This ends now.
I know what anger feels like, and, to be sure, I'm angry. I don't know that I've ever truly negotiated genuine depression, but this has to be it, or at least a version of it. Perhaps the two, anger and depression, are twins born of the mess that’s been made of the Dairy State’s public education system.
But again, this has to end now, right here, today. It has to end by the time I'm done writing.
You see, I’ve gone over and over it, and I keep coming up with the same reasonable conclusion: I didn't do anything wrong.
Most of the time when people write words like that they're actually covering up the fact that they really did do something wrong. I didn't. Here's what I did:
1--Turned my back on law school to teach children
2--Turned down a number of opportunities [over the past two decades] to leave the world of public education in exchange for work that would have been significantly more profitable. I turned down these various opportunities for a host of reasons, but one of the biggest ones was my desire to continue teaching children. [And now, most of those opportunities are no longer opportunities. You can only say 'no' to prospective suitors so many times before they stop asking.]
3--Wrote my own textbook to better teach my American Government course because I didn't like the way traditional textbooks were doing it. By the most conservative estimates one could render, I’ve saved my school district low five figures based upon what they would have had to pay for two hundred or more traditional textbooks over two different purchasing cycles. I wrote my textbook for free. It came as a bonus returned to the taxpayers of the community where I teach in exchange for my salary and benefits.
4--Developed my Political Theory/Philosophy course as a cutting edge, 'laboratory of government' style of learning experience that's won rave reviews from a variety of individuals both in and out of education. After nearly ten years, the course now has a national reputation and has received approval from my school board to be the subject of an independently produced documentary which is tentatively set to begin filming next year. I also wrote the textbook for this course. It’s an elective, so you’ll just have to put me down for saving my school district an estimated five thousand dollars in this instance.
5--Worked continuously to produce the best educational product possible, deriving from the philosophy that we do best by children when educators are seen as artists creating an environment that's engaging. It's this "teacher as artist" mantra I've spent 22 years cultivating for my classroom and for other teachers. I've always revised materials, choosing never to simply rest on my laurels. Repeatedly, I’ve looked for new and innovative ideas to do what we do in a more effective and meaningful way. I’ve been allowed to grow in a school culture that’s unimaginably supportive. I’ve been encouraged to teach “on the edge” where students can most readily be engaged.
I could go on, but I'll stop there. I've made the point, and the only person I'm trying to convince is myself. If you’re reading, welcome to the music in my head. This is a note from me to me.
I didn't do anything wrong. I chose teaching. I stayed with teaching.
For the record, I love to teach. I sought fulfillment from the vocation. I guess one could call this selfish, but surely one would also have to call it an exchange; moreover, it’s an exchange where I suspect I've given back plenty more than I've taken. So if the powers that be from on high don't agree with my decision to teach, if they feel I should have done something else with my life, then they're entitled to their opinion. Regardless, I stand by my decision, not due to a need to hold onto some wrongheaded notion out of foolish pride, but because I believe in my heart that it was the right path to take. There’s a function of inner peace that comes with knowing truth in the following words: I wouldn't have done it any other way.
And if knowing truth in those words brings inner peace then, on the other end of the spectrum, the pinnacle of surreal must be the need to constantly remind one’s self that one’s done nothing wrong by choosing, of all things, to teach. It’s this pinnacle of surreal which best describes where I'm at right now. Wherever this is, I don't know. I don't know because I don't recognize my own profession. I don't recognize my own profession because the lifeblood of what allowed for the above list ('Here’s what I did') has been, all at once, drained from the body of public education. It's gone. I hope to get it back. But, for now, it's gone.
If this doesn’t quite register, let me explain. Here’s the path good teachers take. They work hard to get tenure because tenure ensures academic freedom. Once they have this academic freedom (underwritten by tenure) they work hard because they have it. They teach on the aforementioned ‘edge,’ where all engaging educational practice belongs. This translates into the teacher being able to take lesson planning risks in order to reach frequently disengaged students. The state of Wisconsin has, all at once, chosen to eliminate the very safety net which allows for this educationally engaging risk taking. The state of Wisconsin has, all at once, chosen a public education system much more like that of South Carolina. The state of Wisconsin has, all at once, lost track of the very reason why its public schools are regarded so highly in the United States of America. Tenure is what provides the underpinning for teaching innovation and creativity. It's a direct result of collective bargaining and has been developed over the course of decades. What is it exactly that you think is going to happen to the lesson plans crafted in the many classrooms managed by the many good teachers you have in your public schools, Wisconsin? Do the words “play it safe” resonate? They better. In a tenure-free public education system, “play it safe” will be the new normal for talented teachers who have committed their careers to the profession.
And please spare me the private sector analogies. The bottom line is this: I can have my best year of teaching ever. I can be operating in the 99th percentile of teaching quality every hour of every day of the academic year. I can do this and you won’t see the “return” on my work for years. It won’t show up in my quarterly sales figures. You can’t pay me a commission based upon the measurable profits I’ve generated for the school district. You need to embrace this whole “teacher as artist” mentality if you want good schools in Wisconsin. The private sector analogies, should you be so shallow as to subscribe to them, only draw you out as the amateur you are. If you want good public schools then you need to step up your thinking to a whole new level of sophistication. When dealing with particularly complex topics in the classroom, my students and I have a Denzell Washington inspired saying we like to use: This is chess, not checkers.
Wisconsin has chosen checkers with Bobby Fischer at the other end of the chessboard. Turn your back on tenure and reveal yourself to be of sophomoric depth in terms of your ability to play at a table where the level of thinking is as nuanced as a successfully executed public education system.
If the storms that lurk on the horizon are to set upon my professional being and cast me down and out, so be it. I'll keep my head up and a smile on my face when it happens. I am me. This is what you get, and it includes the unapologetic narrative composed of the decisions I've made in my professional life. If those decisions aren't good enough for you, if you find them misguided, then you're the one with the problem, not me.
So hit me with your best shot. Maybe you'll knock me out of the institution of teaching. But your best shot can't kill me. I'll get back up off the ground while you scramble to replace me and others like me. Or maybe you'll succumb to the backlash (propagated by thousands and thousands of people like me) and I'll end up back where I belong: In my classroom with the empowerment one needs if one truly wants talented educators to be utilizing their skills to the best of their collective abilities.
Do it. I invite you. Hit me. I assure you that you'll be doing it for no reason you'll ever be able to live with in the long run.
Or, if you’re ready to play chess, give me back my tenure.
John Jacobson is the Social Studies Department Chairperson at Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wisconsin.