And your first thought may be to ask… have you, Poet, been on an exotic vacation kibitzing with barons and earls and “famous” poets? And by your whims of fancy you would be half correct for I am always in conversation with such people… in my head. Every day is like a vacation from this life I lead– you, know, the typical life of waking up at 6:30 ish and rushing through a shower only to rush through drying and dressing and driving (though the later in the awesome state of NJ is a great deal of hurry up and wait for ass-hat other drivers and construction projects that take 3 x as long as scheduled).
Then it’s to work to try to get a bunch of students, who are paying to take my course mind you, to actually show up to class, read the assignment, and write complete sentences that bear coherent and original thoughts. All this while the NJEA president, who makes roughly $500,000 per annum, complains that Governor Christie doesn’t understand the nature of schools and what his budget cuts will do to the children. Does he? When is the last time he was in a classroom? He makes $ 480,000 more than I do each year and all he does is go to meetings. Anyone who has worked a year of their life in any company, union, etc., knows meetings are useless drains on everyone’s time. Nothing ever gets accomplished in a meeting. Their purpose? so the person in charge can feel important. There is nothing that is said in a meeting that can’t be handled in a succinct email or memo. Provided Those receiving the email/memo actually read it.
This man is not the head of my union, yet his power dictates how state money for education is spent. And since K-12 teachers (via their union head) won’t negotiate, they will win on many points– teachers will maintain their salaries this year, some may get the raises their contracts dictate, which means other teachers will lose their jobs and ultimately programs for the kids will be cut, but you better believe that Mr. Union Prez will bankroll his $500, 000 this year and all the years he has that title. If anyone believes he’s in it for the benefit of the kids or the teachers, they’d better wake up.
So, I have a few questions/ points for my K-12 brethren because having worked at some of NJ’s finest Colleges and Universities I would love to know what K-12 is actually doing to prepare our children. And because maybe before we give these teachers yet another raise we evaluate their “fine” work as it comes into the colleges for teachers like myself, who get paid a hell of a lot less than any K-12 teacher does.
How does an 18 year old graduate high school not having read: The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, The Scarlet Letter, Shakespeare, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, ad infinitum… And spare me the “Dead White Guy” Canon lecture. I am well aware of all of that, but it is the Canon for a reason. These books are important works of American and British Literature. Add Harriet Beecher Stowe– Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fabulous book, add Phyllis Wheatley, add the Brontes and Jane Austen, add Charlotte Perkins Gilman— ADD, do not remove from the cannon because the author happens to be dead and white and male. Add Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes– ADD.
Students do not read and they do not read enough. And when they do not read, they cannot learn to read critically and they cannot learn to think critically and analytically. This is a skill they need walking in the door of any college or university. I am telling you that from Rutgers to NJIT to our community colleges and in between, our students do not have the ability to read and think and analyze. They walk in to college behind were they need to be.
And when you are not reading, you do not know how to write. College is all about writing– papers, tests, etc. Knowledge is determined on the strength of writing in the university. I have students that have excellent ideas; they are original thinkers, but they can’t write a complete, grammatically correct sentence to save their lives. Literally, if they had someone holding a gun to their heads they’d still write, “The main characters is scares when the bomb goed off and are transcends to a new way of thinking.”
I have 1 semester with these students. I teach them literature. When they come into my classroom they are already supposed to know how to write. That type of paper fails. The student may understand the literature fairly well, but can I pass a student that doesn’t know the difference between “goed” and “goes” ? And what happens to that student if I do pass them? If we all just pass them through because they have an understanding of the concepts and who cares about the writing? Well, then they go into the workplace and can never succeed. The first time the boss asks them to draft a memo they get fired for incompetence? So this person has a college degree that is useless. There are many of people out there with such degrees. Some of them wind up teachers.
I see students, good kids, not such good students, who got A’s and B’s in high school because they showed up and didn’t cause trouble for their teachers. While their peers were little hellions and disturbed the class and received D’s, these good kids learned that if they kept their mouths shut, their heads down, they’d pass and get into college. And they did. But that doesn’t mean they learned the skills they need to succeed. Other students had mom and dad bully the teachers into giving them the grades they felt they deserved so they could get into college. Well, the transcript can say A, but if the knowledge isn’t behind it, kids walk into university at a great disadvantage.
When I was an undergrad there were no remedial courses for math or writing, except at the county colleges. If you couldn’t walk in the door and do the work, you didn’t go to college. Or you went to Community College and took non-credit remedial classes until your skills were up to par, then you applied to go to another school. Now colleges and universities offer remedial classes for credit. College teachers wind up doing the work that K-12 teachers should have been doing and didn’t.
And we get 1 semester to do it in. 1 semester to get a student reading at a college level when they come to us at sometimes an 8th grade level. 1 semester to teach a kid grammar when they have never had a grammar lesson, ever. We have teachers -to -be who will supposedly be teaching grammar who have never been taught grammar who have 1 semester, 1 course to learn everything they need to know about grammar– and mind you 1/3 of the Praxis exam for teachers is on grammar.
And most of the university faculty is not full-time. 1/3 of the faculty are full-time tenured professors; 2/3 are part-time adjunct faculty that need to teach at 2 and 3 schools to make “a living wage.” Adjunct faculty bear the same degrees, have the same experience, the same publication records, but because the college want to save money– they pay adjuncts by the class (and they cap the number of classes for part-time at 2) and many of the schools don’t have to offer them benefits. If benefits are offered, the adjunct has to pay about $550./ month. Salary ranges between $1600- $5000 per class. (There are only 2 colleges in NJ that pay that top figure most come in at about $2500- $2800). A tenured faculty member makes between $65,000- $150,000. The President of the NJEA? $500,000. The head of my union? She’s an adjunct. She doesn’t get paid for being the president of the union. She teaches 2 classes and goes to many union meetings (for free).
And we, tenured and adjunct faculty at my university, agreed to a pay freeze for the 2nd year in a row, so that our students’ tuition would not have to be increased into the double digits. With other cuts the college has made, the tuition increase should only have to be at about 5-7% as opposed to 17% if we took raises. After all, if we have no students due to increased tuition, we have no jobs at any salary.
Now you see why, when I come home I hibernate and go to my happy place. Frustration levels are high, but the land of the mind is always full of nicer things– barons, earls, and exciting poets to talk to.