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Children, Schools, Football and What We Value

Publication Date: 2014-10-25

This essay appeared in Valley News, Oct. 24, 2014. Vermont's poet laureate, who admits that one year teaching in a private high school showed him he was not psychologically equipped to endure that sort of stress, notes that Garret Keizer's new book shows how demanding it is to be a public school teacher in our time.

This fall, our news, and not merely in the sports outlets, was filled with Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice's brutal assault on his wife in an Atlantic City elevator. Rice was at first slapped on the wrist by league commissioner Roger Goodell: a two-day suspension. Goodell increased the penalty to indefinite suspension only on seeing â€" for the first time, by his questionable account, when it went public on TMZ â€" the video of the knockout punch.

Since Rice himself had given a full account of his hideous behavior, and since it was available in the police report, one is appalled that the commissioner needed visible evidence before taking harsher action.

I won̢۪t rehearse the legitimate controversy over the problem of domestic abuse that all this has engendered, though that epidemic will in some cases be directly relevant to my commentary below. As for Goodell's cover-up (for who can doubt that̢۪s what it was?), so reminiscent of the Catholic hierarchy̢۪s insidious response to far-reaching child molestation amongst its clergy, I̢۪ll stop short, lest the rant that follows grow even more intemperate.

For now, let me cite Mr. Goodell's annual compensation for his supposed leadership: $44 million.

Let that figure linger in your mind, please. I hope to indicate that that salary's exorbitancy is also related to what I have to say. But what I have to say is in fact primarily motivated by a recent reading of Getting Schooled, the latest brilliant book from Garret Keizer of Sutton, Vt. It chronicles a year in which Garret returned as a leave replacement to a northern Vermont high school where he had taught for an extended time up to a decade or so before.

It is a cliché to say that certain nonfiction reads as grippingly as the best novels, but Getting Schooled is proof of the pudding. Garret fills many of his pages with illustrative personal narratives, some funny, some heartwarming, many profoundly saddening, and all compellingly rendered. Among other things, he brings to light just how demanding it is to be a public school teacher in our time.

It is fashionable nowadays to berate teachers, especially those who belong to unions. Let me insist that only those who have never stood in front of a class full of young people, some more than merely unruly, would ever mount such a criticism. I spent one year teaching in a relative posh private high school, at the end of which I concluded that I was not psychologically equipped to endure that sort of stress. We should treat teachers, especially those of goodwill and longstanding, as heroes, not whipping boys and girls.

People who note that the school day normally ends in mid-afternoon, and the school year makes for a three-month vacation, fail to consider a number of other factors, first of which is the sheer drain on one's personal time. There is no water-cooler time if you are a teacher, no checking email (and whatever else) from one's cubicle, no coffee break. Even lunch requires the teacher to exercise chaperone duties.

Further, if a teacher in my field of English, for example, assigns a single paper per week, and if he or she has 50 students (I err on the low side in a lot of cases), and if each of those papers demands no more than 20 minutes' attention (another low ball)... well, do the math, and then multiply that week by 36. Then add the preparation and marking of tests and exams, the reading and commenting on term papers. I could go on.

Ah, those awful unions, we cry, even if in fact they are scarcely an element in American enterprise as I write. Since the Morning in America days, our percentage of organized labor has shrunk to 7 percent. Might I venture the notion that it's not union workers who are being paid too much, but so many other working men and women who are getting too little? And don't even start to tell me they don't work hard. Some of the hardest-working folks I know are among the most poor.

Roger Goodell need not worry over all this. Roger Goodell makes 44 million bucks a year.

It is claimed by free market hyper-enthusiasts that society will most abundantly compensate those who provide us with what we most value. There seems to be a lot of truth to this, alas. Clearly we value professional football (and the struggles of no-talent reality TV celebrities) more than we do a vast array of other "services" to our national community.

And yet education having gone south, we think teachers ought to fix our world up, even as we lament the cost.

Roger Goodell makes 44 million per annum.

I am reducing my broad and avid responses to Garret Keizer's testimony to focus on the main thought it engendered in me. The educational issues we quarrel about -- do we need smaller class sizes, better facilities, a core curriculum, standardized testing and so on -- remain far from exclusively educational when all is said and done. They are social and political, and without for a moment suggesting that I have The Solution, let me opine that we can dream up any educational theory we want; we can pour as much money as we can gather into facilities and, yes, into the salaries of teachers, almost all of whom could make much more lucrative salaries in the private sector; we can test and test and test and test.

But so long as so significant a portion of our student body, above all, of course, in our most impoverished communities, where the stress on teachers that I referred to above often involves fear of actual physical harm, so long as that portion goes home to a dysfunctional context, our remedies will amount to little. (Of course, some don̢۪t go home at all: Vermont leads New England in its proportion of homeless young people.)

Roger Goodell makes $44 million per annum. . . .

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