This past week I had to give a speech that no teacher ever wants to give. I had to give a speech at my deceased student’s memorial service. He was tragically struck and killed by a car while riding his bike home after helping one of his teachers at his old middle school. He was that type of kid. The type of student that spends his free time helping his teachers. The type of student who knows exactly how to help a teacher before they even ask him. The type of student who can solve any technical problem in your classroom, find a bootleg version of any film your heart desires, and bring you the most delicious homemade samosas to share with your class. He was the type of kid who respects and loves his teachers (even when they give him a bad grade) because he came from a family and culture that respects and loves teachers.
The most touching moment of the memorial came when they played a recording of my student as a six year old child reciting a ten minute long Hindu prayer in Sanskrit that did nothing but extol teachers. Ten minutes of expressing love and respect for teachers as a source of enlightenment and truth. I don’t know what made me cry more, the sound of my student as a six year old boy reminding me of my own children and the immeasurable pain his own parents must be feeling after losing their only child, or just hearing ten minutes of heart felt appreciation towards teachers after listening to ten years of teacher bashing and dealing with one anti-teacher legislation after the next. It made me wonder what our educational system could be if all our students were taught even a ten second utterance of respect for their teachers? Indian and East Asian students have a stereotype of being model students because they come from cultures where respect for teachers is deeply engrained in their belief systems. In Confucianism, the ideal person is the sage and teachers are referred to as “masters.” In Hinduism, the guru is seen as almost godly and as important as one’s parents. Why should students who grow up in a culture with a constant stream of pejorative statements about teachers value the professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping them learn?
The disrespect for teachers displayed by most students has become so pervasive that they think it is perfectly acceptable to literally tune their teachers out with little white ear buds or colorful Beats headphones. How many times a day does your average school teacher have to waste their breath asking a student to remove their headphones? How many times a day do they have to listen to the ridiculous response, “But I’m not even listening to anything.” THEN WHY THE HELL ARE YOU WEARING THEM???? TO LOOK COOL? TO MAKE IT SEEM LIKE YOU CAN’T POSSIBLY HEAR ANYTHING YOUR TEACHER IS TRYING TO TELL YOU? TO MAKE IT SEEM LIKE YOU COULD CARE LESS THAT YOUR TEACHER JUST SPENT TWO HOURS TRYING TO PLAN A LESSON THAT WOULD ENGAGE YOUR EASILY DISTRACTED BEHIND! Sorry for the caps lock but I am screaming. It’s so outrageous that your average student thinks wearing headphones in class at all times is not an act of disrespect. One day (when I can afford a pair of Beats headphones) I am going to wear them while I teach just to show students how ridiculous they look. When they come to my classroom during lunch or after school, I will wear my Beats headphones and nonchalantly blast some gangsta rap or EDM while they ask for help. To me, students wearing headphones in class is the ultimate sign of disrespect and just shows what little value most students have for anything a teacher has to say to them these days.
What if our students came from a culture that valued teachers as esteemed gurus instead of incompetent losers who plan on spending their adult lives sucking at the government teat? When politicians pass punitive policies towards teachers such as VAM based teacher evaluations and bizarre merit pay schemes, they send the message that teachers are somehow not worthy of fair evaluations and a stable source of compensation that rewards them in a manner similar to other professions that require four year degrees and certifications. This past week, Florida legislators and the Miami School Board continued to show that they don’t have a clue as to why we have a teacher shortage or how to end it. One mean spirited legislator actually wants to sponsor a bill that would make it illegal to offer effective and highly effective teachers any type of job security. As if this state doesn’t have any greater problems to deal with than a highly effective teacher keeping their job the following year?
The Florida Senate released their plan to raise teacher pay this week as well http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/education/fl-teacher-pay-legislature-20170125-story.html. All of their ideas involve some sort of bonus or merit pay plan. Sorry, but I am going to have to use caps lock again as apparently the entire Florida Legislature is wearing Beats headphones when it comes to listening to teachers, THERE IS NO FAIR WAY TO IMPLEMENT MERIT PAY! IF YOU REWARD TEACHERS BASED ON GROWTH, YOU PENALIZE TEACHERS WHO TEACH THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF STUDENTS. WHEN YOU REWARD TEACHERS BASED ON PROFICIENCY RATES, YOU PENALIZE TEACHERS WHO TEACH THE NEEDIEST LEARNERS. There was even some discussion of allowing principals to decide which teachers deserved bonuses. Imagine the can of worms that would open! The principal’s two BFF teachers will get a nice chunk of change while the rest of the staff gets thrown peanuts. That would work wonders for staff morale! ONE FINAL TIME FLORIDA LEGISLATURE: TEACHERS DO NOT GET EXCITED BY THE WORDS “MERIT PAY” OR “BONUS.” They know those bonuses will be either trivial, impossible to attain, or based on some nonsense criteria like decades old test scores and VAM. A bonus is not guaranteed and can easily be discontinued at the first sign of an economic recession. Teachers get excited by the words “raise” or the very sexy, but no longer en vogue ,”cost of living adjustment.”
Speaking of cost of living, the Miami School Board has decided their answer to a teaching shortage caused in part by incredibly high rents and comparatively low salaries is subsidized housing instead of raising teacher pay. The School Board will become a modern day company town that provides housing to its workforce that can’t afford to pay the rent anywhere within a 90 mile radius of where they teach. They want to build affordable condo units on top of a new school in the Brickell area where teachers who work at the school could live. Though some teachers might relish the thought of a short commute and an affordable apartment in Brickell, many teachers have no interest in living on top of the school where they teach, being surrounded by their teacher coworkers 24/7, or being beholden to their employer overlord. It may do wonders for teacher retention, however, if teachers know they will be kicked out of their affordable housing unit if they decide to quit their job. Many teachers feel insulted by the mere thought of living in subsidized housing after going to college for four years and obtaining masters degrees. Dare I suggest that raising starting pay to $50,000 so teachers can afford to live in the city where they teach might do a better job of attracting and retaining teachers in Dade County than offering a few teachers affordable studio apartments?
The Beats headphones, the refusal to give teachers who have proven themselves highly effective in the classroom any sort of job security, merit pay schemes based on absurd evaluation systems, and subsidized housing for teachers all stem from a culture rooted in disrespect for educators. Although attending the memorial service for a deceased student is something I hope to never have to do again, witnessing the deep love and respect for teachers that his culture and his family instilled in him made me feel blessed to be in attendance. Thirteen years as a educator in this country and I have never felt as warmly embraced and loved for my choice of profession as I did at my student’s memorial service. Our school dedicated a wing in his honor and whenever I have a bad day in the classroom, perhaps on a day when I have had to wrestle the fifth set of Beats headphones from a student, I will pass through that hall to look at his plaque and remember what a light and gift he was to all of his teachers. To hope that one day I will be graced with many more students like him and live long enough to see the “bad teacher” narrative shift to one that spiritually and financially values its educators.