“You’re not marketers,” she said. You’re right. I’m not.
So why have I been in a training about marketing all afternoon? (Especially on Monday?? After a four-day weekend???)
“It is not your responsibility to recruit.” Right again.
So why are we discussing the best ways to recruit new students?
“What sells this school, what brings new students here, is two things: the rigorous academics, and the familial atmosphere.” Makes sense to me; that’s what brought me back to this school for my second year.
So why, rather than spending these same 90 minutes working on my rigorous academic curriculum, am I being told how to bring strangers into the school family? Why am I being treated in this rather condescending way, which somehow assumes that I don’t represent the school well? Why do you feel you have to tell me that I should speak well of the place where I work, and that I should do my job well in order to turn people into positive voices for the school rather than negative ones? Do you think I don’t know that? More importantly: do you think I do my job well so that the school can have good PR?
Hi! In case we haven’t met, let me introduce myself. I’m Dusty. I’m a high school English teacher. I work at a public charter school. If you’re not familiar with charter schools, they are just like other schools, except rather than an elected school board making decisions, there is a private entity – in this case, it is a board of directors for the corporation that runs about ten different schools in this state – and the students are drawn from all over, rather than a specific geographic area. We are non-profit, tuition-free, state-funded, and we teach the same basic curriculum, with the same accountability, as do other schools. I teach five English classes, two of them Advanced Placement, and I run a creative writing club. My students like and respect me, and so do their parents, as far as I can tell. I work very hard at what I consider the most important aspects of my job: I create a comfortable atmosphere, where students feel like they can say whatever they need to say; I drive my students to think critically and dig deeper, both into the content I teach and into their own thinking and assumptions; and I try to make language arts a vital and useful part of my students’ lives, by showing the beauty and power of great writing, and the importance of reading and thinking. And I am good at what I do.
Now let me tell you what I’m not.
I am not a salesman. Despite what the marketing consultant hired by my school said to us in that afternoon workshop, that’s what the school wants us to be. She even said why: because the charter school market in this state is flooded, is one of the most competitive in the country, because Arizona turned to “school choice” as a priority earlier than most other states that have since followed suit; the school where I work has a 15-year history, which is lengthy for a charter school. But you see, despite the belief that competition brings out the best in everyone and everything, that the free market inevitably produces the best possible results, competition between charter schools to recruit students has quite the opposite effect: rather than encourage schools to be the best schools and get more students that way, it asks teachers to become marketers – because advertising is cheaper, easier, and let’s be honest, more effective than simple excellence. Just ask Donald Trump. As part of my regular job – which is apparently at least part marketing executive – I am required to staff open houses, where I give tours to prospective student families; I am frequently asked to volunteer at community events, to hand out fliers, to put those doorknob-hangers on the houses in my neighborhood. I am asked to encourage parents to post positive reviews of the school on Yelp and GooglePlus and the like.
But I am not a salesman. I do not consider my students to be either clients or customers: that’s why I call them students. Their parents are also not clients or customers: they are the parents of my students.
I am not a parent. I do not consider my students my family, nor my fellow teachers and staff members. I like them, both students and staff, and I do what I can to help and support them as I would any group of students or staff. But I do not staff sleepovers (Seriously: my school has sleepovers. Where students stay the night at the school, with teachers supervising them. I suppose I should mention that the school is K-12, and the sleepovers tend towards the younger end of the range than the elder.), and I don’t do home visits and have dinner with students’ families, and I would not describe the school to others as having a familial atmosphere. Even though the marketing consultant wishes me to say that, and what’s more, wishes me to draw other people – she calls them “prospective clients” – into that familial atmosphere, to show them how wonderful the school is so that they will want to be a part of it, will want to join my family.
But I can’t help but wonder: at what point does it cease to be a familial atmosphere? Do people recruit strangers for their families? I suppose if I were a medieval baronet looking to arrange marriages for my offspring, then sure; but I’m not. I think the answer probably is: it ceases to be a familial atmosphere when my bosses ask me to go out and bring strangers into our family so that my family can secure more funding. I think that’s the point that I no longer feel valued for my own contributions to the family.
Now all I can think of is The Godfather. Forgive me, my Don, for speaking against the family.
I am not competitive. I do not care if the school is the besterest in the whole wide world. I do not care if the school’s reputation is shinier than anyone else’s. I don’t care at all how the school is perceived, other than I want that perception to be accurate. I do want the school to be an effective place of learning, and a safe place for our students and staff; and if other people want to know about that, then well and good. But school pride makes no sense to me, any more than does patriotism: my country didn’t make me, didn’t raise me, didn’t teach me; people did that. Those people shared a national identity with me, but they also shared a generally symmetrical and bipedal form, two ears, two eyes, and a chin, and I don’t feel any special loyalty to that, either. (Yay for chins! Chinned people unite! See how ridiculous that sounds? Now replace “chin” with “America.”) So talking up the school? Trying to enter competitions so that the school can add awards? Creating special events so that we can brag about the awesome stuff we’re doing there? Nah, and double nah. If I do awesome stuff, if I encourage my students to enter competitions or help them win the ones they enter, it is for the sake of the awesome stuff, or for the sake of the students; I couldn’t care less about whether the school’s reputation benefits.
My essential point is that I am not a capitalist. I do not believe the profit motive is actually a good way to bring out the best in people; I do not think the free market produces the best possible goods and services. I teach as well as I can, and work as hard as I can, because I believe in what I do. I believe that art is the soul of humanity, and language is our church. I believe that young people should have help to become better adults (Though I also believe that help should be offered but not imposed, and the young people have to want it and take it from me.). I believe that I can help them, and that I do a good thing when I do it. That’s why I work hard. I require a wage for my work, because I require subsistence, and my work deserves reward; but I do not work harder and improve my craft in the hope of more money; I do it in the hope of better results. I teach as well as I can because I teach: and that is important to me.
I am not a data collector. More, I am not a data masseuse. I will not put my time and effort into squeezing a few more points out of my students. The school would like me to, as they would like me to actively market the school (And please note, in terms of capitalism: they are not paying me more for my marketing, not even if I bring in new students. And that’s why the free market doesn’t produce the best possible product: because sometimes you can get results without improving your product, especially if you can get your employees to work harder for nothing.). The number-one way that the school earns its reputation, and therefore increases its recruitment numbers, is academics. And rightfully so: I’d rather be at a school known for its education than one known for its football program; there’s a reason I don’t live in Texas. But there is a right way and a wrong way to show academic success: the right way is to hire good teachers and provide them the time and support they need to teach well; to provide many opportunities for your students to succeed in various academic endeavors; and to help your students achieve academic success in their chosen endeavor. If you then want to brag about that stuff, go nuts: I’ll even join in. And in those things, my school has done a good job: the graduating class earned an average of $25,000 in scholarships last year, we had two National Merit semi-finalists this year; we have an award-winning robotics program along with award-winning essayists, artists, and a poetry recital contestant going to the state finals.
The wrong way to go about it is to have high test scores and high grades. Because the more you focus on those aspects as the means to a better reputation, the more you force teachers and students to focus on superficial data, rather than actual education. The reputation based on test scores becomes advertising, intended largely to increase our funding; and like any other advertising, it takes on the shade of propaganda: in other words, it becomes a lie. We have all of those award winning students because they were not forced to focus solely on raising their test scores. I will not participate in that superficial, specious, insidious nonsense called “teaching to the test.” I will not recommend certain of my students for the AP exams and discourage others; when asked which of my students are ready to try the AP exam, my answer is, “All of them. And all of the other students, too. And how about some people walking down the street? And their dog? And that lizard basking in the sun over there?” Because why not? Other than the hefty test fee, why shouldn’t everyone give it a shot, if they want to? What does it matter if they fail? It’s only a test, after all.
I like the school where I work. I am proud to be associated with the staff there, and happy to work with the students there. It’s the best school I’ve worked at in sixteen years as a teacher, in three states. But I wish they had a better idea of who I am, and what I do. I wish they understood me.
Isn’t that what family is for?