One sunny afternoon, I was in the middle of discussing a novel with my ninth-grade English class when I was interrupted by a phone call. Someone was angry. She asked, "Are you teaching a novel that describes the rape of a pig and a boy eating a squirrel's nuts?"
It was the assistant principal talking, telling me that she had just received a call from a parent who was upset about the scenes in question. My students and I were reading Robert Peck's autobiographical novel, A Day No Pigs Would Die, and I tried to explain to this assistant principal that someone was misrepresenting the book, that it was a novel most of the ninth-grade teachers taught.
She asked to see a copy of the novel, as if I couldn't be trusted, as if I were guilty of teaching barnyard pornography.
I said, "Look, I'm busy. Please excuse me, but I have a class to teach. Let's discuss the matter later."
I returned to my seat--a student desk--took a deep breath, and continued asking questions. We talked about this novel of initiation, a story of a boy facing heartbreak, learning about life's hard knocks, and taking on responsibility.
With the blinds lowered to keep out the glare reflecting from a full parking lot, my students and I read selections and discussed the characters. Everyone was paying attention. Even though there were many reluctant readers in the class, students were engaged in the discussion. We were interrupted by the assistant principal, who walked furtively into the room, like a dog looking to steal another dog's bone. She asked for a copy of the novel.
I looked at her and said, "They are all being used."
She walked out. Later, a media specialist quietly walked in, looked at my bookshelf, searched for a copy of the book, and then left. This assistant principal was on a mission, like Reverend Hale at Salem looking for evidence of Satan at work.
Apparently, after her failure to acquire a copy of A Day No Pigs Would Die, the assistant principal went to the principal, who said that the novel was on the county's approved list, that it was deemed appropriate for the grade level. And the matter was dropped. The assistant principal never apologized.
I described this incident to a friend who has taught in public schools in both North Carolina and Colorado. He told me, "If an administrator did something like that in Colorado, you would file a grievance with the teachers' association, and that assistant principal would be disciplined. Not only was she out of line, she was incompetent, since she doesn't know the curriculum."
In North Carolina, however, a teacher who lodges a complaint about an administrator does not get much satisfaction. The assistant principal's actions are indicative of a certain attitude that persists in North Carolina and in the South in general: If a parent complains or if test scores are low, the teacher is suspect. Indeed, the teacher is guilty of some egregious lapse in judgment.
When the incident happened, I had been teaching for 24 years. I have a B.A. from Wake Forest University, a teaching certificate, and two masters degrees, one in education, the other in creative writing. Most importantly, I am committed to doing what's best for my students. In the case described, that meant teaching them a novel that might help them learn how to face adulthood, that might even show them the value of reading.
Am I a professional or not? Why do I often feel, why do many teachers feel, that we are under more pressure and have less autonomy than ever before?
Have North Carolina's teachers ever enjoyed something like professional status?
My grandfather didn't. Not that it was an issue for him. After a year of college, he came back home to Yadkin County, in the northwestern corner of the state, and taught for two years--early in the 20th century--in a one-room, clapboard schoolhouse. The term ran from November to the end of February. It was the good old days, back when North Carolina had the highest illiteracy rate in the nation. Grandpa Spencer could not make a living on a teacher's salary. He went on to open a general store, to get married and father five children.
His eldest daughter, my mother, went to Appalachian State Teachers College in Boone during World War II. She chose the career that her parents allowed her to choose. Her father could not imagine his daughter being a nurse or a secretary--jobs that involved contact with men. No, she could be a teacher. Mom taught for 31 years, most of the time in a county that never provided a salary supplement. Did she enjoy professional status? Most of the time she could count on support from parents and respect from students, but teaching was mostly women's work. Only men became principals and superintendents.
While women often fill administrative posts today, it is clear that the teacher's status has not changed. The "experts," the professionals, are the ones who leave the classroom. (And it's amazing how many administrators are good at squirting out great billows of jargon, like squid hiding in clouds of ink. And this blather gives them the right to tell me how to teach?)
My wife and I are both teachers. We chose our profession because we believed--and still believe--that we can make a positive difference in the lives of young people. We have three daughters, and now the eldest wants to be a teacher; she is a teaching fellow at East Carolina University. She is a noble and idealistic young woman. She has heard from her parents about the difficulties involved; she has seen how hard it can be to support a family with teachers' pay; and, yet, she wants to be a teacher, the most important job in the world.
What can we do--we parents, teachers, and leaders of my generation--to make sure that the next generation of educators has the respect and working conditions that teachers deserve? We must certainly acknowledge that North Carolina's problems are part of a bigger picture. America's teachers teach more hours and, at the same time, receive lower pay compared to average national income than our colleagues in other wealthy nations. Basing my calculations on a report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, I figure I am in the classroom working with students for 200 more hours per year than the average German high school teacher. No wonder my German exchange students know how to write; their English teachers give composition the attention it deserves. No wonder America is the Land of Multiple Choice.
Instead of aiming for national averages--whether we are talking about the SAT or teacher pay--maybe North Carolinians should start aiming for something higher. In some cases, the national average isn't much to brag about. Maybe teachers need to aim for something better than the status quo, that comfortable place where we bitch and moan and let our minds rattle down their intellectual ruts. In the long run, high aspiration and hard work will be required to overcome the illiteracy, poverty and various sorts of prejudice that stand in the way of quality education for all. (What about No Child Left Behind? So far it's nothing but bait and switch: big talk, no money, and no provision for establishing the teacher's professional autonomy).
In the short term, maybe we could work to change North Carolina's laws so that state employees can negotiate contracts--something that is allowed in every state but ours. There's a novel notion of educational reform, one that might make more of a difference than anyone has imagined. When teachers enjoy professional status, when they are protected from administrative incompetence, teacher morale has to get better. When we have the same basic rights as other American teachers, yes, let's take the next step.
John York is an English teacher at Southeast High School in Guilford County. Last year he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the North Carolina English Teachers Association.