By Susan DuFresne.
What will happen to us as teachers, parents, students, and democracy as we continue to struggle in our mandated race to the top of corporate education reform?
Home for winter break from my work as a teacher, I find myself too exhausted the first several days to take care of anyone but myself. When we get on a plane they tell us to make sure we put on our oxygen masks first, then take care of our family. Self-care supersedes care of others. You cannot care for others when you yourself cannot breathe.
As a teacher, we have little time for self-care. More often than not these days – we are holding our breath – waiting for the next data point we need to collect and record. We are entering the “death zone” – the death zone because we are slowly dying for lack of the fresh air of creativity, joy, and love. The lust for data has consumed the space to breathe, the space to feel safe in a hospitable environment, the space to take care of ourselves – or the millions of voiceless children.
As teachers, we are being exploited by the corporate reformers who profit from their failing experiments – and our families are left with nothing but ghosts of who we once were.
For more than a century, Western climbers have hired Nepal’s Sherpas to do the most dangerous work on Mount Everest. It’s a lucrative way of life in a poor region, but no service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients. As Grayson Schaffer reports, the dead are often forgotten, and their families left with nothing but ghosts.
– Grayson Schaffer, “The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest” (2013)
It is only December, and yet I feel like a porter carrying the immoral weight of reformy slick packages – a porter who has trekked to the top of Mt. EdReform not given the resources we need to survive. Much like the Sherpa, I feel like I don’t have what I need to make the mandated trek to the top of Mt. EdReform, and what is left of my profession is becoming a data service industry that only benefits the companies getting rich. As the summit nears it doesn’t resemble anyplace suitable for human beings. I have more second thoughts about continuing my profession and feel closer to succumbing to burn-out than ever before.
From the movie, Beyond the Edge:
Above 26,000 feet is what we call the death zone…the death zone because you are slowly dying.
Just as the mountain above 26,000 feet is uninhabitable – classrooms in public schools across the country have become uninhabitable for human beings – teachers and students alike.
The climbers of 1953 spoke of how much effort it takes for each step forward, how confused their oxygen-starved brains became. When struggling to take the oppressive steps of corporate reform, I too feel I need to take 15 breaths to cover just one step of one of their new initiatives. I haven’t caught up with completing the last initiative, when a new one is presented, we’re asked to implement the new initiative in yet another lesson to teach, we’re asked to be observed teaching the new initiative while under scrutiny of more data points to collect, and then it is time to go off to another meeting about what evidence we need to collect for our next data meeting, then have another meeting to plan our next data meeting.
With each step further into the world of corporate reform, I become more confused about why I chose this profession and I recognize that a small part of me is dying slowly – as is a small part of each child. Where we once had art, music, creativity, joy, love, learning through play, and autonomy – many of us now have endless testing and data collection, data entry, data analysis, and meetings upon meetings about data.
The corporate reformers have sucked the life out of teaching and learning. The real purpose of education is lost in a blizzard of data – numbers entered onto a rubric to become bits of data – trillions of 0’s and 1’s about each child are flying at high speed, tracked and collecting in data banks like so many feet of snow to be mined for corporate profits – icy cold they create systems of punishment as dangerous crevices – an abyss of corporate created failure – a place devoid of all humanity for children and teachers to try to traverse. We can feel the heaviness of fear and oppression — and the sense of impending death — as we deepen our voyage into this uninhabitable space.
I feel guilty as my home was not ready for a holiday celebration, work on basic things like vacuuming and dusting, baking and decorating take a back seat when I don’t get home until 8:30 or too often after 10:00 pm. As an artist, I have not had the energy to be creative for several years now. I am becoming a mere ghost of who I once was as a whole person. My ability to engage in distant family communication is shrinking vastly. I commute from 2-4 hours each day to teach because I chose to work in schools of poverty my first five years of teaching — but the workload and the change in the moral weight of what corporate reform does to children, to my own family – and to a creative, passionate teacher such as myself is killing me slowly.
What corporate reform is asking of teachers today is impossible for one human being to accomplish – even in a 24 hour period. With the start of each day at 5:30 am, in my “Sherpa basket” I carry the burdens of exhaustion, the unfinished workload, the guilt of what reform does to young children, the activism and organizing work that can’t all be accomplished fast enough, and the build-up of prior weeks of stress.
I am not alone. Other teachers in my district are ready to quit. At one school in my district 11 out of 14 teachers said they have thought about quitting – leaving their profession. Our local union president notes we are at our tipping point. What will it be like when the uninhabitable death zone is the only place left in our public schools and all the creative passionate teachers have gone?
In a workshop about children who have suffered trauma or have special needs called Re-education, Nicholas Hobbs wrote:
In growing up, a child should know some joy in each day and look forward to some joyous event for the morrow.
We believe that a joyous experience is immensely important, that it is immediately therapeutic…
James Boutin, a fellow Washington State teacher recently wrote about his own transformation into radicalism.
Ultimately, schools are places we can go to take a glimpse into what our future society will look like. Since that’s the case, it’s imperative that the adults who work in them (and who create policy for them) are guided not by a desire to mold children into the model employee, but rather by love for the child. CHILDREN SHOULD FEEL LOVED IN SCHOOL.
But on top of Mt. EdReform, the air we are given to breathe in the deform think tanks is devoid of joy. Devoid of love.
Even US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan said:
Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy and cause unnecessary stress.
But don’t let his rhetoric fool you. He pushes the corporate reform agenda and continues his oppressive reform philosophy which can best be summarized by one of Duncan’s other statements:
I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. – Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education (2010)
That’s like telling the Sherpas: “That avalanche was the best thing that ever happened to your village.”
Unless we radicalize ourselves and push back, our classrooms are devoid of joy, love, art, music, social studies that teach how to resist oppression, or the time to develop social skills through play.
Most teachers are afraid to push back, and without the time for self-care they are exhausted. They feel alone, alienated, and blamed. No one is standing up for teachers. Few people even know what we are going through. We are blamed by such entities as TIME Magazine, labeled as “Rotten Apples”. In years past, the Democratic Party used to stand up for us. No longer. Now they collaborate across the aisle to blame us for all the problems they have failed to repair.
Teachers seem to be the scapegoats of society, awaiting the next reformy experiment. While some of us fight back (Full disclosure: That’s what I do in my “spare” time.) – many others are too beaten down, to submissive, too overworked, and just simply not listened to when they do fight back.
Friend and colleague, Becca Ritchie recently was quoted in the Renton Reporter:
“Most of all teachers are tired,” said Becca Ritchie, a sixth-grade computer teacher at Nelsen Middle School. “Many comments were made by my colleagues that October felt like May. Their workloads keeps them busy and along with that, now they have to prove they are good teachers. They do not have the energy to show up at a school board meeting or write an op ed piece. They can’t fit in one more meeting and because they are not there, neither are their voices.”
Yes, in fact, corporate reform is the abuse of both children and mostly women teachers, and another layer of racism for people of color, our ELLs, our gifted students, and those with special needs. Our response to this abuse is much like the response of abused women and children. Teachers and students could write a very long list to add to #whyIstayed. But back to above 26,000 feet on Mt. EdReform…
The latest and greatest reformy initiative in my district is a requirement for all of us to create an Excel spreadsheet, fill it with personal data including student name, “race”, teacher name, free/reduced lunch socio-economic status (if the district provides it – we are still waiting), unit pre-tests and post-tests, reading comprehension assessments, DIBELS data (which they already have on Next Generation), MSP, SRI, SBAC, and more. These Excel spreadsheets listing a very broad range of formative and summative assessment – in addition to all the testing – are to be completed by every teacher and uploaded to the district’s Sharepoint file where nearly every employee has access. Anyone could potentially save these Excel spreadsheets to their computer and share them anywhere in the world.
@Perapiteticus asked on Twitter yesterday:
“What happens to #education when #data_lust drives #educationpolicy?
“I wrote about that earlier today…It isn’t pretty. We are beginning to feel the end.”
Chicago friend and special education teacher, Katie Osgood writes:
My school is drowning under the ridiculous Common Core Standards. Everything I know to do to inspire my students is forbidden. Instead, we are forced to deliver truly horrible curriculum in developmentally inappropriate ways, with pacing charts that move so fast all our heads are spinning. My students with special needs are shutting down, acting out or just giving up entirely. Sometimes I hear them whisper, “I hate school”— and they are right to think that. All the teachers are upset, and every time we ask “Why? Why are you making us do this?” the answer is always the same: PARCC is coming.
Up on Mt. Everest two of the climbers made it to the top in 1953. It was a climb of injustice when you dig into the story. The Sherpas’ work is undervalued and those in power positions are the winners who take all, just as on top of Mt. EdReform. On the top of Mt. EdReform all there is to breathe is data. Just 0’s and 1’s in complex patterns that align to profit the 1% – to fill their profit tanks while the rest of us die slowly, one piece of data at a time.
Unless we fight back. Do we have the energy? We must rest and take time for self-care for the remainder of 2014 to prepare for battle. We must stay connected to those who are resisting locally on other fronts of oppression and across the country. We must encourage those who are hesitant to take the risk to resist… to fill up the classrooms with oxygen, with time for teaching children the importance of self-care, art, and lessons of resistance to oppression.
Do you know of teachers reaching this point? How is this impacting the children? What are you ready to do to support students, teachers, and our public schools? Are you ready to help? Go out and support your teachers today to breathe life back into our public schools. Get connected with organizers and activists in your area. We will only succeed by working together.
Susan DuFresne is a Seattle area teacher of Integrated kindergarten.
Photo by Aike Parvex, used with Creative Commons license.