Sacred Cows

Selected from Part 3: Political Trials

As much as I hate to admit to it, the fact is that I was absurdly naive about the political nature of public education, at least during my early years of working in the system. This is especially embarrassing to admit given that I entered the teaching profession as a man in my early forties, certainly old enough to have had a realistic expectation of the political nature of my position as classroom teacher. There were other teachers, however, who were exceedingly aware of public school politics and who were most adept at playing the game. I, in a way, was like a seal pup swimming in a political sea that resembled a roiling cauldron, sharing the waters with large fish that I failed to recognize as being opportunistic sharks.  This story is about one such shark.

When I hired on at SHS, Nelson had been a teacher at the school for several years. I would eventually learn that Nelson's degree was in chemistry education, as was mine. However, when I came on the scene, Nelson was teaching physical science and math, no chemistry. Before my being hired, Nelson may have also taught a chemistry course at SHS, a diluted course, one that had been created by the forces of political correctness (or ineptness). How long he might have taught such a course, I do not know. This course no longer existed at SHS when I was hired, and I believe that it had been eliminated from the schedule a couple of years ahead of my arrival. Anyway, I would eventually learn that Nelson was never even invited to interview for the chemistry position that I eventually filled, in spite of his degree and teaching experience. In fact, Kenny, the science department chair in my first years at SHS, would commonly comment that Nelson could only be given the lower level science and math courses to teach because whenever Nelson had been assigned a more sophisticated course to teach, he would always foul it up. The truth was that neither the math nor science department thought much of Nelson’s approach to teaching. Several years after I had been at SHS, the math department had an opportunity to dump Nelson exclusively into the lap of the science department, and eagerly did so. After a couple of years of being rid of Nelson, the school's principal approached the math department's chairwoman, a real go-getter named Kellie, about Nelson being reassigned for the following school year as a half-time math teacher. My guess is that the principal's motivation had something to do with scheduling, but I don't know for sure. In any event, Kellie was so appalled at the principal's proposal that she threatened to quit SHS, and to begin her search for another teaching job immediately. Kellie was held in very high regard by the principal, and rightly so. That being the case, the principal backed off his proposal, on the spot. Kellie, by the way, told me this story when I asked her at a point near her retirement if she would give me her honest opinion of Nelson's worth as a teacher, just for my personal record.

Although deficient as a teacher, Nelson was ever so good at public school politics. Indeed, he would eventually use his skills in this area to jockey himself into becoming the bogus teacher assigned to teach the bogus chemistry course to which I make reference in The Imaginary Deadline story. This brings me to another point worth making about Nelson.

Nelson is not stupid, not by a long shot. In fact, I consider his intellect to be every bit the equal of mine. Moreover, I got the impression over the years that he does quite well financially in the role of landlord, as regards residential rental properties. Furthermore, if one were to sit down for a cup of coffee with Nelson, it would be my full expectation that the person would afterwards walk away not only thinking Nelson respectably intelligent, but a pretty darn nice guy as well.  And I would have no complaint with the person's estimation of Nelson because as a social acquaintance, Nelson makes a very positive impression. To be sure, Nelson has what he likes to call "people skills," and I will come back to these in a few moments. My complaint lies with Nelson as a teacher, i.e., in his masquerading as one.

Teaching is a demanding job only if one demands much of one's students. If one does not demand much of the kids, then the job of teaching is really not too tough. Oh, sure, a teacher who is a slacker (a popular student epithet during my days as a teacher) goes through all the motions of teaching, but it's all a ruse. I will consider Nelson as an example. He gives high grades for minimal work, and passing grades for little more than breathing. It was common for kids to laughingly tell me that they got good grades from Nelson for doing little more than drinking pop, playing games on a computer and lying around on a couch. Yes, Nelson used to keep a couch in his room, and I’m guessing that he still does at the time of this writing.  Many kids eat up this approach to teaching, using the term very loosely, and why shouldn't they? The old Dire Straits tune boasts, "Money for nothin' and chicks for free." Nelson's students could chant, "Big points for nothin' and grades for free." Gussy up that transcript! That’s the ticket! If the transcript ends up amounting to little more than marks on a piece of paper, so what?  The kid's happy. The parents are happy. The administrators are happy because the kid and the parents are happy. Everybody's happy! Sure, many of the deceived and deluded will suffer later, say when struggling in a serious college chemistry class, but SHS (and most high schools) need not worry. What's the kid going to do? What are the parents going to do? Nothing of any consequence to SHS, that’s for sure. Once the kid is out the door, he’s someone else's problem. The Nelsons of the world are a major reason so many high school kids go to college needing to take remedial classes for subjects they never mastered in high school, but should have. Letting kids happily live a lie, as I stated above, has its benefits in the short term. As I write, I understand that maybe as many as a third of Colorado high school graduates require remedial study during their first year of higher education.  Kenny used to commonly remark that someone would have to sue for fraud, one of these days. If the suit were successful, then maybe something would be done to fix the system, in his best-case scenario. Even though I certainly appreciated Kenny's sentiment, I never allowed myself to believe that any such landmark case would be heard during my time as a teacher, or on this Earth.


Regarding Nelson’s self-described people skills that I mentioned above, I felt that Nelson was as much a schmoozer as he was a sincere people person. To be fair to the man, I did witness him engaged in conversations with various students and colleagues over the years during which he seemed to display genuine friendliness or concern. I also know that he helped a kid or two beyond the call of duty, that is, in a material way. It was not at all uncommon, however, that I would witness him plying his so-called people skills on some likely unsuspecting person or another whom he had targeted as a means to an end. And Nelson always had "an end" in mind.

During my first couple of years at SHS, I used to eat lunch regularly with Nelson. Usually, he and I would be the only ones present in his room during lunch period, with the exception of a student wandering in for some reason or another or, perhaps, some teacher stopping by to shoot the breeze a bit. During these lunch periods we spent together, Nelson had a lot to say about the public school system, and he could be especially sarcastic and sharp-tongued in his estimation of administrators. To be sure, I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to Nelson's being sour on administrative types. Where we differed was how we handled our sourness.  In dealing with administrators, whether on a casual or formal basis, I would try to be true to my soul, meaning that I would behave in a manner displaying respect, but never displaying a shameless spewing of flattery. Nelson, on the other hand, had no compunction about stroking some administrator he had deemed advantageous to ally himself with or to enlist as a means to an end, the end most likely having something to do with Nelson's self-interest, as in his teaching assignments. One instance of such deliberate targeting that struck me as being especially telling in regards to Nelson's character involved an administrator from headquarters, a guy pretty near the top of the school district's food chain, so to speak. Nelson had blasted this guy especially hard during one of our lunches together because he considered this administrator to have gained his lofty position with the school district more due to the man's ethnicity than his competence. As Nelson spoke during that particular lunch period, I came to understand that the core of Nelson's contempt for this district official was largely due to a matter involving Nelson that the official didn't resolve to Nelson's satisfaction. I can't really recall if I agreed with Nelson’s assessment of the administrator’s conduct in the matter. I probably thought the whole affair as Nelson described it as being pretty much a wash.  But what I can vividly recall is Nelson's performance at a gathering of district personnel at which he and this particular administrator were simultaneously present.

It was purely by chance that I was passing along the school's second story skywalk one day when I happened to look down at the first floor to gain sight of Nelson schmoozing this administrator, a guy whose greatest qualification was his ethnicity, according to Nelson. As it was, the day was a non-contact (no students), in-service day, and there was something of a mixer going on in our school's commons area. Among the crowd were a number of visitors from throughout the district, and Nelson's dubiously qualified administrator was among that number. From my elevated position, I stopped to watch these two men, neither one cognizant of my spying. It was classic Nelson. He was fawning all over the administrator as if the guy were Nelson's long lost, recently found, beloved brother. I observed the pair for probably a couple of minutes. In so doing, I slowly shook my head as I thought along the lines of, "Son-of-ah-bitch. Just look at that." Nelson was indeed masterful at the art of deception.  I have no idea what Nelson was bending that administrator's ear about that day because I could not hear their conversation.  Nonetheless, as I watched Nelson's performance, dancing his dance and singing his song, I knew without doubt that he had meant every word when at an earlier time he had pontificated his formula for teacher success.

Prior to the episode I just described, Nelson had made me privy to his guiding principle for teacher success, success being defined as gaining the favor (or even the admiration) of administrative types. In Nelson's opinion, there is but one thing a teacher needs to appreciate in order to place him or herself in a state of administrative grace. The gist of his pearl of practicality was something to the effect that a teacher needs to know which "sacred cow" matches with which administrator, then make sure that he or she (the teacher) is opportunistically seen worshiping at that sacred cow. Nelson's use of "sacred cow" in the previous statement is perfectly justified by its definition.

So, in "The World of Public Education According to Nelson," opportunistic worship is the key to a teacher's success. In plainer language, what Nelson argued is that if a teacher wants to be regarded as successful by the powers that be, he or she had better understand, first and foremost, how to play at the politics of public education. I entered the profession thinking that my success would be tied to the degree to which I provided my students with a credible opportunity for learning, an opportunity that would serve them well beyond their days with me. In fact, I made such provision my first and foremost concern. After all, this was exactly the approach to teaching that my best teachers (and I’ve had quite a few) took, i.e., a most serious approach to a most serious undertaking. None of my best teachers would have ever considered success as a teacher in terms of placating kids, parents and administrators. Again, keeping the kids happy is the key in the placation game. And Nelson knew that there's no surer way of placating kids than by handing out high grades, the steroids of self-esteem.  In terms of hard, political realities, my approach to teaching was foolish, and, to be completely honest, I sometimes wonder that if I had it to do all over again if I would take my same approach to the same extent.

I acknowledge that there's a place for self-esteem in all lives. Public education, however, made a movement of self-esteem, making it the highest and holiest of sacred cows. I admit that the words "self-esteem" are probably not uttered in the circles of public education to the extent that they were fifteen or twenty years ago, but like the radiation resulting from a nuclear blast, the effect of this sacred cow still has a profound effect on the landscape known as public education. Admittedly, there are other sacred cows to which administrators serve as high priests or priestesses. Some would be: very lenient makeup policies governing kids' missed assignments; teacher attendance at school athletic and social events; and high teacher visibility around campus during raucous times of the day, like pep assemblies and end-of-day dismissal. Nonetheless, it was my perception that bowing and praying to the sacred cow of self-esteem could atone for sins committed against lesser public school deities. I sometimes have to sarcastically grin as I recall how masterfully Nelson worshiped at this idol of idols. The kids-parents-administrators triumvirate and Nelson were much like two organisms enjoying a perfectly symbiotic relationship.

For the record, I feel compelled to mention that I'm not necessarily against worthy objectives (sacred cows?). In business, for instance, things like productivity and customer service should be ever-present concerns. In a private school, I would expect that discipline and academic rigor are deeply valued. In this story, I'm attempting to illustrate how a manipulative and self-serving man sought to exploit a sacred cow of public education. I am confident that even as Nelson shared with me that day his secret for success, he was already well into his next scheme for the future. Like I said before, Nelson is an intelligent guy. This brings me to another important point before I close.

The most striking aspect of Nelson's assessment of the state of affairs in public education is the extent of its accuracy.  Certainly, there are administrators who are anything but servile to a sacred cow like self-esteem. Nevertheless, there is a great amount of truth to Nelson's portrait of public education. In fact, Nelson's astuteness has resulted in his receipt of various accolades. I had to laugh out loud when I learned that he was awarded a substantial amount of money as part of an award for being an outstanding teacher. Whoever coined the statement to the effect that "fact is far stranger than fiction" was perceptive, very perceptive.

Essentially this has been the story about a man who is (Nelson is still employed as a public school teacher at the time of this writing) cunningly skilled at public school politics. Again, and in the interest of complete honesty, I have sometimes wondered if I shouldn't have been more like Nelson. Had I been, I could have spared myself a lot of headaches.

Being a teacher in the public schools too often has nothing to do with teaching.