Thursday, May 10, 2012

Doing Their Dirty Work

In 1991 after winning his third Teacher of the Year Award, John Taylor Gatto wrote a resignation letter which he submitted to the Wall Street Journal called, “I Quit, I Think” and left his job, stating that he was “no longer willing to hurt children.” More than two decades later and our teachers are still in a catch 22. They got into this field to help children but find themselves in a system that forces them to engage in practices that, like Gatto, they know are hurting children.  Below is a guest post from one such teacher who authors The Rural Teacher blog. 

Dirty Work by Steely Dan

Times are hard
You’re afraid to pay the fee
So you find yourself somebody
Who can do the job for free
When you need a bit of lovin’
Cause your man is out of town
That’s the time you get me runnin’
And you know I’ll be around

I’m a fool to do your dirty work
Oh yeah
I don’t wanna do your dirty work
No more
I’m a fool to do your dirty work
Oh yeah

Light the candle
Put the lock upon the door
You have sent the maid home early
Like a thousand times before
Like the castle in its corner
In a medieval game
I foresee terrible trouble
And I stay here just the same

I will admit it – I am a FOOL.

I’m a fool because I keep doing “their” dirty work. I didn’t have a NY State Exam to give, but I really didn’t do much to stop it. Sure, I post and tweet and talk, but I haven’t quit teaching. I haven’t walked out. I didn’t stay home on May Day. I didn’t even convince one parent to ‘opt out’ their child. Just as Steely Dan says, “I foresee terrible trouble, and I stay here just the same.”

The current conditions for many public school teachers are depressing. There are the whispered conversations in darkened classrooms about the “tests”. There are the veteran teachers like me who worry about ‘making it’ to retirement without being found ‘ineffective’ and losing our jobs. There are the novice teachers who grew up being tested themselves and sort of ‘roll with it’. There are principals who are opposed to the testing personally but who feel obligated to ‘do their jobs’. We all just keep doing their dirty work.
This is not an indictment in which I’m going to say that we should all walk out and if we don’t we are complicit. 

Unless you are “on the ground,” I guess you really can’t understand the Catch 22 many of us feel that we live in. 

  • We don’t WANT to do the “dirty work” of giving children flawed tests created by people who don’t know a thing about child development. 
  • We don’t WANT to have our students reduced to numbers. 
  • We WANT to TEACH!! 
  • We WANT to have joyful classrooms where every child is valued as an individual and celebrated for their uniqueness.
  • We WANT to be held accountable – in fact we are often are own worst critics – rethinking and rehashing lessons that weren’t all that great. We go home and our students come home with us in our heads. We think about them. We wonder what will happen to them when they leave us in June. We hope that they will be happy and successful.

Intertwined with all of what we want professionally is what we must do for our families. For many of us, there would be no health insurance for our own children if we walked away. We wouldn’t be able to keep roofs over their heads, food on their tables, or provide any support toward higher education or technical school or whatever they dream for themselves. So many of us cannot simply walk away – it would be financial suicide.

So, what are we to do? I don’t have the answers, that’s one thing I know for sure.


  1. Excellent post! You have really captured what a lot of public teachers feel but, for many reasons, don't share.

  2. Excellent article. I myself found school to be absolutely tedious. I spent many chemistry lessons sat copying text off the blackboard in the mid afternoon sun trying not to fall asleep as I robotically wrote everything down taking nothing at all in. I ended up resenting education and coasted to the bare minimum. When it came to leaving I had no idea of what I wanted to do other than to get as far away from education as possible. I ended up joining the army. Even now when I think about further education I'm put off by my experiences at school.

  3. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing the post. Funny thing: that Steely Dan song is ALWAYS going through my head. This post captures eloquently what we public school teachers face. I am now doing some real dirty work: giving second grade special ed kids the California Standards Test (CST). I teach RSP. I work with small groups of kids who are 1-2 years below grade level for 30-60 minutes each day, so my students are "testier" than some the lower kids in special day classes, who are a good 3 years below grade level or dealing with other issues, which make them less testier. But for the CST they pile everyone in my room--RSP kids, Special Day kids. Two of my students are actually on grade level, but their teacher doesn't want them in her class because they distract the other children. I don't blame her. If I were being outed every year in the LA Times value-added-your-teacher-sucks edition (which currently I am not due to my special ed status) I would want them out of my class too. So what happens? The poor readers zip through the test--"Teacher, done."-- because they truly are done. They've filled in the bubbles and they want to read their after-the-test classroom library book. It would be as if you or I were given a test that was written in hieroglyphics. If you weren't fluent in hieroglyphics, you'd probably finish up pretty quickly too. So then the ones who can read say, Hey, I want to read my classroom library book too, so they zip through the test also--without even reading the passage! Teacher, done. Teacher, done. Teacher, done. It's all enough to make a guy wake up before his iPhone alarm clock has marimba-ed, and think those immortal words: I AM a fool to do your dirty work. And try to find a way never to do it again.