Friday, June 5, 2015

I Herd That

Back when I was a high-school teacher, I always sort of enjoyed the first day or so of Pre-Plan (a label that makes no sense, now that I think about it) or Plan Week, or whatever it was called, except for the meetings, of course.
On most years we got new “spirit shirts,” meaning shirts with the name of our high school on it, and usually adorned with a sort of modernist, wind-blown lion, a lion that looked to be a close relative of the Denver Broncos logo. Because teachers are a mostly monastic bunch, ascetics by necessity, this was sort of like a birthday or some other gift-giving occasion. Yay! A free shirt!
We typically didn’t have those on the first morning back when we sat for our yearbook photos, so some of us wore an older spirit shirt, others dressed up a bit, others would wear just what they’d wear to work. We wore whatever someone like us would wear. No big deal.  
In my last year of teaching, things changed. Yearbook photos got pushed back a day or so. This gave us time to get our new shirts first, which, sadly, were a garish, road-worker, prison-inmate orange. The administrative team received slightly nicer, but still orange shirts, as a reminder that they were administrators and a part of their own team. The varsity, I guess, and we the teachers would be the junior varsity.
We’re used to that!
And we were required to wear those things for our yearbook pictures. Required? I was so stunned when I heard this, I raced home, unlocked my Home Security Box, and thumbed through my vital documents until I found my 1973 honorable discharge from the United States Air Force.
Having dutifully completed my military obligation, I realized higher-ups no longer got to tell me what shirt to wear. So I put the shirt in a drawer where I couldn’t see it and skipped out on the yearbook photo.
Also, we were supposed to put on some black pants with our orange shirt for our Entire Faculty and Staff Photo (EFSP). Because I was required to, I didn’t do that either. Also, I don’t have any black pants.
Later, those of us who “missed” the first round of photos were told we could get our pictures taken when our students went in for re-takes. But, we would not be photographed unless we wore our orange shirt.
(Back home for another look at the discharge papers. Yep. Still not in the Air Force, thank God.)
Seriously?! If any of us, including your beloved author, had possessed the kind of courage that is often likened to certain male organs, we would’ve walked over with our students and caused a scene. We would’ve said, “Hey, I’m here to get my picture taken for the yearbook and I insist you take it. Either take my picture or call over whoever’s enforcing this thing, and we’ll have a discussion about what’s important.”
And our students would have looked on with envy and admiration, and they would’ve learned there is a time to resist trivial, meaningless orders, something we likened to poultry droppings back in the Air Force days. No one at my high school was going to fire us for doing that or even make us do 50 push-ups or clean an entire john with a toothbrush.
What poultry droppings we all were! How I regret it! Missed teaching moment!
Now to be fair to those who required the shirts, there was method in their rigidity. They wanted it to be a show of teamwork, and maybe even family, even though many families don’t require all their kids to wear the same clothes to show they’re part of the family.
So I gave serious (for me) thought to the teamwork concept. Who would benefit from our being a team? And does doing what you’re told when it’s a violation of your freedom – not so much as an American, but as a grownup – make you a team? Does conformity equal teamwork?
And what would you call a team of grownups who have next to no say in changes in policy, what text(s) they use and how, how many students they have in a class, how to discourage students from taking advantage of soft make-up policies, how they actually teach in their own classrooms – the poor folks’ last refuge of autonomy – and how and by whom they are evaluated, how often they are yanked out of class for something with the faintly obscene name of “pull-outs,” so that continuity, coherence and rapport are all damaged?
And what do you call a team of grownups who have survived off piddling, pathetic pay raises over the last seven years and who have had a good portion of their retirement pension plundered by politicians?
What possible difference does it make that all of these well-meaning, hard-working grownups, drawing menial wages while they do their damnedest to educate Florida’s youth, i.e., protect them from the wildly incompetent shenanigans of the feckless boneheads who’ve forever tarnished the Muskogean word “tallahassee” – what difference does it make if they all form a team wearing orange shirts?
I hate to think that that kind of team is just meant to placidly go along with every outrageous directive that gets channeled through in-services and department meetings. “Where’s your spirit? This is a team! We’re family here!” That, my friends is an ad populum fallacy, and every student who’s sat through my AP Lang classes would recognize it as such. There’s another term for it, and it has to do with bovine droppings.
Speaking of bovines, this particular team incident brings to mind the days of my youth, milling about in my granddad’s cow pasture. There were about 50 Black Angus out there, all, so to speak, wearing the same black shirt and pants. They were a team.
One of them, a female, would decide to be the Head Cow, and the rest of the bunch would be all “Whatever. But you don’t to get wear different clothes.” The Head Cow’s main job – I swear she was working for The Man – was to make a cow path. She would walk up to the water trough or under the shade of a pecan tree or over to the next pasture, and the rest would follow exactly in her footsteps.
Soon, there would be a narrow dirt path winding through the grass, weaving and winding as if the herd had elected a tipsy leader.
So when it came time for them to be hauled off to you-know-where, she led them to the chute and they followed.
So as a little kid, I learned what “herd mentality” meant, and for me it wasn’t a metaphor. And I learned that being a team with no power doesn’t help anybody, even if it has a leader.
At my school, it was just another freaking distraction to prod frustrated, financially vulnerable grownups to tough it out for another year.


  1. And didn't we all look ridiculous in the yearbook? Row after row of orange shirts like prison garb in "Orange is the New Black". I was embarrassed. But I did it. I notice that, over the past few years I have conformed to the many changes that have come our way. I lock my doors. Always. I keep the blinds closed all the time in case of a drill because I'm worried that I will forget. I keep the learning scale poster front and center. I am constantly writing and erasing from my board learning goals and objectives (and I still don't know the difference). I don't let students converse with each other in the happy manner that they used to, but require they raise their hand to be called on. I accept late work, and later work, and still later work for fear of parent backlash with no admin support. I don't allow students to leave the room for ten minutes after the bell rings and ten minutes before the bell rings. I don't smile unless it's in my lesson plans. I don't laugh unless it is data driven and shown to be an effective teaching technique. There is a former student, who will be a senior this next year, who visited me every day during lunch last year. Toward the end of the year he said to me, "Mrs. Savage, you don't laugh as much as you used to. You're not as fun this year." and that hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been complaining to my husband over the course of the last two years or so that there are more and more students that I dislike. I used to love all of my students. In 20 years of teaching I couldn't really think of a student that I didn't like. But over the past two or three years there were more and more of them. I would puzzle over that and try to think of what had changed. How had the students become so dislikable? It wasn't until reading this blog, today, that I realized it wasn't the students I didn't like any more. It was me. I have seven years left. I'm not sure what to do with that information.

  2. This all sounds very familiar, sadly. I was really sorry to be so happy to leave.

  3. Initially, after learning of your decision to retire, I was saddened and a bit jealous. The jealousy has since vanished - I know my day will come. Strangely, though, the sadness at your leaving has vanished as well. You may no longer be in a conventional classroom (if every yours was thus), but you continue to teach. Maybe we haven't lost an amazing teacher, but have instead gained a powerful voice. Please continue to share your observations with the world beyond the school building walls - hopefully helping to break through some of the bovine droppings that currently litter the educational landscape. Thanks, Doc!

  4. For many years, I've wondered how teachers manage to come to work each day, facing the obstacles that have been put before them. The main issue you've mentioned, however, is the attempt to force you all to conform to a specific uniform to encourage you to identify as a team. As a teams researcher in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, it bears mentioning that teams are defined as "social entities composed of members with high task interdependency and shared and valued common goals (Dyer, 1984)." While the main goals are the same (provide students with a good education), there is little to no interdependency between teachers and, as such, would not qualify as a team. It is frustrating to see administration require such ridiculousness and, while their hearts are (hopefully) in the right place, they might want to do some reading on increasing cohesion, morale, motivation, etc. before implementing policies like this.

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  6. I just spent 20 minutes writing an awesome comment, which disappeared when I clicked "Publish" and had to sign into some account or other. So, just "ditto."

  7. You go, Roy! I was stunned to learn that your school administrators would have the nerve to require their professional staff to conform to such a petty and idiotic dictate. This "team-orange-prison-tshirt" thing is an insult to not only their ( your) dignity and autonomy, but belies their and your professional standing. I thought we had it bad here in P-town until I read this. This lack of regard and many of the factors you mention in this post are the reasons I retired early- even though it meant I'd have to continue to supplement my retirement for several years to come.

  8. Thanks for the backup! I retired 2 years before my time, too, so we'll just be livin off luv for a while.Couldn't take it anymore!

  9. What a great post! At your former school's crosstown rival, we always received our shirts on Thursday of Pre-Plan (a truly senseless label, I agree) and were told to wear it the next morning for our individual yearbook photo, the faculty photo and the department photo. We also had to wear it the first day of school. Why? So that students would know who the teachers were. Really? Wasn't it rather obvious?
    And, if you think your shirts were bad, you should have seen ours. I thought the one for this year looked like black, white and grey camouflage of some sort, but was told it was more like the video game Minecraft. One year, they were an awful gunmetal grey. Most of the time, the shirts chosen were men's shirts and the women just had to put up with the poor fit. When they did find a women's version, the sizing was so terrible, we were forced to choose shirts 2 to 3 times larger than normal. Any woman can tell you how depressing that is. Most years, I never wore the shirt again after the first day, because the style or color was just so bad. I cannot tell you how happy I was to fold them all up two weeks ago and deliver them to the media center for use by future teachers who are hired in the middle of the year and need their photo identification made.
    You see, I, too, retired on May 29, and it was 4 years earlier than I originally intended. When the administration informed me a couple of years ago that they were phasing out German, I took it as God's way of telling me to phase myself out. Last year was so stressful with Marzano, the evaluation system, changes in the Geometry curriculum ( yes, I taught that, too, and was in charge of the Honors program), having a class of German II, III and AP all at the same time, parents, etc., that my husband finally looked at me and said, " I hate seeing you so unhappy in something you've devoted your life to."
    I made the administration an offer for the 2014-2015 school year and they accepted it. I taught just one class this year which was my German III/AP class, so that they could get as far in German as possible before the subject was killed off. Due to the block schedule, I only worked Monday and Thursday until 9:02 and Wednesday until 8:10. The students were grateful to me for coming in just for them and I have been much, much happier. I've been able to take care of myself by taking 3-mile walks in the morning and have seen that I have lots to keep myself occupied.
    The payout for sick leave and the prospect of earning more retired than I did this year on 1/7 of my regular salary are definitely cheering thoughts. Of course, I am grateful to my husband for being so happy at UCF, that he won't be retiring any time soon.
    After listening to my daughter, Allison, rave about you, even 8 years after graduating,I'm sure that being away from your students will be hard for you. I know that is the one thing I'm going to miss. However, as I told the faculty, when they gave me my plaque for my years of service at the end-of-year faculty luncheon, "Enjoy yourself while you're here, but don't stay until it's too late. Leave while you can still enjoy yourself out there." You and I didn't stay until we were totally embittered and couldn't remember the good things about teaching. Plus, we are still physically able to be active in retirement.
    Now that I have time for reading whatever I want, I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  10. Kathy, I'm really happy that you were able to leave. I started to feel like the older faculty couldn't leave soon enough to suit those in charge. So . . . I am a very happy retired man, but very disappointed that it turned out like this. Thanks for your great comment, and my best to Allison.