My Own Private Wisconsin

When my internal terrain gets bumpy, I can usually attribute it to hormones, frankly. Or mid-year adjustments, which also have been happening, but usually only have the power to convince me that I’m a poor educator for maybe 48 hours.

But for the past couple of weeks, it’s been different. It’s been eerie watching Wisconsin send an emissary buzzard to roost in my district. I can smell the tar on its feathers.

Here, we were informed this week that we have a 2.6 million dollar deficit due to the fiscal shambles of our state. Simultaneously, pressure increased massively on ELA due to Race to the Top and our state’s recent inflated assessment scandal. A new test, new instruction model for struggling readers, and a new academic intervention model all were introduced to us in the past month alone. And lastly, our contract– a year and half late in its making because negotiations were so rancorous the last time through– also comes to an end within months. The union is ramping up, with t-shirts and buttons starting to flow.

But what bugged me most was running into a veteran colleague this morning in the hall: a friend and mentor, and a woman not given to complaining. “Honestly– can we do one more thing?” she said to me. And then she, this educator of multiple decades, said something that still shocks me.

“I feel like such a crappy teacher,” she said.

And tears filled her eyes.

What do I tell her?

That unions are just as often part of the problem as they are of the solution? Having heard in person the rhetoric that blasts any conversation about starting the school year two days before Labor Day and leaves needy students locked out of our rooms until 8:30 AM exactly, I don’t always feel at all comfortable putting on my t-shirt.

Yet I had food on my table and health insurance growing up precisely because of the effort of unions– as did she, no doubt.

That it is the human tendency to resist change unilaterally, even change for the better? It’s documented science, and also lives in my own heart. I hate the automated multiple choice reading exam we’re now giving three times a year on its smug Orwellian face, for example– despite the fact that perusing and challenging its questionable, sloppy data has still given me a better handle on kids’ reading levels than I’ve ever had before, just because we’re actually taking some kind of regular measurement now.

Yet this seems cold comfort, when our livelihoods depend every day on our ability to do more and more, with 2.6 million dollars of less.

That the reformers have some things right, even though they’re rich? I literally forced myself to the discount theater to watch “Waiting for Superman” a couple of weeks ago, but there I was, nodding my head along with many of the points made in it.

And yet I see class war personified, necessarily and understandably, in myself and in my colleagues. No one (trust me) has a kind word for Bill Gates– or, for another example, the local Broad-trained superintendent who asked for a multi-thousand dollar raise in a district this winter, where the poverty rate bests the national average by a shameful amount. How could those people possibly know what the hell is going on? the faces and language of my colleagues ask me, every day– by the copier, in the library, in the lunch room. And they are, in many ways, right.

We are all of us, on every multifacted side of this issue, in many ways, right.

So I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t know what to tell her to stop her tears.

And as I examine my increasing silences over the blog, I note that I also don’t know what to tell you.

3 thoughts on “My Own Private Wisconsin

  1. This is the most thoughtful blog post I’ve read in a very long time.

    I am saddened by all the anger and finger pointing in education today. I don’t think it’s helpful—if anything, it is keeping us from solving our problems.

    There are no “either/or” answers. You’re right—sometimes the union is great…sometimes it’s not. Sometimes reformers are right…sometimes they aren’t.

    We really need to focus on what we can agree on and build understanding from there.

  2. Thank you, Science Goddess. I’m really, really trying. Doesn’t make for terribly thrilling blog copy, I’m afraid, but writing about it has clarified my thinking, as it always has, and I’m glad it’s been useful to you along the way.

  3. Wow- This post is really honest and says a lot of the things that I have been thinking lately. The first and third bold questions especially. Sometimes I think I have a hold on an answer, and then the next moment I change my thought.

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