I, like many parents of small children, endured a stretch of time during which the Thomas and Friends theme song made me want to put my face through a wall. At one point, our family’s life was so entrenched in the Island of Sodor’s goings-on that our dinner-table conversations centered around the plight of the engines and all the near-catastrophes they sort of caused but then somehow averted. We have Thomas books; we have Thomas toys; we have Thomas videos; we have Thomas bedding; we have Thomas clothing and sleepwear; we have Thomas train whistles (BTW, I do not recommend these at all); and, of course, we have the Thomas train table. Our son loves it all, but sometimes I think back to a time, not too long ago, when I wasn’t consumed by made-up train drama.
But sometimes–especially when I’m particularly overwhelmed with grading/lesson-planning/SGOs/observations, being a parent and a wife, and taking care of a sometimes-vicious cat and a dog on Prozac who scares herself when she sees her reflection in the oven–I sort of wish that I could live and teach on the idyllic Island of Sodor. It is, after all, surrounded by a “beautiful blue sea” that washes up onto “sandy yellow beaches.” There are also rivers, streams, windmills, and trees with cute little birds living in them. And it seems like there’s always fun stuff happening there: the Sodor animal park got a new giraffe pretty recently, there are carnivals all over the place, and it’s always someone’s birthday. And poverty on Sodor? What’s that?
Even the schoolhouse is beautiful; it’s a quaint little brick building nestled at the foot of a rolling hill–with, you guessed it, a train platform at its entrance. Sounds like fun: wake up in the morning, hop on a talking train, travel through a beautiful countryside, and be delivered directly to school–on time, of course–for a fun day of learning, Sodor style.
I wonder if the teachers at that little school on Sodor have to administer benchmark assessments. I wonder if they have to do SGOs. I wonder if Charlotte Danielson defines for them–on a rubric–what Highly Effective Teaching looks like. I wonder how many kids are in their classes (mostly because I’ve never observed more than like eight kids in the school yard at one time). I wonder if “college and career readiness” via the Common Core is their goal. I wonder if they use Pearson textbooks and Pearson materials that are aligned to Pearson tests–and if the Pearson tests are scored by non-teachers who make $12/hour. I wonder if 70% of Sodor’s kids fail Pearson tests. And I wonder if Pearson test scores determine whether the Sodor teachers get good evaluations or bad evaluations.
My first instinct, when I pondered these ideas, was that NO–the Island of Sodor is such a perfect place that its inhabitants would never be subjected to such ridiculousness.
But then I started thinking about who’s in charge in Sodor. And that’s when it turned ugly.
Sir Topham Hatt, the “fat controller of the railway” who evidently also thinks he’s the Dictator of Sodor, is somehow in charge of just about everything that happens on the island. He’s always “cross,” he’s clearly rich, he bullies everyone, and he wields his power and influence by demanding that the trains (and Harold the Helicopter and Jeremy the airplane, for that matter) cart him and his family around according to his whims. The engines are perpetually petrified of him–especially when he gets pissed off and berates them for causing “confusion and delay.”
It’s pretty pathetic, actually. The hapless trains, who are clearly repressed and afraid to stand up for themselves, are always rushing around to fulfill their boss’s decrees–and their quest in life is to be labeled as “really useful.” Their compliance is rewarded (trains get “special specials” when they do what they’re told without questioning their assignments), dissent is punished (engines are publicly shamed and afraid of being retired and turned into scrap metal), and it’s pretty clear that the trains are subject to what most normal people would view as unfair labor practices.
If the culture of fear Sir Topham Hatt inspires in his engines and their handlers is any indication, the rest of the Island’s workers are probably equally repressed, disregarded, and made to feel as if they’re expendable and easily replaceable–and the teachers who work in that cute little schoolhouse are probably no exception. You know Sir Topham Hatt has instituted some asinine teacher evaluation model that rewards quiet compliance, punishes teachers and students when test scores don’t meet the “really useful” (code for “college and career ready!”) mark, and allows him to get rid of anyone who dares to speak against his authority.
So it didn’t take long for me to discard the daydream of being a teacher on the Island of Sodor. Sure, the scenery there is beautiful, but so too is the scenery in New Jersey. We have “sandy yellow beaches” and docks and windmills and rivers and trees filled with singing birds–and our schools are consistently ranked among the top in the nation.
Thanks goodness our education policy in NJ isn’t arbitrarily imposed on the state’s children and teachers by a dictatorial leader like Sir Topham Hatt who knows nothing about education!