HALL MONITOR — What Has Changed?

November 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

I was filling out a survey the other day and realized I’d moved to a new demographic box. This is my twenty-first year of teaching.

I shook off the creeping sense of mortality and sat down to write my column this month, and then I realized that I’m in a new box here, too. This is my eleventh year writing for the Compass.

So I am pausing to reflect on the last 20 years in the Milwaukee Public Schools and the last 10 as an in-print school district “hall monitor.”

In an organization the size of MPS, you’d expect a lot of systemic inertia. In the past two months, I’ve written about some of the things that haven’t changed — unrealistic expectations placed on teachers, ever-increasing standards for students without needed supports, silly euphemisms used for “failing.”

But overall, in the last 10 or 20 years, what has changed? Almost everything.

Also, basically nothing. Let me explain.

Infrastructure

Over my tenure at the Compass, much of my writing has been about school closings, or threatened closings. However, with one exception, every single Bay View-area MPS school building is still open and full of students.

The exception is Dover Street School, which is being renovated to hold Howard Avenue Montessori students beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.

But that’s not the only change. Fritsche Middle School is no more; in 2010, the students and staff were moved to the Bay View High School building. But now the high school is back to holding only grades 9-12.

The old Fritsche building is now Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts, a merger of Tippecanoe and Dover. Howard Avenue Montessori occupies the Tippecanoe building. Riley is now a bilingual Montessori school. Fernwood Montessori is bigger than it used to be, with more building and more students.

Students

Kids are still kids, I always say when people ask me how teaching is going now compared to way back when. It’s true, but also too facile an answer.

When I started teaching, students generally didn’t like reading — wouldn’t read the books for homework, wouldn’t volunteer to read aloud in class. They didn’t like writing, either. “A whole page? That’s terrible!” they said then.

Now the only thing different is the language of complaint: “A whole page? You’re forcing it!” they say.

Yet every single student I teach today is reading and writing significantly more than 10 years ago, and far more than 20 years ago.

Credit the iPhone! The ubiquity of smart phones has made text-based interaction so much more common. Students text, snap, and inbox each other hundreds or thousands of words a day.

That translates to students submitting assignments in so many more ways than just paper and pen, including “typing” papers with their thumbs. I have a set of Chromebooks for my class, use Google Classroom daily, and receive memes that are tweeted at me. Each of my curriculum units is peppered with video, and I have a YouTube channel dedicated to writing instruction.

I still grade work (another way I used to be deemed “terrible” but now am informed I am forcing it), but it’s no longer about points. It’s about evidence of proficiency, with a scoring system based on the Common Core State Standards, adopted pretty much nationwide.

Funding

When I started teaching in MPS, school communities fought the central office over funding. When I started writing here, school communities were fighting the central office over funding. Today, school communities are fighting the central office over funding.

One or two decades ago, there was a belief among the school communities that MPS had the funding to adequately pay for all we demanded, if the district would just prioritize differently.

Now, however, it’s clear MPS is being massively shortchanged by the state. Because Wisconsin lawmakers have kept funding increases below the rate of inflation for years and promoted policies that have whittled district enrollment to record lows, the budget seems to be all scraps and no meat at all.

Because the pickings are even leaner, the ever-present sense of mistrust between labor and management persists. It’s both better and worse than before.

I have said often, lately, that the superintendent and the union are working closely and cooperatively on many big-picture projects to improve student achievement. But the passage of Act 10, the 2011 law stripping almost all collective bargaining power from teachers unions, means teachers have to struggle, scrape, and claw for any win, like a sliver more prep time or pay that honors our loyalty.

Still Worth It

In the end, I guess I can say this: What frustrates me now, fueled my righteous indignation back the. What made the fight worth it then, still sustains me now.

Some say history is not a line but a spiral, the same things keep coming back around. It’s true! If I’m still here doing this in another 10 years, you for sure will hear about it.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School and on YouTube at bit.ly/bullocksrules.

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