Sunday, February 19, 2006

Professional development again

I attended stage two of professional development, and the event reminded me of my thoughts from the first professional development, outlined here.

As I sat among the 500 plus PSS teachers gathered at the Marianas High School this most recent Thursday and Friday for staff development seminars primarily focused on how to best deal with PSS's numerous educational goals and objectives, I couldn’t help but recall the monkeys I saw in Bali last Christmas, and envision the elephant in the gymnasium being left largely unacknowledged. For those who were not there, let me explain.

The contrast between two island administrations, the one leading PSS versus the one leading the island, is stark.

PSS Commissioner Rita Hocog Inos was an impressive presence in knowledge, enthusiasm and personality in leading this dialogue on improving student performance. She did so in the face of what is amounting to near criminal inaction and neglect among the governor and both legislative houses, who together have failed to pass a budget since 1999. In that time, hundreds of new students have entered the system, new schools have been built, and facilities have not received proper maintenance, all resulting in yearly decreases in per pupil spending. Yet these people, far less cynically than me, are out there planning for the future, and dealing with the mess of a hand they’ve been dealt.

In light of all this, the elephant in the room is how PSS continues to function and progress with education funding six years out of date and not even sufficient back then. This is the problem that PSS administrators have to put a happy face on.

Right now, teachers and administrators in this district tend to find a way to get things done. Somehow, someway, sports teams compete, classrooms get cleaned and painted, plays, class trips and proms get put on, learning materials get downloaded and distributed and teachers ultimately find a way to do their best.

Reflecting on the key questions on one level was annoying because we teachers know deep down the government, as evidenced by its non-action on the budget, and the people, in
electing these representatives, are making a blaring statement about their priorities -- or lack thereof. They are telling teachers that we are on our own, and it is our job alone to figure it all out, as the legislature has bureaucracies to pad in order to improve their re-election chances.

One of the chief jobs of an administrator, and the primary reason I never want to be an administrator, is to tidy up and put a happy face on an unreasonable and sometimes unfair state of affairs. George Bush, basically the world’s chief executive, says things, with a straight face, like the Iraq war was the right move and things there are going well. Clearly, administration is not the province of people with a low tolerance level for BS.

Over the past two years, I have watched, read and spoken with the PSS hierarchy from Dr. Inos, to Board Chairman Roman Benavente, to Dr. David Borja and Rita Sablan, all impressive, learned people with sharp minds, good personalities, and academic credentials, and I have seen them try to make the most out of a bad situation. I have seen and read about them diplomatically trying to convince the people who control the purse strings to show them the money; yet, little happens. I can sense a frustration, though it was never articulated directly to me, about having to make excuses for PSS’s meager budget, never once highlighting, though they probably should, the dereliction of duty of lawmakers here on island in enacting a budget. When classrooms are overcrowded, books in short supply, teachers upset with the lack of any upward movement in salary, they, as the top dogs, have to hear the complaints. And yet, these affairs are not the fault of the PSS administration at all, and in fact, Ibelieve if these same people were running the legislative end, the CNMI would be way better off.

Later on in the session, teachers broke up into small group sessions aimed at cultivating essential questions on how to address the key issue of improving the education of island youth.
I was in no mood to sugarcoat anything as usual, and I offered this key question to the CNMI’s big educational goals: How can teachers’ alone solve and attain the CNMI’s educational goals when the head PSS accountant states, or must state given the financing available, that I’m ineligible for a raise in my third year because I “was hired in the wrong year,” when the number of students I have from last spring doubled, the number of classes increased from three to four without any additional preparation time or pay, when I have two Praxis tests to pass this year, teaching classes and seminars to pay and attend, the power is unreliable, I see an average of two parents a year in at parent teacher conferences, and our school budget wasn’t even designed in this century?

It is human nature to place blame, and I am no exception. However, to sit around and place blame on this island’s everyday, ordinary, numerous lawmakers, seems rather foolish. In fact, getting angry at politicians for making selfish, short sighted and absurd decisions seems to make as much sense as getting angry at a monkey that touches himself inappropriately: it’s a monkey’s nature to do that, so don’t be surprised. So my real anger here is at the voters, and the choices they make. When you see the masses around you essentially choosing a pimply 13-year-old who just hit puberty to be the monkey trainer, you can’t really blame the kid, you blame those who voted to make that kid a monkey trainer. The voters are ultimately in control here, and the choices they make, and continue to make, are horrible.

This island is full of signs with pictures of island folks wearing island regalia soliciting votes based on, I guess, having the most colorful and ubiquitous political signs. I see crowds of people line up near the Oleai beach path to wave to motorists and hold up traffic, often with enthusiastic return horn-honking, but rarely do I see a serious, specific discussion of what any of these “candidates” stand for. On a public debate level, it rarely rises to the not so staggering heights I might find in the student council election at my high school.

The people who hold these positions are paid to make the tough decisions and establish priorities, and they can’t seem to do that. I’ve spoken to some of this people, and none are stupid, and all seem to realize what should be done. However, no one seems to have the political chops or will to get anything done -- except get re-elected. Given the power of incumbency, I’m sure the vast majority will be re-elected when probably none who have presided over this inaction should. If a person hired a plumber, or a mechanic, or a manager, and they didn’t do the job in six years, you probably wouldn’t hire them back. Well, a child’s education is infinitely more important than an oil change, or water leak, so maybe voters ought to hire their leaders by a standard at least as high as they hire their plumbers or mechanics.

Like the U.S. and its trend of electing flag waving phonies, war mongering morons and invasive religious fanatics, all with the primary aim of steering public money to private corporations, I’m really not sure if things can improve until rock bottom is hit. Now that we have a dreadful power crisis and mass unemployment, all we need is to push the teetering school system over the precipice, and we can get there. (And all the U.S. needs is President Jeb Bush in 2008.)

Perhaps when voters demand that elections be about issues and platforms, and voters won’t accept a lawn sign as a basis to vote, the CNMI will have an electoral process that serious minded people who can work with others will participate in. Perhaps then, a Dr. Inos, who amazingly wasn’t elected in her last run, can somehow help the CNMI get out of this dire situation.

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