In a video widely shared on social media recently, Comedy Central’s Key and Peele envision a world in which teachers are treated like professional athletes, earning multi-million dollar salaries, with successful teachers placed in failing schools via the draft system and the most elite educators sought after by BMW to endorse the latest luxury sedans. “The Ruhf is on FIRE!!” the duo holler after star AP Lit teacher Ruby Ruhf is lured from Ohio’s public schools to PS 431 in New York City by an $80 Million contract, with the potential for up to an additional $40 Million in incentives based off test scores.
I and my teacher friends—and yours too, probably—shared, liked and retweeted the video enthusiastically over the past few weeks. Who wouldn’t like to see a world where, if the roles and rewards of athletes and teachers weren’t totally reversed, they at least were in the same ball park? The wit and schadenfreude of the sketch had me in stitches right up to the point that the Schaden overtook the Freude and I slowly curled into the fetal position, crying myself to sleep. It’s funny, and it hurts, because it’s true.
As a history teacher, however, another message embedded in the video struck me. It starts with the depiction of Ashely Ferguson’s “Highlight of the Week” history classroom. While pop-ups on the top and bottom of the screen track “facts taught” and note that Ferguson is “8 for 10 calling on unraised hands,” she, dressed impeccably in a business suit, moves deliberately in front of and around neatly arranged rows quizzing students on Civil War names and dates. This traditional image of the “sage on the stage” classroom is reinforced by the news ticker at the bottom of the screen that provides updates of average SAT scores at schools around the nation.
I in no way want to seem ungrateful to Key and Peele for shining a spotlight on the conditions suffered by America’s teachers, but I do have to wonder what the duo would think if they saw my history classroom on an average day: students engaged in several different tasks at once, some climbing across tables to finish projects, some sitting in small groups on the floor with their laptops open, some arguing freely with me about the depiction of colonialism in Avatar. I think about my friends and peers and the amazing, progressive things that they do in their classrooms as well. Would Key and Peele even recognize what goes on in our classrooms as teaching? Would we warrant those salaries and get those ad offers?
I like to think Key and Peele would. They are on our side. And even if our classrooms don’t resemble what the comedians experienced at school, they look like what they would have wanted to experience, and how they want their children to learn. But their American audience wouldn’t recognize our learning environments as classrooms, and if Key and Peele had chosen my classroom for their “Highlight of the Week,” the larger message would have been lost as viewers tried to piece together how 17 year-olds use chalk, raisins and Legos to learn about the early modern world economy.
This reinforces the importance of the work that education bloggers do, and the continued need for us to recruit more teachers to our ranks and to convince them to show their communities through image, video and first-hand experience what goes on in the modern learning classroom. We need to broadcast the realities of our learning environments so that the public can reimagine schools and spaces they way we do every day.
I like to envision a Teaching Center sketch ten years from now that depicts me standing off to the side, doing nothing to the untrained eye, while my students re-enact the Cuban Missile Crisis seemingly without guidance. The crawler notes items like, “Independent learning levels at 90%!” and “Peer to peer engagement creates organic differentiation!” while Key and Peele howl about how slick I am at disappearing into the shadowy corner, ticking off standards and making holistic observations while my students take ownership of their learning and barely notice I am still in the room.