Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Teachers and Students -- In Need and in Deed

In the past year Americans have witnessed a new phenomenon that astounds and profoundly revolts me: the degradation and demonization of the teaching profession. Having come from a family of teachers and librarians, I'll admit to a deep personal bias with regard to this particular issue. But what worries me more is what kind of people would trumpet such hideous (and often libelous) accusations.

Conservatives and other right-wing loons seem to think that teachers are vastly overpaid underachievers who don't work hard enough to earn either their wages or their supposedly frivolous job benefits.
  • The accusers have obviously never walked a mile in the shoes of a professional educator.
  • The accusers have never been asked to continually underwrite basic costs of doing business that their employer should have covered on a routine basis.
  • The accusers are rarely called upon to mediate fights or deal with hyperhormonal teenagers acting out their personal and family problems in the workplace.
  • The accusers rarely have to take home work and devote extended hours (without extra pay) to marking papers, grading exams, and creating lesson plans.
  • The accusers rarely have to babysit for other people's children.
  • The accusers rarely value the education they received.
And yet, many of these people display absolutely no shame when it comes to denouncing teachers as the moral equivalent of pond scum. Perhaps their newfound wealth makes them believe that money can hide their functional illiteracy. Whatever the excuse for their bad behavior, it makes one wonder what they experienced during their middle and high school years.
  • Were they bullies?
  • Or were they bullied by others and left to fend for themselves?
  • Were they latchkey kids who rarely ate dinner with their parents?
  • Or were they only interested in combat sports?
  • Did they have trouble learning or keeping up with other students?
  • Or were they able to manipulate their parents into finishing their homework for them?
  • Were they more interested in getting stoned than doing their homework?
  • Or did they become high school dropouts because of a lack of parental involvement in their education?
  • Did an early history of substance abuse transform them into belligerent alcoholics?
  • Or are they simply intimidated by people who are smarter and whose careers didn't peak at their senior prom?
I still remember listening to my sister (a former middle school librarian) describe meeting with a particularly annoying parent on an open school night. It's hard to get a flunking grade in library, but that's what happens to a student who doesn't do the required class work.

When this student's father arrived in the school library, he started off on the wrong foot by announcing that "You just can't trust that kid, he lies about everything." My sister, who is not known to mince words, looked the man in the eye and said "Your son didn't learn how to do that here. Did he?"

Even as they approach middle age and retirement, anyone who has been lucky enough to have a good teacher can recall how that experience changed his life. Actor Matt Damon flew from Vancouver to Washington, D.C. to address the crowd attending the Save Our Schools March on July 30, 2011. Although the video is a bit jumpy, it's worth listening to what he had to say.

Another passionate advocate for the teaching profession is a poet, actor, and activist in his spare time. In the following video clip, Taylor Mali lays it on the line:

Two new documentaries shine light on specific challenges facing students and teachers. In each case, motivation and commitment are key ingredients to producing good results.

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While many hailed Davis Guggenheim's 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman, as a critical moment of truth telling about the American education system, since leaving her post as Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public SchoolsMichelle Rhee's star has lost much of its sheen. Of greater concern, teachers have become the targets of the most disgusting conservative attacks.

American Teacher offers a brutal look at the plight of today's public school teachers. Overworked, underpaid, and often exhausted from working more than one job in order to make ends meet, these are the people in whose care so many children are placed. These are the people who are ridiculed by venal fools and self-righteous pundits like Neil Cavuto.

Directed by Vanessa Roth and narrated by Matt Damon, this documentary looks at the struggles of four teachers in different parts of the United States:
San Francisco's Jonathan Dearman
American Teacher delivers some disheartening facts to viewers:
  • Students from urban, financially disadvantaged backgrounds are at greater risk for decreased cognitive development and ability, lower school attendance, and higher rates of grade failure and early drop-out. 
  • 30% of American students drop out of school by age 18. 
  • Less than 30% of all eighth-grade students are proficient in grade-level reading and math. 
  • 46% of public school teachers leave the profession within their first five years of being in the classroom. 
  • 62% of America's public school teachers must work at second jobs outside of the classroom (tutoring, mowing lawns, selling stereos, bartending) in order to be able to afford to teach.
  • There are currently 3.2 million teachers working in public schools. 
  • Within the next five years, over one million of these teachers will retire. 
American Teacher is nowhere as slick as Waiting For Superman. In fact, much of the film seems like the official rebuttal to Davis Guggenheim's film. But, as filmmaker Vanessa Roth explains:
"This film is not about the system. It's about teachers' lives: the day-to-day of the responsibilities they have, the importance of their job, and the need to value them in a different way in our culture. I felt like it would be important for us to really just get more intimate into teachers' lives to understand those bigger policy issues.
I see the debate that’s going on in education and, to me, the most important thing that I notice is the teacher who is in front of that classroom. One of the misconceptions about teachers is the hours they work and the idea that they have the summers off. I felt that there had not been a film that really just looked into the lives of teachers, that put the policy to the side and looked at what the truth of teachers' lives is, why they’re quitting as quickly as they’re quitting, and how come we’re having such a hard time retaining them." 
Unfortunately, American Teacher's message is not something that the Fox Nation and Tea Party activists either seem willing to hear or able to comprehend. Anyone who has ever valued a teacher will have no trouble grasping the film's urgency. Here's the trailer:

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In his proclamation proclaiming October 2011 as National Arts and Humanities Month, President Obama noted that:
"Great works of literature, theater, dance, fine art, and music reach us through a universal language that unites us regardless of background, gender, race, or creed. Millions of Americans earn a living in the arts and humanities, and the non-profit and for-profit arts industries are important parts of both our cultural heritage and our economy. 
The First Lady and I have been proud to honor this work by displaying American art at the White House and by hosting music, dance, poetry, and film performances and screenings. The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services continues to recognize the skill and creativity of American artists, historians, and philosophers while helping educate and inspire our children through the power of the arts and humanities.
We must recognize the contributions of the arts and humanities not only by supporting the artists of today, but also by giving opportunities to the creative thinkers of tomorrow. Educators across our country are opening young minds, fostering innovation, and developing imaginations through arts education. Through their work, they are empowering our Nation's students with the ability to meet the challenges of a global marketplace. It is a well-rounded education for our children that will fuel our efforts to lead in a new economy where critical and creative thinking will be the keys to success.
Today, the arts and humanities continue to break social and political barriers. Throughout our history, American hopes and aspirations have been captured in the arts, from the songs of enslaved Americans yearning for freedom to the films that grace our screens today. This month, we celebrate the enlightenment and insight we have gained from the arts and humanities, and we recommit to supporting expression that challenges our assumptions, sparks our curiosity, and continues to drive us toward a more perfect union."
Those who teach ballet are treated with far more respect by students and parents than your average public school teacher. In some ballet schools, the teacher is a vital professional coach who can help a student prepare for a competition. In others, the teacher is a stricter and more demanding role model than any parent.

Joan Sebastian Zamora demonstrates his technique
in a scene from First Position

Of course, when you're young and fearless, it's easy to think that anybody can do anything. A friend who attended the University of Arizona at Prescott once told me how, when students were given an opportunity to take classes in ballet, one of his friends remarked "You don't need classes for that. You just get stoned and then get up and do it."

Although I have always enjoyed ballet as a spectator, it wasn't until I became friends with two professional ballet dancers (one of whom won the International Ballet Competition in Varna when he was 17 years old) that I developed a deeper understanding of how gruelingly athletic and physically difficult ballet is and how much determination it demands from students of the art form.

Alyss Shee in a rehearsal studio in a scene from First Position

While recent ballet documentaries (La Danse: The Paris Opera BalletOnly When I DanceDancing Across Borders, and Ballerina) each have a unique approach to the art form, Bess Kargman's recent addition to the genre, First Position (which will be screened during the upcoming 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival) includes some very interesting footage. Ranging in age from 9 to 19, the featured dancers in her film all share a clearly defined goal: to win a prize and scholarship at the Youth America Grand Prix held at the New York City Center. Among her subjects are:
Miko Fogarty
Poster art for First Position

At a time when art, music and dance for children are severely underfunded, First Position does a solid job of showing ballet students of varying ages, ethnicity, and socioeconomic backgrounds as they struggle to cope with the emotional insecurity of being a teenager, the pain of being a dancer, and the driving ambition that pushes them past the pressures of financial challenges, petty politics, and war.

Holding their hands, driving them to classes and competitions, are the parents who are heavily invested in making their children's dreams come true. The fact that there are so few paid positions for ballet dancers available in this era is of little matter to these families. Their goals -- whether athletic, artistic, or personal -- have been clearly defined for them.

While ballet documentaries like First Position open a window into the discipline and devotion required by any serious dance student, they also show how the child's family must be totally supportive and willing to invest whatever is necessary for their child's talent to blossom and grow. Here's the trailer.

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