I was chatting with a friend of mine online tonight. He lives in Pennsylvania, so we rarely see one another face to face; nor are we talk-on-the-phone kind of friends. Most of our exchanges take the form of IM sessions, and so we have to be careful about what we type, and how, so that we mean what we say and say what we mean.
Tonight I was discussing some of my frustrations with school reform, and how difficult and slow it was to get anything done. He asked me to explain, and I started doing what villains do all the time, at least according to The Incredibles — I started monologing. And true to form, he was quiet for a long time while I did so.
Then he reminded me that I’m a vested interest.
It was almost as good as a body-blow in freefall from Mr. Incredible. Because of course, he’s right. Even though I teach in a private school, I’m part of the educational system that’s steadfastly not being reformed by the vested interests. Why isn’t it being reformed? Well, because I — and thousands of my colleagues here and at other schools — like getting pensions. And summer vacations. And spring breaks. And living wages. And time for professional development. And private lunch time. And … well. You get the idea.
But it tends to bias me in favor of certain kinds of reform. Reform where those things continue to be possible. And not merely possible, but essential. Needful, even. Schools need budgets large enough to support teaching retinues so I don’t have to teach math, and only have to teach my beloved history — and just that section of history which is in my purview, history before 1453 AD, across that certain sector of latitude and longitude which exists from roughly Susa, in Iran, to Reykjavik, Iceland. And work just enough hours so that I get to coach fencing and (this year) track. A school needs reform, but it also needs staff so I don’t have to answer the mail, fundraise, run the website, fix the broken toilet, manage the finances, figure out DNS and server architecture, reshelve books, or collect permission slips.
And so I tend to see reform as coming in simple little packages — packages that just happen to correspond to what will fit within that pre-existing structure, and which will enable those comforts of my life to survive. And I would fight for the continuation of those things. I might put up with a year of frozen salaries and certain indignities, but I’m not sure that I would last forever in those circumstances.
But as my friend pointed out, those things that I’ll accept and those that I won’t allow make me a vested interest. I’ll fight tooth, nail, and claw to keep certain rights, push back against others, and expect radical change — as long as it does not really inconvenience me, wreck my tenure, or my pension, or damage my seniority.
That makes me a vested interest. And it makes me, and my colleagues, far less likely to vote for a radical reform — most especially if it threatens to make us redundant or unnecessary or volunteer labor.
So by all means, policymakers and policy leaders, hear us out, and think about what we teachers want in the classroom. But remember that we have stake in things as they are now.
We mustn’t forget that we — even those of us who are teachers committed to progressive reform and new styles of education n the classroom — are a vested interest. We may want change… but we want change that maintains as much of the existing infrastructure that assures our relative comfort within the system. And that’s hardly change at all.
It’s worth considering that real change — the honest-to-goodness reform we claim we want — may involve tossing many things out the window, including unions, tenure, and compensation packages with pensions and summers off. And these things may come to our classrooms soon, because of the traumas in the American economies, or because teachers as a profession have lost so much political good-will lately, or because the information economy’s disaggregation is a real threat to the brick-and-mortar school business as it exists now.
Word to the wise: What’s your fallback plan?