Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teaching in Wisconsin

The Background
In the past year and a half, teachers in Wisconsin have been in and out of the national spotlight after our governor's attack on collective bargaining rights. The bill sparked massive protests for weeks around the state capitol, and ultimately passed through a budgetary process. The law that was passed, known as Act 10, severely diminished the powers of unions and increased contributions to benefits. This was a leading cause of the unsuccessful recall election that took place recently.

After Act 10 became law, there was a great deal of uncertainty about how districts would use their new powers. As it turns out, my district is going to be the first one to really put them to use and experiment. It was announced after spring break that in the future, nearly all high school teachers now are teaching the entire school with no prep period. In the core departments, this lead to approximately one out of every four teachers in the department being laid off. The remaining teachers will receive a bonus stipend of $14,000. In many respects, we now have a spotlight on us from across the state.

My Experience
I don't write all of this to complain. I simply want to relate my experience of becoming a new teacher and completing my first year during this time as I think we are at a crossroads in education in Wisconsin, in more ways than one - how we teach, how we're judged, and what society believes about teachers.

The climate has been decidedly negative. Very few people encouraged me to become a teacher, but more people than I count have questioned me. Or simply told me it's a poor choice. These voices have been inside and outside of the school, and the story they have been telling is the same: "You don't want to get on this train. It's breaking down and heading toward a cliff. There are better things to do with your life."

Perhaps. There are changes coming, definitely. I doubt the wisdom of many of them, but I also know that this where I am supposed to be.

Teaching is a strange profession. It seems that people either (a) think we're doing a truly noble service, or (b) think we're parasites who deserve less than what we earn. I have a lot of support - parents, students, friends, and community members who genuinely thank me for my daily work. And then I balance that with the looks of condescension and judgment, or people shouting "f@#$ you" out of their car window at me on my walk home because of a pin on my bag.

At the end of the day, and the end of the year, I haven't decided how I feel or what I think. There's not a single way that I feel about teaching in Wisconsin right now. I love teaching - I know that - but teaching in Wisconsin right now is too complex to relate without several hours and a few pints. I don't know how long I'll be able to deal with the negativity and pressure.

It's hard serving in a community that proudly voted nearly 3:1 for a governor that has extremely little respect for educators. I try to remind myself that I'm here for the students, but it is going to be my blood, sweat, and tears that make these new changes successful. What I fear is that my success is going to be used as proof of the validity of their ideas, even though they have handicapped me in an insulting manner.

But that's not going to stop me, because I love this state. We have an amazing tradition of progressive thinking and high quality education (see: The Wisconsin Idea). Further, the people of this state are genuine, friendly, warm, and hard working, even if that doesn't seem to always be reflected in our politics. Politically, we are severely divided, and I am clearly in the slight minority. There are many, many people with us, but just a few more who disagree with us.

I don't know what the future holds. I'm anxious about the teacher evaluation system that is now being piloted in a number of schools. I'm anxious that Wisconsin's commitment to a nation-leading public education system is slipping. I'm anxious about the quality of minds and characters who are going to volunteer to teach in this climate.

I'll be here next year. I am committed to this state and want to believe that Wisconsin will keep bending toward justice (great article by John Nichols). But I do have some serious doubts now, and that is new.