by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – I see by the news that the State of Florida has begun hiring uncredentialed teaching job applicants who’ve been members of the military. This slightly fatuous development suggests all kinds of scenarios – from the moment an obstreperous student challenges a former drill sergeant to “make me,” to the day the new hires get their first paychecks and see how little they’re making, to the day an elderly vet is told what he can and cannot teach about the Asian wars. The videos of all the interactions surely will be available – nothing goes unmonitored these days – and it might be quite interesting to us old Shakespeare snobs to see what a former sea cook does with Hamlet’s soliloquy.
The general outrage around the country to the news from Florida has been pretty much that: outrage.
Once the almost private possession of Bernie Sanders, outrage has become as common among us as mosquito bites. We’re worn out with outrage, and thus suspect that the Republican-controlled government of Florida will get away with this one without a scratch.
But if there is any reason to hope this dramatic reduction in teacher certification requirements may possibly succeed (it has to, by the way. What certified teacher with alternatives and in their right mind would let themselves in for a job that pays insultingly low wages, dictates what portions of a subject may or may not be taught, and threatens being brought up short at the behest of an unhappy parent?) There’s no teacher shortage; there is a shortage of folks willing to subject themselves to conditions like that.
My own introduction to teaching was rather similar, except that there were no political principles involved, as far as I could tell. Finally in possession of an undergraduate degree in English and Geology after nine drawn-out years, and responsible for a wife, a daughter, and an infant. it occurred to me that, even though I was still a dues-paying labor union member, I needed something more stable than seasonal construction work. So I sent a letter, blind, to the superintendent of schools in Essex County, N.Y., the closest thing to home that I knew. No, the super said, he had nothing; but I might try Francis Sprague over in Willsboro. He thought Francis might be looking for an English teacher.
Ha! He was. I interviewed, we hit it off, and I got the job, with the stipulation that I attend night school at Plattsburgh State (about a 45-minute commute in decent weather) two semesters a year, working on my permanent certification. “I hired you,” he said, “to show these kids that you don’t have to be a sissy to speak good English.” Okay. He also gave me some really good advice: “Teaching, you’ll never have enough to both have stuff and do stuff. So decide as soon as you can which you prefer.” Like Robert Frost’s less-traveled path, that has made all the difference.
The kids – freshman and sophomores, four classes divided by presumed academic tracks – were great. They came to me from two really excellent eighth-grade good teachers, one in American History and the other in Latin and English. We went from English, grammar, and literature to starting a drama club, directing the senior play, a track team, and an outing club. Legal issues and liability were much less intrusive then. We spent a night in our military surplus parachute tent camped on the ice of a pond called the Giants Washbowl, and another, thankfully calm moonlit New Years Eve in the same tent, arranged like the cylinders in a radial engine, on top of Mount Marcy. We took a school bus to the Catskills for a spring Shakespeare festival. I can still see a couple of our elegant girls wading through six inches of new snow in open-toed heels. Whoops!
The pay was pretty puny, but we managed to cobble together a decent house. Spring vacations, I worked in the woods, getting up firewood; summers, the blacktop crew; and winter weekends, I got my old job back, announcing the races at the Mount van Hoevenberg bobsled run.
A couple of school board shellbacks from rural hamlets seemed suspicious of popular teachers; when I grew a mustache one year, they objected to my “flaunting pubic hair in front of our young girls.” I couldn’t scrape that fly out of the ointment. Then came a hard look at our future and a really good offer from Outward Bound. I’ll always miss those kids, but it was time to say good-by.