Reflection after Three Months into Retirement

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.

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Why I No Longer Support President Obama, Governor Cuomo and State Senator Avella

                Several weeks ago, I joined Democrats for Public Education and by doing so I publicly said something that I thought I would never say.  I do not support this Democratic President because he had betrayed the very foundation of Democratic values for a corporatist ideology.  For a long time, I would not admit the obvious truth that there appears to really be one political party in this country.   The two major political parties tend to slide into each other.   Both political parties have corporatist wings that are controlled by big money.  This wing, which is in both parties, is socially liberal and believes the purpose of government is to enrich those who have power and control.  This wing is the pivot that appears to connect both political parties.  First we saw this split in the GOP and now the split is in the open within the Democratic Party.  We have left-wing (true Democrats) now beginning to publicly separate themselves from the corporatist wing while in the Republican party, we have the teabagger wing splitting from their corporatist partners.  If you put a corporatist Republican and Democrat in the same room, I bet they would immediately fall in love. 

                The corporatists of both parties are not in any way conservative.  They do not believe in a limited government and have the belief that a free market will solve all problems.   In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created the welfare queen out of a woman who was a con-artist and criminal who managed to squeeze money out of dozens of federal programs.  The corporatists should be dubbed the welfare kings.  The thousands this woman took in the 1980s is pocket change compared to the billions these corporate Democrats and Republicans have legally swindled from our government at the federal, state and local level.   They love government subsidies and bailouts.   Think of the billions that were given to this group during the great recession six years ago to stabilize the economy.  The cry went out that these banks and brokerages were too big to fail.  Unfortunately, they probably were because if we would not have kept certain banks and businesses afloat, millions more would have been unemployed.  But when the dust cleared, workers kept their jobs often with give-backs while corporatists walked away with billions in their pockets.  

                Now back to President Obama.  Many of us supported him because he embodied our dreams and aspirations for this country.  We believed his election would bring the rebirth of true progressivism.  However, what he has wrought is a mutated version of the liberal ideal.  If you study the New Deal under Roosevelt, you will see that many of his reforms did not come from the top, but started at the grass roots level.  A good example was Dr. Francis Townsend who published an extended letter to the editor in a California newspaper in which he came up with a solution to poverty among the elderly.  His proposal would lead to social security.   From his initial letter, grassroot organizations began to form around the country advocating for an old age pension system.   At first, FDR ignored the proposal, but when he realized that a significant portion of his coalition supported the idea of social security, Franklin Roosevelt changed his tune when he ran for re-election in 1936. The initial law did not have everything that Townsend and his grassroots organization wanted, but it was a start and did pretty much wipe out poverty among most of America’s aged population in the next seventy-five years. 

                It is at great peril that the Democratic Party ignore approximately 3.7 million teachers and their families.  The votes of several thousand billionaires will not win elections, but the support of teachers and the unions that represent them who are the ground troops that man telephones as well as go door-to-door for a candidate.   It is for this reason that tomorrow, I will for the first time in my political memory not support or vote for New York’s incumbent Democratic governor and my state senator in a primary.  I cannot support a governor and senator that support the 3% of students that attend charter school over the 97% that go to public schools.   It is amazing that earlier this year, the governor supported and got passed a law that is nothing less than welfare for wealthy charter schools.   Here is a law in which the wealthy Success Academy can dispossess public school children at whim and not pay a cent to the city in rent even though this charter is rich enough to move its offices to Wall Street and its CEO Eva Moskowitz makes twice as much as the President.  I am a political realist and know that Teachout does not have a chance over a $25 million war chest.  However, even if she gets 25% of the vote, that is the beginning of a grassroots movement.  That is enough for people to start to think about forming a third party in this election that could put Cuomo’s November re-election in jeopardy. 

                Ignoring parents and teachers who oppose privatization, the common-core, and an evaluation system that punishes teachers for things that they cannot control in order to deprofessionalize educators and create a cheap, transient teaching force is a perilous act.  History teaches that political movements are not started by the weakest in a society, but from the educated middle class.   Historical examples are all around us.   The French Revolution was started by the educated merchant and professional class.  People who are overwhelmed by poverty never begin political movements.  It is always the educated middle class that leads them.  Even the Russian Bolshevik Revolution was led by the educated middle class. Lenin and Trotsky were not peasants or factory workers living on subsistence wages, but educated professionals.  Therefore, the attempt to destroy the livelihood and profession of a group of very educated members of the middle class is nothing less than an act of political folly.   Teachers are abandoning the Democratic Party because it is the party that is abandoning us.   Unless Democrats from the President on down abandon this fake educational reform that is hurting several of its major constituents,  they are almost insuring the eventual creation of a political movement which may very well lead to a third political party.   And our own history has shown that third parties often throw elections in strange ways.   In New York, whenever three parties run for statewide office, it is often the Democrats who end up on the short end often leading to the election of a right-wing candidate.  People should remember the 1970 election of James Buckley as US Senator when two liberals split the Democratic vote in a six way race. 

                Many corporatist Democrats do not think they need us teachers.  That is why several have joined against us in those Anti-Tenure lawsuits.   What they do not understand is that once they split the Democratic Party and the party no longer controls any branch of government, their power will be gone.  Instead, you may end up with people controlling this country who hold social views far different than the majority of Americans, which also includes the neo-liberal corporatists of both political parties.   What happened in Missouri is a skirmish compared to what may happen when people take control of this country that hate working women, immigrants, gays and other minority groups and begin to use government to act against such groups.   We are in the middle of an education war right now in which everyone may come out the loser.  However, for myself and my family, I have to vote my conscience and not the lesser of two evils.   As I finish this article, the telephone rang with a robo-call from our supposedly very liberal Mayor who is supporting Cuomo.   That call represents everything that is wrong with politics in this country.  Obviously, he has to support the Governor or he will be politically punished by someone who is nothing less than a bully and the holder of many purse strings.  On the other hand, when you attempt to take away everything from a group, you cannot expect that group’s support.   Those in power may ignore us now, but I can guarantee they will not ignore us if we contribute to their loss of power.