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A Pocket Full of Mumbles

January 18, 2017

I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

Simon and Garfunkel, The Boxer

One of my former students, Larin Sears Rottman, is a teacher in Washington, DC. Her husband is an assistant principal there. Both are University of Oklahoma graduates, and they still have family in this part of the country, but they love it out there. I mention this because of an article that she posted to Facebook over the weekend. She added this at the beginning:

This is a very short read that is very real for me. I am from Oklahoma, but D.C. is my HOME. I live in a real house, in a real neighborhood. I wake up each day and go to my real job to make the world a really better place. There are far more REAL people than politicians in my city. Respect D.C.

I won’t post the article here, but you get the basic idea. People who have real families and live in real neighborhoods and who work and send their kids to real schools there don’t like the generalization that it’s a swamp.

Sure, 220 years ago, when Pierre L’Enfant began to lay out the city design Actually, the District was never a swamp. It was a tidal marsh. But DRAIN THE TIDAL MARSH doesn’t really roll off the tongue, now does it.

Still, as of 2009, 46% of DC’s residents were actually born there. For that matter, OU President David L. Boren – the son of a congressman – was too.

Generalizations hurt. When you make them, even if you mean for this to happen, you’re probably hurting the wrong people.

Over the last couple of months, since the defeat of State Question 779, I’ve seen more of them on social media. Everyone is making them!

generalization

It’s the love language of identity politics. Liberals this. Conservatives that. Gender. Race. Religion. Sexual Identity. Wealth. Geography.

That’s one of my favorite ones. Remember when Ted Cruz was attacking Donald Trump for being from New York? Or have you heard a defensive Republican point out that Hillary’s popular vote margin over Trump is virtually erased if you exclude California? It makes sense. After all, that’s more American than discounting the opinion of voters in the most populous state?

Even making generalizations about voters is specious. Hillary supporters are just a bunch of whiny crybabies (or crybaby whiners, if you prefer). Trump supporters excuse all the horrible things he says. I’m probably doing this wrong because I never use exclamation points. Ever!

This isn’t a blog about DC, or presidential politics, or racism, or sexism, or class warfare, though. It’s an education blog in which I have tried, for nearly five years, to set the record straight. Mainly, this involves responding to the action (or inaction) of policymakers and false narratives presented by groups with influence.

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Generalizations seep into the public education conversation too much too. Whether it’s a state senator talking about all the waste in public schools (without offering a single example), or another one making sweeping, disparaging remarks about school board members, this kind of recklessness does not steer us towards solutions.

With the First Regular Session of the 56th Oklahoma Legislature set to convene in 19 days, I’m unwilling to make generalizations about this new group as a body. The book is closed on the 55th Legislature. I can comfortably say that they failed us – both sessions. They built upon the failures of the 54th and 53rd legislatures. For six straight years (three straight Legislatures), we’ve been treated to a menu of fiscal catastrophes.

I don’t blame all the legislators (lowercase). I blame the Legislature (uppercase) though. The body failed to help with teacher raises, specifically, and with so many other critical state functions, in general. Individuals within that body had good intentions, though. Many did. Maybe most did. They just couldn’t get it done. In the end, we won’t judge you by your intentions. It’s your outcomes that tilt our moods.

That doesn’t mean the 56th Legislature will be the same, though. We have 45 new legislators. Most of them love teachers. Just ask them!

We need to remember that they haven’t served during the session yet. We really need to remember that when we engage them on social media. Some of the returning legislators are on our side too. Maybe many. Maybe most.

My friend Blue Cereal Education posted a blog this morning titled Don’t Raise Teacher Pay (To Be Nice).

We shouldn’t tolerate the implication we’re somehow looking for charity; we’re not. It’s unbecoming to play on sympathy, especially when we’re not the only profession getting shortchanged at the moment. Besides, pity or warm toasties are horrible reasons to raise teacher pay or increase school funding. They’re emotionally driven, unreliable, and fundamentally inaccurate.

Public schools aren’t businesses, nor should they be. You’ll hear that a lot in the upcoming voucher battles, and it’s entirely true. But neither are we charities, or churches, or some type of third world profession. We’re not asking for handouts or love offerings while Sarah McLachlan plays in the background.

Nevertheless, teacher pay needs to go up substantially, and soon – but not for me. It needs to go up for you. And your kids. And your pocketbook. And your state.

A decent public education system is an essential function of civilization. We’re a fundamental element in the social contract that allows people to live together in relative peace, to specialize, to become more productive, and to progress artistically, culturally, medically, financially, and lots of other –allys.

Blue Cereal is right. All teachers need raises. I’m not saying that all teachers are fantastic or that all superintendents are worth what their districts pay them. I’m not saying I’ve never met a board member with an agenda. Nor am I saying that all legislators or all Republicans in the state are out to get us.

As an example, I recently had an exchange about school funding (and waste) via Facebook Messenger with a legislator I know. I won’t share his remarks (without his consent), but I’ll share a portion of mine:

I have some thoughts on waste. Sometimes it’s in the eye of the beholder. We have some patrons who don’t value athletics at all. To them, every time we buy a football helmet, it’s waste. To the mom whose son is on the field getting hit, it’s not. Some people want us to get rid of the arts. Or transportation. Or child nutrition. Or they want teachers to clean their own rooms (which I would highly suggest not proposing).

I managed a restaurant for four years in college. There I learned that limiting waste, more than anything, was about predicting the future. If we prepped a certain amount of food expecting customers and had to throw a lot of it away, which was wasteful. Some nights at closing, we threw away very little. Sometimes, we underprepared which then backed up the kitchen, and probably cost us business.

My point is that every enterprise has waste. Every government agency and every business does. Every superintendent I know tries to limit it – often to the point of increasing the frustration of the workforce. You won’t find one of us who hasn’t tried to find waste.

I get it. You’re trying. So are we. In trying times, that’s what we all do.

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