collegial connections

reflections and musings from the School of Education at Mills College

Letter to a young teacher

with 3 comments

Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers, Adjunct Faculty and Teachers for Tomorrow's Schools Alum School of Education Mills College

So my nephew Malik, a fabulous renaissance man who has taught sixth grade math, science, and Spanish as well as coaching basketball and baseball for the last six years, was given a pink slip. Again. It’s a March ritual around here. School districts are dealing with slashed budgets and are not certain of enrollment. In response they send out a flurry of layoff notices. I’m pretty sure Malik will be hired back. He’s got some time in, he’s a beloved teacher, and he is extremely successful teaching students in his working class and low-resourced middle school.

But the whole thing is infuriating. I texted him to say I hoped he was doing OK. He texted back, telling me that he would never advise a friend to go into this profession. I was so sad to think about this response, the kind of feeling that so many teachers get at this time of year.

I tried to send him back some words of encouragement. I’m a teacher educator, after all, and it’s my calling to encourage people to become teachers and help them to be successful. I wrote him something about the fact that the pink slip is an insult, only that, but he would certainly still have a job. But as I thought about it, I realized this is one insult piled on top of the many others that are being offered to teachers. While there is a small problem of some bad and ineffective teachers hanging on to their jobs, as there is with bad, ineffective, lazy lawyers, doctors, nurses, architects, bankers, cops, financial analysts, cooks, firefighters and farmers, there is a huge bleeding gash in the system — the 40 percent of new teachers, mostly excellent teachers, who quit in the first three years. They are discouraged, demoralized, scorned, and ridiculed by the media, politicians, and bosses. I want you all to hang in there. So here is my attempt to pull together my thoughts. It is my “letter to a young teacher.”

Dear Malik,
We are, sadly, living in the year of hating teachers. Whether it’s Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rewarding the super-rich while complaining about the high compensation of teachers or Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan applauding the mass firing of teachers and endorsing the teacher-bashing rhetoric of the right, we’re having it hard these days. After decades of “devolution” of federal funding and escalating military budgets, state governments are de-funding education. Policy wonks fantasize about making schools in the US that look like those in Singapore — with compliant students who study desperately to make the grade — and the President talks about education designed to compete with China and India — as if that were the purpose of education in a democracy. The national discussion of education, driven by right wing media and think tanks, suggests that teacher education, teachers, teacher unions, and just about everything else about schools is worth trashing. Professor William Watkins may be right — these people may really have in mind closing down public education altogether.

On the teacher profession side we find plenty of despair. Teaching, like the other caring professions, has been regarded as women’s work and therefore worthy of less respect and pay. And now teachers are being forced more and more into mindless scripted curricula, which amount to low-intelligence test-prep exercises. Teacher education programs are cutting back their offerings and fewer people, particularly with math and science degrees, are willing to go into teaching. Getting that March pink slip is just another turn in the barrage of insults teachers suffer.

As I was thinking about this, and how to respond to you, something dawned on me. I think we pretty much should stop waiting for respect. It’s not going to come, not for a long, long time. We know we are creative, growing professionals who are engaged in one of the world’s most demanding jobs and we know we should be honored for our work with children and adolescents. But perhaps we should simply stop thinking along the lines of that framework of professionals who should be respected.

Here are a few other ways we might frame our job:

First, the miracles. We teachers fight for success in the classroom every day and many days we fail — like health professionals, it’s part of the job and we try to learn from the losses. But sometimes we work our magic and it comes out right. That’s when you want to leap up and give a fellow teacher or a student a high five. Yes, we get both emotions, 20 times a day. We have the honor of being with these students more than any other adults — laughing and crying, seeing transformations before our eyes. And we usually find ourselves in a wonderful community of teachers — intense, funny, brilliant, and deeply ethical colleagues who help us through.

I remember when I first went into teaching. I had been a restaurant cook for 10 years and I knew the slog of production: bring in raw materials, work on them, push product out the door, charge money, get a little pay. Mostly it was hard, physical work. I remember how amazed I was when I first started teaching: I could get paid for reading, writing, talking, and listening? What a delight. And it was the most intellectually and ethically challenging job I could imagine — on the level of course content (we are always scavenging, studying, borrowing, innovating, learning more) and even more on the human interaction dimension (constantly studying the kids, doing close observation, trying to figure out how to be successful at inspiring, encouraging and challenging them). We get joy, real joy and satisfaction, from our students. Yes, that’s the secret delight of this profession, working with inspiring colleagues, knowing these kids and being with them through the small and large changes in their lives, knowing their families and the heroic struggles of the communities they come from. We have the coolest job ever — we are privileged to be working with young people every day.

Secondly, as that T-shirt says, “Be an activist, be a teacher.” We might head off to work with more joy and positive feeling if we think of ourselves as organizers. Teaching, after all, is not only community service, it is a project of social change. We don’t go to work to blithely reproduce the inequities that exist in our society. We want students to learn, not just the ropes of the game and the gatekeepers, but their own power, their own capacity. We want them to have the creativity and imagination to know that another world is possible; we want them to have the skills to make it so. If you were organizing Mississippi sharecroppers in the ’60s or Flint auto workers in the ’30s, you would not be waiting for someone in power to say you’re great. You would expect to be insulted and vilified. But you do the work because you know it’s right. We teachers do this job because we are change agents. A lot of people jaw about social change and activism but teachers do the work every day. Like an organizer, you are fighting for broader goals, ones tied to the doors you open for this student, the progress you make on that project.

We go back to work again and again for those goals, not for the ones defined by those who are selling off the public domain and the promise of equality, justice and the common future, the policy wonks who seem to be in charge today. My hero and heroine teachers are not the savior types you see in the movies. They are people like Septima Clark teaching in rural South Carolina, Paulo Freire organizing in the mountains of Brazil, Father Lorenzo Milani transforming peasant kids in Tuscany, Sylvia Ashton-Warner empowering Maori children in New Zealand, and so many others. They got no respect. They changed the world. Like organizers, we learn the hard lessons of social change — it never comes when we are patronizing and hand out charity; it only succeeds when we respect the people we teach and act in solidarity with them. And, like organizers, we are energized by the knowledge that we just might win together, by the knowledge that we do win small victories every day.

Thirdly… there is no thirdly. Just those two. The joy of working with kids. The commitment to organizing and social justice. The pay is bad but, really, not that bad. One can have a decent, if modest, living doing this. And we may be scorned by idiots but we are revered by parents, communities, and students. All in all, not such a bad gig. Of course I’m pretty sure you’re going to stick with it, Malik. And I hope you encourage other friends to join our ranks. We need them!


Tio Rick

This post was also published on March 17, 2011 in the Education section of the Huffington Post.

Written by collegialconnections

March 17, 2011 at 2:52 pm

3 Responses

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  1. More than the miracles, I feel honored to be my students’ teacher. But like your nephew, I am in my sixth year teaching and got my first pink slip.

    It is so hard to keep up the good fight when there is this constant barrage of broken systems that suck up time and focus. That there seems to be little awareness that these systems are broken makes it all the more difficult. There is no conversation that I hear that tries to address things like how to get the resources that are actually available to the teachers that need them. Or how to make good expenditures based on a community vision and knowledge rather than at the whims of who ever happens to be in that role this year (as good intentioned as they might be). Systems are put into place and then replaced with out any clearly articulated discussion about what did and did not work. So little is tweaked so that what did work is strengthened and what didn’t is addressed. Smack dab in the middle of these budget cuts is so much waste, and the biggest waste is our time!

    I keep on thinking that I have reached my limit, that I cannot withstand yet another ounce of dysfunction, stress, and disregard for my time and energy. If this pink slip thing is a just-in-case formality, it is yet another ridiculous time and energy sink. I am told I have to follow up, to fill in forms with my union, to … who knows what. Then I am told I may not be able to teach my subject. I am tough and tenacious and I don’t know where my threshold is, but I know it is not far off and this both frightens and saddens me.

    (As I wrote this I received an email that the Adult Ed computer lab is open to all teachers. But after 5 months of teaching computer science without computers, this lab was supposed to be for my 5th and 6th period class. Probably an oversight, I cross my fingers. In the best case scenario, it is an oversight and this will cause short conversations amongst 4 people or so (more time lost). In the worst, I am once again removed from having a suitable predictable classroom to use for these students. Is this the last straw?)

    Sage Moore

    March 17, 2011 at 8:46 pm

  2. I am a mother of three young children who need to go through the education system. I am worried that children are not the top priority of our government. (I just listened to Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, talk about how we are losing battle for children in Sacramento and Washington D.C.) I am worried that good teachers are leaving the education system. The real victims in this sad, sad situation are my children and children of our community. As a parent, I will do anything to keep a good teacher teaching. As a parent, I want every good teacher to receive a copy of Rick Ayer’s letter. I want Malik and Sage to remember that for every child you made a difference to, you have also positively impacted the lives of the child’s family members. What you do as a teacher is powerful. As you advocate and organize on behalf of the children, remember that you are not alone. There are parents like myself who will gladly answer your call for a movement on behalf of children. You may not get respect from administrators or politicians, but you have the respect of the children and us parents.

    Children don’t stop growing to wait for the adults to fix our society’s problems. Right here, right now, I am vulnerable and dependent on teachers and administers with good heart and good sense to do what’s right for my children.

    For those of us who want to do something right now, there is a children’s movement happening. Check out this website:

    Betty Lin

    March 19, 2011 at 3:30 pm

  3. You hit the nail on the head here in this letter to Malik; you did an excellent job summoning the spirit of Kozol’s message, while adjusting it to be more relevant to today in the US and in California specifically. I am a senior at Mills majoring in Child Development, and will be earning my MA in Education and Multiple Subjects credential as well. I’ve been working in programs with inner-city youth in both Brooklyn and SF for years and aim to teach elementary here right here in Oakland, and I’ve been keeping a keen eye on what’s going on in the world of education.

    While the climate of union-busting, teacher-bashing, budget-cutting, program-slashing, pink-slipping (need I go on?) is certainly discouraging in one sense, in another it strengthens my resolve to get out there and fight the good fight. Like you said, teaching is a form of activism. It’s opening children’s eyes and inspiring them to wonder about the world around them; it’s helping them tackle problems, work together, and think critically; it’s helping them to see themselves as agents of change and internalize the notion they can have an effect on the world around them and play meaningful roles in society.

    Empowering children to believe in themselves is such an incredible joy, and SUCH an important role. Though there are political pressures and policies that are threatening to suck the life right out of the classroom, I hope that teachers can remember what this is ultimately about-the children- and that they brave the storm.

    Annie Lebowitz

    April 27, 2011 at 10:03 pm

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