Brave souls on Facebook have been videotaping themselves proclaiming why they will be marching for public education in Washington, D.C., and in sister cities across our great nation, on this SATURDAY, July 22, 2017.
I am not brave enough to post a video, so I will spare everyone the visual of my summer hair-do and hide behind my words.
I have not marched in our nation’s capital in over twenty years.
I am a rusty activist.
I can’t bring myself to make a sassy poster with a slick slogan. I can’t sum up why I am marching with one statement. Public education is too complex and too important — my experience is grounded in history both systemically and personally.
My reasons for marching run deep, as deep as elementary school. In fifth grade, I realized that my teacher, Mr. Carl Weed, loved his job. He smiled. He demanded that we know our states and capitals. He played games with us. He listened. He gave me the first indication that teaching could be a possibility for me. I was just a working class kid being raised by a single mother who could not count on my father for regular child support. Mr. Weed (yes, his real name) was more than a teacher for me, he was a surrogate. When I play games with my students, I often conjure up the image of Mr. Weed engaging his students and making learning fun. On Saturday, July 22, 2017, I will march for the Mr. Carl Weeds of the world — teachers that make other teachers.
As I reflect on all of the teachers that I have had the privilege to learn from, the most important group for my generation were teachers of the baby boomer generation — they filled positions when the country so desperately needed teachers and they taught with a dedication to service. Two such teachers, my in-laws, born in 1946, began their careers in 1968. They have always shown a model of effective, quality professionals. My mother-in-law taught social studies with a talent for organization, humor, and a love for the underdog student. My father-in-law taught physical education, coached many sports, and led many buildings as a beloved administrator. They are retired, as many of their generation have worked to achieve that wonderful goal. Their retirement was hard won. Their careers began with dirt poor wages, a contentious strike. The careers were filled with a cycle of educational initiatives and half-baked pedagogical theories. However, they rose above the noise to serve their students and schools. They improved the profession. On Saturday, July 22, 2017, I will march for Geri and Dave Brown — teachers who paved the way for my salary, my pension, and my benefits. These teachers have such value and perspectives.
Another such baby boomer teacher, Mr. Jim Slusarski, was my cooperating teacher during my student teaching in a suburban middle school near Rochester, NY. To this day, I will remember what he told me when we first met: “I expect you to be on time and come prepared.” He told me his expectations clearly and demonstrated professionalism. He was also a blast. He demanded every student pay attention at all times, but he did so with humor and candy. When he gave out marking period grades, he attached a blaze orange hunting seat to a chair and told the students he was putting them in the “hot seat.” While co-teaching with him, he would turn to me and say: “We get paid for doing this.” He inspired me. He challenged me. He showed me that veteran teachers could continue to love teaching. On Saturday, July 22, 2017, I will march for Mr. Jim Slusarski (“Slu”) — teachers like him who make classrooms come alive with their enthusiasm and wit.
The last baby boomer teacher who reminds why I march for public education is Patricia Zalewski. When I changed school districts fifteen years ago, I had eight years of teaching experience, but I was as scared as the first day of student teaching. I had to teach Global History to tenth graders in six different rooms, on three different floors. The high school where I teach is huge and can be intimidating, however, Pat “Z” gave me a refuge in room 811 and, more importantly, she gave me coffee. She let me cry when I needed it. She met me for a drink when we both needed it. She introduced me to her friends and my life has been so enriched by knowing that crazy crew of amazing educators. Pat gave me a safe port in a storm. She also demonstrated scholarship and leadership in the social studies department. She tirelessly advocated for students, for teachers, and for appropriate administrative action on issues. She showed me excellence when I needed a model most and I will always strive to be like Pat. On Saturday, July 22, 2017, I will march for Mrs. Patricia Zalewski — teachers like her who are constant gardeners of students and teachers alike. The Mrs. Zalewskis of the teaching world create safe places for teaching and learning.
Mr. Carl Weed, Mrs. Geri Brown, Mr. Dave Brown, Mr. Jim Slusarski, and Mrs. Patricia Zalewski may not be physically marching with me on Saturday, but they shape my teaching. Although retired, they all continue to impact student learning. I will march to preserve what teachers like them have built in public schools across the United States. Public schools must be preserved, improved, and invested in. We must not let private companies profit from public dollars. We must uphold the gains and the foundation that was built by those who came before us.