I Used to be a Reporter. Now I’m a Teacher. I’ve Become What I Used to Observe

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A long time ago, in a newsroom far, far away; your humble narrator was a respected journalist.

Today I am a beloved school teacher in a suburban middle school.

Okay. That may be laying it on a bit thick.

Like any human being whose job it is to get children to do their best and learn something, I’m beloved by some and beloathed by others. And if I’m honest, when I was a reporter, I was never all that respected. But I did win several state journalism awards.

The point I’m trying to make is that like a caterpillar into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog, I made a startling transformation in career paths that flies somewhat in the face of popular wisdom.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American Lives.” Well, I’m on my third or fourth act and nowhere near ready for the curtain to come down yet.

It’s shocking how far I’ve come, though there’s a surprising amount of overlap between my two professions. In fact, the biggest difference is one of orientation.

I used to get up at 4 a.m., weave into the newsroom and type away for a few hours about the previous night’s school board or city council meeting before my deadline came down, the presses rolled and the morning edition went on sale.

Now I get up at 5 a.m., hobble into the classroom and go to meetings, grade papers or otherwise get ready for a 7-hour invasion by 12- and 13-year-olds, followed by more meetings and papers and planning.

I used to go into the classroom to interview teachers and students about special lessons, state and federal programs or standardized tests.

Now I’m in the classroom questioning myself about my students and what works best to help them learn, trying to navigate the state and federal programs so they get the best return and bang my head against the wall about the constant standardized tests.

I used to independently bebop all over my coverage area, asking questions, doing research, discovering things that many people would rather remain secret.

Now I independently plan my lessons, ask my students questions, do research on best practices and discover things about my children and their lives that many people would rather remain secret.

You’ve heard the old chestnut about education being a career for those unable to act. I’m living proof that it’s a lie.

As a journalist, I reported on. As a teacher, I do.

In my former job, I told. In my current one I show.

Perhaps that’s why I now find it so strange that many of my former colleagues have gone into public relations, communications or have become policy analysts.

I’m not surprised. I can’t say I didn’t know that that door was always open. But it’s peculiar.

In the newsroom, we all heard the stories about grizzled newspapermen and women with shelves stuffed full of awards and prized Rolodexes bursting with hard-earned sources who gave it all up for a 9-5 desk job writing the very press releases we disdained.

We all had friends who were making bank managing people like us and trying to get us to write what the company wanted or spin the story in the direction the advertisers liked.

There is no scorn, no disgust, no derision to match that of a journalist for a corporate sellout, and that’s because in our hearts we all secretly wondered if it wasn’t the better deal.

Every good reporter – like every good teacher – is a radical at heart.

You don’t get into either field to support the status quo. You want to rock the boat. You want to shake things up. You want to change the world for the better – all from the comfort of your swivel chair behind your computer screen or from the well worn tread of your classroom carpet.

Journalists live for the scoop, the big story, the article that shouts off the front page above the fold and which has everyone talking. Teachers live for the student epiphany, the moment the light comes on behind a child’s eyes, the transformation from ignorance to knowledge and – dare I say – wisdom.

But being a press agent or policy hack has none of that splendor.

You have to give it up – all for the right to have a chance at a life.

I loved being a reporter. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I got to do things, see things, talk to people, be there for things that I never would have been able to access otherwise. But I could barely pay my bills.

I was dirt poor in the newsroom. We all were.

We worked 50-60 hours a week, had no time for a second job, no time for a social life, no time for a family or kids, and we wanted more.

So I understand the allure of the steady paycheck and becoming a housebroken professional communicator of someone else’s message.

But being a teacher is different.

You still don’t get paid much. You still work long hours – though maybe not quite as long. But you can get that second job – often in the school, itself, tutoring students or in a summer or after school program.

And you get union protections that I only dreamed about as a reporter. A safe workspace, clean and tidy, no outrageous demands (or at least an upper limit on them), and a schedule you can predict and plan a life around.

Best of all, you still get to keep your idealism intact. Or you can try to keep it as you dodge this directive and that unfunded mandate and that deeply racist policy passed down from above.

Don’t get me wrong. Becoming a teacher was hard work. I didn’t go about it the easy way – no Teach for America, one-foot-in/one-foot-out, cheating for me. I dove in head first.

I went back to college and took an intensive, accelerated masters program designed exactly for people changing careers. To get there, I had to swallow a few prerequisites I’d missed in college the first time. Then they placed me in a high school where I watched and then took over multiple classes – all while enrolled in education courses at night and in the summers.

By the time it was all over, I still had the most important things left to learn – (1) whether I could actually teach a full schedule, and (2) whether I liked doing so.

For me, the answers were unequivocally positive. I took to it like I’d taken to journalism. I needed lots of fine tuning, but the basics came naturally. And I loved every exhausting minute of it.

I regret nothing about becoming a teacher. It’s the best job I’ve ever had and am ever likely to have.

As a journalist, I got to rock whole communities with exposes about corruption. As an educator, I get to impact individuals.

I no longer get to be the talk of the town, but I get to change lives all the same – one person at a time.

And there’s something deeply satisfying about it – to look in another person’s eyes and see the need right there in front of you, and to be able to heal it even a fraction of the way well.

This world is hard. It takes people, chews them up and spits them out. There is so rarely a helping hand, a smile, understanding. But to be able to offer your hand, to be able to share a smile, to attempt to understand – that’s pure magic.

When the day is done, I know it was well spent.

I’ve come a long way from the newsroom. And in doing so, I’ve broken journalism’s number one rule – don’t become the story.

I no longer report on the action.

I participate in it.

What a way to make a living!


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Linda Darling-Hammond vs. Linda-Darling Hammond – How a Once Great Educator Got Lost Among the Corporate Stooges

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Linda Darling-Hammond is one of my education heroes.

 

Perhaps that’s why her recent article in the Washington Post hurts so much.

 

In it, she and her think tank buddies slam education advocates Diane Ravitch and Carrol Burris for worrying about who governs schools – as if governance had nothing to do with quality education for children.

 

I’d expect something like that from Bill Gates.

 

Or Campbell Brown.

 

Or Peter Cunningham.

 

But not Hammond!

 

She’s not a know-nothing privatization flunky. She’s not a billionaire who thinks hording a bunch of money makes him an authority on every kind of human endeavor.

 

She’s a bona fide expert on teacher preparation and equity.

 

She founded the Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University, where she is professor emeritus.

 

And she was the head of Barrack Obama’s education policy working group in 2008 when he was running for President.

 

In fact, she was the reasons many educators thought Obama was going to be a breath of fresh air for our schools and students. Everyone thought she was a lock for Education Secretary should Hope and Change win the day. But when he won, he threw her aside for people like Arne Duncan and John King who favored school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

These days she spends most of her time as founder and president of the California-based Learning Policy Institute.

 

It’s a “nonprofit” think tank whose self-described mission is “to conduct independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice.”

 

The Learning Policy Institute published a report called “The Tapestry of American Public Education: How Can We Create a System of Schools Worth Choosing for All?

 

The report basically conflates all types of choice within the public school system.

 

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to have policy analysts admit that there ARE alternatives within the public school system above and beyond charter and voucher schools.

 

On the other, it’s frustrating that they can’t see any fundamental differences between those that are publicly managed and those outsourced to private equity boards and appointed corporate officers.

 

Hammond and her colleagues Peter Cookson, Bob Rothman and Patrick Shields talk about magnet and theme schools.

 

They talk about open enrollment schools – where districts in 25 states allow students who live outside their borders to apply.

 

They talk about math and science academies, schools focusing on careers in health sciences and the arts, schools centered on community service and social justice, international schools focused on global issues and world languages, and schools designed for new English language learners.

 

They talk about schools organized around pedagogical models like Montessori, Waldorf and International Baccalaureate programs.

 

And these are all options within the public school system, itself.

 

In fact, the report notes that the overwhelming majority of parents – three quarters – select their neighborhood public school as their first choice.

 

However, Hammond and co. refuse to draw any distinction between these fully public schools and charter schools.

 

Unlike the other educational institutions mentioned above, charter schools are publicly funded but privately run.

 

They take our tax dollars and give them to private equity managers and corporate appointees to make all the decisions.

 

Though Hammond admits this model often runs into problems, she refuses to dismiss it based on the few instances where it seems to be working.

 

Despite concerns from education advocates, fiscal watchdogs and civil rights warrior across the country, Hammond and co. just can’t get up the nerve to take a stand.

 

The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on all new charter schools in the country. Journey for Justice has requested a focus on community schools over privatization. But Hammond – a once great advocate for equity – can’t get up the moral courage to stand with these real agents of school reform.

 

She stands with the corporate school reformers – the agents of privatization and profit.

 

“School choice is a means that can lead to different ends depending on how it is designed and managed…” write Hammond and her colleagues.

 

In other words, if charters result in greater quality and access for all students, they are preferable to traditional public schools.

 

However, she admits that charters usually fail, that many provide worse academic outcomes than traditional public schools serving similar students.

 

She notes that 33% of all charters opened in 2000 were closed 10 years later. Moreover, by year 13, that number jumped to 40%. When it comes to stability, charter schools are often much worse than traditional public schools.

 

And virtual charter schools – most of which are for-profit – are even worse. They “…have strong negative effects on achievement almost everywhere and graduate fewer than half as many of their students as public schools generally.”

 

However, after noting these negatives, Hammond and co. go on to provide wiggle room for privatization. They discuss how state governments can do better making sure charter schools don’t go off the rails. They can provide more transparency and accountability. They can outlaw for-profit charters and put caps on the number of charters allowed in given districts and states, set rules on staffing and curriculum – all the kinds of measures already required at traditional public schools.

 

But the crux of their objection is here:

 

“In a recent commentary in this column, authors Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris erroneously asserted that our report aims to promote unbridled alternatives to publicly funded and publicly operated school districts. Quite the opposite is true.”

 

In other words, they continue to lump privatized schools like charters in with fully public schools.

 

They refuse to make the essential distinction between how a school is governed and what it does. So long as it is funded with public tax dollars, it is a public school.

 

That’s like refusing to admit there is any difference in the manner in which states are governed. Both democracies and tyrannies are funded by the people living in those societies. It does not then follow that both types of government are essentially the same.

 

But they go on:

 

“The report aims to help states and districts consider how to manage the broad tapestry of choices available in public schools in ways that create quality schools with equitable access and integrative outcomes.”

 

Most tellingly, the authors admonish us to, “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” (Emphasis mine).

 

The way a school is governed is not FOR ADULTS. It is FOR CHILDREN. That is how we do all the other things Hammond and co. suggest.

 

“Work to ensure equity and access for all.”

 

That doesn’t just happen. You have to MAKE it happen through laws and regulations. That’s called governance.

 

“Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities and resources.”

 

That’s governance. That’s bureaucracy. It’s hierarchy. It’s one system overlooking another system with a series of checks and balances.

 

“Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”

 

Again, that doesn’t just happen. We have to write rules and systems to make it happen.

 

Allowing private individuals to make decisions on behalf of private organizations for their own benefit is not going to achieve any of these goals.

 

And even in the few cases where charter schools don’t give all the decisions to unelected boards or voluntarily agree to transparency, the charter laws still allow them to do this. They could change at any time.

 

It’s like building a school on a cliff. It may be fine today, but one day it will inevitably fall.

 

I wrote about this in detail in my article “The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School.”

 

It’s sad that Hammond refuses to understand this.

 

I say “refuse” because there’s no way she doesn’t get it. This is a conscious – perhaps political – decision on her part.

 

Consider how it stacks up against some of the most salient points she written previously.

 

For instance:

 

“A democratic education means that we educate people in a way that ensures they can think independently, that they can use information, knowledge, and technology, among other things, to draw their own conclusions.”

 

Now that’s a Linda Darling-Hammond who knows the manner in which something (a state) is governed matters. It’s not just funding. It’s democratic principles – principles that are absent at privatized schools.

 

“Bureaucratic solutions to problems of practice will always fail because effective teaching is not routine, students are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable, or standardized. Consequently, instructional decisions cannot be formulated on high then packaged and handed down to teachers.”

 

This Linda Darling-Hammond is a fighter for teacher autonomy – a practice you’ll find increasingly constrained at privatized schools. In fact, charter schools are infamous for scripted education, endless test prep and everything Hammond used to rail against.

 

“In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”

 

I wonder what this Linda Darling-Hammond would say to the present variety. Privatized schools are most often test prep factories. They do none of what Hammond used to advocate for. But today she’s emphatically arguing for exactly the kind of school she used to criticize.

 

“If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”

 

Isn’t this how they routinely teach at charter schools? Memorize this. Practice it only in relation to how it will appear on the standardized test. And somehow real life, authentic learning will follow.

 

“Students learn as much for a teacher as from a teacher.”

 

Too true, Linda Darling-Hammond. How much learning do you think there is at privatized schools with much higher turnover rates, schools that transform teachers into glorified Walmart greeters? How many interpersonal relationships at privatized institutions replacing teachers with iPads?

 

“Life doesn’t come with four choices.”

 

Yes, but the schools today’s Linda Darling-Hammond are advocating for will boil learning down to just that – A,B,C or D.

 

“We can’t fire our way to Finland.”

 

Yet today’s Linda Darling-Hammond is fighting for schools that work teachers to the bone for less pay and benefits and then fire them at the slightest pretense.

 

In short, I’m sick of this new Linda Darling-Hammond. And I miss the old Linda Darling-Hammond.

 

Perhaps she’s learned a political lesson from the Obama administration.

 

If she wants a place at the neoliberal table, it’s not enough to actually know stuff and have the respect of the people in her profession.

 

She needs to support the corporate policies of the day. She needs to give the moneymen what they want – and that’s school privatization.

 

This new approach allows her to have her cake and eat it, too.

 

She can criticize all the evils of actual charter schools while pretending that there is some middle ground that allows both the monied interests and the students to BOTH get what they want.

 

It’s shrewd political gamesmanship perhaps.

 

But it’s bad for children, parents and teachers.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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