Monday, March 30, 2009

A Lesson for Bill Maher

It's always illuminating to hear things from people who have not the remotest notion what they're talking about, and as a teacher, I get to hear things from all sorts of people. For example, you get folks like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walmart family, who toss money about to make sure unionized employees are marginalized, all under the guise of "protecting the children. "

Never mind that when the children grow up they'll have to choose from the crappy jobs Bill, Eli, and Wally World have left them.

Then you get lower-level hedge fund guys, like Whitney Tilson, who invest heavily in companies like MacDonald's and Walmart, and want to make sure we have a ready crop of low-salaried drones to keep pumping bucks into the pockets of rich people. All together, they form odious groups like the "Democrats for Education Reform," which push non-unionized charters to exploit teachers, one of the last bastions of organized labor in the country.

It's very disappointing to find someone like Bill Maher lining up with these demagogues. Maher, as you may recall, was dismissed from his ABC show in 2002 for making controversial remarks. You'd think he'd have some empathy for teachers who could find themselves in the same situation. Maher thinks unions need to be broken, but it's pretty clear what can happen to teachers without unions. It's also clear that folks like Joel Klein and Al Sharpton are fine with working people being treated like that, but I'd think Maher would question the privatization of education, particularly given what he said about the Bushies for eight years.

Personally, I'm not much enamored of bad teachers, and I'm afraid I have little sympathy for them. On the other hand, teacher unions neither hired them nor granted them tenure. What does Maher have to say about the administrations who did? What does Maher think about Chancellor Klein going to Albany to plead for the right to retain 14,000 teachers who couldn't pass a basic competency test, some of whom had failed it dozens of times? While these tough times may allow cities the luxury of denying employment to these folks, the fact is they'll drag them back as soon as the economy looks up and they need to continue paying the lowest wage in the area.

And personally, I value tenure a great deal. A few years ago I identified two kids in my ESL classes who were fluent in English but could not read. I remember one of them had remarkable listening skills, and was very good at participating on the basis of what he'd heard, but was unable to identify words like "house" and "mother" when I wrote them out for him. I found out he'd been kicking around the city system for years, and when I called his mom, she knew about it and asked me to help him.

At the same time, I'd been communicating with a NY Times columnist who wanted to use this info. He asked if he could use my name, and said it would be OK if I had tenure. This in itself suggested without it, I couldn't have told the truth.

Nonetheless, when the writer used my name in a fax to the DoE, I got called for a marathon session in the principal's office, in which school leaders of every stripe made sure their posteriors were covered, and not one word was uttered as to the welfare or future of the kids I'd identified, both of whom had somehow stopped attending by the time things hit the fan. This was regarded as a positive thing by some, who claimed it provided additional cover. I was later told by an uninvolved administrator there were no programs available for such kids.

And I found myself unable to get textbooks for my students for over a year. Ironically, when some geniuses from Tweed came and saw my kids sharing the decrepit books I kept in my classroom, they complimented me for utilizing cooperative learning. Still, I have no question I'd have been fired if I hadn't had tenure. And lacking Mr. Maher's celebrity, I've no doubt my teaching career would have ended right then and there if that principal had half a chance.

Where I live, teachers are thoroughly interviewed before they get to set foot in a classroom. And tenure is not granted as a matter of course. But teachers who bother to question the often preposterous things that occur in places like Mr. Bloomberg's New York, teachers like me, we need tenure.

It's sad that Bill Maher has opted to join the ranks of the wealthy and ignorant, who can't be bothered with those of us who need to support our families, let alone our kids, who will need to support theirs as well.
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