Opinion » Bill Cope

Herding Monkeys

The thankless task


I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. No denying it. I've said plenty of the wrong things to plenty of the wrong people. I've spent half my life in the wrong place at the wrong time. I've made wrong choices, took wrong turns, given wrong answers, asked wrong questions ... yessir, a lot of mistakes. Given my record, I guess it's just dumb luck that I didn't become an Idaho public school teacher.

Oh dear, I hope that didn't come out wrong. Believe me, I have an infinity of respect for our public school teachers. If you put our teachers on a "Which Dedicated Professionals I Respect the Most" list with, for instance, our state legislators, and ... and ... well, hells bells, I can't even pretend those two belong on the same list together, so never mind.

Nor do I mean to demean the profession of teaching. As far as I'm concerned, teaching at any level--from wrangling crayons and white paste for kindergarten kids right on up to guiding doctoral candidates through their degree programs--is the work closest to the center of what makes humans worth keeping around. There was a time when I seriously considered getting into the public education biz, myself. Uh huh ... you laugh now, but two decades ago, I was that close to becoming your darling offspring's English teacher.

But when push came to getting certified, I didn't. For one simple reason I decided against teaching in Idaho schools, and it wasn't because I don't respect teachers or what they do for a living. Nor was it because of the crappy wages paid to teachers in Idaho or the crappy way Idaho teachers are treated by Idaho's political leaders.

No, I decided teaching wasn't for me simply because I decided your kids suck. Yup. Your kids suck. What's more, I decided I didn't care so much why they suck as I cared about not wanting anything to do with the ill-behaved little monkeys.

Hey now, don't take it personally. First of all, not everyone's kid is an ill-behaved little monkey. All I'm saying is there were enough ill-behaved little monkeys in school even then, 20 years ago, to make teaching look like a nine-month stint in hell.

And secondly, fellow parents, I perfectly understand how difficult it is these days to turn out a well-behaved little monkey. Try as you might, there are only two of you, right? Maybe a grandparent or two helping out ... but that's a mighty small army to stand against the influence of hundreds of peers. (For example, the school my girl entered a month ago has over 2,400 other students enrolled. Twenty-four hundred! Teenagers!! All in the same place at the same time!!! Even if only a third of them are ill-behaved little monkeys, that's still a lot of ill-behaved little monkeys!)

So, even more so now than 20 years ago, I'm content with my decision to leave the teaching up to more patient, sympathetic and caring individuals. Truly, if they can bear to be in the same room with your offspring for even an hour, they are better people than I. In both admiration and reward, they deserve much more than they are getting.

Unfortunately, these champions keep getting the other end of the admiration stick. Because your ill-behaved little monkeys seem to be more ill-behaved with every new crop coming up through the pipeline, teachers are asked to take more and more of the blame. And as if riding herd over your brats weren't punishment enough, our state leaders are now looking into ways to make teachers' lives even more wretched.

That's right, there are currently two committees--one put together by the State Board of Education, the other a bunch of privateers calling themselves the "Idaho Business Coalition for Excellence in Education"--trying to figure out a way to pay teachers based on the academic achievements of your kids--a merit system. It all stems back to this misguided notion that all of the world's problems can be solved by a more competitive atmosphere, in spite of ample evidence that most of the world's problems are the result of a competitive atmosphere. (For instance, isn't a primary reason your kid is an ill-behaved little monkey in the first place is that he's trying to outperform all the other ill-behaved little monkeys in his peer group?)

But I'm not here today to argue the obvious truths that academic achievement can't be measured like the milk output from a corporate dairy, or that the influence of a particular teacher on a particular student may take years, even decades, to manifest itself.

What matters more to me is the added burden that basing pay raises on the intellectual merits of your children will foist upon our already over-burdened teaching corps. And it matters that you, my fellow parents, will likely go along with it, not for a moment considering the misery it will inflict on the very people who, for six hours a day, ensure your child isn't home drinking your beer and destroying your furniture.

I mean, look, it is bad enough that you let your monkeys stay up long past when their biological alarm clock goes off, just so's they can finish watching some mind-altering teevee trash, then you feed them Coke and Cocoa Puffs for breakfast, hoping the sugar high gives them enough temporary energy to get the hell out of your sight. You let them leave the house with their pubescent navels and slouching butt-cracks flying in the breeze simply because you're too frightened of a confrontation to insist on proper clothing. You actively encourage your boys to act like pro wrestlers and you supply the makeup for your girls so they can perfect that "Old Navy Hooker" look, and if they manage to stay un-impregnated by the time they're 16, you give them their own car. You allow them to sit for hours with a Gameboy in their paws, living a virtual fantasy that is the antithesis of everything academics stand for, with earphones clamped onto their empty skulls pounding out music that glorifies ignorance and apathy, all when they should be doing their homework or if nothing else, cleaning up that vulture's vomitorium they call a bedroom ... and then you have the gall to think the one transcendent influence in their directionless lives--their teachers--should be paid accordingly to how well this spawn of yours does on a test or two.

Tell me, fellow parents, have you given any thought to what you're gonna do when a few thousand more educators make the same decision I did 20 years ago ... that your kids just aren't worth the grief?