I’m going to have a difficult time teaching this week. My superhero cape and tights are at the cleaners.
It's almost staff development season again. Our school district loves to pay these miracle-worker education consultants thousands of dollars to come and speak to our teachers. They come armed with videos and graphic organizers, and they model their lessons. Each consultant advertises a gimmick -- some bottled miracle that they can make happen in your classroom. The last few years, it's all about the achievement gap.
A few years ago, one of these educational consultants showed a documentary about Erin Gruwell, that energetic, "idealistic" young teacher who started the Freedom Writers project in her Long Beach School.
The gist of her story is that if you can find a way to connect to the kids in the classroom, any student can learn no matter the hardship. In her first year of teaching, her given-up-on students transformed themselves into college-bound kids. Gruwell wrote a book about her miracle year, then she was featured on Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell. Now Hilary Swank is playing her in a movie.
I’m all for miracles and connections in the teaching and learning business. I even believe that they’re possible. Could be Jaime Escalante, Coach Carter or that Dangerous Minds woman. I just don't think that they are sustainable. And I resent when administrators and politicians expect miracles without putting the required resources into our schools. For some reason, I resent it even more when some carpet-bagging consultant pockets thousands of dollars to tell us how to make the miracles happen.
Here’s the downside to Erin Gruwell’s story. As a first-year teacher, she had to work a second job just to pay for all of her classroom expenses. She had to work ridiculous hours, and didn't seem to have a life outside of school. She made a noble commitment, and I applaud her dedication. But real humans who want to make a career out of teaching have to recognize that superhero teachers burn out. Erin Gruwell doesn’t teach anymore. She quit. She actually cashed in. Now she is an education consultant.
Some Erin Gruwell character teaches in every school. Usually more than one. The principals love them. “Join the equity team… How would you like to coach volleyball? … We really need your energy in the PTA… Maybe you could do a staff briefing to show others what you're doing.” For a couple of years, she is everywhere; but then something changes. She becomes exhausted, overwhelmed, or simply disillusioned when the hard work doesn’t seem to get her anywhere.
Every teacher wants to make a difference. Many of us have even bought into the superhero notion. You can put all the superheroes together and make a committee. The committee can be the driving force to ensure that the education consultant's plan is put in place. What's the strategy? Give teachers collaborative preparation time. Be available to students one-on-one at lunch and after school for hours, and visit homes of students when it’s required. These are the strategies that do work miracles.
But nobody can make those kinds of commitments to our classrooms year after year for a career. If every teacher in the school is expected to work sixty-hour work weeks, then most of them will be out of the classroom within a couple of years. These strategies have to be planned-for and funded, and scheduled into a regular human's life. More prep time for teachers, smaller class sizes, or community liaisons.
Without the funding, we’re simply hoping for superheroes who work for free.