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THOMPSON: The Rise of the Anger Class

Burnout1Sara Fine wrote a wonderful piece explaining why she left her D.C. charter classroom after four years.  Her decision was based on more than "burnout," more than being cursed out by Shawna (a 10th grader who could barely read), and more than the increasing micromanagement of teachers.

Fine cites Neil Howe’s and William Strauss’ characterization of her generation as "engaged," "upbeat" and "achievement-oriented," and a "hero generation." Members of Fine’s Millennial Generation "are not used to feeling consistently defeated and systemically undervalued." But according to Howe and Strauss (which Fine did not mention) the Baby Boomers were the last generation to have had personal experiences in public schools that were unambiguously good. Boomers must recognize that the mantle is being passed to new generations, but Boomers must be the protectors of the liberal arts, and traditional democratic and educational values in this era of "reform."

 That is why comments addressed to Fine were so dismaying. Too many commenters gloried in the loss of an excellent young teacher. "Obama-like narcissism," being "like a petulant child," a "part of the Ivy League crud killing America," "bitter and angry and I guess after dealing with the dredges of society," a "Ivy league wuss!," a "left-wing loser ... [who] didn't really like teaching," someone who believes she’s "the "Great White" hope, someone who needs to "please climb down from your cross," and someone for whom "the students are better off without you," and a "woe-is-me, the Ivy League sacrificer", who "does not have the soul of a teacher." 

Worst, other comments illustrate the dangers of playing "the race card," as is done by so many "reformers."

A commenting teacher said of her students "They beat the stew out of the dumb white kids (we have no black students)! Latino kids make up less than 20% of our students, yet garner about 50% of the awards. How's that for a slap in the face to the race-addled trailer folks?"

Another said of the student who cursed Ms. Fine, "Pass Shawna. Send her to a historically black college and let her get a government job."

Another commented "‘Burnout’ from teaching an urban classroom.... Another euphemism for that which must not be spoken." The commenter then recommended the link "What it's Like to Teach Black Students."

Another comment was "Did you really believe that all the black kids were going to be impressed with the rich JAP? They knew you looked down on them, and would quit to write a book on Muffy and Daddy's bucks. Vomit. Head to Martha's Vineyard with Skip Gates and Obama and Veronica and your rich friends."

Another commenter wrote, you "seem to think that the answer to the poor, urban black student is a young, white hope from the suburbs... this writer has already burned out, ... why not recruit dynamic urban teachers can relate better to these students... I know for a fact that 2 of my black friends who are in their later 30's with management experience in the government, wanted to reach back and help their communities... I guess they weren't young, inexperienced and white enough to pass the grade..."

By the way, Ms. Fine, I also teach freshmen and sophomores and it requires a frustrating form of delayed gratification.  I used to teach younger students along with seniors where the victories are more apparent.  A balance of 15 and 18 year-olds works well for a variety of reasons. Seniors are great because they immediately "get out of the chute" piling up victories in the first semester.  As senioritis arrives in January, the freshmen and sophomores start to "get it all together."  Seniors can articulate their gratitude in ways that keep teachers motivated.  When younger teens grunt out those sentiments, their expressions of appreciation are more ambiguous but no less profound.  Teachers need concrete victories as well as promises of success if we are to avoid burnout.  In this era of top down alignment, however, the most reasonable of teachers' preferences, are subordinate to the theories from up high. - John Thompson 


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I was also dismayed by the ferocity and mean-spiritedness of many comments on the Post story. It's also a feature of too many blogs--People indulge in brutality they wouldn't (I hope) exhibit in person. (Recent political events do, however, give me pause.)

There's altogether too much of this in the education debate.

I find the Howe & Strauss idea that baby boomers had unambiguously good experiences in public schools rather odd, and perhaps lacking in historical perspective. Many early boomers started school in the last years of segregation or the early years of desegregation. "Busing" and "local control" were hot-button issue in late '60s and '70s when many baby boomers were finishing high school. Jonathan Kozal published "Death at an Early Age" in 1967. "Blackboard Jungle" was released in 1955.

Good point, but as I recall in discussing the issue with Strauss his polling evidence was persuasive. And it supports MY memories. After all, desegregation was ordered when I was in elementary school, but it didn't occur until my last two years of high school and the (white) students who used violence where the "hoods," which is what we called "thugs" back then.

But to first support your argument, I once watched a (white) founder of a charter during a meeting where many of my (black) students participated. As she interacted with them (as opposed to the black students in her school who were less challenging) you could see her memories of being accosted during desegregation. As they came flooding back and she broke into tears. In his last years I watched a longterm (white) neighbor, whose son had been one of the most violent students, as he atoned through relationships withe the immigrants and blacks in our neighborhood. My (black) best friend welcomed desegregation, and when his brother beat up a white kid at random, and the (white) principal was afraid to suspend him, the (black) father demande that his son be suspended according to the rules.

Back then, when I had unambiguously good experiences at school, I was clueless about the oppression on the east side of the railroad tracks. Similarly, the violent crime rate was far higher. But back then the "bottom" 1/3rd of whites was long gone before they reached high school, and our stunning murder rate was not considered within the context of school.

I have had plenty of conversations where blacks recount their school memories. School like the church was a sanctuary back then. A black student could get a spectaculary good or a spectacularly bad education back then. Remember the outmigration of women and blacks from teaching into their rightful positions as lawyers, doctors, etc. (and teachers if they CHOSE) did not occur until the 1970s.

But you don't want to read history backwards and think that today's ideas about education as a stepping stone are the same as back then. Education in some ways was seen as the same ladder but in other ways it was different. Remember, back then we had industrial jobs. The turning points for my city were 1983 and 1991 when 10% and 6% of jobs disappeared overnight. Every place had their version of that story.

I wish we would get out of the blame game and remember that it was the instant industrialization that created of current problems and not educators. Or if are to blame people, blame Reagan (and W) for accelerating the decline of the industrial economy. Had jobs disappeared more slowly, families would have had time to adjust.

Back then, schools had a "feed the chickens" approach. Teachers taught and students learned or they left school. When I first entered teaching at a school that was then an inner ring suburb, the front 1/3rd of the room got a great education while the back 1/3rd slept. Violence in the early 90s wasn't as bad as the early 70s but it far worse than today. But gangsters conducted their business on the edges of schools or off-campus. As with most of educational history, the problems at school were bad but not as bad as the problems in the rest of life

But what we didn't understand was the URGENT need for schools to reach out to the most vulnerable. I give great credit for younger generations for redefining education, and stepping up the sense of urgency. The jobs of schools have been transformed by 180 degrees in the last generation. It's not just teachers but it also is families that must develop a new consciousness, and 15 to 20 years is a mighty short time. Just before NCLB our Board Chair visited my class and we ended up with a crowd of 100 or students. I asked my students (almos all black) to say one thing about their elementary school. Students from the neigborhoods west of the railroad tracks all expressed wonderful memories. Students from the east broke down about 50 50, either loving or hating school.

I'd be curious about a straw poll today. Because of NCLB, some of those students would be better served, I bet. Others would have been damaged by the test prep. some would have attended charter schools that respected them as full human beings and laid a foundation for success. Others would have been dumped into neighborhood schools made worse by "creaming" the top students to magnets and charters.

And don't get me started on educational values. We may not have lived up to them, but the values of the liberal arts, of the professional autonomy of teachers, of an open exchange of ideas, of "creative insubordination" and of resecting the "seamless web" that is learning were far more honorable than the utilitarian values of today. Our goal should have been to extend the opportunities enjoyed by white baby boomers to everyone, not break down the sacred wall between schools and "the Market."

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