What We Want, What We Get, What We Pay For

This past Wednesday, March 2nd,  was the national day of action in defense of public education.  A colleague of mine spent the first fifteen minutes of it standing on the curb with a sign he jerry-rigged from a magnetic whiteboard.  Each magnet, a child’s name–he uses it for centers, to tell his third-grade students which station they should go to during the times of the day when he gets 5 or more separate lessons running simultaneously.  If you ever watch centers play out in a classroom like my colleague’s, you will be utterly amazed: it is a thing of grace and beauty, this sight of 25 young people, self-directed in their learning.  There are books and classes and entire consultant careers devoted to this. Good teachers do it, without guidance or fanfare, several a times a week as one-twentieth of their jobs.

So anyway, the sign.  25 names, each name a little magnet.  Names from Yemen, from West Africa, from the flatlands of my bifurcated city where the windows are all chained.  The kid who came here last year without a word of English, the kid who throws things when he’s angry because his dad does that to his mother, and six kids who read two years above their grades.  25 names, arranged as a rectangle on the edges of the board.  And in the middle of the board, in big block letters with three colors of Expo markers, the words, “Got Bailout?”

His sign made me think about a topic that’s in the public eye now more than ever thanks to the squabble in Wisconsin–the governor’s attempt to strip all public employees except the ones who campaigned for him of collective bargaining rights.  Done, ostensibly, in the name of the budget crisis, but still doggedly pursued even after the unions offered unprecedented financial concessions that the governor turned down.

Political comedian John Stewart got right to the heart of the issue in a recent segment on The Daily Show, pointing out the difference between current rhetoric on teacher compensation and what was said during the bank bailout, about the need for for-profit corporations using taxpayer monies to offer up bonuses totaling 20 billion dollars in order to retain “top talent”.  The argument defending these bonuses was simple and clear: Wall Street executives are bright, highly talented people who must be adequately compensated if we don’t want to lose them.  If we want our financial system to work, we have to be kind to the people who are running it.

Nowhere, absolutely nowhere, is this rhetoric at play now in Wisconsin, where Walker’s budget proposals strip over a billion dollars from public education and even the right to collectively bargain on issues of workplace safety is considered a sacrifice teachers (starting salary: $22,000) must make.

It boggles my mind–this idea that the deference we give to Wall Street profiteers as a matter of course is so far beyond the worthiness of public school teachers.  And the flip side of that idea–that either teachers are too noble, somehow, to care about base things like compensation, or that even if they do care, there’s no need to worry about keeping them around.  The Wall Street bigshot–he’s got other places he can be if you don’t pay him.  But really, what else can you do with a teacher?

I’m gonna have the hubris here to say who I am.  I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, top of my class from one of the most highly ranked public universities on the planet.  I’m smart enough to go to Wall Street.  It might be less work than I’m doing right now.

I made the choice, instead, to do work that makes a difference. I am blessed to be surrounded, every working day, with brilliant, gifted teachers who choose to make a difference. And when blowhards in suits tell America that what we do is easier, should cost far less, and isn’t worth protecting…it makes me question things.  They are saying that your children need less than your money.  They are sending the smart folks to your paper, not your kids.

It’s not, at the end of the day, just about the money.  But I think, as I watch the news on corporate tax breaks and March 15th layoff letters, as I look out the bus window at gleaming office buildings and decrepit school playgrounds, of a verse that always stuck with me from the Gospel of Matthew.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

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One Response to What We Want, What We Get, What We Pay For

  1. Linda says:

    Amen. My goodness, amen, amen.

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