Author: Alvira, Marco

Life’s Calling

With all the talk of education on the Message Board and so much about it the news, I got to reflecting on the career that has paid my bills and provided sustenance for my family these last 27 years. While during the evening and weekends, I am a fanatic of bluegrass, old time, and gospel music, by day I am a teacher. Inculcating estrogen laced and testosterone laden eighth graders with the rudiments of U.S. history and language is my specialty. My tenure has spanned several educational/political trends. When I first began teaching, the old ditto machines were still the mainstay of the teacher prep room. Madonna had not yet made it fashionable to wear one’s underwear as outer garments.

Over the span of years, I’ve known a lot great teachers and a few really poor ones. For the most part, almost all have been at least competent…and for the most part, almost all have dedicated their lives to improving the lives of students. This requires a sacrifice of time, energy, and soul. I am not shy or hesitant to say that I have not seen such a sense of drive in any other profession except for maybe nurses and ministers. Even the most milk toast teacher will fret over the children who seem hard to reach or who come to school with holes in their shoes. I’ve known hundreds of teachers that ,on cold January days, quietly buy jackets for children who come to school with flimsy sweatshirts A teacher’s job is an extension of one’s self—one’s very being. For that reason, today’s political climate cuts deeply when teachers are scapegoated as the source for our national woes, for everything from the decline of global economic competitiveness, bloated state budgets, to simply bad parenting.

There is incredible power in being a teacher. It angers me when I see folks like the Mr. X from Brooks’ column, or the teachers Chuck and Nancy mention of the Message Board. Teachers like those are usually a pariah among staff—a person with a character flaw so deep and obvious that you wonder if the person ever hired this individual was sober at the job interview. Even the best teacher, however, makes an occasional slip or with an off handed comment or gesture, that sets a child to sobbing in the middle of class…or the parent calling the school with a complaint with verbiage that calls the instructor’s parental lineage into question. Those are agonizing moments because one knows that no matter the litany of good deeds one has accomplished over the years—or even recent days—that in the eyes of at least a few individuals, you’re a monster.

Do you remember that old commercial where the kid asks the old owl, “Just how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?” That question, for teachers, is an existential question that defines our existence. Our success is measured by the success of the human beings under our tutelage. If you teach a lower grade, you may never know how the kid turned out in life. Few students ever come back, in adulthood, to visit the people who mattered most in their lives—those first through third grade teachers that gave them the single most valuable tool in existence—i.e., the ability to read. It is hope and faith the drives these heroes of our community. As a middle school teacher, I get to see the fruit of my labor a little more frequently than my primary grade colleagues. I have been around long enough to see students come back all grown-up. It’s pay day for me when a “kid” (that’s what I call 27 year olds these days) with a beautiful baby in her arms, or when little Johnny Trouble says he just finished Cal-Poly. Recently I’ve had a whole spate of kids telling me they were majoring in history. That brings tears to my eyes so quickly that even now the monitor in front of me is becoming blurry.

I don’t like to get into a discussions about pay, so-called “vacations”, and that huge pension that some teacher out there in an imaginary land is making. Those conversations with me are as likely to end with a right cross as they are with any cogent argument (what can I say…I am a passionate guy). When people ask me about education today, I’ll tell them that teachers are better trained than at any point in American history. The standards for the typical seventh grader today are the same that we used to see our sophomore and junior years in high school. I tell them scores are rising in California…a state that has more language groups and cultural diversity than any place on earth. I tell them that most teachers in this state haven’t had a raise in three years but almost never complain about it. Or that medical costs have increased so much that younger teachers are having to pick up second jobs, but never complain about it.

My one great fear is that in the pursuit of higher test scores and in times of huge budget cuts, we, as a society, are forgetting the primary responsibility of education: to produce good citizens and human beings. We are certainly producing better test taking machines. However, I wonder how many history teachers have I created the last couple of years. I’m so worried about kids actually being engaged my content, that I recently told the principal that I was going to jettison some strategies I had developed to increase test scores. I want to return to some activities that promote thinking and creativity. She advised me to not throw the baby out with the bath water. I responded that I’m trying to get the baby back.

Well, I can go forever like this…and God forbid that I start illustrating my points will stories, for this column would run in to thousands of words in length. Something of interest to all you bluegrass fans out there—that is, something that should concern you all. In the interest of student achievement, school districts across the state are cutting elementary school music programs. If children don’t start playing music in elementary school, they usually won’t begin in middle school. We will soon the effect of this in our high schools. My school district used to have a vibrant strings program taught by an energetic young man. On my campus alone, there were two full classes of violin players. The teacher actually taught the kids fiddle tunes along with the standard classical student repertoire. Kids could be seen everywhere, at recess, in small groups playing Swallow Tail Jig and Cripple Creek. In the interest of education and at the behest of our state politicians, these programs have been cut…or will be. Today, there are about eighty fiddles lying cold and voiceless in a dark cabinet in a remote storeroom. I wonder how many Bobby Hicks, Laurie Lewises, or Byron Berlines we may never see.

Posted:  3/6/2011

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