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  • marcalexander88

What the Fresno County Tax Office Taught Me About Teaching

Just about two-and-a-half years ago, my wife and I became proud, if not suitably stressed, homeowners. Mortgages, yard work, never-ending repairs, the whole package. But it’s ours, and we’re happy and blessed for it. Part of homeownership is dealing with escrow, closing costs, and the inevitable property taxes that come with owning versus renting. This past summer a most-frustrating situation was finally resolved that had me realizing that a County Tax Office and a mortgage company are very similar to that of a school district, a school’s staff, and their students, and that’s not a compliment.

Without boring you from the more-than-I-signed-up-for knowledge I’ve acquired of county tax law, protocols, and mortgage company procedures, here’s the basis of my situation: There was a delinquency bill charged to residents who owned our house two deed transfers ago. Somehow, these homeowners escaped the bill and the penalty charges accrued, as well the next homeowners. Somehow, those charges showed up on our bill. I’m happy to have a family of financially minded professionals who have trained me to look at any and all statements with due diligence before just paying something or throwing it away. It was immediately clear that this bill was not mine to pay. After a few phone calls, I was told to simply ignore the notice and all future notices since the bill was charged during a tax year where, not only my wife and I didn’t own the house, but before my permanent address was changed to my current city. The following summer (summer of 2023), we get another delinquency notice, with a higher charge (those darn penalty charges) and now I get worried. What are the long-term consequences if this bill continues going unpaid? I spent my entire summer break unfolding the many creases to this mess. To make an already long story short: my original mortgage company mailed two checks to cover the delinquency from our sellers, and the Fresno County Tax office never cashed them.

This relates to education how? I felt brushed off, at the mercy of several entities where excuses were being told to me with no offer for a resolution and, worst of all, absolutely no one taking ownership or having the wherewithal to simply say, “This is not your fault. This is not your bill, and here’s what we can do to fix this.” I wasn’t given actionable steps but, rather, was transferred from operator to agent to operator. I made several in-person visits to the tax office and mortgage company. The payment eventually was going to increase my mortgage payment, which would directly affect me. Thankfully, the situation was resolved with less than a month to spare; I met a deadline I had no consent in making nor any voice in negotiating. The mortgage company simply said, “We’re just a debt collector and this is the way it is.” The county tax office simply said, “take this up with your mortgage lender. This is on them to pay.” Finally getting the bill resolved without me paying out of pocket felt like a win I had earned for a completing a triathlon when all I wanted to was swim. I hadn’t trained for this. Yes, I sought counsel. Yes, I did my due diligence. Yes, I listen to financial podcasts so I can have knowledge. But I’m a theatre teacher. And as a theatre teacher, I look for the subtext, the arc, the characters involved in the plot. As an educator, I look for ways to connect my content to my students, how to manage my classroom so it’s a space where my students know the expectations to succeed while also failing safely if it comes to that. The following takeaways are how this debacle has now informed my teaching going forward.

Feeling Brushed Off: How often do we as educators blame the standards, admin., or counselors for something we have more voice in than they do (*whispers* or isn’t even their fault?)? I have found, early in my teaching career, that I was blaming standards and rubrics when I was the one making the rubrics! And while I can’t control the standards, I have full control over how I teach those standards and create my rubrics. No longer do I need to brush off my students with empty blamings; instead, I inform them of why a policy is the way it is, that way they know the why rather than being a pawn in the blame game and being dismissed without a solution. It allows students to, at the very least, understand why this is the academic reality and, at the very best, have the knowledge to make informed decisions and have agency next time a situation arises.

At the Mercy of Several Entities: Students have to answer to many stakeholders who often possess their own perspective on the situation and outcome which fogs the focus for the student. I simply wanted my bill paid, and most of the time I felt helpless because of the jargon and policies the more authoritative agencies had over me. It’s enough for students to know they have their teacher(s) in charge of grades and reports, but stack on top of that graduation requirements set by the school and district, guided by their counselors, possible pressures and expectations from their parents/guardians, coaches, or arts directors if they’re involved in co-curricular activities, etc. That’s a lot of adults and personalities and expectations and triggers and feedback coming at one student for one school experience, which can then affect their immediate and long-term futures. The more we educators keep in mind that we’re not the only adult affecting their school experience the easier it will be for our students to navigate their school year.

No Ownership: This is the big one. What frustrated me the most with this debacle was that while I was being told one thing or another, not one person owned the mistake. I had to learn of it, and the solution, from other parties. No ownership from the one at fault then transfers the need for a point person onto the victim, even though I knew this was not my fault. And yet, even after the resolution, still no one apologized. Not an email, not a phone call, not a message, nothing. What frustrates me to no end is when an educator makes a mistake and will not own it. I’ve written about, and practice, owning a mistake, and, making a sincere apology to the student, whether one-on-one or publicly in front of the class. I expect the same from my students, so I must model that to them. We are adults. We are humans. Teachers will be the first to ask for grace since we’re just human, but when a student seeks a second chance or grace, we may instantly rattle off all the reasons why they’re in the wrong and why they’re receiving punishment. No solutions, no grace. Just earlier this year I apologized to a student because, while he wasn’t doing all the classwork and trying to find shortcuts, my demeanor towards him wasn’t of understanding but rather more callous and annoyed. Eventually I caught myself, apologized, and he forgave me but also said, “I didn’t even think you were being mean or anything.” So, I replied, “well thank you, but I caught it, and that’s not the teacher I want to be.” It helped repair our back-and-forth in class, and he instantly became more comfortable asking for help ahead of time rather than skipping the work and trying to wiggle out a better grade later on. Eventually, he began taking ownership of his work if it wasn’t complete. We must model first. While I’m not suggesting we do away with policies, classroom management, and consequences, I am suggesting we incorporate ownership of when we, the adult in the room, make a mistake and relay that wish for grace to our students. After all, students only know that 1 +1= 2 because someone taught them and modeled it to them. How will they be able to show grace and own their mistakes and accept their consequences if we are not modeling that ourselves? Students pay attention, whether it’s to your content or your character or both, so make it count. Own it. And, if or when you purchase a home, make sure your county tax office cashes the check for Pete’s sake. 

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