There Will Be No Beanstalk

What will it be next year? Which book or program will capture the imagination of America’s school administrators? Which teacher turned thought leader will have her fortunes changed over night? Which consultant, too opportunistic and cowardly to remain in the arena and teach actual students, will be charging thousands of dollars to tell teachers how to do their jobs? Which business concept will weasel its way into America’s schools? What new elixir will I be forced to choke down, as impotent to resist as a baby whose mother airplanes a spoonful of unappetizing gruel toward his pinched mouth?

I do not know, but experience suggests it will be something. Likely, it will be something I’ve sampled before, under new management and packaged in a more attractive box. Something tasted by teachers who, after masticating for a while and maybe even swallowing, eventually spit it back up, only to chase it with something equally specious and unfulfilling.

We teachers are willing converts, regardless of how many times we’ve enthusiastically purchased the snake oil in the past. Sent off to a conference on the latest educational wonder drug, our initial skepticism is quickly replaced with reluctant acceptance by some and acolytic zeal by others. Our principals stand in front us with a tenuous grasp of the panacea they offer and virtually no understanding of the underlying science, but they assure us that it’s “research-based.” They point to a district where it supposedly worked, neglecting to mention that said district bears no resemblance to our own.

Still, we nod our heads. We sit in staff meetings where we are told that this, yes this, is our salvation! The magic bullet that will finally, finally raise those test scores, send more kids off to college, and make our schools the place everyone wants to be. Stick a Ph.D. on the end of a name and watch us assent under the assumption that someone smarter than us has the answer.

The remaining skeptics among us won’t dare say anything for fear of being labeled negative, or difficult, or not a team player, or not in it for the kids. No reason to place a target on our backs, not when we’ve been here before and know that this too shall pass.

And maybe in the back of our minds we think — having been told in so many ways over so many years that we’ve never measured up, never given these kids what they deserve — that, why not? Why not try this new thing? After all, what we’ve been doing hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire.

Teachers, I think, often feel like Jack’s mother in the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk. At our wit’s end, on the verge of giving up, and as a last-ditch effort, we decide to trade in the family cow. We’ve barely been getting by as it is. Nothing is working and it never will. Desperate, we hope for deliverance. After all, anything is better than a useless cow.

And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a peddler offering just the thing. Magic beans! The answer to all our troubles! Consultants, books, new programs, repackaged ideas, all sold by slick traffickers who, unlike us, were savvy enough to make a living in education outside of the classroom.

But teaching isn’t a fairy tale and there will be no beanstalk that teachers will climb to heretofore unattained heights. There is no magic. No riches. No geese who lay golden eggs. No magic harp. Not even an enraged giant or his concerned wife. They may be different sizes and colors than the beans we’ve planted before, but they’re still just beans.

Still, there will be hope. The newly acquired beans planted, we’ll look out the window, expecting that any day now we’ll wake up and see a beanstalk. We’re sure of it.

This is the curse of being a teacher. We will forever be hoping the beans will sprout. No matter how many times they fail to germinate, we will always trade away the cow in the hope of something transformational. And instead of scolding us for our foolishness, as the mother does Jack in the story, our leaders will present to us new beans with promises that this time we will surely be able to climb to the clouds.

Undeterred by broken promises, we will believe again. We’ll return to the window and stare at the soil, positive that this time there will be growth.

The eagerness to drink the Kool-Aid is our curse.  It is also our blessing.

For what is teaching if not blind hope? Why keep showing up if you don’t carry within you an implausible faith in miracles? If teachers believe that they, through nothing more than their dedication and efforts, can turn a kid around who has everything going against him, then is it at all surprising that when a man offers to trade magic beans for our tired cow we jump at the opportunity?

We believe in miracles because we believe in the biggest miracle of all: That we, set against apathy and neglect, hunger and abuse, poverty and hopelessness, can make a difference. Against all odds, we believe in the future of every single student. It’s an absurd belief, one that no rational person would hold, one that the data have never supported, yet we believe it with every fiber of our being, just as we believe that this time, there will be a beanstalk.

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