Who DOES Love Public Education?

Blogger’s Warning:  This post ain’t full of rainbows and unicorns.  If you’re looking for a sunshine-and-candy-corn wrapped around an apples-and-hope kind of post, close your browser and walk away.


When Nancy Flanagan—one of my closest professional mentors and friends—asked me to take part in We Love Public Education day, a grassroots attempt to push back against the never-ending crush of negative rhetoric spun by the Oprahgandists of the world, my thoughts immediately turned to Maggie.

Maggie was a first year teacher in a high-poverty school outside of Atlanta a few years ago whose eyes were opened to the challenges of life after two short weeks in the classroom. 

As a part of a longer letter to her college mentor, she wrote:

I have learned that most kids do not go home to mom or dad and get help with homework–they go home to an empty house.

It's hard to understand how some of these students survive in the living conditions they were born into. Not that I didn't know it already… but I see how lucky I am to have had the "tooth fairy," "Santa Claus," stuffed animals, clean clothes, food, candy, tv, air conditioning, a clean bed, and parents always around.

Sometimes I get home and it's hard for me to get my mind off of my children and whether or not they are safe, being fed, etc.

While there is so much sadness in these children's lives, they are, for the most part, incredibly happy children (at school). We have our times where discipline must be enforced, but these children are so good at keeping their lives a secret… no one would ever guess that these children are living a silent war that begins at 2:15 everyday.

What Maggie—and most of the general public—didn’t realize is that there are thousands of teachers living the same silent war every day.

They are the dedicated professionals who commit themselves to working in high-needs communities because they care about giving every child—including those that our society is only-too-ready to throw away—a fighting chance to overcome the circumstances of their young lives.

Mary Ward is one of those teachers.  Working in one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, Mary’s schools have been buried under criticism for the better part of a decade.  Despite hearing over and over again that she’s a failure, Mary perseveres on behalf of her students because she knows that no one else will. 

Renee Moore is one of those teachers.  Spending her entire career in the Mississippi Delta—one of the poorest regions of our country—Renee wrestles with injustice every single day, refusing to quit on the kids that need her the most.

Maggie and Mary and Renee are what I love about public education. 

Working in almost impossible circumstances, criticized at every turn for THEIR failures, and surrounded by students who have little hope without an education, they’re almost singlehandedly pushing back against the systematic failure of American society.  

But as a started to organize my thoughts about Maggie and Mary and Renee, I quickly realized how little the general public really knows—or cares—about their challenges.

Take the right wing radio host here in Raleigh, who described teachers as “these despicable people who are trying to indoctrinate our kids” the other day.  “What are we going to do about them?” his rant continued.  “When will we stop letting them walk all over us?”

Really, Mr. Right Wing Radio Man?  Teachers are despicable people that something needs to be done about?

Those are hardly the adjectives and actions that I’d use to describe three women who have spent their lives saving students from society’s social wreckage. 

Or take Waxx Mann, the anonymous commenter on this post about teacher quality in Washington DC, who wrote:

Most teachers in this area are incompetent and lacking…and they don’t have the drive or inner fundamentals to actually lead a classroom or children..

And anyway i know more about this than most..my mother was a teacher for 31 years and her students come back decades later and wanted their children in her class before she retired.

Really, Waxx Mann?  You know more about the challenges of working in high needs schools because your MOTHER was a teacher? 

Go and spend a day with Maggie, Mary and Renee and then tell me how incompetent and lacking the teachers in our high needs schools are.  Better yet, go and work in their classrooms every day for a decade. 

Until then, keep your mom out of it. 

Or take RiShawn Biddle, the education pundit and open critic of public schools who I wrestled with on Twitter yesterday. 

Check out this exchange from a much larger conversation on the challenges of high needs schools where RiShawn—a guy who takes frequent pot shots at public school teachers and schools—-argues that tutoring a few times a week gives him first-hand knowledge of the challenges of urban education:

Me: And if you really want to make a difference for high needs kids, you'd start teaching instead of preaching. #truth

Biddle:  Oh dude, stop. For one, I do reading tutoring with kids. So yeah, I do more than just preach.

Me: I love it when a guy who tutors a bit believes that he knows everything there is to know about schools! #aintthateasy

Biddle:  Try harder. A lot harder. And by the way: It's tutoring in poor urban districts.

Me: Do you really think that teachers in those same poor urban districts would consider you their equal? #nope

Biddle: And yes, it is as hard to do reading tutoring with kids who are reading at second grade level in fifth grade as it is to teach.

Really, RiShawan?  Tutoring a couple of kids that are below grade level is just as hard as teaching in a high needs school?

Try working with those same kids in classrooms of 30+ students—some who are reading on the second grade level and others who are reading on the 8th grade level.  Figure out how to help the handful who come to school hungry or without even the most basic supplies every day.

Settle the student down who saw his uncle arrested for dealing and console the student who feels abandoned by her drug addled mother all while trying to move the rest of your students forward through an impossibly large curriculum.

Then, throw in a few students with behavioral and emotional problems, give up half your current salary, take away any remedial resources that might actually help you do the work, turn off the heat in the room where you’re working, and offer to have your performance numbers published by the local newspapers.

Finally, do it every day, all day for 30 years. 

Then you’ll have a better understanding of just what Maggie and Mary and Renee are doing.

As I wrestled my way through each of these arguments yesterday, I realized that we’re screwed

Public education has no real chance in the face of such an under-informed public—and no matter how hard we work to raise awareness, our efforts are never going to change the minds of people like Mr. Right Wing Radio Man, Waxx Mann and My Buddy Biddle. 

What’s frightening, though, is that Mr. Right Wing Radio Man, Waxx Mann and My Buddy Biddle have audiences. They’re pushing their lies to our neighbors…and our neighbors are listening.




18 thoughts on “Who DOES Love Public Education?

  1. Elly

    As a parent who went to public schools and state universities, I would like to suggest an idea about what makes a good teacher. I’ve known many friends over my life with amazingly diverse skills – from race car mechanics to tax attorneys to quilt-makers. If any one of these people decided to become a teacher, to go through the training and get their credential, I’m quite sure they would do well, and I would welcome them as people who could positively benefit my own children.
    One problem is that children don’t respect their elders any more and their parents fail to empathize with teachers. Even people who are not trained as educators complain as if they know it all. When children and parents complain about their teachers, they divert the point of education by missing the opportunity to learn from unique individuals.
    I always appreciated the diversity of my two children’s teachers and would never have wanted every teacher to be exactly the same. I appreciated teachers who taught my children about life. My kids made mistakes in school, teachers were there to guide them and we learned about life. My kids became pretty good at navigating academics on their own because they had caring parents and teachers.
    That being said, if a teacher is having a problem “relating” to students, of course he or she should get additional training by their principal, and this should not be a shameful affair. My sense is that many teachers hide their weaknesses for fear of being imperfect in a society that has gone crazy with “dragon mom” expectations. However, as I said above, most every mature adult I know who has made the commitment to teach is qualified to do so in my book.

  2. Bo Adams

    We have quite the audience too. As for me…THANK YOU to all the teachers. Not the trite, over-used, polite “thank you.” The real “thank you” that makes your eyes well up with genuine goose bumps all over. Thank you!

  3. Michael Rees

    Yes, Mr. Ferriter, I think this makes quite a bit of sense. I had never truly considered the idea of the schools being a political battleground, but after reading through your comment, I can see that this probably is the case.
    However, I can’t help but wonder at your line, “Anything that is for the children, even if its a complete fabrication, is going to have resonance with people.” I agree that it is certainly possible (and as you said, “pathetic”) to manipulate voters through the schools, but I still fail to comprehend why the advice of the professionals (teachers) is not taken in situations such as the role of the school system in elections.
    Any insight?

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Michael wrote:
    I do not understand how these messages of failure on the part of the schools are so widely believed and followed.
    Do you have any insight?
    Hey Michael,
    First, thanks for stopping by. Its really cool that as a student, youre checking out conversations about education reform.
    As far as messages of failure go, its really interesting to note that the VAST majority of people report being satisfied with their public school but believing that the system needs to be blown up completely. Isnt that strange? If people were really dissatisfied with public schooling, why arent they dissatisfied with their own schools?
    And I think its a complete political war. Schools are an approachable battleground for politicians interested in swinging more people to their own movements and to their parties because people care about schools. Think about it: If you can create hysteria around the notion of schools failing children—and then argue that you know the solution, couldnt you convince people to vote for you?
    The flip side is true as well: If you could create swells of warm fuzzies about how schools were institutions of greatness that were saving children—and make the claim that your work was responsible for that success, wouldnt you have tons of people voting to reelect you every few years?
    Major parties use school issues as a way to get an otherwise apathetic voter base interested. Anything that is for the children, even if its a complete fabrication, is going to have resonance with people.
    The fact that people are manipulating voters and using our schools as the tool for manipulation is all too real—and all too pathetic at the same time.
    Any of this make sense?

  5. TeachMoore

    Thanks for the nod in your piece, Bill. I feel your frustration about dealing with some of our critics (I’ve had exchanges with Mr. Biddle myself); however, he and other sincere critics of public education can also be reasoned with when the evidence is thoughtful and compelling. Hundreds of thousands of teachers in this country have such evidence. Taken individually, we are sometimes dismissed as ancedotal; taken collectively, we are the wisdom of practice. Educators ourselves have not been systematic and consistent in perserving and telling that collective story to the rest of the nation. There is so much about our work that even those in the buildings with us don’t see. That’s an area that has been my focus for a while: How to make the work of highly accomplished, highly effective teachers more visible.

  6. Mike Scott

    Here’s common refrain I hear from conservative bloggers:
    “People, by and large, make their way in life by the choices they make.”
    That assertion should be challenged every day. Children do not choose their circumstances. They do no choose poverty. They do not choose illiterate or mentally handicapped parents. They do not choose their parent’s addictions or mental problems.
    The next time you hear any conservative spout this nonsense, please make sure you set the record straight.

  7. Teacha

    Michael Rees posted:
    “What shocks me even more, however, is that people willingly accept the message they receive from these people. I do not understand how these messages of failure on the part of the schools are so widely believed and followed.
    Do you have any insight?”
    First off, I looooove the fact that there is a student reading and participating in this discussion. Shouldn’t they be included in this conversation just as much as the educators?
    Second, Michael I go back to this statement. “The squeeky wheel gets the grease” Those making the biggest stink and throwing the low blows (aka. Mr. Biddle, Mr. Right Wing Radio Man, and Waxx Man) get all of the attention. Honestly, this is how it is with a lot of life events. The loud complaining ones get all of the attention and unfortunately this attention gets “them” what they want. BUT in my experience as an educator when we squeak and try to defend our profession we are looked down upon as just another disgruntled teacher that doesn’t want to work.
    I too struggle to understand why these messages of failure are accepted by everyone but the educator and students themselves.
    Any insight?

  8. Michael Rees

    First off…fantastic, thought-provoking post. Reading through this really gives an idea of the struggles that teachers go through daily.
    Now, I have a confession to make: I’m not a teacher. I’m a high school student. With that said, however, I do not feel that the public school system has failed me, as many would assert. Rather, I think that attending a public school, seeing these struggles daily and being able to empathize with my teachers is why I do not see the point of people like Radio Man, Waxx Mann, and Mr. Biddle.
    What shocks me even more, however, is that people willingly accept the message they receive from these people. I do not understand how these messages of failure on the part of the schools are so widely believed and followed.
    Do you have any insight?

  9. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for stopping by Patrick.
    Like so many commenters have shared, being optimistic is really the only way that we can hope to protect our system, right? If we give up, there will be no one left to defend the kids and communities that need someone to speak on their behalf.
    The whole thing is exhausting, though. I honestly buckle under the constant criticism, even when it isnt leveled directly at me. Hearing teachers described as despicable people and seeing non-educators arguing that we have no real expertise or authority is almost too much.
    I catch myself wondering why I bother more and more often. I dont make enough to support my family as a full time teacher. I give up nights and weekends away from my family working part time jobs to make ends meet. And Im just not sure that its worth it anymore.
    Used to be that the nobility of the profession was enough to make up for the poor salary. Now that I know Im despicable and disposable to the people that Im serving, the value of that nobility has been greatly reduced.
    Any of this make sense?

  10. Bill Ferriter

    Dub wrote:
    I had extreme sympathy (and was nodding my head in agreement) until I saw the abhorrent Twitter exchange you had with a reading tutor.
    I’m with you, Dub, and can understand how that exchange looks to you.
    I’ll have to go back and polish the language a bit, though, because Mr. Biddle isn’t just a nice guy working as a reading tutor.
    He’s an outspoken critic of public schools who engages in his own polemics that far exceed anything I’ve ever written.
    In fact, the exchange that I spotlight here was only one small part of a much, much larger and longer conversation where he displayed the same kind of us-v-them-ness that you find offensive here.
    (Translated: He started it!)
    And while that probably doesn’t excuse the approach that I take in my post while dealing with him, it certainly explains it.
    Two more thoughts:
    1). One interesting thread running through my conversations with critics over the last few days has been the number of people who are suggesting that teachers don’t really possess unique levels of expertise—-or suggesting that when teachers lay claim to expertise, that they’re being arrogant.
    Why is that?
    Why is it that the general public wouldn’t think twice about claiming some special knowledge about medicine or law, but everyone seems to think they have skills and knowledge equivalent to that of their child’s teacher?
    2). What I find interesting is that when teachers sharpen their elbows and fight back against the kind of criticism leveled at us by the likes of RiShawn Biddle, people think less of us.
    In all honesty, I’m tired of being a professional doormat. And if that means asserting myself a bit and pushing back against the constant insults hurled at teachers, I’m ready to start pushing.
    But that same pushing looks bad to you.
    Why is that?
    Anyway, thanks for the challenge. I’ll go in later today and clarify just who Mr. Biddle is so that my bit is a more accurate reflection of the conversation that he and I had yesterday.

  11. Nancy Flanagan

    Hey, Bill.
    Thanks for the great, thought-provoking piece on public education. You can’t write about rainbows when there aren’t any–and this is a time when the gathering avalanche of low-information blah-blah is rolling down the hill at unprecedented speed. Everyone and his brother-who-tutors knows what to do about schools. Except, of course, for the people who work in them.
    For those who’d like to do something–anything–to push pack, in an informed and organized way, against those who would see public schooling get even worse, to prove their point, check out the Save Our Schools March and Days of Action: http://www.causes.com/causes/556335-save-our-schools-march-and-national-call-to-action?m=82447048

  12. andrew

    I read your blog through a friend who re-tweeted it. Your insight about the war that kids in poverty face are true and real. My wife and I are both public school teachers in the same county, but our schools are vastly different. My wife works at a disadvantaged school while my school is a “storybook” type school. To listen to her kids experiences is something that we as a society don’t want to know. Like Maggie writes, it is near impossible to get any insight as to what the impoverished kids are going through. It never ever occurred to me (as with most people I am sure) that many of these poor kids, despise the weekend or school holidays. These kids only reliable meals come from school. I am sure a lot of teachers notice a spike in behavioral issues stemming from their anxiety about not being in school for a certain period of time.
    The confusing thing is with all the rigor and set curriculums that schools now operate under, how can they say schools are broken? There is a clear laid out plan as to what is expected of the students. I speak with loads of high school parents who are highly educated and financially successful in their own right, who say to me, “I never had to do this much school work when I was at school” and “my son/daughter stays up to midnight almost every night doing homework” We are asking kids of every SES to do things that NO ADULT would do without seeking extra compensation for it! And then telling them there is no certainty that their labor will result in any fruit.
    It is doubly frustrating when talking to friends who work in the private sector who contemplate leaving their job for the “stress-free” life of a teacher.
    When I was taking classes for my masters, there was a person who was career switching who had a little experience as a tutor. She introduced herself as an “unpaid literary tutor.” Every teacher in the class saw through that immediately…. a volunteer. While volunteers are important in every field, it cannot replace day by day interaction with a real class. Many volunteers make themselves out to be martyrs. The Maggie’s, Mary’s and Renee’s don’t consider themselves martyrs and never will.

  13. Dub

    I had extreme sympathy (and was nodding my head in agreement) until I saw the abhorrent Twitter exchange you had with a reading tutor. Your tone was exactly what public school critics latch on to when describing teachers as arrogant, elitist, and insular. Yes, teachers put up with more and “know” more than tutors and private citizens. But pitching this as an us vs. them debate when this guy is clearly trying to help in his small way is an incredibly ill-advised rhetorical tack. I want to agree with you 100%, but this post is nothing more than a polemic that fails to see its own fallacies.

  14. Jenmardunc

    I am familiar with the teaching lives of Maggie, Mary and Renee on two fronts. I’ve been teaching in alternative education for 16 years. The children in my area who are like the ones Maggie describes often don’t make it all the way to high school, but if they do–I have the privilege of working with them. My second front of familiarity comes from my role as a parent. My children attend a “failing” school. I am active on the PTO, write letters of support to the newspaper, and talk until I’m blue in the face about how wonderful the staff is at our local elementary school. But it seems that the only thing many people in my neighborhood notice is the fact that our school gets more diverse each year and that our kids aren’t making AYP. We are seeing a lot of racist attitudes emerge,and a lot of negativity toward the school.
    I agree that we need weighted funding for schools. Neither my alternative program nor the school my children attend have enough computers for a whole classroom to use at the same time. Schools in other parts of the same district are so well-to-do that they don’t even worry about the tech issue: 3rd graders bring their own laptops each day. Yet, the rallying cry of those 3rd grade parents is always the same: “It’s not fair! If that school gets x-dollars than my child’s school should get x-dollars too!” I can spew quotes about “walking a mile in their shoes” but until the shift is made from thinking about “my children” to thinking about “our community’s children” nothing is going to change.
    So my new tactic is to talk about the kids. I will no longer praise the staff or tout the benefits of my alternative program. The data doesn’t tell anyone anything they want to hear. Even though we lower the dropout rate and prevent kids from living a life of crime, crimes are still reported in the news. There are still hooligans out and about, so people believe that our schools are not making a difference.
    The new tactic must be to appeal to their guilt (and their hope for a tax deduction.) Think about those late night ads for Feed the Children: they don’t get people to donate by listing the GDP of the country of origin and asking you to level the playing field with the U.S. GDP. They plaster the screen with pictures of starving children and ask you to pick up the phone. I think we need to do what we do best in education–talk about our kids. Keep sharing Maggie’s email. Run it as a late night ad with some depressing music and pictures of some starving children. Let them think they’re seeing a place that is far away (but is really only miles from their home.) Ask them to donate the same amount they’d spend in one day at Starbucks. Let them know it’s tax deductible. Then use the proceeds to level the playing field in our schools. I have tried every other positive public relations tactic I can think of both in my teaching life and my parenting life, and I am out of ideas about what else to do. Now I’m waiting for a miracle…or some free late night TV ad time…

  15. twitter.com/bhsprincipal

    I agree with the fact that we can never change the minds of the extremists who make a career out of scaring people with misinformation and generalizations. But, I admit I may be naive when I say that I have faith in the fact that we can change the perceptions of our neighbors.
    I believe that these people in their busy lives are getting their only slice of information on schools from these radio folks as they rush from point A to point B. We, the people working in public education, need to get our friends and neighbors together and show them the truth about the caring educators who choose to work in public schools each day.
    I am excited about the 10,000 Parent Challenge being promoted by Will Richardson. I think that grass roots efforts such as this one can help our nation find a balance in the conversation about our public education system. We need to get out there and be our own PR machine. I am sick of sitting back and only hearing the bad news
    Let’s do something about this!

  16. Bill Ferriter

    Eric wrote:
    But the moment we come to the conclusion were screwed, the burden of
    the daily work required to teach and lead in these communities becomes
    too heavy and we leave.
    Thats the thing, Eric: the burden HAS become too heavy. When youre buried under constant criticism leveled by the likes of Mr. Right Wing Radio Man and his minions—-and when the general public seems to care more for their own kids than they do for kids in general—-its almost impossible to dig out.
    And as much as I admire and respect those of you who have chosen to continue to fight on behalf of our neediest kids, there arent enough teachers willing to make the same sacrifices—-or enough reasons for new teachers to make the same choices as you have. Youre fighting a never-ending, losing battle to keep your schools staffed with accomplished teachers.
    Thats whats got me down.
    Can we keep writing and raising our voices and pushing back in social media spaces?
    Sure…thats what I started telling myself way back in 2007 when I started writing the Radical. This is my chance to influence public opinion on the issues that I care the most about, I thought. Finally, someone will listen.
    But so can the whacks who know nothing but think they know it all—and they always seem to have the upper hand in the media war.

  17. Eric Juli

    Fantastic post-thanks for giving voice to all the hardworking Maggie’s, Mary’s and Renee’s. I could add dozens of names and stories to your list of both new and veteran teachers who are dedicating their careers to students without voices in forgotten communities.
    But, I don’t think we’re screwed. Sure, the feds aren’t making our lives any easier, and the general public is unaware of what is happening and what needs to happen in public schools. The general public doesn’t know what is happening or what needs to happen.
    But in my urban district, when we keep a student in our schools, K-12, and they are taught by our Maggie, Mary and Renee, that student can compete with almost any student, suburban or urban, in our state. We send that student to their choice of college, and they succeed.
    Unfortunately, we have so many transient students, our great results for the students we have K-12 gets lost. When we can keep the kids, we and more importantly the students, are not screwed.
    I’m still relatively new to twitter and blogging, but it feels to me that there is still an opportunity to use these tools in a way where educators, students, and parents can speak louder with a more united voice.
    One of the main reasons school isn’t what we want it to be is students don’t vote, and in poor communities, urban or otherwise, their parents don’t either. I don’t know the answer, but isn’t it possible twitter, blogging and Social Media in general are a way to amplify our voice to make meaningful change?
    I get why “we’re screwed” is the logical conclusion to your post. It does feel that way sometimes. But since I work with my own Maggie, Mary, and Renee, I know how hard we work with and for our students. We are undervalued, under appreciated, underfunded, under everything. But the moment we come to the conclusion we’re screwed, the burden of the daily work required to teach and lead in these communities becomes too heavy and we leave.
    So thanks again for the great post, but Maggie, Mary, Renee and I are headed to work on Monday. Speaking only for me, I’m not going to just fight the good fight. I’m there to win.

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