Saturday, August 11, 2018

Please Don't Warm My Heart

August seems to be prime time for Heartwarming Education Stories. At this point, some are actually annual events, like the all-day It's a Wonderful Life marathons. There will be innumerable stories about nice people who buy a bunch of room supplies for teachers, or that video of the lady who says that parents should be doing back-to-school shopping for teachers.

This year we've had coverage of LeBron James' contribution to public education via single-handedly propping up a public school, a story that has culminated in widespread coverage of a petition to have James replace Betsy DeVos ( I love James, and there is a certain ironic hilarity in replacing one of the whitest women in America with a famous black millionaire, but just once I'd like to see a non-amateur in education fill that post). And in the most recent viral sensation, the CEO of a hair care products company bought a car for a local teacher. All very heartwarming.

I don't want my heart to be warmed any more.

It's not that I don't appreciate the value of these stories, particularly to the people involved. It's great that poor woman finally has a car. It's awesome that an NBA giant has decided to help out a struggling public school. And if someone decided to foot the bill for my wife's classroom supplies, we would be grateful for the windfall for the family.

But these are what I think of as Undercover Boss stories. You remember Undercover Boss. It was a heartwarming show on which the head of a company went out and mixed with their underlings, discovering in the process that the company had systemic problems with working conditions and paying a living wage, and the Big Boss would respond to the discovery of these problems by fixing them for one person. Every once in a while a CEO would see the bigger picture, but mostly the message on these episodes was along the lines of, "Well, apparently I don't pay anyone in my company a living wage and my working conditions are terrible, so I think I'll fix that problem for one or two people and everyone will just have to suck it up."

Acts of charity belong in response to an unavoidable natural catastrophe, not the entirely predictable results of human-created policy. Lovable Mrs. McTeachalot shouldn't be receiving help from strangers to buy her teaching supplies because her school should be providing them in the first place. Doctors and nurses do not have to go shopping for bandaids and blood pressure cuffs to stock up their own offices. No business executive or government functionary buys office furniture out of his own pocket. Why do we accept that any teacher who wants a fully supplied classroom will, of course, be responsible for filling the gaps herself.

Why should we have to wait for a wealthy celebrity to pick up the slack for a public school that has not been properly funded? When was the last time you saw an ad from an army company saying, "We're still looking for a helpful philanthropist to buy us the supplies and equipment we need to do our jobs well." And when did you last see a Go Fund Me for a physician saying, "Please help me afford a car so I can get to work."

No. Every one of these heartwarming stories is the story of some group of politicians and policy makers who failed to properly fund the educational system.

Yes, throwing that one starfish back makes a difference to that starfish. But if your beach is covered with stranded sea creatures, you need to start looking at larger issues and not just tossing back the odd starfish.

The only heartwarming story I want to read is the heartwarming story of a state legislature that declares that it will make sure every single public school is fully funded. Or the heartwarming story of a school district that declares it's going to raise teacher pay a huge amount, because teachers deserve it. Or the heartwarming story of many levels of government coming together to make sure that a pile of money is devoted to each classroom, and the schools in the poorest neighborhoods will be buried under the kind of cash usually reserved for professional sports stars.

But, please-- no more stories of the "Well, after we decided to cut off the water line into the pasture, so that a couple hundred head of cattle were going without any fluid, one nice man climbed the fence and gave one single cow a glass of water." That's not a heartwarming story-- it's the story of the mistreatment of the livestock.

No school should ever need a celebrity's help. No nice people with cash should ever encounter a teacher shopping for classroom supplies. And it should never occur to anyone that a teacher might need a decent car. Thank you, nice people, for helping out teachers or schools in need. Now can we focus some energy on fixing the system so that schools and teachers never need to depend on the kindness of strangers ever again.


  1. Healthcare seems to be going the same way with people using GoFundMe. Yes, it's great that other people are willing to help out sick people, but healthcare should not be funded by charity. We have to get back to the idea of there being a common good and be willing to fund it.

  2. I wish the legislature would accept your challenge!

  3. Yes!!! But I think it's important to remind ourselves, the ONLY time governments or districts "decide" to fund education or pay teachers a living wage is when educators stand up and demand it. I think the heart-warming-est story of all is the educators who have stuck, will strike, may strike in the future. That's how we make this system work.

  4. Excellent, Peter. "The only heartwarming story I want to read is the heartwarming story of a state legislature that declares that it will make sure every single public school is fully funded. Or the heartwarming story of a school district that declares it's going to raise teacher pay a huge amount, because teachers deserve it" We need to lobby legislators in a similar way that the teachers did who went on strike for better wages. Criminal what states spend relative to where the priority for teachers' pay resides.