Brave New World Aftermath: Does Everybody Really Want to Rule the World?

It struck me as I was reading Brave New World, both in the beginning when Huxley takes us on a tour of his nightmare baby factory, and at the end when the World Controller, Mustapha Mond, explains that the people of the Brave New World have chosen stability and happiness over independence and change and growth: why would anyone want to create this?

Why would anyone want to rule this?

I admit freely that I don’t really understand the thirst for power. Myself, I’d really rather just be left alone. Sure, I can see the draw of commanding everyone to obey me, both for selfish pleasures (Like ordering people I don’t like to go get me a donut. No! TWO donuts. And then I won’t share the donuts with them. Ha! How you like that, Doug from third grade?!) and because I think that my vision of the world is the correct one and I would like to solve every problem that exists through my genius becoming law according to my whim.

Because surely that could never go wrong.

I have a certain amount of power, because I’m a public school teacher. And while I have no control over the larger context of my profession or the specifics of my particular job — I don’t get to pick my clients or my work hours or my work space — I do have quite a bit of control over my classroom and the other humans in it. I can boss them around. I can generally make them obey me, at least in small things. I have, no joke, gotten them to get me a donut. And you know what I think every single time I am required to take control over them? I think, “Jesus, do I have to do this shit again? Why me? Why can’t they just, I dunno, control themselves?”

Nothing makes you a libertarian anarchist like trying to control a room full of teenagers.

I genuinely don’t understand why people want power. The obvious reason is personal enrichment and glory, and I understand both of  those things; they’re not worth it to me, but I understand them. I want to be rich enough to have all the donuts I want, and I would love to have a donut named after me so I could be remembered after my death. But if it means I have to be in control of the donut shop, and get up at 2am to make the donuts, then the attractions of power become a whole lot less, for me.

(By the way: remember this guy? I do. Fred the Baker. Icon.)

I still don’t fully understand why Donald Trump became president. He was already rich and famous. I suppose a narcissist like our First Stooge can never have enough money and glory, and I guarantee his little troll-ego gets a big happy jolt out of bossing people around — since that was his whole shtick on his TV show — but unless one gets to be a third-world dictator, then being in charge is, believe me, a whole hell of a lot of work. Even being a third-world dictator is a lot of work: because dictators don’t just get power, they have to keep power. And the way you do that is by keeping the other wielders of power happy with you in charge. If your power base is the bankers and corporations, then they have to be given a free hand with the business world to make all the money they want; if the people get upset about the bankers and you want to squeeze those bankers to please the people, you can’t, because then you lose power. If your power base is the military, then you pretty much have to treat the generals as even more important than you, and make sure they get all the wealth and prestige they want. The person in charge has to work, continuously, to remain in charge. Even in my tiny world of one classroom with a couple of dozen students, being in charge is a constant pain in the ass. I can’t imagine what a pain it is to be President.

He must have known that, having been a dictator in the past, with his company. So why did he do it? I maintain that he enjoyed the race: he liked the debates (Which people still talk about him winning through his oratorical skills. No: you act like a shitpitcher, you’re going to score more points than someone trying to be polite. But in any real debate you’d be stopped by the moderators; that didn’t happen because the TV moderators were not really in charge, because they work for TV stations who love shitpitchers, so Trump was allowed to continue being an ass, and then pundits pretend it was a clever strategy.), he loved giving his rallies, he loved being on the nightly news; he’s been powerful and wealthy all his life, but he’s never had crowds cheering for him, and that must have been a hoot. I think he didn’t ever expect to win, and as surprised as we all were that Wednesday morning, he was the most surprised at all. I think he’s only running now because he can’t back down and maintain his ego.

But that doesn’t explain why he does all the stuff he does. I mean, if I’m right and he never wanted the job, then he’d spend all of his time on social media or the golf course — oh wait. My theory gains ground. But still: he also does stuff. He gives speeches that are not about himself. He holds a couple of press conferences. He works to pass laws and whatnot. He’s doing a terrible job, but he’s still doing the job; and now he’s fighting very hard to keep that job. So maybe it’s not as simple as I am arguing; maybe there is another reason for him to want power.

This is where  his supporters get the idea that he is beneficent and patriotic. We all know being president is a shit job, and only someone who really wanted to help Americans would take on that pile of shit. (Though here’s another theory: shitpitchers would be attracted to piles of shit, right? Maybe the biggest pile of shit job drew in the biggest shitpitcher in the country. It’s the law of fecal gravitation.) I don’t believe that because he’s not really helping anyone very much. Other rich assholes, sure, but I don’t think his loyalty to them is strong.

In the Brave New World, the people in charge have an even shittier job, honestly. Because they get prestige, but they don’t really get to be in charge: their job is simply to maintain the machinery of the society, which is exactly what I think makes being President so shitty: there’s an unending mound of duties just to keep things going. In Huxley’s book, the people they control are under perfect and total control, which, I would argue, would take all the fun out of being in control: there aren’t any rebellions to be crushed (And if you want to know how much fun crushing rebellions is, watch Star Wars and think about the fact that Darth Vader controls a GALACTIC EMPIRE and yet spends all his time chasing down a ragtag band of rebel scum.) and even the sucking up you get from your underlings is only because you programmed them to obey. I can see the ego boost from bending another will to your own; but when the will is already broken, what’s the point? In the book the controllers don’t get to put their ideas in place, don”t get to be glorified; the society has erased (and continues to erase) the past, and their social structure was set centuries before the book.

So why would they want the job?

Are they selfless lovers of humanity? Like Trump?

But then why would they crush the humanity out of the people they “serve?”

Like Trump?

I don’t have an answer here. I realized, when I went to get that video clip at the beginning of this, that the song might be satirical; that Tears for Fears meant the song to make the same point I’m making, that ruling the world would be hellish.

But I guess Satan chose to rule in Hell, didn’t he? Maybe that’s enough.

All I know is, it’s time to go make some donuts. Play us out, Fred.

This Is Inappropriate

(Okay, the title’s a little clickbait-y. This is entirely appropriate. Promise.) This was a sample I wrote from a student’s suggestion of topic.

 

Why should the school care about what students wear? 

I’ve heard students argue about dress codes for as long as I’ve been a teacher. Honestly, they have terrible arguments: but not because they’re wrong. They have terrible arguments because they’re young and inexperienced with argument, and because their emotions often tend to overwhelm their reason – they get busted for wearing clothes they like, told the clothes they like and feel comfortable in are bad or inappropriate or in poor taste (And all too often, the arguments leveled against them by adults are direct insults – “Why would you wear that? Why would you think it was a good idea to wear that to school?”); of course they get upset, and of course that makes it hard to think clearly of logical reasons why the dress code is bad. That’s without even talking about the deeply troubling message of the dress code, especially when it is enforced against young women: your clothing is incorrect because it shows your body, and your body is inappropriate. Is unacceptable. Is wrong.

Enough is enough. I have been asked to take up this argument, and though I don’t necessarily have personal insight into the dress code – I myself was never busted for a dress code violation in school, even when I wore clothes with offensive messages on them, which I did for years; I have never been told as an adult that my clothing is inappropriate (other than when my friend laughed at me for wearing a white suit, saying I looked like Colonel Sanders. She wasn’t wrong, though.) – I do have logical reasons why the dress code is wrong. The first and most important is: because it upsets the students so much that they can’t think straight. 

Because it does that. That is not to say that students being upset is reason to let them break the rules, which I know is the immediate thought of those who believe in dress codes – probably including the words “snowflake” and “safe space” and maybe some aggressively angry references to people in the past being tougher and stronger and whatnot than kids today, and maybe even a muttered “Avocado toast!” – but it is something that should be considered: because this is a school, and these children are our students. The first (ostensible) reason for a dress code is to ensure that students can focus on their education; but if students are so upset by the dress code and the methods of its enforcement that they can’t, as I’ve said, think logically enough to argue against that dress code, can those students be expected to think clearly enough to learn? And if not, what exactly is the dress code supposed to accomplish? Are those reasons enough to ruin a child’s education, even for one day? Enough to harm that child’s self-image, to teach that child that she herself is inappropriate? 

First, let’s examine the idea that a dress code reduces distraction based on sexuality. That is, when girls wear revealing clothing to school, the boys are incapable of thinking about schoolwork, because all they will be capable of doing is ogling the girls in their revealing clothing. (To a far lesser extent the argument goes both ways: but dress codes are overwhelmingly focused, both in the specific restrictions and the enforcement, on female students post-puberty, because of the distraction of male students post-puberty. LGBTQ students are twice as likely to be the victims of sexual assault or harassment, but I don’t hear that in the arguments for the dress code.) I’ve heard the argument made that revealing clothing invites harassment from teenaged boys, as well, from which girls need to be protected. By disallowing the girls from wearing revealing clothing, thus keeping them safe from boys. (Which is why, currently, 58% of high school girls experience some form of sexual harassment [That number varies by study. A Harvard school of education study found that 87% of teenage girls suffer sexual harassment. Check the link.], and over 10% say they have been forced to have sex: because the dress code is working!)

The obvious answer to this problem – and it is so obvious that it has become a meme, an online trope – is to teach the boys not to harass the girls (Again, this goes both ways, as well, but people rarely focus on sexual harassment of male students. Assume I’m including that issue, as well. I am.), and to redirect the boys to their schoolwork, to train them to overcome their urges and focus on the task at hand. If school can’t even do that, what are we even doing? And if we can’t do that because it can’t be done, if teenaged boys are so inevitably focused on sexual thoughts that no power on this Earth could stop them from staring at girls and fantasizing, why would you ever think that a loose polo shirt and ill-fitting dress pants would do the trick? I’m not going to pretend that this argument is reasonable, because I refuse to accept the underlying claim that males cannot possibly overcome our urges, that we are all rapists at heart, barely held in check by terror of punishment; but the same clichés that give this argument its power contradict the idea of a dress code: if teenaged boys are so horny, thinking about sex every seven seconds, willing to do literally anything for the chance at sexual release, if, as movies describe it, “linoleum” or “a stiff breeze” are sufficient to put teenaged boys in the mood – what clothing choice could possibly stop that?

Is it possible that, instead, we should deal with the actual issue head on? Teach students, especially male students, about consent? About rape? About sexual harassment? Teach our students the truth about their pubescent hormones and their bodies?  Stop pretending that sexual urges are bad, but teach them that unwelcome sexual advances are bad, and are not excused by clothing choices? Is it possible that we should teach young people to control themselves, and to redirect their thoughts when they become problematic? Talk about it all honestly, so that we can address actual concerns, answer their questions, rather than try to shamefully cover up? As awkward as those conversations might be, I would have that conversation a thousand times before I would tell a female student to cover up because I can see her breasts.

Once we get past the question of sex-based distraction, the second most common argument for a dress code is even sillier: not because those who create and enforce dress codes have terrible goals, but entirely because the benefits are not worth the costs. The argument is that the dress code reflects a professional work environment; students will not be allowed to wear tank tops and miniskirts (or sagged jeans and wifebeaters) to work. Which I suppose is true (Except for my former student who wore a bikini to work, because she was Miss Teen California; and let’s not pretend that none of our students become models, or strippers, or dancers, or Hooters waitresses – or simply work at home, a trend that has grown enormously as telecommuting and gig work have become more popular; and working at home means you can wear literally nothing to work, every single day. Even if you have to teleconference, nobody sees if you’re not wearing any pants.) but here’s the thing: students aren’t at work. School is not work. You can tell because we don’t pay them. I am a firm believer in the idea that students work as hard at school as most people do at their jobs, and their compensation is the education and the opportunities they gain; but nonetheless, they are not professionals, and should not be held to professional standards. Simply because any professional can quit: and students cannot. Since we compel them to attend, they should be allowed more freedom than a professional would be – and letting them wear what they want seems a reasonable concession.

In terms of preparing them for their future: how much preparation does this habit actually require? Is it hard to figure out how to dress for a professional office? If it is, then kids are in trouble: because it’s not actually how they are required to dress for school. I’ve never been required to wear a uniform polo shirt – and I work in a high school. One with a uniform code: for students. But on the other hand, I never thought it would be okay to wear booty shorts and a mesh crop-top to work, so practice not wearing booty shorts and a mesh crop-top to school doesn’t seem necessary. If someone is confused about the appropriateness of their attire, then what is required is a conversation: not years and years at a school with a dress code. If we’re going to all this effort, and causing all of this discomfort to our students, in order to spare their future supervisors from having one potentially awkward conversation, we need to straighten out our priorities. Because school staff have years of awkward conversations, which can have serious effects on the students’ self-image, in order to spare one adult conversation. It’s simply not worth it. Thinking that it is, is silly.

We can ratchet the silliness up another notch with this next one: uniforms make the student body look and feel like they belong, like they are part of a unified team. It’s difficult to believe that actually works; I’ve worn the same outfit as another person before and somehow never thought of the close bond that was thus created. I’ve never hugged the other people wearing Doc Martens just because what they have on their feet resembles what I have on my feet. (If that worked, wouldn’t we all be bonding over the simple existence of socks? WOO! SOCKS! HUG IT OUT FOR SOCKS!) Maybe it’s because I never played a lot of sports, and it’s the sports uniform that makes a team come together; but I did play some sports, and I did have a team uniform: it didn’t make me feel like I belonged. Probably because the other kids on the team made fun of me. Even though we were all wearing the same uniform. Because I was bad at sports.

Which brings us to another potential reason for a dress code, or more specifically for a uniform code: if students wear uniforms, then none of them can make fun of other students for what they are wearing. There is, I admit, some truth to that; because students do mock each other for their dress, particularly along socioeconomic class lines. But I cannot imagine that identical uniforms will overcome those class distinctions: the rich kids will still have, and will notice and comment on, their better hair and skin and makeup and accessories; even if every kid had a bag over their head, kids would still know who was rich and who was poor, and there would still be conflict.

This is what is wrong with all of the arguments for a dress code, or for a uniform code: they all treat the symptoms, and not the actual problem. If students are being distracted by sexy thoughts about their peers, the issue is the distraction and the sexy thoughts; not what the peers are wearing. If students mock each other for their clothes, the answer is not to change their clothes; it is to change their attitudes and their behavior. If we want students to feel like they are part of a team, that they are in a place where they belong, then by God let us make them feel like they are a part of the school community: let us treat them as equals, not as underlings. If we want them to feel like they belong, then please, let us treat them as if they have a right to be on the school campus, as if this is a place that they can feel comfortable: let them wear whatever they want to wear. 

Then if one of them shows up in a Speedo, we can have that one awkward conversation. 

I was going to do it anyway…

Here we go: time for teaching argument again. I had my students write a sample essay, so I could see how well they argue already and what they need to learn; while they were writing, I was writing.

This one was my choice of topic.

 

Is there any value in teaching argument?

The cynical part of me says no, because my students either know how to argue or they don’t, and going through my class doesn’t seem a terribly good way to get them to understand what argument is or how to craft a good argument. I’ve taught argument for twenty years now, and still people make the same mistakes and have the same wrong conceptions of what argument is. They still yell at each other; they still try for insults, mockery, and Gotchas as a way to “win” an argument. They still think that everyone has the right to their opinion, no matter how absurd, unfounded, or even dangerous that opinion may be; and they don’t think that a person should have to support their opinion, because they don’t think people should question each others’ opinions. Mainly because they don’t want me or someone like me to question their opinion, because they can’t support their opinions: they can yell about them.

But if I judged what topics should be taught by how well my students absorb them, then honestly, I wouldn’t teach anything; because no matter what I teach, or how I teach it, some of my students don’t get it. I could give the same description, or a similar one, for any topic I present to my class, any skill I try to instill in them. Sometimes they go out knowing only as much as they knew coming in. 

But that’s not entirely true. First because the topics in English class (and probably every class, but this is the one I know) are not discrete and mutually exclusive; reading narratives and writing essays and analyzing setting and character and especially plot are all skills that will serve the students well if they ever decide to participate in a serious argument. Speaking and listening, and writing and reading, are generally useful skills, and they all encourage growth in each other; and while my students may not all master argument, they do all improve in some way in my class, and any area of improvement is at least somewhat valuable in every other area. (This is also why I don’t like standards based grading, but that’s a different argument.)

Secondly, it is impossible to say what effect I have on my students in the long term. I know for a fact, because I have been told this by former students, that my class, for any of a myriad reasons, had a significant impact on them, often in ways they did not expect and I could not predict, often years after they moved on to another teacher or another school. So do my students learn better argument from me even if they don’t show tangible improvement while we are working on the unit? I hope, and think, yes. 

So my answer would be: yes. There is value in teaching argument. The impacts may be invisible, they may be far in the future; they may even be tangential, as argument skills may be improved by some other part of the class, or other skills may be improved by the work on argument. The important factor is this: argument itself is important. People in our world need to know how to argue. They need to know how to clearly define their subject and their claim, they need to know how to find and build support for their opinions, they need to know how to listen to, analyze, question, and address alternative viewpoints. They need to know that opinions are not inherently equal in value, nor sacrosanct, just because an individual (who is equal in value to all other individuals) holds that opinion, and they need to know how to dislodge someone from a dangerous or wrong opinion, both for their own convenience and for the greater good. They need to know how to recognize when an argument is lost and should be given up. They need to know how to deal with being wrong, and having someone else prove it to you.

We need these skills in our society. I don’t know for sure that our country is falling apart, or rather being blasted apart, by partisan intransigence and rancor; but I know, for sure, that our inability to argue rationally is making everything in our democracy worse: less sure, more troubled, more irrational and therefore dangerous. And when democracy fails, then some form of tyranny is the inevitable result. And we don’t want that: not even if the tyrant is on our side.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s argue about it.

 

This Morning

This morning, I am done with grades. This morning is the last of my school year.

This morning I received notification that California has approved my application for a teaching license. This doesn’t change my immediate plans, I will still be staying in Tucson for the next academic year; but it gives us more options for the year after that. It also shows, I think, that my sordid past is now behind me, because if even the champion nanny state approved me, I don’t think anyone will say nay because I was mean on a blog almost ten years ago.

More importantly, this morning is the last of my wife’s career as a teacher. She returns now to doing what she always should have been doing: making art full time. She has been a wonderful teacher, who has helped many students to improve their skills, gain confidence and interest in art, and especially to see the world in a different way; she will be sorely missed at school. But this is the best thing for her, and this is what is right: because look. Just look.

 

 

 

So congratulations, Toni. You have more than earned this. I am so proud of you for what you have done as a teacher, and I’m even more proud that you are walking away from it to dedicate yourself to art. You amaze me every day.

Especially this morning.

This Last Morning

This morning I’m thinking about endings, about finales.

Oh right, I hear some TV show ended last night, didn’t it? Sure hope that lived up to everyone’s expectations.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning.

This morning I turned off my alarm clock for what may be the last time for the next two and a half months. That is a lovely thought.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning.

This morning I am thinking about my friends who are leaving my school. Because today is their last day of teaching.

My friend Veronica, who came to Tucson and to this school from out of state, and was thrown right into the deep end, teaching high school students who have, many of them, gone to the same charter school for five, ten, or even twelve or more years (We had a graduate last year who went to pre-school with this charter, so, fourteen years in one school. It’s like Little House on the Prairie or something.), and who were used to their friends and their teachers, and who DON’T LIKE CHANGE. Then a year later, and for no valid reason, she was switched entirely to middle school students — who are, of course, demons. Turns out, Veronica is a splendid demon wrangler, and she spent the next two years lashing them into submission, mostly with her height, which is remarkable; her voice, which can be both piercing and booming as she wishes; and her humor, which is far more biting than her students knew.

But I knew, and that’s what I’ll miss: her humor. The evil little chuckle, the manic smile, the way she says “YEAH!” when I make some joke about making students suffer. I’ll miss the dedication and effort she put into helping children, too.

My friend Kellie had a similar experience with coming from out of state to teach high school and then ending up with middle school, except Kellie’s was even faster: she never even got to teach high school. And it’s an absolute crime, because she is exactly what a high school teacher should be: she has deep knowledge of and love for her subject; she’s cool and relaxed; she can relate to teenagers and speak to them like human beings. The school found a great science teacher — and then they threw her into the demon pit of middle school, where she suffered all year, without support, without any consideration for her needs or wishes. Since she had taught before, she knew exactly what she was missing, and she is leaving this school to go where she belongs: to a high school.

I’m going to miss her humor, her style, her passion for science, and her companionship. It’s been great to have her on my end of the hall, and it’s going to be far less interesting next year without her.

Adriana, my fellow English teacher, came in specifically to teach middle school, because clearly she’s insane. But what’s really insane is this: she taught them. She taught the hell out of them. She took students who were absolute hellions, and she not only controlled them, not only taught them to follow her rules and expectations — she taught them English. Whoever ends up teaching those kids when they get to high school is going to have a far easier time, with far more capable students; and it will be because of Adriana. I am personally grateful to her because her willingness to teach those tiny hyperactive, hypersonic imps meant that I didn’t have to do it: she spent three years jumping on grenades for me, and I can’t thank her enough.

I’m going to miss having her in the department, having her in meetings, hearing her infectious laugh, and knowing that the students were being mashed into some kind of shape by her incredible efforts. She’s been an inspiration to me, and I’m grateful for it.

The last one is both the hardest and the easiest to deal with: because it’s my wife, Toni DeBiasi. She’s been in the classroom next to me for the last three years, which has made them the best and most enjoyable three years of my two decades in teaching. She’s been utterly incredible: she came in with not much experience teaching, certainly nothing like multiple classes for an entire year, and she mastered it, entirely and completely. She’s so smart, and so capable, that she has been able to build a successful fine art program, in a STEM school, while also becoming a vital emotional and mental support for her students, who love her almost as much as I do. She came in to an empty room, almost — except it wasn’t, it was chock full of crap — because the previous teacher took out all of her teaching materials and lesson plans, and left Toni with a small, cramped room filled with shelves, filled with old paint and old paper, old clay and ceramics, old tools and materials that she had no idea what to do with. It took months to clean it all out, even while she was trying desperately to come up with material to teach her five classes, covering every ability level from elementary to college. May I also note, since I saw it first hand (Though I’m sure that the other three did the same in their own lives), that she managed to help me keep our household together and running, if not smoothly, at least consistently.

I’ll miss her at school, but at least I have the consolation of coming home to her every day.

 

I want this post to be more about recognition than making a point, but there is a very clear point here: all four of these women are excellent teachers, and all four of them are leaving the school within three years of being hired. That’s an issue. All four of them taught middle school, and for three of them, that’s the main reason they’re leaving (Veronica can’t stand the Tucson climate, which is also fully understandable.); that and the near-complete abandonment of them all by the institution. This is a problem that needs to be dealt with, or it will only get worse. Though all of them have gotten support from fellow teachers, friends, and loved ones, still, the school has not been able to give them what they need, and so the school has lost them — but the loss will be felt most keenly by the students. And by me and the rest of the faculty, of course, because these four women are lively and fun and intelligent and splendid to be around, and we’ll miss their spirit.

I will also note that three of the four are leaving teaching, two — Adriana and my wife, Toni — leaving forever. This is, again, a problem that needs to be dealt with, and it is a problem for this entire country. Twenty years ago, nearly, I wrote an essay about being a teacher, and in it I pointed out that the lack of structure and support, and the lack of respect and interest from students, was the main reason (along with money, of course) that 40% of teachers left the profession in the first two to five years. That has not gotten better: if the trend at my school is any indication, it’s gotten worse.  We need to fix it before we lose everything.

But any fix will be too late to save this loss.

Thank you all for your friendship, and for your wonderful gift of teaching. I appreciate you all, and I will miss you all in the hallway.  May the best of your past be the worst of your future, and may the road ever rise up to meet your feet.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about appreciation.

Yesterday I tried to recognize the teachers and educators I have worked with (And I still forgot a few — so thank you, Mary Wells, for all that you do, and thank you, Nora Caragan, for being the best paraprofessional in the history of paraprofessionals), and I got a grateful and heartwarming response. Teachers loved hearing what I had to say.

But there’s a problem there: I had to say it.

One of the things I object to, even though I participate in, is the support network that teachers provide for each other. It is a staggeringly wonderful thing: these people, who are already working so hard, and who are already giving so much, turn and without hesitation give even more to each other. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it: teachers go into each others’ rooms all the time, and frequently the visitor comes in mad or frustrated or down — until they see the face of the person they are visiting, and see that that person is feeling even worse. Suddenly, whatever the teacher came in to complain about or vent or even ask for help with is gone: frustration vanishes in concern, and the visitor says, “What’s wrong?” Prepared, in an instant, to take more burdens onto shoulders already weighed down with overwork and the emotional strain of seeing up close and personal the struggles and sufferings of children (And also with the strain of struggling through the suffering caused by children — and the worst is that it is often the same children, that those who are neediest and most desperate are the most obnoxious people we see. Which is saying something.), not because we don’t need help any more, but simply because a friend, a fellow teacher, needs help more, or even just needs help too: and so we help.

It’s amazing and inspiring. I will say, without any humility, that I participate in this, that I support my fellow teachers at all times and in whatever way they may need, and that I rarely ask for help myself because  I don’t want to trouble them.  I’ve even seen this go too far, when I was part of my union’s negotiating team and we were  fighting for better compensation and working conditions; trying to get teachers to actually stop working, to stop sacrificing, to start asking for something for themselves — and not luxuries, but a living wage and necessary health care and the like —  was nearly impossible. They wanted to give up whatever they had to give up in order to make everyone else happy. The magnificent bastards.

But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t have to do that. Of all the people who should be sacrificing in order to keep teachers sane and healthy, IT SHOULD NOT BE TEACHERS WHO DO IT. That makes no sense. It defeats the purpose. We not only put on someone else’s oxygen mask first, we take ours off and strap it on top of that person’s own oxygen mask just so they can be twice as safe while they watch us suffocate.

If it’s not clear already, this drives me nuts, that teachers do this. I don’t like that I do it, either, but it is without doubt who we are as people, and what the culture of teachers encourages in us. This is why we spend our own goddamn money on school supplies for our students, despite how little we are paid. And perhaps the worst part, though this is not the place to get into this, is that we are therefore propping up a system that is in many ways a terrible system: not terrible for us, though it is that, but terrible for the students, and terrible for the country. Yesterday I bought donuts for all of my students taking the AP Literature test. I encouraged and helped students to “succeed” on a high-stakes test run by a private corporation with disproportionate influence on college admissions. I structure the whole class around that damn test: a test I should be opposing with every fiber of my being. But I bought them donuts.

So here’y my request, for those who want to appreciate teachers — REALLY appreciate us, not simply nod in our direction while we lie bruised and bleeding in a ditch. (I know, it’s hyperbolic, but it’s also the end of the year, and it feels like that. I feel bruised. I feel sick because I haven’t been sleeping, and I feel sore because my body has been too tense for too long: my shoulders honestly ache right now.) Ready?

Make it so we don’t have to hold each other up.

Give us enough support, and take away enough of our burden of responsibility, that a single person can do a teacher’s job alone, or at least can handle the pressure alone.

Specifically, that means essentially three things: money, time, and trust. In the first years of a teacher’s career, there is a fourth, which is: help.

I don’t want as much money as I want, if I can be permitted that sentence. I want as much money as is needed so that I don’t have to worry about it. That’s all. I’ve been a teacher for twenty years, and I still don’t earn enough to own a home, and I don’t have any retirement savings, and I still have debt that I haven’t been able to get rid of.  I want to make enough money to take care of those problems. I don’t need enough to pay for vacations or jet skis or that diamond-encrusted pirate hat I’ve had my eye on; just enough so that I don’t have to suffer from money stress. I want to be middle class. I aspire to the bourgeoisie.

I want enough time in my school day to get my work done in my school day. I don’t mind planning lessons from home; it’s kind of fun sometimes. But I don’t want to have to spend one more weekend grading, not one more evening filling out paperwork. I already work 40 hours a week at school; why is it that I am expected and required to add another 10-20 hours on top of that, every week? It’s because I have too many students, and too many requirements for teaching those students. Too many things I have to cover, too many things I have to compensate for, and too many people I need to report to and satisfy in order to show that I did my job. You know what should be the only evidence needed that I did my job? That my student can read a book, write an essay, discuss a poem. That’s it. Don’t ask me to prove that I did my job: ask the kid. See what he can do. And ask him, honestly, if I helped him do that. Make it his responsibility to prove that I did my job. He is the product, after all. (Please note: this is not a serious suggestion for assessment of teachers. Students shouldn’t have to have that burden either, and too many of them are not reliable witnesses nor reliable learners. All I’m saying is that I don’t want to do it, to prove to all and sundry that I did my own job.)

And anyone who thought “But you get summers off!” just know: I am currently mentally punching you in the brain. Hard. Kicking, too.

The last thing I need is trust. I have proven that I am a good teacher. I’ve won awards, I’ve won accolades, I don’t have anyone who disagrees with that basic premise: not students, not students’ families, not other educators. Of course not everyone likes me or likes my class: but I don’t believe there’s a single person who could genuinely say that I teach badly. So please, I beg you. BACK OFF AND LET ME TEACH. Don’t try to improve my curriculum for me, or my methods. If you’ve got suggestions, I’ll listen, of course; but don’t tell me what to do, especially if you’re not versed in my subject or my profession. Stop assessing me: my driver’s license is valid for 25 MORE YEARS: and that’s based on a single test I took more than 20 years ago. Yet my teaching license expires every three to six years, and requires hundreds of hours spent on learning to be a better teacher. I get observed every year, often twice a year, and have multi-page evaluations, every year. How much proof do you need that I can do this job? The answer is that there will never be enough proof that I can do it, because I will never be trusted to do it. That has nothing to do with me and everything to do with our culture and our system, but I don’t care why it is that way: I just want it to stop.

I already care about my profession, and about my students, and about my subject. I care about my fellow teachers and educators. Please, stop making me also care about and for myself: let someone else do it. Give me some real appreciation.

And don’t let it come from other teachers.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about being positive.

I’ve been as critical as I can  be, the last few posts; I think I should try to come up with some positive solutions to the problems I’ve been describing. After all, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Okay, actually, that’s the first thing. No more either/or thinking. No more win or lose, no more all or nothing. (Okay, maybe a little bit of all or nothing. I don’t want to be definitively black and white about this.) It is entirely possible to be both part of the solution AND part of the problem; I  think most of us are like that at least some of the time. It says something positive about you if you have enough self-awareness to recognize that you are part of the problem, and if it is a serious enough, complex enough, intransigent enough problem, then the effort, the incremental steps towards being part of the solution, are good enough. Working is enough. Trying is enough. There are also those who are only part of the solution, not part of the problem, and they will be the ones moving things forward; if those of us who are still stuck with one foot in the muck can just ooze out of their way, that will be enough.

Example? Sure. I do a lot of things right as a teacher. I focus on the actual material and the skills that students can gain from it. I am open and willing to take student input on what we will do in class, how long we will work on it, and so on, so I give them agency in their own education and also some ability to make their education more useful and appropriate. I care about them, but I do not mother them. I know and love my subject, and I model that love and that knowledge for them, as often as I can. So with the problem of, say, adults who don’t treat teenagers with respect but expect both respect and unending effort (and humility) from teenagers, I’m not part of the problem, only the solution. With the problem of education being detached from utility and from interest — the sort of education that stops at “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” — I am part of the solution and not part of the problem.

But when it comes to argument, I still tend to want to win, and to show myself as smarter and more right than my opponent, and I am all too willing to see my students as my opponents. I overwhelm them and cow them, and make them feel like they’ve been defeated, rather than like they’ve been taught. I do this in all of my arguments. I am aware of it; I am trying to fix it. I am trying to stop myself from taking up arguments in class; two years ago I inserted myself into a class assignment on writing argumentative essays, and I wrote essays in response to my students’ arguments; I don’t do that any more. So I’m learning. But it’s difficult, because I run a discussion-based class, and I want my students to offer attempts and theories, but I also want to challenge them to go further and explain better what their point is. Too often that challenging discussion can slip right into an argument.

So I’m working on it. Still not there yet. If someone else could come in and fix that for me, it would be great, thanks.

But that’s not the positive solution I wanted to offer today. (It’s part of it.) The issue I wanted to talk about today is the one from yesterday, the way that teenaged boys suck. I feel like I’ve got some connection to this problem, though not as much as someone who is actually raising a boy, so I can at least offer some suggestions.

The first one is the most obvious: toxic masculinity has to end. Not the competitive indoctrination, which is a separate issue; but the idea that men must be manly, must be strong and especially silent, must enjoy and appreciate only manly things: all that has to stop. The training in violence that comes with this also has to stop, for more reasons than just for the sake of the boys who our society makes into brutes. So if we can continue to work on the problems of bullying and emotional isolation and gender specific activities and traits and strengths, that would help enormously; I think those things would help all of us be less douchey, not just teenaged boys.

But yes: the thing that I believe will make the most difference with teenaged boys is the constant shouting in their faces that they must be competitive, and they must always strive to win. Sports is the first and most obvious issue here. Sports, especially little league sports, have to be changed entirely and immediately. We need to stop keeping score. We need to stop talking about winning and losing, and about doing whatever it takes to be the one on top.

That probably has to start with how adults consume sports. I was listening to NPR yesterday, and the news host was  talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team who just got eliminated from the playoffs in the first round by a team they were supposed to beat. And though part of me questions whether that is even news outside of Tampa Bay (or Columbus, the team that beat them), the larger issue was the tone of the story: the host actually asked a Tampa sports reporter if the people of Tampa felt angry and betrayed by the loss, in addition to being shocked and disappointed. And the Tampa reporter said: Yes.

Look: if your year, or even your day, is ruined by a game lost by a team that happens to share a zip code with you, you have bad priorities. I will die on this hill.

I am fully aware of the arguments for team spirit, how it brings people together and gives them something to cheer for and to bond over; but there is too much evidence that losing hurts more than winning, and that our time and money would be better spent on almost any other activity rather than watching professional sports (Just look at how “winning” a professional franchise affects a city) to sustain that argument. We’d be better off treating sports as something fun to watch sometimes, and more fun to play, if we’re not too hardcore about winning. That’s how sports should be treated with young boys.

That’s how everything should be treated with young boys. And with grown men. There are serious things that need to be taken seriously: the problems with the world, and the causes of suffering. That’s where we should be aggressive, and take no prisoners and never retreat and never surrender: getting clean water into Flint, Michigan. Ending the spread of AIDS. Peace in the Middle East. You want to teach your kids to fight? Teach them to fight those things. Fight to make this world a better place.

Otherwise, maybe we should teach our kids to just have fun. And we should mean it.

(To be continued.)