To all of my fellow K-12 educators in the Sunshine State, as we close out another calendar year that has moved faster than a cheetah on steroids, in many respects, my message to you for 2012 is simple: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
Although Jimmy Valvano, the legendary basketball coach, punctuated those statements in a 1993 ESPY awards speech before he died weeks later of cancer, those statements are especially germane to educators.
As a high school English teacher in the Palm Beach County School District, I can honestly say that I love my job. I relish the moments of seeing the light bulb flicker and then shine brightly after explaining a concept or showing my students how to improve their writing by tweaking this and that. It truly is the toughest job I have ever loved.
Nevertheless, this tough job has been made unnecessarily tougher by the pols in Tallahassee whose real agenda seems to be something other than giving every child a quality education.
If the bureaucrats really wanted our public schools to develop creative and critical thinkers, they would have never mandated all school districts to create a plan that links teacher pay to student test scores. Somehow, in some strange way, the folks who write and pass the laws in our state’s capital believe that the hallmarks of business are applicable to the halls of education. But that’s not the case. Our children are not widgets.
Each student is unique and many of them, sadly, come to school with a lot of baggage. Some arrive at class hungry because there is a lack of food at home. Some students have to work crazy hours or do all sorts of odd jobs just to keep the family afloat, which leaves them very little time to do homework.
Some don’t know how to handle the emotions of being abused or watching a parent being abused. Some are dealing with the pressures of conforming to a group’s expectations of being defiant to anyone in authority. Some students are on drugs. Some simply don’t care.
In other words, there are too many factors beyond a teacher’s control that affect student achievement, which is why teacher merit pay has never worked and probably won’t work in the future. In fact, I have yet to hear of a school district in the country that has had grand success with it. Also, I have yet to hear a bureaucrat even cite a study championing the successful implementation of teacher merit pay.
Don’t get me wrong. Accountability is needed but it must be done the right way.
This is why we as educators must continue to fight on all fronts. Not only must we continue to give our students what they need to be intellectually and ethically robust but we must also fight the very forces that are bent on making public education incapable of preserving and perpetuating the democratic ideas that have made America the envy of the world. We are not past the point of no return but we soon will be if we as a collective continue to make excuses and play the blame game.
So what do we do?
For starters, it’s not enough for only teachers to fight. It’s time for school- and district-based administrators, school board members, superintendents and other employees in education to get into the fray in full force.
Secondly, we must organize and strategize. We must hold our elected officials accountable. If they can’t do what’s right by our children, then we should vote them out and put someone in whose vision is congruent with what want.
We must also continue to educate the masses and encourage parents, community leaders, business leaders, and other stakeholders to join our efforts. Their support is crucial. In essence, we need all hands on deck.
It will not be easy but anything worthwhile seldom is. This is why the clarion call in fighting the good fight in 2012 should be Coach Valvano’s poignant message: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
Kevin McDonald is a Tampa native who has been teaching English in the Palm Beach County School District since 2001.
Photo: Kevin McDonald