The Back Door

Photo credit: Ephemeral New York
Photo credit: Ephemeral New York

It’s so easy to see the junk piling up at the front door of every public school in America. But the back door should capture some concern, too. It’s just as unpretty.

Teachers expect schools to change over time. In fact, they make lots of changes every year. Serve a few decades and reforms … big and small … become part of teacher-life. Teachers expect to find themselves in new currents all the time.

Way back when, the marijuana stuff had us all alarmed … and the beer stuff, too. That was everyday teen stuff. We had run-ins with hygiene and sex and cigarettes. And, of course, drunk driving. Daring schools talked about daring stuff beyond classrooms … like alcohol and divorce … and physical and sexual abuse. Then there was AIDS. That was extra-delicate and hit the schools with frantic immediacy. The right words were so hard to find. Lots of questions … and lots of times I felt like I was killing innocence.

Other moments were colored by usual stuff. Usual for adults, trauma for kids. Big difference.

There aren’t too many best-sellers about delicate issues that surfaced in schools. No sexy titles like “Beer and the Back Seat” … which would kill two sins at once. Or “I’ll Love You for All of Next Week” … which might seem cute, but is likely to be an overly graphic how-to manual for very young teens in this age of sexual over-kill. That’s the sad trend.

Sexting is now a middle school sport. And cell phones are sex toys. Predator alerts are a part of life and many schools try to prepare for the unthinkable. Schools have become guarded fortresses where teachers where badges and parents are considered intruders until they’re cleared as visitors.

Hazing never really goes away … it just morphs into some new ugliness. Bullying has moved from the playground to the internet … and it’s harder than ever to smother. And now weed splits a dangerous spotlight with opioids. Even the jocks are toying with dangerous drugs. And all of this is piled on top of the usual bravado of the teenage years. I think that’s called a powder keg.

That’s the reality few ever see. They overlook the fact that schools are intimate communities with all sorts of kids with all sorts of issues. Teachers are more than almost-historians or math wizards or science geeks. They see and hear things that would stun outsiders. And kids whisper to them … and tell them things because they trust them. Especially when they whisper awful things.

My point? Where does generation after generation of teachers get their wisdom for things like this? … And for other topics that seem invisible to outsiders? Who makes the greenhorns less green and the naive less naive? Who oracles them?

Know who? The folks at the back door. The door few see.

Those are the master-teachers and they’re leaving in droves.

They’re walking away from this reform Idiocy and fleeing the know-it-alls and the know-nothing politicians. They’re escaping asinine theoreticians and ivy-covered savants who issue edicts about reading, writing, and thinking … while assuring us all that their absence of any real classroom experience makes them all the more the genius. Sure.

This sudden exodus isn’t just the usual changing of the guard. When this brigade of Gray Heads … these Old Souls … gather up their experiences and box their lives and leave for good … they’ll be packing up decades of wisdom that will no longer be at the ready for the newbies who are never, ever as ready as they think.

The most important things learned about teaching happen in whispers, asides, or in simple observations. And it’s almost always at the knee of some Gray Head who did what we would all come to do later in our own careers … pass along big and small wisdoms.

It happens in fable form and in funny-sincere recollections of long-disappeared characters. And it could happen anywhere … at any time. In hallways. At a copy machine. Or the parking lot. In a stairwell or in an empty classroom … very late in the day … when the school goes silent save for the sounds of sloshy mops and things on squeaky wheels.

And now those splendid souls …the Wisdomers … they’re leaving. Vanishing. Repulsed by this reform idiocy that has spun out of control.

And in their moving vans are moving stories young teachers need to know. Informal survival guides. Reference material for soothing young souls and spackling torn hearts. What’s in those boxes are manuals for curing failure and repairing kids who’ve had a bottom-bounce. Those are medicine boxes with un-named elixirs for hurts of all sorts. And all of this magic is flying out the back doors of schools everywhere.

Those master-teachers … and their wisdom … are the antidote for this sick reform. But they’ll be gone when their wisdom is most needed.

Someday … not sure when … but someday … we’ll come to our senses. We’ll have a national mea culpa. And we’ll get our educational priorities back in common sense rhythms. But it won’t be easy. It’s gonna be hard stuff.

All of the wisdom-whispers will have disappeared. And “starting from scratch” won’t be a cliche any more. It’ll be a reality.

Wish us luck. We’re gonna need it.

5 thoughts on “The Back Door

  1. Dennis you are an absolute genius when it comes to writing the truth about education!! I just watched a movie called “That’s What I am” on Netflix. The message of this simple movie about adolescence back in the 50’s keeps resonating with me. I find I keep telling myself, even though I am retired, “I am a teacher. That’s what I am”. Not everyone is a teacher.

    1. “I find I keep telling myself, even though I am retired, “I am a teacher. That’s what I am”.

      We share the same sweet addiction. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. This is a magnificent piece of writing. It needs to be published on every editorial page in America. It needs to be forced in faces of educators, legislators, parents, and academia.

    But, as I think about it, it wouldn’t matter. The problem of education has become so overwhelmingly messed up and such a monster to handle that those with power aren’t powerful enough to fix it in its present state. It really does have to be completely rebuilt. That ain’t gonna happen. As we know, when enough people (philanthropists, bureaucrats, etc.) get “invested” in a situation, they are not willing to change what they are doing. They ride it as long as they can–on the backs of children, in the case of education.

    Ironically, a friend and I who taught together 20 years ago in a middle school just recently discussed this very topic. We asked, when all “elders” are gone from the classrooms, what will happen? We talked about what we already began seeing 10 years ago when we retired. Young teachers were ill prepared for teaching of content in mathematics (me) or in gifted education (her). The awful part was they did not know how much they did not know but they didn’t seem to think it was a big problem. It was simply a job, not a passion.

    Yes, there are some wonderful young teachers coming into the schools. They don’t stay, largely because of the work environment (not the pay). The tipping point has now been reached whereby the need for a warm body outweighs the hunt for real teachers. Our national, short attention span is the result of our cultural mores and values today. That means we manage the immediate problem and think the end results will manage itself. It’s assumed someone will always be there to pick up the pieces. That “someone” used to be the elders because of their work ethic and wisdom. Today it is the “government” because those elders are becoming non-existent, as this article says.

    However, according to today’s reformists who think education should be run by children’s desires (child-centered), the loss of elders probably won’t be recognized as an important issue.

  3. As always Dennis is spot on. Niki, i hear your frustration. Too many parents and others assume wrongly that school is just like it was when they attended. By the time they realize how much it has changed and how devastating the outcomes will be, it will be too late to change it.

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