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Why I Support Public School Teachers

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Corey Robin has a great post about why so many liberals hate public school teachers and don’t support their labor actions. Corey grew up in a wealthy New York suburb where he had great teachers. Nonetheless,

In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.

No one, we were sure, became a teacher because she loved history or literature and wanted to pass that on to the next generation. All of them simply had no other choice. How did we know that? Because they weren’t lawyers or doctors or “businessmen”—one of those words, even in the post-Madmen era, still spoken with veneration and awe. It was a circular argument, to be sure, but its circularity merely reflected the closed universe of assumption in which we operated.

I did not grow up in a rich suburb. As many of you already know, I grew up in a timber-supported family in a timber town when the timber economy was collapsing. My high school, Springfield High School in Springfield, Oregon, was not good. People have asked me how I became an academic out of that town. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in my high school class who went down this road. Most of us didn’t even go to college. The school had about 1200 students when I was there. But the classes were highly skewed toward freshmen and sophomores because the drop-out rate was so high. I don’t know how many graduated with me, maybe 180. Of those, maybe 15-18 went on to 4-year schools. Some of us went to the University of Oregon or Oregon State. A few went to the directional Oregon schools, the Mormons to BYU. One girl went to the University of Wyoming because she liked to ride horses. Another, perhaps the star of our class, to Rochester. She was smart. I have no idea what happened to her. Some went to the local community college, most just went into the workforce, whatever was left of that in the declining logging economy.

So how did I become an academic? I guess I’m not sure. My parents of course, who were not going to let my brother or I go into the mills. But a lot of it had to do with the awesome teachers I had. Sure we had some terrible teachers. My AP Lit course was a freaking joke. We had spelling tests in it. To my knowledge, no one actually took the AP Lit test. The building itself was more of a prison than a school. There were like 4 tiny windows in the entire school.

On the other hand, I am amazed at the commitment the majority of my teachers had. Think of what they had to deal with every day. I knew girls who got pregnant at 14. Who knows what happened to them. I knew people who had done every drug known to humankind by 15. God knows if they are still alive. There were stabbings outside my school. 2 or 3 years after I left they finally put in metal detectors and upped the police presence. There were growing racial tensions too as a burgeoning immigrant population from Mexico began attending the school.

How did anyone get a good education?

Because for at least part of our day, we had great teachers. In history, which was always my favorite subject, we had an AP teacher who probably wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but who knew his stuff and imparted it to me and really played an important role in my becoming a professional historian. But for more average kids, there was this amazing teacher who could really reach these people where they lived. I don’t know how much people really learned from him. But I learned a lot and average kids loved this guy. His name was Conrad Roemer and he was a special man. In English, despite the disaster of the AP course, there were good teachers. I remember reading The Sun Also Rises in one course, taught by a someone who also coached and it blowing my mind and him being a reason for it.

Then there was science, which I was not particularly good at. There was one guy, a Vietnam War medic who was a heck of a good high school chemistry teacher and would drop hints about what he had experienced. There was the biology teacher, who was best friends with John Olerud’s dad and had his classroom full of animals. Once we spent the class watching a boa constrictor eat a rabbit. That’s some learning.

And then there was a man named Stuart Perlmeter. I first ran into him in the 7th grade when he taught some classes at my middle school. This was around 1987. He was a weird guy, or so it seemed. He had big curly hair. His classroom was festooned with lyrics by some band none of us had ever heard of before called Talking Heads. And he was very into science. I have no idea why this man ended up in the Springfield public school system. Because he was kind of a famous guy in the science world.

Mr. Perlmeter used to tell us stories. He actually worked with Dian Fossey on gorillas. Don’t believe me? He took the last of these pictures in this 1981 National Geographic article.

Once I started high school, he started teaching there. But he didn’t bother with the AP classes. He focused on the kids who weren’t much engaged in school, those at risk of dropping out. He started a program where they could go observe bats. He wrote about his experiences in popular and academic journals. This came out the year after I graduated. I remember some of the kids in these pictures. For all this work, Mr. Perlmeter won Oregon’s School Teacher of the Year Award in 1990.

Certainly not every school had a guy like this. But we also had all of these teachers who taught kids who were underprepared, dealing with unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence at home; who had no family expectations that they would amount to anything. And these teachers, underpaid no doubt, persevered and tried to teach these kids. Sure, 20% of them may have been terrible. Are 20% of administrators not terrible? 20% of political pundits? Mediocrity is part of the world. But the majority of teachers ranged from good-hearted people to superheroes.

It’s these experiences that make me absolutely furious when Dylan Matthews and Matt Yglesias and Jacob Weisberg and other so-called liberals attack Chicago teachers by openly rooting from Rahm Emanuel to crush them or undermine them by warning readers about the effect of paying teachers on taxpayers. I don’t really know any of them personally. But I doubt any of them went to a public school, nor has much of the liberal punditry. And if they have, it’s almost certainly not one serving working-class communities like areas of Chicago or even Springfield. They can sit in their nice New York or Washington offices and attend retreats in baronial mansions like Slate held earlier this week and fret about the taxpayers and shame the teachers into thinking about the children all they want. They would never send their own children to the schools about which they pontificate. They have no idea what they are talking about.

The Chicago Teachers Union deserves everything they are asking for because many of them are heroes. For some, for kids like me, they are role models who give young people social mobility and who teach them that learning is a great thing. They know that standardized testing is worthless, that it bores everyone (as its early iterations bored me in high school), that they need to be allowed to teach and inspire. They deserve what they are asking for because they care more about young people’s future than anyone else in society, often more than the students’ own parents and certainly more than the education capitalists and liberal pundits who concern troll about these kids without having interacted with them. These teachers deserve what they are asking for because each and every day, many of them face confused, angry kids who have seen terrible things at home and can’t deal, who bring hateful words and knives and even guns into to the schools, because they face cursing and violence and horrible things on a daily basis, things Rahm Emanuel can’t even dream of.

The Chicago Teachers Union deserves the world because they take kids like me out of working-class families and help them fulfill their dreams. Those who attack them place themselves on the other side of the class divide, on the side that promotes social inequality and the side that provides no incentives for good teachers to stay in working-class schools since poor test scores, largely a result of poverty, will cost them their job. They claim to help children but don’t understand poor public schools; they claim to support policies that will improve education but promote ideas that will enrich capitalists at the expense of students.

And these pundits, these people who have never worried about money a single day in their lives, who were born with a silver foot in their mouth to quote Ann Richards, claim to support unions but never actually provide that support when working or middle-class people decide that enough is enough and walk off their jobs for the betterment of themselves, their families, and their community. And that makes me very, very angry. To quote Campos from yesterday’s post on Yglesias’ commentary, “Look, either you support this strike or you don’t. If you don’t support it on the merits then come out and say so, and why. If you do support it, then say so, and why.”

Indeed. You are either on the side of teachers or on the side of those who will crush their union. In the middle of the strike, there is no gray area. Which side are you on? I side with the people who changed my life.

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