Yesterday I was on a distinguished panel. The title of the conference was on the banner above our heads: A Penny Saved – How School Districts Can Tighten Their Belts and Serve Kids Better.
I know when I’m being set up.
But I also know when I’ve been given an opportunity. I’m a fairly noisy teacher, and I don’t get asked to formal things like this often (at least I don’t get asked twice.) Just as well. I find that distinguished people are very polite even when they disagree with you. This audience was very polite and listened quietly, taking notes. Something that can be painfully unnerving to a 6th grade teacher.
The forum sponsors sent me research papers in advance that dealt with lists of ways school districts could save pennies like turning down the thermostats or firing teachers or charging families bigger fees for sports or music or AP classes.
I was supposed to react to their suggestions and offer my own about how we could “tighten our belts” and “serve kids better.”
I get it. The economy stinks. People are losing their jobs. Businesses are closing. And that affects school funding. Taxes pay for schools and when folks are out of work, folks don’t pay income taxes. When houses are being devalued, it affects property taxes. When families have to cut back on their own spending, the sales taxes dry up.
I’m no ostrich. There’s not as much money as there used to be. But they (meaning everyone who isn’t me) usually start with the last question they should be asking: What should we starve?
And I’m not suggesting that we start with the polar opposite: What should we feed? Both questions beg another. The one we too often forget to ask before we get to the starving and the feeding…
What is the purpose of this meal?
What is the purpose we’re trying to achieve in a public school? As a Utah teacher, I can stretch a dollar until you can see through it. Our state legislature has achieved its purpose: Spend as little as possible on public schools.
We have the most kids stuffed into a classroom. We have the lowest number of administrators per student. We have no school nurses. No elementary librarians. My entire career – in good times and bad – I’ve seen too many decisions that were penny-wise and pound-foolish because they forgot to ask the first question first.
What is this purpose of this school? I’ve had to live with political decisions that one year put 39 5th graders in my classroom, making it hard to personalize instruction, hard to listen to kids, hard to engage their parents. That was the year I cried one afternoon sitting alone in my classroom, because I thought I was failing my purpose. (It’s the year I developed an involuntary reflex that causes me, to this very day, to slap people who calmly explain to me that class size doesn’t matter.)
It matters to whether or not I will be successful in achieving my purpose as a teacher.
My purpose, by the way, has always been clear: Prepare my students for the lives they want to live when they leave school. Give them the knowledge and skills and attitudes that will make them successful in their careers, in their personal lives and in their lives as participating members of society.
I want my kids to be ready for what comes next. If they want to go to technical school or barber college or Harvard, I want them to have the experiences and guidance and instruction and confidence that will get them where they want to go.
That’s my definition of purpose. Some people agree with me. Some people are wrong. Regardless, until you’re clear about purpose, debates about where to put pennies is premature and dangerous.
Educators are clear about where we need to go. We believe a school is the place where children are given what they need to make their dreams come true. I don’t think we are on this path alone. Several people came up to me afterwards and shook my hand. One gentleman said, “We needed to hear that.”
One woman said, “God bless you.”
We are not alone. We are not quiet. And we are not standing still. For all who believe with us, we are moving forward with purpose.