Teaching at a public school? #LetBetsyIn

You have to hand it to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — less than one month into her new job, she’s getting schooled.

On Wednesday, she waded into the waters of transgender bathrooms, a move that almost cost her a cabinet position.

On Thursday she did a furious backstroke, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference that allowing schools to make educated decisions about which bathroom is safest for transgender students is “a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach.”

Also at CPAC, DeVos proudly claimed to be “first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Except that there is: As NPR noted, for an estimated 31 million children in 2012 who qualified for the National School Lunch Program, signed into law by President Truman in 1946.

As a teacher, what’s happened this week alone would be enough for me to call home and haul Betsy’s parents into school for one of those anxious parent-teacher conferences.

But it was her trip Feb. 10 to a predominantly African American school in southwest Washington, D.C. that really troubled me.

Despite years of philanthropy, advocacy and power backed by a fortune estimated at $5.4 billion, DeVos has never really penetrated a place like Jefferson Middle School.

True, protesters made it tough, blocking the front doors and following her with chants that she wasn’t welcome.

Eventually DeVos made it inside, later issuing a statement praising Jefferson as “a public middle school on the rise.”

But she apparently had second thoughts, telling the conservative publication TownHall in an article published six days later that the teachers at Jefferson were too passive.

“I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode’,” she said. “They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child.”

Jefferson teachers responded with a series of tweets and this final grade:

Now DeVos is being guarded by the U.S. Marshals Service.

One thing DeVos told TownHall sounds undeniably true: Ever since her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, her life does seem to be “a living hell.”

Video of “Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing in three minutes,” by The Washington Post

So now the job has begun for a woman who by many accounts is unequal to the task of leading American education.

Despite her advocacy of vouchers and charter schools, when it comes to the broad sweep of education policy —including even basic vocabulary such as the difference between proficiency and growth — Betsy DeVos is untried, untested and unqualified.

And yet she’s sitting at her desk, pen in hand.

If you’re a teacher, this ought to remind you of something that happens every year:

The first day of school.

It should also remind us of something public school teachers hold dear:

You don’t get to pick who you teach.

By law, public school teachers — and with pride, I can say that I used to be one — teach everybody, including the disabled, the undocumented immigrants and the Dreamers.

We teach the slacker who doesn’t do his homework week after week, the kid who screams at you when you tell her to get off her phone, the quiet boy who starts a fire in your wastebasket when you’re not looking because there was nothing at home for breakfast, the gifted girl who refuses to apply for financial aid because the questionnaire asks for her father’s name, and she really doesn’t want to go there. Or to college.

If we’re true teachers, we ought to be able to teach Betsy. So here’s my pitch:

Let her into the school you’re in.

Write about the classroom where you teach 1st period to kids who haven’t had breakfast. Let her into 6th period where you have to choose between making a student stay for a quiz or letting her go to the part-time job that pays for lunch, because her boss called and if she doesn’t show up, she’s fired.

Take photos of the cafeteria where the food runs out before the last shift, the book room with no books, the infamous transgender bathrooms that are less a place and more an understanding that if you’re working out who you are, we’ll have that discussion after you pee.

Show Betsy what it’s like to hand a student a letter, as I have, that says he doesn’t qualify for your school’s free lunch program because his family of four makes just over the eligibility level of $2,633.00 per month. Show Betsy what it’s like when your student looks at you, as mine did, and hands the letter back.

Tell Betsy about being on the receiving end of mandatory No Child Left Behind standardized tests that make students break their №2 pencils under their desks so that they won’t be humiliated by exams that don’t teach them instead of Advanced Placement classes that could.

Today and in weeks to follow, I’ll write about some of my experiences here and encourage you to do the same.

The truth is, we teachers and our new Education Secretary are in the same boat.

The American experiment of college for all is noble but troubled. Even in middle school, fulfilling the promises we make is daunting. For example, that education matters, or that working hard will reap rewards. That studying Shakespeare and algebra will somehow lift all boats and cross what divides us, not only race and ethnicity but income, political beliefs and class.

In my core I believe this and in my classes I teach it, but on the streets I don’t see it.

Ironically, Jefferson is exactly the kind of school where noble experiments appear to be happening and DeVos should visit again. It’s at ground zero in a part of our nation’s capital that is struggling between a history of crime and the forces of gentrification. Jefferson has a computer lab, a media center, a “Veggie Time” healthy eating program and ambitious plans for a new International Baccalaureate program over the next two years. Yet the school’s own report card shows that 100 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch and nearly a quarter of the students are special ed.

From experience, I’m willing to bet that Jefferson is a place where the teachers are well-acquainted with boys who don’t get breakfast.

So Betsy has work to do, and so do we. She needs to go into our schools and we need to show her what’s there. Publish your stories and hashtag #LetBetsyIn so we can read and follow each other. Stay tuned for my take and please add yours.