Sunday , February 25 2024
Insights into education from someone fresh from the trenches.

An Interview with Jo Scott-Coe, Author of Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School

When I heard President Obama talk about education during his State of the Union speech I immediately thought of two things: the local school districts here in Texas and Jo Scott-Coe’s Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School. Why? On the news right before I heard the speech I was listening to analysis of the latest reports of layoffs in school districts in Texas, where I live. So while Obama was encouraging people to become teachers, local teachers (not to mention librarians and others) were getting laid off.

And this book? This book spells out some of the reasons why the government needs to do more than just encourage more people to apply to become teachers—it needs to start making some major changes. Some of the programs put in place by the government, be it No Child Left Behind or, more recently, Race To The Top, are leading to new problems and headaches for teachers.

I could write about my own experiences going from education reporter to educator watching decorated teachers (one of whom was supposed to continue serving as my mentor) leave the profession in frustration. However, this is not a memoir piece, but an interview, so let’s just say simply that this is one issue where I know of what I speak.

Prior to his speech I was planning an introduction like this: Ever wonder what it would be like to be a high school teacher? Let’s take that idea one step further: What would it be like to teach high school at the very same high school you attended yourself as a student? Ever wonder how female teachers are treated? Or what is like to actually teach with all the demands for more accountability as a result of programs like No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top?

After Obama’s speech I decided to switch gears, add a question or two, and this is what I came up with.

Let me just make one final remark before switching to this interview itself: This book was a hard read for me and I’m hoping it will be a tough read for others too. Let me explain—I don’t mean the book is somehow flawed but that rather, as with a good documentary, the author is truth-telling, exposing lies, exploding myths and making the reader at times as uncomfortable as she must have felt. After reading it—heck, before I even finished it—I bought copies of it for two people to say, essentially, “You want to know why I decided not to stick with teaching? This tells some of those reasons.”

Jo and I attended the same high school so when she describes what it was like to return to teaching there that was a bit surreal. So surely some parts of this were harder for me to read—and her to write—because of that.

But as she explains in the interview, she intentionally included deeply uncomfortable parts of the story. If you’re looking for a simple book that will offer you the usual inspirational clichés about how or why to become a teacher, well, let’s just say this is not that book. But if you want to read about one teacher’s experience in unflinching terms, by a person who eloquently describes her frustrations with a flawed system you yourself may have participated in—as a student, a parent, or a teacher—then this is the book for you.

Let’s start by talking about Obama’s speech.

Scott: I feel obliged to add a follow up question after watching the State of the Union speech and hearing his comments about public education and thus thinking of you and your book. What is your reaction to his comments? I’m guessing you liked his focus on giving more respect to teachers, understanding families need to be accountable too but less happy about his support for race to the top.

I’m not quite sure how Obama could say we value open-ended, thoughtful questions for American students and then, with a straight face, praise Race to the Top policy, which puts primary (and punitive) value on Scantron, multiple-choice test measures of “success” for kids, faculty, and schools. This was a serious disconnect. But to be honest, I absolutely expected him to say something like that. Obama’s comments merely reflect the wider dysfunction of our nationwide conversation about education. He didn’t invent it.

Did you see the popular Waiting For Superman documentary? What did you think of it?

Yes, I saw Waiting for Superman the first week it came out. Without doing an in depth critique, I would highlight one key problem. Unions don’t recruit, hire, or evaluate teachers — whether effective, ineffective, or middlin’ — and the movie seems to operate under the fallacy that contracts and due-process for professional educators hurt kids. But when district administrators and principals hire teachers “on the fly” and do annual 15 minute drive-by evaluations, the system becomes a joke. The film ignores this reality. You want serious evaluation reform? Involve teachers in evaluation of their colleagues–and bring teachers into evaluation of administrators.

The publicity that came with the mailing of your book describes it as “remarkably candid and profoundly unsettling” and that sums it up for me though I think I found it extra difficult to read because 1) this was/is my school we’re talking about and 2) it reminded me of problems I had teaching and student teaching. Was it hard to decide how candid to make it, how disturbing and unsettling to make it?

At times I was physically ill during the writing process. This wasn’t because I was making anything disturbing, but because I had to picture and actually relive things that were dark not only in my experiences with other people but inside my own emotional landscape. Writing about some memories can transport one back to those situations, and that feels naked and painful. But if you’re going to “go there,” you have to let the pain in to transcend it. I kept thinking about other people I knew who felt alone or disrespected in their work as teachers or their lives as students. What kept me going when I was discouraged were the stories I’d remember from colleagues, family members, students, or virtual strangers I’d read about or had interviewed. Teaching is a human situation, and I wish that it were something we could speak freely about, without needing to whisper, hide, or feel like we’re breaking dark secrets — as if in an alcoholic family. 

You set the tone early on saying on page 10, for example, how common “hiding the trouble” occurs. Do you think that’s always been a problem or is this relatively new? Why do you think it’s happening? Is it a structural issue or a response to legal threats?

It’s both. Teachers are expected to be magic people, to some extent, and this can turn into a fetish. That means even if something unreasonable is going on — whether it’s physical danger, or just a person who’s completed less than half the work complaining about a low grade — it can be tempting for the teacher to take on responsibility for everything. This is also a gendered response for many women, and 8 out of 10 teachers are female in K-12. If you pretend that things are fine, maybe the trouble will go away. This doesn’t work, of course. Yet whether they’re male or female, teachers can experience that denial deeply if there’s no backup from their bosses, and if there’s no counseling support for students who may need some help other than with academics. (Student-to-counselor ratios across the country are obscenely high, and in California they average over 800 to 1.)

Principals, likewise, can have their hands tied by district offices who fear litigious, wealthy, or influential parents. A key to the whole “hiding the trouble” idea, I think, is this dynamic of fear and suspicion. If you hesitate too much when playing football, you’re likely to get injured. Likewise, if you learn not to trust your judgment in teaching, you hesitate too often and may very well simply pass damage forward. 

I notice, from your Facebook account, you’re still – after leaving high school teaching – following the news and debates about public high schools. Where do you see things headed? Will No Child Left Behind eventually be discarded or changed? Is there something to the argument which I’d hear when I was going into teaching that “teaching to the test isn’t necesarily a bad thing because if the test is good then it’s a way to ensure they’re learning the right things.”

Race to the Top is like No Child Left Behind on crack. It’s added a competitive element to the “test and punish” policies established by NCLB. It’s not assessment that’s the problem, in and of itself. Teachers are assessing all the time. Students get feedback and grades in their classes. But now we give annual tests to every child and count them all as “high stakes” for school funding and school “rankings” that influence real estate values and even business investments in communities. We’ve started to worship and live by some very isolated data points.

Data mining has become a lucrative industry, too. Most of these tests which give us this “sacred” data are Scantron, bubble-the-answer. Not only does this reduce the depth and quality of conversation teachers and students can have in a classroom, but the tests themselves become predatory: unregulated test companies are guaranteed public funds every year because testing is required. It seems like an incredible hedge fund scam, a bet on failure that mostly ensures more need for testing. Lower income kids get more worksheets to prepare for more testing. It’s crazy.

By the way, I’d distinguish predatory testing from pre-tests given by qualified faculty to find out what their kids know. It’s also not the same thing as comprehensive narrative feedback on student progress, as is used in Finland (a country whose education system we seem to envy). And predatory tests are NOT equivalent to diagnostic testing geared to check for reading, language acquisition level, or learning disabilities. Predatory testing is NOT testing as a learning tool, but testing as a public policy bludgeon and a money-maker.

Was the fact that your/my/our school was so well regarded that some might not think such problems could happen there… was that part of what made this so difficult?

Yes and no. People are often relieved by someone speaking up about things that they already realize. It diffuses the “gaslighting” or crazymaking phenomenon. But as a wise friend also told me, I’m well aware that plenty of people who’ve survived years of attending or working in schools may have also made extensive efforts NOT to think about some of the themes and subjects I take on in the book. Perhaps they aren’t my audience at the moment. Maybe they will be later.

Did you go out of your way to avoid naming the high school in question? Has the school responded in any way to your book or articles about it?

Something I discovered in talking with teachers and in research was that my setting wasn’t so unique. The patterns are actually more important than the specific identity of the school, and violence and sexuality seem to be two areas where Americans like to avoid or deny patterns. So yes, I took a great deal of care to render the setting specific without naming it. The idea is for people to see themselves in the setting. There’s been no institutional response to my book, and I certainly don’t expect one. I have heard from individuals — former colleagues and new readers, former students, people who have said, “That happened to me!” Mostly, the response has been appreciative for witnessing. Opening up a wider conversation was my idea.

How much did the school change between when we attended it together and when you left, both in terms of construction and maintenance changes (you allude, for example, to the bathrooms being improved for students but not for faculty) and in other ways?

The biggest change has been an overemphasis on Scantron testing for students — which in turn starts to strangle and confine the ways faculty can approach classroom work, what kind of teaching tends to garner praise, and over time, how students view the purpose of school and define “learning.” Like many schools, the population of our former school has grown enormously, now at nearly 3,000 kids. A larger percentage come from low-income or immigrant families, and some of the latter have very specific language needs.

Recently expanded facilities have been necessary to accommodate kids and faculty who had been previously relegated to trailers out on the back field. That’s not uncommon in both suburban and urban schools. But once that painting job, or construction job, gets finished, two or three generations of kids will have to pass through the facilities before things get attended to, repaired, or built again. Unless you’re in a very unique school or district, the “new” working environments deteriorate quickly as schools grow.

On page 41 – as well as later in the book – you list incidents where teachers catch flak from administrators and parents. I had trouble telling how many of those were incidents that happened at your school and how many things you heard about in general or read in the news. Did you start, at some point, just writing down incidents like that or did you recall them all when you started the book? That brings up another question, were you considering writing this before you actually leaving the high school?

That was the idea. The blur between settings, between my own experiences and the experiences of other people, became overwhelming in the early stages of writing and research — and even before that. If you did a Google search on “professional development” or “teacher blogs” right now, you might be shocked to see how hungry teachers are for a place to speak about their real-life experiences, and how much overlap there is between what they’re reporting on and concerned about. I was very mindful from the very beginning that teachers tend to talk mostly to each other, and the real need is for a discourse that reaches beyond the teacher conversation and gets some of this reality out beyond the classroom walls.

You noticed, I’m sure, that I did leave my job to take time for writing and reflecting on these things. That’s really important, actually. Despite all the blab about tenure as guaranteeing a “job for life,” many teachers are fearful of speaking on the record in public about what they witness because they fear punishment on the job and unions don’t get involved.

Last month, I read When Teachers Talk, Rosalyn Schnall’s comprehensive survey of teachers in Chicago, and it didn’t surprise me how many of the voices were telling stories that repeated or paralleled material in my book, which was a twinkle in my eye in 2000 and was mostly finished by late 2005. Teachers need to share their stories outside teacher circles and in the mainstream. That’s incredibly difficult in our culture, and that challenge weighed on me from the beginning of the whole process. 

You speak quite frankly about your parents in this book. Do you think they were an influence in your decision to become a teacher? Both were teachers at some point, right?

Yes, both my parents taught — in and outside the home, formally and informally. They were also active in civic life and cared about politics. I am grateful every day for the organic emphasis in our home on books and ideas, on the arts and music. My family wasn’t well off financially, but my sister and I learned very early that reading and writing were dynamic and valuable skills. We also learned that people matter. Whatever troubles I can see now in my family system, these lessons I wouldn’t trade. I’m grateful for all my parents gave me.

The statistics about teachers leaving the profession are pretty damning. I remember being told, whole in a one-year masters program for aspiring teachers, that few of us would last more than ten years and then having two mentor teachers leave the profession while I was still in the process of student teaching with them. So two questions: was one reason you wrote this book to explain why so many teachers are leaving? Do you see that flood of experienced teachers leaving changing anytime soon?

While there’s high turnover in education when compared to other professional fields, the reasons are complex. I’ve heard college counselors direct low-achieving students into the teaching field because “it’s an easy job” or “kids are totally fun all the time” or because “the schedule is cake.” Unbelievable, out-of-touch, disrespectful myths. So sometimes people who sign up to teach for these reasons get a taste of reality and leave. But some people leave later because of what I mentioned in response to a previous question–they get tired of self-censoring and pretending. It can take a serious toll on your mental well-being, your physical health, and your family. High scrutiny and high expectations can ruin morale when people don’t really see or understand what’s required in the job you do. And that’s true even for teachers who stay. We tend to forget about that part.

Now the hard follow-up question: what changes need to be made to fix these problems?

We need to stop with the “managed care” model of instruction where teachers have less and less say about how to educate their specific students while third-party entities run the show, make money, and point fingers. (We’ve seen how this model deeply eroded doctor-patient relations and health care in our country.) Union protections for teacher labor through contracts and due process have to be maintained, and rank-and-file faculty need to gain a comprehensive, thoughtful role in colleague evaluation as well as administrative evaluations.

We’ve got to stop ignoring experienced teachers, who are incredible resources of institutional memory and mentorship in schools, and smart voices from rank-and-file faculty need a serious place at the policy table. We need to talk about “student safety” and “teacher safety” in the same sentence. Finally, if bazillionaires want to help kids, I say pay attention to well-established research on books and reading — build, rebuild, and invest money in public libraries that give poor kids access to rich print and media environments, including magazines, hard copy books, newspapers, films, computer news databases, just everything. And NO strings attached.

Did this start as a series of essays and then turn into a book or was it always a plan for this to become a book?

I started with the idea of a whole book and as I worked on it, the form evolved. It helped to work with a lot of writers who were interested not only in stories for their academic significance but for the excruciating beauty of words. I also drew on a lot of inspirations — music from The Kinks, Portishead, The Pretenders, The Clash; writers and thinkers such as Margaret Atwood, Ai, Jamacia Kincaid, Cornel West, Joan Didion, Tillie Olsen, Richard Rodriguez. And of course Johnny Cusack’s films were a reservoir of encouragement. I really wanted to write a book that could locate hope, even humor, in the passage through darkness — generating questions and raising a little friendly hell, too.

What are your future plans? More books? Staying at the community college?

More writing, absolutely. Stories help people stay alive, connect with each other, remember why they might want to move forward. I love the community college because students choose to be there. That consensual element makes an incredible difference in the classroom situation, even if the students are starting at a lower level and need to catch up. The community college is a vibrant setting where people get second chances. 

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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