I was in an airport bathroom recently...specifically, I was in a stall. I could hear a little girl somewhere near the sinks squealing, "I wanna push the button!" over and over and over. And over. The squeals escalated from a post-toddler whine to a pre-school shrill.
From my perspective, it was apparent that the little girl wanted to push the automatic hand dryer button. So I waited to hear the machine start up and pictured the air blowing across the little girl's head; surely, she would be just the right height for a new wind-blown hairstyle.
I never heard the hand dryer come on, but I did hear the little girl squeal her request repeatedly. But what I didn't hear was any acknowledgement from her mother. She had turned her little girl off.
The entire scenario reminded me of the summer of 1989, a month before my son's kindergarten year. By chance we ran into his first ever public school teacher in the shopping mall, just before school started. Coincidentally, the teacher had a son the same age as mine. And interestingly he was banging her on the head with a balloon the whole time we chatted.
It went something like this: "Yes, he'll need paper, pencils, a box of tissues, a glue stick..." BOP! "Oh, and don't forget about Open House...." BOP! "I'm so happy to have your son in my class this year..." BOP BOP!!!
The teacher never said a word to her son, and I decided she was accustomed to him, somewhat desensitized to his antics. During my restroom stall retreat, I thought back to that teacher and that little boy and thought about how my buddy out by the hand dryer was turned off, too. It was as if her mother didn't even notice her squeals, desensitized to shrill requests because she most likely hears them all day.
All of a sudden, in a bathroom stall in Baltimore, Maryland, it hit me. Lawmakers are turning the same deaf ear to educators. We've squealed about working conditions, salaries, and layoffs. Recently, we've taken to marching, walking out, protesting, and letter and editorial writing. But it's as if policymakers have their fingers stuffed in their ears, singing, "I can't hear you. I can't hear you..." Apparently, they are desensitized to our pleas.
So, finally on the plane and ascending upward and over Washington, DC, where so much of what impacts us as teachers is decided, I thought about how to get our message across in ways that are more difficult to "turn off."
First, I truly believe you get more with honey than vinegar. Angry outbursts and name-calling are the best ways to ensure that they won't hear what you say; they'll hear how you say it. Remain calm, state the facts, and have data to back it up. No squealing or whining allowed.
Next...learn from history. Dr. Martin Luther King's peaceful protests changed our country. Walk to the capitol if you like; carry a sign displaying your message. But don't communicate threats or yell obscenities. Hang on to your self control by thinking about the message you're sending to your students or your own children. We should all be role models for peace.
Also, use your 21st century technology skills and get your messsage out there so you can drum up support. Have you heard of California teacher Anthony Cody's Letters to Obama that got him an audience with Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education? Mr. Cody's use of social networking helped him connect with educators all over the country and thus send a message to policymakers that can't be turned off.
Last, it's necessary to hit 'em where it's important, with stories of our students and our children. For example, my sixth grade student Jake has almost learned how to say his "r's" during this school year. But if the speech teacher's position is cut, he'll move on to high school sounding much younger than his actual age. Perla, my English Language Learner, will continue to struggle in school if her ESL teacher is moved elsewhere. And Andre and JoeJoe will have a difficult time learning in a classroom with 38 other kids. They've told me they do better in small groups. But fewer teachers mean crowded classrooms and less learning for Andre and JoeJoe.
So, yes, we do want to push their buttons. But first they have to hear our requests. We need to do whatever it takes to make that happen.