Detritus on the playing field

Public education is in the news again. I teach in a public school. It has not been an easy run, but it is always an adventure. Teaching is complex, challenging, at times frustrating, at times tragic.

There are great triumphs and there are dizzying setbacks. We feel good about what we do, but we’ve each been knocked flat by that proverbial 300 pound linebacker 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. It is, for better or for worse, part of the job.

I’m going to take the football metaphor a little farther in a minute, but first let’s consider a few recent headlines to set the stage for that.

One was a bill (promptly killed, thank goodness) to ban certain books that contain swear words and adult themes from being assigned in schools. Another is a bill, currently under consideration, that would ban teachers from any political advocacy or introduction of material deemed controversial and irrelevant. And finally, there was a bill introduced this month that would require third through fifth grade teachers to teach cursive handwriting to their students.

I am confident all three of these bills will have met a swift death at the committee level in due time, because they are ill-conceived and misinformed.

The notion of banning books in 2019 is a tired, archaic and backwards-thinking tactic. It was when when it came up in the 1980’s when I was in high school, and it is even more so today. Teachers, administrators and parents have proven they can make those decisions without the help of government oversight, thank you very much.

The same goes for a state law that prohibits teachers from spewing their political beliefs. It certainly happens sometimes, but when a teacher ever crosses that line, he or she will hear about it from parents and administrators. And parents always, always have the ability to set their children straight if they want to. All one has to say is, “I disagree with your teacher about that, and here’s why.”

Lastly, while we are pushing art, music, physical education and outdoor play time aside for more room to teach math and reading, it is just as concerning that there is a legislator out there who thinks we should inhibit state law to save cursive writing in Maine schools. Forget artistic expression, forget physical well-being, forget song and dance. What our children need is.. cursive. Now I’m not advocating to abandon the practice, but.. A state law? Really?? I loved learning to write in cursive when I was 8, and I know there is still a certain eager anticipation many young children still possess to learn this skill, but let’s please just leave that one up to curriculum coordinators to mull over and not state legislators. We don’t legislate fonts and we don’t legislate algorithms, we let the experts in the field make those determinations, for the sake of time and resources, but also out of general respect for the experts in those fields.

Ok, so it’s third down and seventeen, you’ve just been sacked by a 300 pound linebacker, and what happens on the next play… a bad call by the ref?.. A fumble? A broken play? No.. You get smacked in the face by a moldy tomato that some unforsaken, rude and misguided “fan” hurled at you from the stands. Three of them, in fact, one after the other. Smack! Splat!! Splosh!!! How’s that for appreciation of the game?

Except it’s not a game. It’s public education, the institution that helps to shape our future. Maine legislators should know better than to hurl such debris at us.

To top it all off, in case you missed it, the other day our president’s son referred to teachers as losers who indoctrinate our students with a socialist agenda.

I have no football metaphor for this.

It wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark, either; it was a carefully chosen statement, spoken in front of a crowd of thousands, at a rally to excite a crowd before the president himself spoke. It was a warm-up act of sorts. And of course, it was filmed and immediately went viral.

Enough already. Teachers aren’t out to liberalize your children, stain their souls with filthy literature and prevent them from the highly anticipated climactic childhood glory of learning to write in cursive. And if you ever encounter one who is, maybe consider setting up a conference with him or her. You will likely see results, because most teachers, almost all of them in fact, are good listeners and reasonable people. Non-loser types, to be precise.

Legislation written to have all teachers fired who let their politics slip into their teaching, or who assign a book with adult language or a love scene, assumes otherwise. It demonstrates an embarrassing lack of understanding of the teaching profession and the institution of public education, and an unwillingness to communicate like an adult. My opinion is that it is not a valuable use of a legislator’s (or an education stakeholder’s) time to debate these topics.

Instead, let’s discuss ways to make Maine schools the most innovative, exciting, and empowering learning institutions in the country and the world. Let’s focus on moving forward and not get snagged by backward legislation born from paranoia of eras long gone by.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.