This post is about a fateful set of comic strips. They were, I suppose not particularly fateful for anyone else, but for me they were a turning point – professionally, personally, and artistically.
When I was my district Teacher of the Year in 2005, I ended my 11 month reign with a speech that included the following statement: Some people want to take the human element out of teaching with scripted programs that move in lock step and tell the teacher exactly what to say. I’m hoping they fail.
What I didn’t know was that a scripted program was probably already on it’s way to my district in the form of the College Board’s SpringBoard program. Only a year or so later, it was announced that this workbook program was the new be-all and end-all for our district. SpringBoard allowed teachers to, as one person told my wife when she began teaching during the SpringBoard era, “Just go through it day by day, page by page! You don’t even need to think about it!”
I had been doing some reading online about other scripted curricula that tried to make teaching teacher proof and higher test scores a guarantee. At that point, in 2006, I had been drawing Mr. Fitz for the Daytona Beach News-Journal for six and a half years, and I had begun poking fun at the state’s obsession with testing nearly constantly. No one had objected. In fact, my cartooning and advocacy had helped win me Teacher of the Year. So I decided to go ahead and make fun of scripted curricula – right around the time SpringBoard was arriving in my half of the district. I knew I was being a bit edgy, but I thought I was doing what I always did – using humor to point up an absurdity in my profession.
The series started its two week run, and on the second night, I got a call from a friend in the district office. He was trying to warn me that I was perhaps treading in dangerous territory, and that the district specialist was “not happy.” There were implications that my job might be on the line. To understand my over-reaction to this call, you have to understand that I had always been a “good kid” – a compliant person who generally played by the rules and generally was rewarded for doing so. Teacher of the Year had been affirmation of my good kid status.
Being told I was being a bad kid, and that there might be huge repercussions sent me into a tail spin. I panicked. I called my editor (about six times on a Saturday morning if I recall) to ask if I could pull and replace the remaining two weeks of the series. He talked me down and told me he thought it was really funny, really strong material. He persuaded me to keep running the series anyway. I called the district person and apologized if it seemed I was trying to undermine her. I was a mess. I had two youngish children at home, and I didn’t know what I would do if I couldn’t teach. I’m not sure how my wife put up with me, but she did. She told me to quit if I needed to – we’d figure it out.
In the end, I let the series run anyway. I don’t think anyone has seen it since 2006, so here it is.
That’s the series. I never mentioned Teach By Number in the strip again. In retrospect, it seems kind of tame. But at the time, it rocked my world. Even after the comic strip “trouble” blew over, I was still left in a world where the system was trying to obliterate the way I teach, to standardize me. I was continually fighting off depression for a long while.
A few things saved me from simply quitting, which I seriously considered doing. One, my wife, who had been supportive of my battle from the outside, now joined me in battle by coming to join the teaching profession and reassuring me that I was not insane. Two, I had an awesome principal who told me to just keep on teaching the way they always had. Three, my own inner teacher (as Parker Palmer would call it) wouldn’t let me live divided – wouldn’t let me teach in a way that violated my own deepest beliefs about teaching.
Eventually I talked to someone high up in my district about the whole experience and was told that it was “embarrassing” that anyone had given me any trouble. Still later, I had a chat with my then-Superintendent about it and showed her what I was doing in my classroom compared to the “Teach By Number” program. I also told her that being standardized had nearly driven me out of the profession. She told me I was doing exactly what I should be. That was heartening.
Professionally, the experienced changed me from a rule-follower to a rogue teacher. Personally, it changed me from a “good kid” to a person who is willing to speak truth to power, even if my voice shakes. Artistically, my little comic strip that could found its voice.
As I begin another school year this week, SpringBoard is gone from my district, but we are still being told to “stick to the curriculum map.” The spirit of Teach By Number lives on.
But so does the spirit of creative teaching.