I will post a new entry every week or two. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:
•teaching and learning; •educational opportunity; •the importance of public education in a democracy; •definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and •the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.
If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.
My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.
For this post, I want to tell you about one of those everyday occurrences – routine, commonplace – that take a surprising turn, that go off script and reveal the complex layers of another person’s life.
I phoned a call center to have a gift basket sent to a friend, and as I was giving the man on the other end my email address, he paused and repeated: “UCLA?” Then, “May I ask, do you teach there?” I said I did, and he then asked what department. When I told him education, he said that he was a teacher, and began to tell me his story. I often have little exchanges when ordering over the phone, thirty-second small talk about the weather, or the economy, or the charms of whatever I’m ordering, but I’ve never had an exchange like this. The man spoke for about ten minutes. I chimed in now and then, but he did most of the talking. He was expressive but not overly so, had a story to tell and told it with a mix of frustration and conviction.
He came to teaching later in his working life. He had been an air-traffic controller. “But,” he said, “you know what happened to them” – a reference to Ronald Reagan firing 11,000 controllers when they refused to call off their strike, one of the early assaults on unions during the Right’s ascendance to power.
He then was a businessman for a number of years – he didn’t tell me the kind of business – but he said he always wanted to teach, and, he added, his friends and his wife told him he should go for it, get an education degree. So he went back to college and got certified to teach gifted and talented children. He got a job that lasted for two years and really enjoyed it. But then the recession hit and with it his state began cutting its education budget, for it has a balanced budget amendment in its constitution, something, he said, he thought every state should have. “As a businessman I understand that.” But because of it, he and a lot of others – art and music teachers – were let go. He said that Gifted and Talented isn’t like Special Education. The parents of Special Ed kids “made a big stink,” wouldn’t stand for their kids’ teachers being cut.
He couldn’t find any teaching jobs for a long time. “They see gray hair and wrinkles, and they go for someone younger.” He spoke for a while about his disappointment, how he had all this experience, all this knowledge to share, how much teaching meant to him and how many of his friends and family supported his career shift from business to education.
He said his wife suggested that he get an administrative credential to increase his chances of finding work, so he did. Eventually he got an interview for a supervisory job, overseeing a small district’s GATE program, but, finally, though the superintendent told him he did well on all counts, the district couldn’t afford his salary.
So here he is, working two jobs – he didn’t say what his other job was – and hoping he’ll still get the chance to teach, though he realizes that the odds aren’t in his favor. “It’s what I’m meant to do.”
Who knows exactly why this fellow was let go and is having such a hard time finding other work in education, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his rendering of his recent job history is accurate. There are so many Americans like him, people with education and a long employment record who are currently unemployed or underemployed. And his story, like the stories of the others in his shoes, reveals how complicated and contradictory the present situation is.
To begin, we hear continually that the ticket to prosperity is education; we will “educate ourselves into a better economy.” Yet there are a lot of educated people who are not prospering. The problem isn’t education, but the absence of jobs, or the cutting of jobs. And a huge category of job loss has been public sector employees as states slash budgets. Then there is the push to get people from non-education careers into teaching, something this fellow did. Yet there is also in educational reform and policymaking a valuing – though not explicitly stated – of youth over experience.
There are budget cuts in education across the states, and certain subject areas often get disproportionately hit – and that happened here. The disproportionate nature of the cuts can engender conflict between teachers – in this case, the tension the man expresses between GATE and Special Ed.
Then there is the common irony we’ve been seeing in our political culture of people supporting economic and social policies – like the balanced budget amendment – that directly hurt them. I was so caught up in the urgency of the man’s story that I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him about President Reagan’s handling of the air traffic controllers’ strike and about the austerity measures that cost him his teaching job.
I wish this man well. He’s spent a lot of time and expense to redirect his career, following not only his desire to teach but also the call to non-educators coming from the government and school reformers to switch careers and enter the classroom. The nation issues that call, but the current economic and political environment doesn’t provide much support to honor it.
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