At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Monday, April 8, 2013

Resignation Station: A Teacher's Parting Shot

I'm old enough to remember when Michael Jordan retired. Yes, all three times (1993, 1998, and 2003). I can see in my mind's eye the shock that rippled across America when he did so the first time, at the height of his career, after three consecutive National Basketball Association (NBA) championships. His father had been murdered during the summer of 1993, and in October, Jordan announced he wouldn't be returning for a tenth season (sending the telecast of a Blue Jays-White Sox baseball playoff game into upheaval). He came back, of course, for more fame and championships, but I still remember the stunning nature of his first retirement.

Fast forward to 2013 and to another retirement, and one that probably won't make the pop culture splash like Michael Jordan. But it's one that should. Granted, the name Gerald Conti of Syracuse, New York, is not a household item bursting with instant recognition. But his message is loud. His declaration is clear. And it carries a lot of pain.

Mr. Conti has been teaching for forty years and has spent the last twenty-seven years at an excellent high school in the Syracuse area. I've been to that section of the country before and can tell you education is taken seriously. But Mr. Conti's letter of resignation is not delivered with wistful joy. Rather, it is a clarion call to the American educational establishment to wake itself up. In short, Mr. Conti is saying that his profession "no longer exists."

When someone like Mr. Conti takes pen and paper to bare his thoughts, I listen. I don't automatically agree or disagree, but I want to learn why he feels the way he does. There is a great deal of sadness and frustration throughout his letter. He is resigning as a teacher because, as he says, "I am not leaving my profession; in truth it has left me. It no longer exists."

Strong words from a man who says "history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life." Mr. Conti strikes me as a man whose thirst for wisdom and knowledge is insatiable, who is humble enough to say he knows enough on any one topic. Moreover, Mr. Conti wants to touch the lives of others so that they might engage the world and change it for the better.

That resonates strongly within me. Since graduating from seminary, I've worked for seventeen years. Fourteen of them have been in the teaching profession. If someone asked me what I love the most about teaching, I'm sure I'd have a Philadelphia moment. You might recall the scene when Andy Beckett (played by Tom Hanks) is on the witness stand and he's asked by Denzel Washington why he loves the law as an attorney. Beckett's response: "Because occasionally, not all the time, but once in awhile, you get to be a part of justice being done. And that's a big thrill."

For me, occasionally--in fact, much of the time--but once in awhile, I get to be part of fanning the love of practical wisdom within a teenager. I get to enthuse and motivate young people. And that's a big thrill. It's a creative spark, a blazing fire. It's something that, as Mr. Conti suggests, is under assault. And that is why he is resigning.

He says that "I now find [his] approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised." He speaks out against the tactics that aim for "only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic..." while "[c]reativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation, and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system."

Now, Mr. Conti is directing his remarks at public education in America, and yes--there is plenty to shore up in that sector. However, his words can apply to any private academy, any non-denominational Christian school, any Catholic/Lutheran/sectarian religious school. This is not a "public school" issue, but a "modern education" problem. Because trust me, what he speaks of can work its way into any academic bloodstream from any decision-making syringe.

Mr. Conti speaks against initiatives like STEM and Common Core, and you might say those criticism have merit, but I prefer to think those debates are better spent elsewhere. What I find most intriguing and disheartening is not merely the "what" that he bemoans, but the "how". He notes (and keep in mind this is his viewpoint; always make sure you verify other peoples''s a good rule for life) that their academic leadership has been "uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs by our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian." According to Mr. Conti, there has been an administrative refusal "to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues", an inaction that "has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale."

Strong stuff indeed, and I am not here to judge whether or not the school district and administration of which he speaks have been acting in duplicitous shadows. But when a teaching veteran of forty years puts it that way, I at least take notice. And believe me, if an administration would do this, it establishes no trust and instead erodes the foundation of visionary teachers. Now, don't hear what I'm not saying: I fully realize administrators and "boards" have to be decision-makers. I've known many in public and private schools who do a great job. But if they establish some sort of precedent or perception that this is done behind closed doors and that the teachers who are the greatest assets and spend the most time one-on-one with the students are cut out of the discussion loop...well, can't you draw a map to what the reaction might be?

What saddens me greatly are Mr. Conti's words that follow: "My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic 'assessments') or grade their own students' examinations...This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more suited to the assembly line than the classroom" (emphasis mine). Conti says the result is that schools become "increasingly evaluation- and not knowledge-driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case."

What I find most tragic about this parting shot from Mr. Conti is that it seems like he has enjoyed the art of teaching. What has gone on in the classroom has, on balance, been his product, as it should be. His disillusionment seems to be driven by a passion for what education should be and can become. Maybe I didn't read between the lines enough, but I never got any sense that Mr. Conti is a disgruntled, ex-employee with a chip on his shoulder. I mean, he's leaving on his terms (somewhat). In fact, he sounds like the type of history teachers I would love to have had. My own American history teacher from high school, Mr. Shewell, was one of the inspirations that moved me to become a teacher, but this Gerald Conti seems to be in the same ballpark.

My point being, if what he's saying is true, then I weep with him over any situation in which teachers might "feel as though I've played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates' hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered."

What we teachers do in the classroom matters. And that stamp of creativity and wisps of magic and determined inspiration should be coming from us. Heaven help us if its some other way.

But it can happen. And it can happen anywhere. Yeah, you heard me. I'm willing to admit it. Anywhere.

Comment if you like. Discuss if you desire. But take a judicious look at Mr. Conti's heart. It's time well spent, and even if you disagree with him, he will challenge you.

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