I hate to be asked how I am enjoying retirement. People who ask this question have created a fantasy world of what it means to be retired. After listening to my friends, family, former colleagues as well as perfect strangers, I have synthesized all their dreams, hopes and aspirations by creating a make believe world they call Retirement Heaven. In Retirement Heaven, you can wake up late every morning—no earlier than 11:00 AM. You never ever set your alarm clock again. Upon waking up, your spouse will deliver to you breakfast in bed that is no less than 2000 calories. After breakfast, it is time for a relaxing shower. After a shower, you put on shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers for either your daily run or your two hour workout at the gym. By the way, in Retirement Heaven, it is always summer. At about 2:00 PM, you make your way home for lunch and a few hours of television. You’ve recorded on your DVD only mindless television programs to watch for the next few hours. Now it is time for dinner. In retirement, you are not allowed to make dinner, but instead, every evening you go to a different restaurant to eat meals that have no fewer than three courses. You return home, take out your trashy novel and read until you drift calmly to sleep at about one in the morning.
For someone like me, such a retirement heaven would be like that old Twilight Zone episode where a gangster dies and is given every one of his heart’s desires. He is given wealth, beautiful women and the ability to successfully commit every crime known to man without consequence. In the end, he is completely bored out of his wits and asks to go to the other place only to be told he is in the other place!
To me, retirement means having the freedom to choose the type of work that I want to do. It is also the ability to focus on those endeavors that are really important. On the day that I retired from teaching, unfortunately all the problems that existed before my last day of work really did not disappear. Several people said to me you shouldn’t care what happens to the world of education. One person told me that if all the public schools blew up tomorrow, you will still be retired on your nice pension. Would I?
First of all, if public education ended tomorrow and was completely privatized, it would make it all the more easier for those in power to end pubic pensions. Public education and my pension, which I earned through hours of hard work as a teacher, both represent a social contract. It is a social contract between the government and the people it represents. If you end one, you can easily end the other. The philosophical basis of public education derives from those Enlightenment thinkers who believed that power derive from the governed. The governed allows power to be given to a government so that it can establish policies that will benefit the collective. The 18th century Philosophes believed that public education’s purpose was to create a sophisticated citizenry who would be able to immediately spot tyranny and remove it from power—either through constitutional democratic means or by force if necessary. The concept of public pensions also has its basis in the 18th century idea of a social contract. Public servants will serve society for a number of years at a lower rate of compensation so that the state can benefit from their skills. In return, the public servant will receive a pension paid at the end of their public service so they can live the rest of their life in dignity. But the purpose of a pension also is based on sound economic and social principles. Instead of the retired worker being a drain on society, the retired worker will have enough income to continue to purchase goods and services (providing employment to others) and still be able to contribute to society (and the economy) in other ways, such as through volunteering or part-time employment.
Therefore, in retirement, I now have taken on a new job—saving public education. One way is by working part time in the school where a spent the last third of my career. For the majority of my 36 year career, I had a job that came into existence because New York City grossly violated the rights of disabled students back in the late 1970s. Federal law mandates that disabled students need to be evaluated every three years and if there has to be a change in services, any reevaluation must be done in a timely manner. Thus, in the late 70s, the city was sued because it had a backlog of close to 30,000 reevaluations. It resulted in the court ordering the creation of a team of professionals in each school whose job it was to make sure assessments and subsequent IEP conferences were held in a timely manner. My job was as case manager and Educational Evaluator. I became highly skill in conducting norm-referenced, criterion referenced and curriculum-based assessments. The purpose of these assessments was not to punish teachers but to diagnose the educational needs of disabled students so as to help teachers meet their IEP goals. (Yes, this is the real purpose of testing.) A quarter of a century later the city was in relative compliance. Because most city schools have relatively large populations, the team needed a psychologist to conduct intelligence and projective tests, an educator who was a skilled diagnostician and a social worker. This ended in 2003 when Mr. Bloomberg embarked on reforming special education in New York City, which really meant he was trying to find a way to save money. He made my job disappear overnight and gave the case management piece and educational piece to the school psychologists that now are so overworked, they are forced to cut corners in order to remain in compliance. As for me, because Bloomberg violated so many of the contractual rights of Educational Evaluators (who were teachers), he was ordered by an arbitrator to create the job of IEP teacher. I held this job for the final eleven years of my career. When the job was created by the arbitrator, it was undefined. It was up to a building principal to define what IEP teachers would do. Bloomberg hoped that most principals would make the lives of these new IEP teachers so miserable that many would leave the system. The opposite happened. Most of us ended up doing many different albeit necessary educational tasks within our schools. As for me, I became in charge of compliance, testing, data, and academic intervention services.
When I retired, the new principal would ask who did this and who did that. My name was mentioned each time and before I knew it, I was back in the school a couple of days a week. However, I am doing what I loved doing the most—working with kids. Unfortunately, the city schools have a simple philosophy—the minimum is the maximum. Because the union contract stated that IEP Teachers would only be funded for those who were former Educational Evaluators like me, once I retired, the money dried up and the position disappeared. It disappeared even though the school would now have no one to provide state mandated academic intervention services for those students who received level 1 on those wonderful Common Core State Assessments in ELA and Math. As for all my other jobs, I am helping to train three other professionals to do different pieces of my job. When I started as an IEP Teacher in 2003, testing was just a little piece of my job, but as we all know, it turned into a monster with three head and twenty arms. It took up so much of my time that I often could not work with students. Now I am trying to give students the skills to do better on these assessments (notice that I did not say pass). For example, it is not enough to say to a level one student that they need to use context clues. What I do is to try to give them four or five strategies to help them try to figure out the meanings of so many unknown words on passages that are always above their grade level. Yes, I hate the test, but I have to do something. Many of these students are former English Language Learners who supposedly reached proficiency in English on a state assessment measuring second language ability. By the way, I am in one of the few middle class school districts within the city. However, we have many immigrant families. The parents of these children work two, sometimes three jobs so they can live in a nice area. However, because our scores are a little better than the state average and we have fewer students on public assistance, we get less money than other schools around the city. And knowing this, the city cut funds to hire just one academic intervention services teacher.
In addition to working part time in my school, I am also tutoring and I am collaborating with someone in writing a review text to help students try to pass these horrible state assessments. Some might say that I am hypocritical trying to help students pass these assessments when they should be done away with. For years, I have tutored students to pass the SAT even though I hate everything these assessments stand for. However, by not helping these students, their low grades stand as a barrier preventing them from getting their foot in the door to enter the world of higher education. As long as these institutional barriers exist—common core, SAT, etc., I will help student acquire the skills to work the system while at the same time advocate for change.
What I found most interesting these last several months was watching the types of teaching jobs posted by various online employment services. Last June, I rewrote my resume and posted it on an employment site. Now my email is inundated with lists containing scores of teaching jobs. The first thing I noticed that most jobs posted today are for charter schools. In the New York area, the one charter that comes up all the time is our favorite—The Success Academy. Interestingly, one of Eva’s charter schools has been looking for a SETSS teacher since June. I have a simple theory. No one wants this position. Who would want to work for a school where you are on-call 24 hours a day, paid low wages, and then spit out after two years. Sometimes I think about applying as a lark. I am sure once they realized my age and the fact that I had a 36 year public school career, my resume would end up in the circular file. Interestingly, a well-known tutoring company saw my resume and wanted to interview me. I asked what their pay was. I laughed when they said $15.00 an hour. I told them that when I first started SAT tutoring in 1987, I worked for a college preparation tutoring service and was paid $20 an hour. I added, “When you have a high turnover rate, you end up getting what you pay for.”
I would never work for a charter or such a tutoring agency because they violate our society’s social contract. I believe in and will fight for public education because every cent of public money must go to the child. And yes, paying public school teachers decent wages benefit children. A well paid professional feels invested in the system and will work hard for those under their tutelage. A well paid professional wants to dedicate their lives to public service. The social contract is broken when education is privatized. The privateers view teachers and students as human capital whose purpose is to create profit. I call these privatizers education pimps. Students cannot benefit when your purpose is greed and not the creation of a well-rounded individual who is able to think and make sound life decisions. The purpose of these corrupt and greedy charter operators is to throw a few crumbs to their school’s students and teachers while they hoard our public dollars. I want my tax money to be invested honestly and completely into each public school. Charter operators will be quick to say that they are capitalists taking risks. Yes, when one invests private capital, risks are taken, but what is being invested is our public money. It is public money that is being given to them by elected officials who are in their corrupt little pockets. These officials are also pimping our dollars for private gain and must be ousted. Our elected officials have forgotten that they serve us and derive their power from us.
Getting back to that retirement fantasy world I mentioned at the beginning, I ended up doing one thing that I rarely did during my work years. I have watched a lot more television. One thing I ended up watching was Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts. It reminded me that our society is again in a Gilded Age where a few wealthy men have taken control of our government and its institutions. Ken Burns thinks that it was the power of these singular individuals that changed America in the first half of the twentieth century. What he does not understand is that these great individuals could not have done anything if people did not organize and petition first on the local level and then nationally for change. We have to regain control of all levels of government to make it again, as FDR believed, a force to create a just and fair society in which everyone has some share in the economic wealth of this great nation. I know we have a hard fight ahead of us, but we are making headway. There is an old adage: The Ocean started as single drops of water.