Monday, February 17, 2014

Watching History From the Sidelines

"History never looks like history when you are living through it." (John W. Gardner)

I can remember moments in my life when I knew that I was witnessing history.  I'm sure we all can. These moments, whether they are big or small, global or local, have one thing in common.

They change us somehow.  They change what we do in the future, or how we see things, or what we value.  That's what makes them personally "historical" to us.

And because they have that impact on us, it means that when they occur we are more than just silent observers of the event.  We are participants, through our witnessing, in a unique and special way.  But as Mr. Gardner noted above, we aren't often aware of all of this at the time that we're caught swirling in the middle of it.

It's easier sometimes to see that in big "international" stories, or "landmark" events in our lives.  I can remember where I was and how I felt when:
  • 7 brave American astronauts tragically died when the space shuttle "Challenger" exploded on a cold January morning in 1986.
  • The buzzer sounded on the floor of the Chiles Center in March 1990 and I and Mark Neffendorf shook hands having just seen our Glencoe girls win the State Championship in basketball.
  • The numbed shock I felt on September 11, 2001 watching the World Trade Center collapse after terrorists slammed jetliners into it.
  • The quiet joy and peace that radiated from me as I stood in the sun on the banks of the Rogue River on my wedding day in September 2006, waiting for my bride Deborah to come down the steps towards me.
I know that each of these events changed me.  They either changed what I valued, or they changed the course of my life, personally or professionally.  But I doubt I could have told you that when they happened.

I have the feeling that the same thing will be true about recent local events I've been witness to during the last 10 days.  My friends and colleagues in the Medford School District have been on strike since February 6th - trying to get a stubborn School Board to honor a commitment they made two years ago to fairly compensate their teachers.  It's been a difficult struggle to watch from afar.  I watch, and read, and listen to colleagues I respected deeply fighting for what they're due - yet since I'm retired, I'm also separate from the battles.  Part of me is relieved at that, and yet part of me feels drawn to "try to do something".  Just as there are "battle lines" outside each of Medford schools, there has been a similar division within me, trying to pull me its way:  deeper into the fight, or to try to escape it.  It's been a good thing to watch.

So, I guess that's why I wrote what I have; an attempt to understand the significance of the events and how they're impacting me.  But I also had another motive pushing me.  Like any good historian, I simply wanted to archive some "artifacts" from the last week or so.  My colleagues and their students have been prolific in flooding the social media with comments, writings, videos, etc. to rally people to their cause.  I wanted to save somehow some of the ones that most moved me.  

The first one is a letter my friend Adam Drew posted on his Facebook page titled "This All Matters".

I was moved by his passion, as well as his realization that he was teaching a larger lesson to his students through his very actions. (But that's Adam, if you knew him!).  One of his last lines read: "And we make you this solemn vow: when we get back in the classroom, when we get back with our students, we will teach with a ferocity like never before."  It brought tears to my eyes.  

The second one is a video titled "Support Our Teachers".  I'm not sure whether the MEA or a student produced it, but it also moved me.

Almost every one of the teachers interviewed on here are my former South Medford colleagues.  Seeing them, and hearing them speak with such strength and conviction, made me appreciate even more deeply how lucky I had been to be able to work with them.  They are a special group.

The third artifact is a letter written by one of my ex-students on his Facebook page.  Because he mentioned my name in it, I was lucky to be able to read it.

Travis surprised me with his courage and willingness to speak up for his mentors and friends, and I was humbled to know all the challenges he faced while in our classrooms, unseen by us, and yet he persevered.  I'm proud to have been one of his teachers.

The last artifact is another video, this one produced by a SMHS student, Daniel Elmore.  In 2 1/2 minutes he presents an unblinking look at the impact of the strike on SMHS students and makes the case for why the Board needs to end this strike.

History is being made.  People's lives are being changed - I hope in the end, for the positive.  It takes courage and sacrifice to stand up and act in pursuit of real change.

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time.  WE are the ones we've been waiting for.  WE are the change we seek." (President Barack Obama)

Some of South Medford's finest - I hope you don't mind that I borrowed the picture, Brenda D.!
Medford students and teachers are showing that kind of courage and resolve.  I have no doubt that it will change them, and change their world. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Casualties of An Ill-Advised War

I was moved to write this today, and will likely try to publish it wherever I can.  I had to speak up.

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”  (Jeanette Rankin, 1st US Congresswoman, 1880-1973)

For 21 years I worked for the Medford School District teaching and coaching students at South Medford High School.  Normally when I would say that to someone, it would have been natural for me to have said “I proudly worked…” for that District.  But that is not the case right now.

It has been with great sadness and frustration that I have witnessed the war that the current School Board and District Administration has been waging against its teachers, my colleagues and friends, for the last 6 months.  And make no mistake – it has been, and is, a war that they are conducting.  The battlegrounds have been behind closed doors in Executive sessions, and in “negotiations” where compromise and fairness was the furthest thing from their agenda.  Today the battle lines shifted to the school grounds as “guest teachers” were brought in to conduct makeshift classes for ½ days to 1000’s of Medford students who came hoping for the best, but I’m sure were sorely disappointed. 

In a war it is the innocent that are most often the victims.  And in a war, truth and honor are many times sacrificed for the sake of “victory” – no matter what the cost.

That seems to be this Administration’s and Board’s intent.  For despite all of their reasonable sounding words, their actions reveal themselves.   They have been willing to sacrifice the education of Medford’s students – the innocent – and the truth of why they’re doing so – for the sake of a “triumph” over the Medford Education Association.

Over and over again over the last 10 years, Medford’s teachers made significant financial sacrifices during difficult economic times to help the District maintain its image of excellence.  I won’t detail all that Medford teachers gave up – it is a matter of public record.  I was one of those teachers, and I did not complain because I knew the necessity of doing what we were asked to do then.   I, and all of my colleagues, agreed to do more for less, year after year.  But we also believed the Board and Administration when they said they would make it up to their teachers when they had the funds to do so – a promise they made in writing.  

The Board now has the ability to keep that promise, but refuses to do so. Time and again in its “negotiations” with the MEA this year, it has refused to provide any just compensation for past sacrifices.  Instead, it has demanded that teachers accept a contract which would ask them to work longer, doing more with less time to adequately plan, and to do so earning less take home pay than they did 5 years ago - all in the name of providing “a quality education” for our community’s children.   Anyone with the smallest sense of honor recognizes the injustice in this.  Perhaps that is why our Board Members have stayed silent and hidden over the last few weeks.  They know in their hearts that the stand they are taking is indefensible.

Instead, the Board and District have acted like bullies; feigning a sense of outrage when Medford’s teachers cried “Foul!”, and  then acting with a “puffed up” false sense of strength. It is they who abruptly ended a collaborative negotiating format months ago – one they had previously praised as being “helpful and enjoyable”.  It is they who arbitrarily imposed their contract on teachers in December, leaving them no choice other than to submit meekly or strike.  It is they who have called their teachers “quitters” and have brazenly tried to manipulate the media through providing false or inflammatory information.

The District’s actions and message are clear.  The appreciation that they have said they have over the years for their most valuable resource – their teachers – has all been nothing but lip service.  The proof is unarguable.  In 2006, Medford voters narrowly approved $189 million to make their schools bright and shining monuments of academic excellence.  Eight years later, the District is perfectly willing to close ½ of these schools and staff the rest with “guest teachers” that they barely know.  Dr. Long proudly said today, “We are ready.  We have the curriculum and we are prepared to teach.”  After hearing reports of what happened at schools today, I doubt that either was true.  The District’s own mission statement claims, “We are a high quality teaching and learning organization”.  Their actions today revealed themselves as mere lip service in pursuit of this goal.

“He who troubles his own house will inherit the wind.” (Proverbs 11:29)

This dispute will end sometime – it must.  And in the end, there will be no “winners” on either side.  But it saddens me that one thing will be certain.  The District will have lost all credibility and trust with its teachers and many in the community because of its “scorched earth” policies.  As the Biblical proverb warns, they will gain nothing of value from the stubborn stand they took, and they will have only themselves to blame for the seeds of division and resentment that they will have sown and the storm that will follow.

I said at the beginning of my letter that I could no longer easily say I was proud of working for the Medford District.  That could still change.  But there is one thing I am still very proud of – the courage of my colleagues to stand up for what they believe is right, despite the sacrifices they must make to do so.  They prove to me, once again, that despite the current emphasis on “proficiency”, “mastery”, “essential skills”, “common core curriculum”, etc., that the most valuable things excellent teachers teach their students are taught through their example.  Medford is lucky to have attracted such quality individuals to their community.  I pray they’ll be lucky enough to keep them when this is all over.

Jon Schnorenberg
Retired Social Studies teacher, South Medford High School (1992-2013)