For many teachers, a video is far more appealing on a Friday night than a pot luck meeting. What keeps teacher activists going?
By S.J. Childs
I was tired. But I had heard that these Rethinking Schools people were hot, really hot. I just had to go and see.
I walked up the steps of a typical old-style Portland home. I heard voices coming from inside. Would I be welcome? What was the point? Wouldn’t a plate of spicy chili noodles and a bad video be a better way to spend a Friday night? It was my first year of teaching, and I was exhausted.
I knocked and pushed the door open. I placed the token bottle of apple juice on the dining room table, next to three other bottles of juice, a plate of brownies, a bowl of popcorn, and some chips. I kept thinking about those hot chili noodles.
Someone I vaguely knew started speaking to me. I nodded and smiled and pretended I understood everything and was energized and interested. I still wanted to be on my couch, comatose and regenerating from teaching five classes in four different subjects: two classes of law for freshmen, including several who couldn’t read; an English class for freshmen, including several who wouldn’t read; and two global studies classes that included many students who didn’t care.
How would coming to this scraggly group of inspired, committed teachers do me any good?
FIGHTING THE ISOLATION
The meeting was held by the Portland Area Rethinking Schools group (PARS), a network of teachers who meet around issues of equity and education quality. The group holds a “Thank Goodness It’s Friday” pot luck about every six weeks, and over the years the group’s teachers have played an important role in education politics within the district, the city, and throughout the state. (See a related article on PARS in this issue.)
My first PARS meeting focused on the effect of a property-tax cut on education and how we could stop the budget-cutting madness. There was talk of publishing articles, signing petitions, lobbying legislators. There were plans for parent meetings and phone trees. It all sounded great. But I was too tired to do more than listen.
That was several years ago. I would like to say that listening to that energetic and committed group got me out of my isolation and exhaustion. But it didn’t. Not because it couldn’t, but because I wouldn’t let it. Instead, I stayed in my classroom by myself, working day and night to create curricula about social justice.
I didn’t go back to another meeting – until last year. What kept me away is probably what has kept other teachers in the city from coming, has kept other teachers in other states from creating similar groups. It wasn’t that their causes weren’t my causes or their goals not my goals. It definitely wasn’t the people.
But I just couldn’t figure out where they got the energy and the time to have all those meetings. My students always came first. I love teaching, and I put all I could into creative and critical lessons. There wasn’t much left over for meeting and organizing and fighting back.
The standards and testing movement convinced me I needed to start going to the PARS meetings. I needed to fight back. I realized that if I didn’t start participating, everything I loved about teaching might be lost. If I didn’t become one of those “hot” people who always have meetings, my classroom could be reduced to a tedious nonsensical world of rote memorization and multiple-choice testing. And the thought of that made me sick to my stomach.
But I have come to realize that it was also more than that. It’s also about community, and hope, and inspiration. PARS member Jackie Ellenz described it well. “Meetings are our churches,” she said.
PARS members are devoted and dizzy with the possibilities of change. They come back again and again because the meetings are a promise, a way to keep hope alive, a way to help teachers find each other. Through their connections and experiences in PARS, members know they can speak up and not be alone. They have learned how to organize and how to stay strong. They respect and admire one another. Over and over again, members have told me that while it’s the political issues that create the need to join, it’s the people in the organization that keep them coming back.
THE CONCLUSION OF MY TIRED STORY
When I think about it, that is why I am going to those meetings. I go because the meetings give me a sense of connection and community. I can listen to the critical reflection of my peers and know that I am in good company. They make me feel good about teaching when usually there is no one else but my students to cheer me on. My colleagues are no longer people with whom I sit in a lunchroom and groan about the students or the administration. These are people whose thoughts and actions keep me excited.
The meetings help create community – not just because they allow for focused collective conversation, but because they provide the human contact that is so vital to the profession yet might not otherwise happen. Now I am not only going to the meetings, I speak on panels and lead sub-committees.
Today, while my two-year-old daughter is napping in the next room and I could be reading student papers, I am baking banana bread for this afternoon’s TGIF. I think about what Linda Christensen told me, about her daughters who are now 15 and 18. “My kids have grown up as activists,” she said. “I see it in them now. I have given them a model for how to respond when things are unfair.”
What greater gift can we give to our students and our children than the inspiration that comes from seeing us struggling for social justice?