Monday, February 29, 2016

Leaving. Letter #73

            I found out a couple of days ago that Barbara Hickman, Superintendent of Flagstaff School District, is leaving her position to take another job in Colorado. She’s been here since 2007. She weathered the global recession in 2008, the uptick of charter schools, the downturn in enrollment, the passage of bills to raise taxes to compensate locally for funds from which the state had divested. I don’t know much about her but she seems pretty dynamic, being able to manage such vicissitudes.
            I suppose that is one thing we, who serve at the pleasure of the state, should understand: Sometimes, you’re the tail. Sometimes, you are also the tail. Most of the time, it is you who is getting wagged. You don’t do much wagging. It would be nice to be the one who wags but teaching for the state has perks: it’s a relatively secure job, you have time during the summer to devote to research and reworking your curriculum, and you have some kind of autonomy in the classroom. Sometimes, you’re not the dog of the budget but you’re the dog of your days. Or, at least some part of your days, when the kids and the paperwork and the testing and the evals don’t get you down.
            Still, teaching in this state is its own beast. Bills are on the table to provide vouchers to kids who go to private school, further decimating the block of funding districts receive. The pot of funding public schools continues to get smaller and smaller. Through voucher systems, class size actually increases because if you take ten kids out of a school, you can afford to pay for one fewer teacher. The remaining teacher’s class size is that much bigger.
            I wonder how long Superintendent Hickman has been trying to go.  Maybe not long but possibly since the beginning. It’s possibly to want to get the hell out of your job and still do a good one. Who could blame her for hightailing it to a state that, though not perfect, doesn’t pretend that the recession of 2008 is ongoing and doesn’t claim businesses will flock here because we keep the taxes so low? Businesses really don’t want to move their families or hire from a population whose state per-pupil spending is 49th in the nation. I understand that it might be politically smart to keep people under-educated so they keep voting for you, but business leaders tend to want people who can think critically and who, you know, know stuff.
            Sometimes I worry that my favorite teachers will leave because they haven’t had raises in over 9 years, because the threat of budget reductions looms every year even though the state has a surplus and a rainy day fund, because their class size gets bigger, but, more fundamentally, because they work for a dog who hates this very tail.
            One of my favorite teachers takes workshops in the summer, attends conferences, learns new math-teaching techniques on her own time. She runs an in-class newspaper, elections to teach the kids how government works and how fractions work and how to think critically about books the kids read. She makes the kids dig deep into understanding how a book is composed by asking kids to write their own books. She makes the kids think math is a choose your own adventure story: you can do it this way. You can do it that way. There are four ways to figure out how to add fractions. I will show you each of them.
            What if she left? What will the dog wag now?  
            I have colleagues at NAU who are, according to my students, some of the best teacher they’ve ever had.  They serve on committees. They organize internships. They publish articles and books. They contribute some of the most cutting edge scholarship in the country.
            What if they left? Who would be the best teachers then? What’s the point of a dog without a tail?
            I love it here and I love my job. I would have a hard time leaving. I love my colleagues, the friends I’ve made here, the Flagstaff. I love the work  do but I understand why Superintendent Hickman will leave. It’s hard to stay in a place where you have to fight for everything and where, no matter how hard you fight, no one listens because you’re just a tail. Unless, of course, the people who believe in the good work of the tail rise up and get together and find a way to wag that dog.

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