September 28, 2014

Where Should a Teacher Live?

There's a beautiful house out near Memphis on Bennetts Corners Road; you may have noticed it if you've ever gone on one of those old-school Sunday drives, the kind we used to take with our parents back in the day.

The old white house has stood the test of time with grace. It's got a nice front stoop and a big back deck that always looked to me as if there might have been more house there at one point. There are big old trees, a nice yard, and a beautiful barn, always kept in good condition. I think the closest neighbor is a cemetery, itself nestled on a rolling hill, abutting a farmer's home field.

Over the years, I've often wondered what it would have been like to have grown up there, in that gorgeous setting. I wonder, because my parents had the chance to buy that house, but opted not to. Not because they were mean and didn't want my brothers and I to grow up there, but because the house was outside the Jordan-Elbridge (JE) school district, and  in their eyes, that was a deal-breaker.

Fifty years ago, when my dad first started teaching after a long career with Goodyear, there was no formal requirement that teachers live in the district, but my parents and many other teachers held a very strong belief living in the district where they taught, mattered. That having their children attend the same schools where their parents taught, mattered. That teachers being present and visible in the district, not just during school and for school events, mattered.

As a result, I grew up in the village of Jordan, in an old house that had hitching posts and a carriage step out front that made it look more important and significantly fancier than it was, instead of in the white house on Bennetts Corners Road.

There were consequences from that decision. Our house got egged a couple of times at Halloween; if memory serves, there was one year where no costumes were involved, so Dad knew who did it.  The kids knew he knew, and the eggs got washed off the house pretty quickly. My brothers and I took a little heat from other kids sometimes, people telling us Dad was a jerk and mean; and frequently we were asked for help on tests and stuff like that, as were the children of the French teacher, and the business teacher, and the science teacher, and the math teacher, and the English teacher. We all survived.

The larger consequence of course, was the lesson; sometimes it meant it took longer to get out of the grocery store if a parent wanted to talk. Sometimes it meant a knock on the door during dinner, or after dinner, when a student or parent needed help, and knew they'd get find a compassionate, non-judgmental ear at our house. This was repeated at other houses, too; my parents were not unique in that regard.

Fast forward to today, and I wonder how many of the teachers at JE district, or in the Syracuse City School District where we are, actually live there?  And if they don't, why not?  And what can we do to encourage them to?

Rightly or wrongly, people tend to question another's level of engagement if they can't see the person with their own two eyes. They'll project negatives, filling in the blanks where positives aren't obvious. Sad as it is, it's a fact. I see it in my company, where the majority of senior executives work out of the company headquarters down the Thruway and make infrequent visits to us here in the hinterlands. It's gotten better over the past few years, with a little more visibility, but there's still a lot of talk about how they're never seen in our neck of the woods, or how they don't understand what's going on, or how they're not committed. And these are just executives, people in the overall scheme of things who are not anywhere near as important as a teacher.

Believe me, I understand that being a great teacher is not directly correlated to any specific zip code; I get that. But communities are made up of zip codes; great communities are collections of zip codes full of great bus drivers, doctors, nurses, janitors, insurance company employees and executives, policemen, DPW workers, union leaders, retirees, engineers, planners, politicians, counselors, writers, artists, chefs, musicians, community organizers, lawyers, small business owners, religious leaders, barbers and beauticians, veterinarians, administrators, parents.... and, perhaps most critically, great teachers.

If education is the foundation of success, teachers are the contractors, the ones who put the blocks in the right place, who shore up the foundation when cracks appear, who make sure it's strong enough to support the students for whom that foundation is so critical.  They can't do it alone, obviously, but they are the ones we rely on for the heavy lifting.

I don't believe in ordering people to live in a particular place; I think, like my parents did, that when you earn a salary from the public, you should live where your salary-payers live. And when it comes to hiring teachers, I do believe that, all things being equal, preference should be given to a candidate who does live in the district over one who does not. I also believe, as I've mentioned before, that incentives (bonuses or in this case, even limited property tax breaks) should be given to teachers who live in the district where they teach.

Why?  Because if teachers are seen and heard, doing the heavy lifting right alongside the people who pay their salaries, it just might make a difference in how solid that foundation becomes. It might make a difference in how seriously the community takes education, in how much the community engages in the process, in how the community thrives and grows and succeeds. And it might just make a difference in the teachers' lives as well.

I would love to hear from teachers on this, who are willing to talk about their choice on where to live, and from others who have opinions on this subject. Is my thinking old-fashioned? Are there valid reasons why teachers don't live in their districts? Is it different if the teacher has kids?  Let me know what you think.