Something Done Right
I’m a thug. This revelation came to me two years ago as I was attending a KNEA convention in Topeka. There I was seated between a grandmotherly woman in a denim romper wearing wooden necklace and an auto tech teacher from what I like to called “western Kansas” (which translates to “anywhere west of Wanamaker”).
So there I sat in a Topeka convention hall rolling the word “thug” around in my head. The imagery of mafiosos in Dick Tracy hats and tommy guns just didn’t seem to fit with the teachers sitting around me. Neither did the incendiary descriptions of teachers only out for their own self-interests. My goodness just a couple of rows away sat my former piano teacher and I KNEW any self-interested man would have fled the awful sounds I could produce for another career.
But a thug is what I have become. If I am a thug it is the educational system that has made me into a thug and for this I’m grateful because it means I have become an advocate for my students, myself, my family, my peers, my profession and my community.
I have come to see my career as a series of journeys. The first phase of the journey as a 21-year-old straight out of teachers college looking for a classroom of her own. Any basement classroom would do; even if it meant no centralized heat or air and sharing the space with a few creatures of the four-legged variety.
My journey started with the enthusiasm of establishing a career, staying at school until 10pm to “just wrap things up” and volunteering to be on parent, scholarship and district committees. My husband and I had just married and my time for students was limitless. In the teachers’ lounge I scoffed at the negativity of some of my peers while hero worshipping others who seems to have boundless energy and drive.
The journey changed so subtly that I barely recognized that I had arrived in a different place. Even today I can’t really say when exactly I changed or whether it was the job that changed or whether it was just a change in my awareness. Somewhere between baby number one, the changing of school administrations, earning my masters degree and baby number two my bright optimistic attitude dulled. The grousing in the teacher’s lounge didn’t seem so far away from reality.
Rather than believe some of my peers were just lazy or didn’t care, I started wondering what THEY had been like their first five years of teaching.
- When had they lost the love of teaching and learning from students? When had they lost their joy for teaching? Was I going to lose MY joy in teaching? Would the constant demand to do more with less wear me down as well? How could I combat a downward spiral of expecting the worst and receiving the expected and more?
At this point in my teaching journey I had known the support of a true instructional leader, an advocate for students and teachers. I was experiencing the loss of that support to an lackluster leader, a rubber stamp and a bully. For almost a decade I had dealt with a school environment that locked teachers out of the building, offered a $50 budget to classroom teachers and chastised them for not doing more with less each year. I could handle a decade of the challenges, but an uncertain future without a leader who valued my contribution was too much. While I loved who I taught and who I taught with, I was seriously contemplating becoming a clock-in, clock-out teacher.
When I expressed my plans to a peer, she chastised me for giving up too easily on myself, my students and teaching. This started the current phase of my journey. I figured out that year my contributions to the classroom were valuable and that value was recognized elsewhere. When I was offered the journalism position at Lawrence Free State H.S., I was ecstatic.
After pulling myself out of (and being pulled out of) the doldrums, I recognized the value of this new direction in my journey. Never again would I allow my professional career to be dictated by circumstances outside my control. If I didn’t think classroom teachers were being supported, I volunteered for a grant committee. If the principal was retiring, by god I would volunteer to be on the interview committee for the next principal. If I felt teachers needed an advocate, I volunteered to be a building representative. If I felt the state was making a mistake by cutting career and tech education funding for journalism, I would join forces with fellow journalism teachers to push back on a done deal.
On this journey I have had friends and family members question why teachers complain so much. After all we get three months off in the summer and only have to be in the classroom seven hours a day. My response is I spend all but two weeks of my summer traveling with students, attending conferences, taking classes, or teaching. As for seven hour days, I know few teachers who can do the work that needs to be done in seven hours. Their families live with a parent whose attention is often split between grading papers, preparing for classes and paying attention to the needs of their own children.
Oh, but I’m “one of the good ones” I have been told. That statement says more about the ignorance of the person uttering it than about the teaching profession. It reminds me of a situation where my brother-in-law was making jokes about lazy Mexicans until he realized he was pounding nails on a hot tin roof with a Mexican-American. He gave the same lame remark... “oh, but you are one of the good ones.” Back peddling at that point does NOT make up for insulting my profession, those who have mentored me, those who have supported me and those who give everything they can give to students everyday.
I have heard even peers question how hard it is to actually be a FILL IN THE BLANK teacher. When I hear this I conjure images of other teaching positions... I shudder at the energy level and multi-tasking abilities it takes to be a kindergarten teacher... I cringe at managing 40+ stinking students in and out of a locker room... I mentally shut down at the idea of dealing with the hormonal experiment that is middle school teaching... and I defend my peers because until I have walked in their shoes I cannot understand their journey.
So in the end when I hear my teachers union called a bunch of thugs, I am proud because when if you take away a teachers voice what you will get is a clock-in, clock-out employee. If we are thugs, we are “the good ones” fighting for our students, our families and our communities.
My father was and still is my hero. While he was human and with faults, his story humbles me and I try to look at others with more understanding as a result. He was the only son of Swedish immigrants. He and his father worked to create the American dream for our family. By the time I was born my family owned a farm of 240 acres and dad row cropped other farms in addition. At his funeral family friends talked about how dad was up with the sunrise and didn't go to bed until the sun went down, but this was not the man I grew up knowing.
In 1975, when I was 3 months old, my father contracted polio. For those of you who are too young to know what it can do to someone, it paralyzes voluntary and involuntary muscles. Polio paralyzed dad's right side of his body: his lung, arm, leg, everything. He spent 18 months in the hospital learning how to breathe with one lung and how to walk, talk with a trache, and deal with multiple respiratory infections.
For almost 2 years my sister, brother and I didn't have a father. In fact, I learned to call my uncle "daddy" long before I ever met my real father. My mother spent most of her week at the hospital and my aunt and uncle took care of my brother (12), my sister (6), and me. During that 18 months my mom's mission was keeping our family together, our farm going, and my dad alive.
With the help of our church, our neighbors and family she somehow made that happen. People pulled together and put up our hay, plowed fields, tended cows. Our church held fundraisers (bake sales, newspaper drives, etc). Because of the generosity and Christian spirit of so many people our family made it through those first couple of years. Growing up in this community I learned to love Jesus Christ because I witnessed his work through these people.
However eventually life resumed and the bill collectors started calling. The efforts of our community could not be sustained indefinitely and for the first time since they married my mom went to work outside the home. At the same time KU Medical Center sued for the $250,000 in medical bills for dad's care. Remember this was in 1977. I can not even guess what his care would have added up to in today's healthcare system. Somehow my mom paid for dad's continuing medical bills and raised us on $15,000 a year she earned working in manufacturing.
Quickly my parents realized everything they had worked for could disappear. Dad could not work. There is no recovery for polio. The paralysis that remained was lessened through PT but there was no regaining the use of his lung. The work ethic he had maintained for 50 years could not be sustained with a body that had failed him.
This was devastating for a man who prided himself on providing for his family and creating a life for us that his parents had dreamed of. My father was the person who "pulled himself up by his bootstraps." But he was left in a situation where he couldn't reach for his bootstraps let alone pull them up.
I was lucky enough to have my father in my life for 11 years before his heart broke literally and figuratively. In those 11 years I knew a man who was strong but who questioned whether we would have been better off had he died, a man tortured by watching his family take charity, a man who knew the moment he died our farm would go to the collections with KU Med Center and who knew my mother would still be left with hundreds of thousands in medical bills.
So what is my point? 1. Whatever political party you find yourself in, please remember those hard working families devastated by the high cost of healthcare. 2. Avoid repeating the party lines for or against healthcare reform. Don't hide behind words like "Entitlement," "Socialism," and "New Tax" when we are talking about real people. People like my family. 3. Remember those Christians who pulled together to help our family because they felt compelled to share the love of Christ. Matthew 25:35-40 "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'"
- Talk about real change because we are long past due when it comes to making healthcare a basic human right. The question is not "Do we reform healthcare?" It is "How do we reform healthcare?"