too appropriately named. 

-watching children sit in undersized and broken furniture.

-a roof that leaks water and windows that let in the cold compelling gear for inclement weather while indoors.

-trying to talk louder than the four fans you had to purchase in order to push hot air around a 100+ degree classroom in May, June or September.

-no paper, soap or hot-water in the restrooms.

-wondering when, if ever, you might find time to use that restroom.

-being without a classroom for four years because you teach from a cart.

-not having access to your classroom during your planning period for four years because an itinerant cart-based teacher is there.

-losing precious planning periods to substitute for colleagues because absolutely nobody wants to be a substitute.

-utility rooms reincarnated as classrooms.

-students late to class because of  transportation problems while teachers are directed to stress the importance of punctuality as a life skill.

-bureaucrats and business folk who suggest that teachers need more tasks to accomplish.

losing weeks, perhaps months, of instructional time each year to bureaucrat-mandated, irrelevant testing designed to hold the education community’s collective feet to the fire for socio-economic circumstances totally beyond its control. 

et cetera… et cetera… et cetera.

And lest it be omitted, you really have not lived until you have performed the juggling act of teaching two grade levels in the same classroom at the same time, or two different courses in the same room at the same time.  Yes, this may help with staffing & space concerns, but it’s a safe bet that the originator of this “strategy” was not a classroom-based educator attempting to convey knowledge to the next generation.

The sum of such annoyances leads teachers to abandon the classroom. Individually, any of these conditions might be tolerable.  Considered collectively, they breed hopelessness which incites despair. Coping with despair ignites the instinct for self-preservation, both personal and professional. The two options are fight or flight, and flight is frequently the easier alternative.

Fortunately, interventions are within our reach. Most can be resolved by adequate funding for our schools and equitable distribution of resources.

 For every teacher that resigns outright, how many more will lack the skills to cope with challenging circumstances? How many more will eventually take those first small, unwilling steps toward diminished expectations? Who will replace the teachers that leave and what will be their qualifications and experience?   These invisible, unknowable statistics should terrify each of us.

Teachers want to teach.  At least initially, all teachers believe in the possibility of entering a room full of young people and inspiring them to learn.  What intrepid souls!  What unfettered idealists!  Yet, here in the wealthiest nation on the planet, less than one-third of a career suffices to grind unbridled optimism into dust.

[Adapted from an editorial page Commentary in May, 2000 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in May, 2000]