Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Time with Teachers-- or What I Did on my Summer Vacation

I am a tenured professor, and this is July of my first-ever sabbatical.  According to many critics of higher education, I am currently sunning my buns on the shores of Bermuda, sipping cocktails and snacking on brie while the taxpayers labor at home to pay my salary.

On the contrary. I've just returned from a three-day trip to Indianapolis, where I joined more than 85 members of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County spending their unpaid time participating in AVID Summer Institute. Furthering their effort to get more students on track to college and career, these teachers and administrators spent their days actively focused on learning new pedagogical practices and acquiring new tools to bring home and put into place by fall.

They are nothing short of remarkable.

As we traveled to and from Indianapolis on a couple of big busses, sat in school team meetings around big conference tables, shared breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and waited in line for coffee, I got to talk with more public school teachers than I've ever encountered before in my life.  I listened closely to their casual conversations, hoping to gain insight into the sources of the laziness and ineptitude I've heard so much about. I waited to hear the voices conveying the soft bigotry of low expectations of their students, especially those students of color.  I watched and waited for them to doze off, unengaged as always in their work.

Ha!  As if. Let me tell you what these folks talked about, nonstop.

  • How to help the dozens of students for whom there isn't sufficient space in their under-funded, high-demand programs
  • How to spend adequate time with the long lines of students seeking help--now--at the end of each class period, while still making it to their next class
  • How to balance the desire to get involved in new programs while also covering their existing teaching loads
  • How to talk to parents about college possibilities without making them feel like failures if they could not afford to send their kids
  • How to explain to administrators why those chose to take on the "hardest cases" even though it would be "easier" to leave them behind
  • How to cope with racism in their communities without getting angry, so that they could help their students do the same
  • How to integrate innovations like AVID into their practice as they also cope with the Common Core, how to do it efficiently, and how to help others do the same
I compared notes with these teachers and found that compared to this university professor, they work very comparable hours, receive far more professional development and critique, have much less autonomy, and get paid but a fraction of what I earn.  I'm boggled that we can sleep at night knowing that we do not invest more in ensuring they will continue to do this hard work and are rewarded for it. I'm stunned that people pay so much money to higher education professors while demanding so little in the way of training, professional development, and evaluation of pedagogical practice in return. 

My time with teachers was one of the best moments of my summer.  My time with teachers was just the beginning.  In three days they made me their pupil.  I will continue to learn.