Finding My Teacher Voice

I am a proud product of the public education system.  I attended public schools for 12 years, and earned, with the help of a large group of caring teachers, what amounted to a full academic ride to Texas A&M University.  I went on to work for an oilfield services company, ending my 19 year career there after a 6-year run of being a corporate trainer, teaching geology, geophysics, and seismic processing to highly educated individuals from all over the world.  I come from a family of public school teachers, and after 19 years in the oilfield services industry, I now find myself joining their ranks and teaching in one of the classrooms I sat in almost 30 years ago.  

It is difficult.  It is exhausting.  It is nerve-wracking.  It is sometimes rewarding.  It has taught me some home truths about humanity that escaped me in all of my years working in industry.

The biggest truth it has taught me is that people assume that just because they sat in a classroom for 12 years, that they are experts on public education.  Heck, I assumed that for years.  I was a successful product of that educational system, how could I NOT be an expert?

Boy, was I wrong.  And if you think you are an arm-chair expert?  So are you.  

Teachers who might be reading this are nodding their heads.  Every day they deal with their professional opinions being questioned by a myriad of people who haven’t set foot in a classroom in years.  They are questioned by both those who blame every teacher for the bad experience they had in that one chemistry class fifteen years ago and by those who hold every teacher to the impossible standard of an astounding teacher they had 30 years ago who was magically able to spend three hours with them after school every day until they understood fractions.  They forget that the bad teacher was dealing with other issues, or that the good teacher didn’t have to spend 10 hours a week on paperwork and data calculations.  And that is not to say that those extremes don’t exist anymore, but for the most part, the people I see every day are dedicated to helping children reach their potential.  They work long hours, spend their own money on supplies, and agonize over teaching methods that might help the kids who aren’t on reading level or haven’t managed to learn their multiplication facts by grade 6.  And they do it for a low salary and ever-diminishing benefits.

And these people, including me, are under attack.  

It has become fashionable among politicians to heap blame for society’s ills on the public education system.  And since teachers are the people that most of the public sees, it all becomes the fault of the local teacher.  Not the unfunded state and federal mandates.  Not the unqualified politicians making education policy.  Not the lobbyists that are always looking to sell a costly quick fix to people who haven’t seen a classroom aside from photo ops since the 1980s.  Or 1970s.  Or maybe 1960s.  People who harp on how it was ‘in their day’, who have no idea how our schools have changed in both demographics and scope.

Currently, Texas teachers are under attack by a very vocal part of the Republican Party, led by Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.  Along with their friends at groups such as Empower Texans, Patrick and Abbott are leading a well-funded war against public education.  The easy things to point to are the public monies they want to divert to private, charter, and home schools via tax credits and vouchers.  Strangely enough, Tim Dunn (one of a cadre of about 7 wealthy donors who fund these folks and chairman of Empower Texans) founded a private religious(sorry, ‘classical’) academy in Midland.  I wonder why he’s so interested in funneling public funds to private schools?  I would think someone who is purportedly so invested in the study of western civilization would have read our founding fathers and their thoughts on public education.  Thomas Jefferson wrote,  “A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens, from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so it shall be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest.”  

John Adams agreed, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

Now let’s talk about public expense.  Over the past fifteen years, the state has been shifting the cost of education back onto the local districts.  The percentage that they pay per student has dropped from 65% to around 35%.  That money has to be made up somehow, so Texans have seen local school and property taxes rise in order to make up the shortfall.  Politicians like Abbott and Patrick then tout that they have trimmed the ‘fat’ off our state budget, all the while blaming education for the rise of property taxes, and making the specious argument that by electing them, Texans are choosing leaders who will ease their tax burdens.  

If you have not seen or read the statement made by Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley condemning the practice, please do so.  In his investigations, he read the latest budget, which was written with the assumption that the cut in education funding would be made up by an increase in local taxes.  Crowing that you’ve balanced the budget and neglecting to inform the public that they will have to make up the funds on the local level is negligent at best, and more likely to be deliberate misinformation .  

And now they want to take even that state contribution and divert it away from public schools and into private and charter schools.  Schools that are not charged with educating every student.  Schools that are not under the same restrictions as public schools and who do not face the constant pressure of the state coming in and taking control if their results do not meet an arbitrary standard.  They are playing a shell game with our children’s futures, and like any good street hustler, they are doing everything they can to distract us with the left hand while the right one dips into our pockets.

We are fighting back though, those who love and value public education.  We are using our Teacher Voices to fight back, countering the misinformation on social media, in our homes and churches, at the grocery store and club meeting.  We are organizing, and we are mighty.  

And if the push-back is any indication, they are scared.

They are all over social media and the editorial page condemning teacher ‘unions’ as being left-wing shills.  The thing is, there aren’t teacher unions in Texas.  We have professional organizations like many professions have, but we are unable to collectively bargain.  This isn’t a union.  This is a tidal wave.

They are using intimidation tactics that would make Joseph McCarthy blush, trying to strip away our freedom of speech by sending out poorly edited letters asking for ‘whistle-blowers’ to inform on teachers who are electioneering using school district resources.  The FOIA requests are flying like beads at Mardi Gras, trying to find any examples of bad behavior on our part.  Of course, they continually underestimate teachers.  Check out #blowingthewhistle on Twitter.  Thousands of tweets turning it around to instead ‘blow the whistle’ on the everyday actions of teachers who give of their time, money, and spirit to help their students succeed.  

They single out one group in particular, Texans for Public Education, led by Troy Reynolds.  The group is made up of over 20,000 teachers, former teachers, and public education proponents, and they are fighting mad.  We (because to be perfectly clear, I am a member) vowed to #blockvote for pro-public education candidates, regardless of our party affiliation.  Texas has an open primary system, so we will be block voting in the Republican primary against Dan Patrick, instead backing the pro-public education candidate Scott Milder.  And we are looking at all of the state races.  Members have looked at the voting record of every incumbent, and the statements made by every challenger, trying to glean every bit of information on the candidates to find those who are ready to stand up for public education.  There are ratings in all of the state house and senate races, and we will be voting as one.  I encourage you to check out the list, and see our reasoning behind these ratings.  

Because if you truly value teachers, most of us can do without another coffee mug or heartwarming meme shared on Facebook.  If you value us, stand with us.  Find your inner Teacher Voice and let our elected officials know that they cannot intimidate us.  They cannot silence us.  In the words of Jane Austen, an author I discovered during my time in public schools, “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

Texans for Public Education