Yep, it’s happening in Minnesota. They’re coming after our tenure.
Our tenure! Our tenure!
We’re a few weeks away from Teacher Appreciation week, and we’re going to spend that time hearing stories from people about the worst teacher they’ve ever had. Those stories are awful, because when every person hears the phrase “bad teacher,” they can picture one. Mine was a Creative Writing teacher I had in high school. He hated poetry, loved hockey, and let the Jocks in class get away with chewing tobacco while breezing through their required english elective. He’s the reason I got into teaching, actually, because I hated his class so much and I should have loved it.
My daughter is in Kindergarten now, and she loves her teachers. At some point, she’ll have a crappy teacher. She’ll have a teacher that isn’t working hard enough, or is downright mean, or who will say things like, “your parents will need to help you with this family tree.” It’ll happen. It’s not ok that it’s going to happen. Also, my daughter is a middle class white girl. Schools are essentially built for her. Teachers, by and large, were all once little white girls a lot like her.
So, though I care deeply about schools and teaching and kids and all that, there’s just no way that it holds the immediacy for me that it would if I were a person of color. If my daughter were a black boy, I don’t know what I’d do. Knowing the shit that comes out of teacher’s mouths sometimes, I don’t know what I’d do. Knowing the data about graduation, advanced classes, suspensions, knowing that schools are so often places of violent anti-blackness and that anti-blackness is often protected (if not celebrated), I don’t know what I’d do.
I’d probably file a lawsuit, or ten. I’d probably read the sort of incremental and negotiated change I currently trust in as bullshit, as racist bullshit. We’ll get there, we promise, even though we haven’t gotten there yet and really haven’t ever made anything better.
I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know what we should do. Plenty of people are sure they’re right, so if that’s what you need, you can go read those things, I guess. For me, this is all super fucking complicated.
I had dinner the other night with a whole bunch of teachers. It was a table, really, of all the best teachers I know and we were all, in some way, getting our asses kicked by schools. As much as our public voice may be one of all defense, teachers know there is something wrong. We do struggle to believe widely that we have anything to do with it. Oh, we were also there to celebrate a milestone. That day, I turned in the manuscript of my book, my real, actual book to a real, actual editor who thinks it’s going to be good (it’ll be out in like a year).
The line of that milestone can be traced to my 7th grade teacher, a woman whose name is lost to history, who wrote on an assignment once, “you should think about being a writer,” which introduced the idea to me that writing was something that people did, not just something that people were forced to do. Within a year, I was writing epic-length rhyming poems I thought girls would like (“A box burning a hole in my pocket for her/All proposals before? Shallow they were.” You’re welcome.).
All of us can call to mind one teacher, at least, who didn’t deserve to be in a classroom. All of us can call to mind at least one that deserves to have a state re-named for them. I would be happy to live in Rupnowsin or Bartersota.
The great majority of teachers are working their asses off. The great majority teach as an act of love, and a growing number approach it as an expression of social justice. There’s good things going with teaching and teachers, and, you know what? Tenure isn’t creating them, and it isn’t holding them back. There isn’t a teacher in the country that couldn’t get better at their job (except maybe Colleen Atakpu, this math teacher I worked with once), and I’d rather focus on getting more great teachers, on setting the bar higher for what we expect from teachers, on prioritizing the decolonizing of our classrooms, minds, and practice.
Getting rid of old crap racist teachers doesn’t do enough if we’re replacing them with young and energetic crap racist teachers.
So, they’re coming for our tenure. Ok. I’m not mad at that, really. I’m just not looking forward to the meme war. I’m not looking forward to attacking teachers too broadly (as if there aren’t other motives at play) or defending them too blindly (as if blaming “families” or “community” or “culture” isn’t straight up racist).
I’m in the fight for better schools. We need better teaching and better teachers. We need better lots of things. Here’s hoping that somewhere in the midst of the coming shouting match, we get to do some listening, we get to do some building, we get to get better.
Tom Rademacher is an educator with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He blogs at Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.