So it’s June 20th (“Regents’ Week” in New York high schools) and I’m having coffee with the most wonderfully kind teacher of my school. We’re in his classroom, talking about our wives, when he starts giving me some awesome advice about marriage. He has this beautiful baritone voice and speaks in this fabulously slow, deliberate manner so, as is my habit when I listen to his wisdom, I lean my head into my right hand and just take it all in.
At that moment -I mean at that very moment- I feel some type of bump thing under my ear. My colleague’s voice fades just a bit as I begin to concentrate my attention on this area just under my ear. I pick up my head up and touch it with the tips of my two fingers and quickly conclude that I have a lump.
My colleague’s voice fades almost completely away now as I feel all around this lump. It’s about 3/4 inch in diameter, comes up about 1/2 an inch off of the side of my face and is planted right there under my ear. There is nothing on the other side, nothing under my neck and nothing anywhere else. I can no longer hear a word coming from my colleague. I see a face and a moving mouth but no sound comes out. All I can think about it is ‘wtf is this lump?’. It doesn’t hurt, doesn’t feel sore and isn’t accompanied by any fever or discomfort. The skin around it is not brown or discolored. It doesn’t feel like a huge zit and doesn’t hurt when I press on it. Yet there it is.
One month, five doctor appointments, an X-Ray and an MRI later and I am informed that I have a tumor in my right salivary gland. I didn’t even know I had one of those. I’m also told that there is no certainty as to whether it is cancerous or benign (although, I’m told, it’s probably benign). Finally, I’m informed that I’ll need surgery to fix this broken gland of mine.
And just like that, I am tossed into the merry Go ‘Round that is our American Healthcare System.
I dont suppose my ride will be a long one. I have recently seen this happen to someone close and the full cycle of death by cancer is a vicious one. There are endless appointments, countless doctors who you see but don’t know, as well as more trips for procedures, surgeries and/or scary tests than you can, or care to, count. And then there are the drugs -endless amounts of drugs. They have drugs to drain your fluids and drugs to fill you with them. They have drugs to poison you and drugs to make you feel better after having been poisoned. There are drugs to make you sleep, drugs to wake you up, drugs to make you eat and drugs to make you stop vomiting when you’ve eaten too much after injecting the poison. Witnessing these things was one thing. But by mid-July, after just 20 minutes with my head shoved into an MRI machine, I came to realize the full scope of what I suddenly hoped I was not in store for. If it’s bad -I mean if it’s really really bad- I’ll begin this slow process where I’ll first stop being myself, then stop being able to work and finally stop being anything at all. If it’s more than what it probably it is (because it probably is just a benign tumor), I will have to consider how to navigate the terrain through these lenses.
I don’t mention this because I think it matters much for an Edu blog. Nor do I mention it because I think this extreme possibility will happen to me (again, odds are that it won’t). I certainly don’t mention it for attention or sympathy. I only bring it up because I’d like you to see the landscape from my perspective as I begin talking about my job protections.
You see, at this point in the summer, it looks as though the surgery will take place sometime after the start of the coming school year. This means that I will probably have to miss at least a few days of work. My license is not in a shortage area. ‘High School Social Studies Teacher’ is a dream job, you see. The fact of the matter is that there are ten guys who are just as smart (and five who are just as handsome) who could quickly move in and do what I do for literally half of what it costs to pay my salary and the healthcare benefits that will probably save me.
I also need to say that I have seen school leaders move to get rid of teachers for something like missing work in order to address needed health issues before. I haven’t seen this once or twice mind you (although I haven’t seen it “a lot” or “often” either), but I have seen it enough over my thirteen years in the classroom to have clear recollections of being thankful for my good health on more than one occasion. And I’ve seen it enough to count myself grateful that I do not currently work under such school leaders. Those observations make me feel grateful for having the job protection of tenure.
I know what the process for a ruthless principal is to get rid of someone with sudden health issues. A principal I worked for between 2001 and 2005, and another I worked for for one semester in 2008 both followed it well. Before the health issues, the teacher is a fine and productive teacher. Suddenly, the health issues arrive and the teacher is not able to wait until the summer to take care of it. Soon after, the administrators share concerns about the teaching practices of this teacher. Before you know it, administrators and their lackies, label this person as a ‘bad teacher’. From there, it’s a quick ride out. I’ve witnessed three teachers be forced into an early retirement, one forced into a resignation from the system altogether and just this year, heard that another was forced into a medical pension that she did not wish to take.
The principals didn’t force these teachers into these positions on the grounds that they were sick. Of course, that would be reprehensible. Rather, they forced my colleagues into these positions because they were ‘bad’ at what they did. Of course, the rub is that they were only labelled ‘bad’after they became sick. Any dimwit can tell you that that’s how things work in the real world.
I make this point because just yesterday, Whoopi Goldberg jumped on the bandwagon of ‘fire the bad teachers’. I have to admit that, at face value, it is an honorable bandwagon to jump on. No one, and that includes me, wants a bad teacher teaching. A slightly closer look will reveal that Ms. Goldberg is embracing a specific form of commentary -one that happens to be called the “Bad Teacher Narrative”. That’s the commentary that chooses to discuss only the bad apples that populate our classrooms and no others. It’s a useful narrative, in that focusing on the bad apples allows people to take hard earned privileges away from all of us. Julie Cavanaugh, the lady who ran for president of my union last time around once mentioned that “The ‘bad teacher’ narrative as a way of explaining what’s wrong with our school system gets really old,”. Looks like she was wrong. It’s not old for Ms. Goldberg. On her show yesterday, Whoopi seemed to imply that tenure for all teachers should be removed simply because a few of us (anywhere between 1% – 3% according to testimony during the Vergara Case) may be bad. Of course, she doesn’t consider how any one of us can arrive at the label of being bad. Some of us, like my colleagues under a ruthless principal, can be fine, but then become bad suspiciously after becoming sick. Others can befall this label for other reasons that are nothing short of dishonest and corrupt. Whoopi didn’t seem to address this. No one who embraces the ‘Bad Teacher Narrative” ever seems to address this.
At this point, I would like to point out that, should Campbell Brown’s lawsuit designed to repeal teacher tenure in New York State be successful, I, along with the ‘bad teachers’, will be an ‘at-will’ employee until the New York State Legislature acts. This may stand in opposition to some things you have read in the past. The fact, however, is that New York’s Civil Service laws do not apply to teachers and will not kick in as some sort of magical backstop should Brown’s suit be successful. If she wins, teachers throughout the state will be “at-will” until some type of new laws are passed in the legislature. That is a fact.
And it leads me to an important point. That without tenure, I’d have a lot more to worry about this year than just this damn tumor.
This post was written by a New York City High School teacher who wishes to remain anonymous.