Value: We’re getting this all wrong

You can’t go home again, right? And many of us wouldn’t want to; but the past is a fun place to visit, especially for 7 friends who haven’t all been together for over 30 years. A few in the group have stayed close; one might surmise that those closer associations run along an educational line – those who went to college, those who got married right out of high school, etc., but that is not the case. Turns out what we had in common had little to do with our educational paths and more to do with our life experiences and values.

This all became obvious as we gave an accounting of ourselves – schools, marriages, kids, jobs. Family ties held many of us to the area; others had moved far and wide; some we’re simply missing in action, chained to negative relationships that tend to retard personal growth.

Always the analyst/observer, I studied the women I had grown up with and realized how we had all come together. We were in the “smart classes” at school. That grouping now comprises an academic, an administrative clerk, an insurance sales person, a massage therapist, an architect, a non-profit administrator, and a medical transcriptionist. Only three of us completed college, though at one point or another all of us have taken college courses.

I guess I should ramble on to my point…

why did some of the smartest girls in the school, tracked into the college-bound courses early on, not all go/finish?

Impediments both real and perceived.

Socially, this group came from the poor side of town. General expectations were low and the path to college obscured by ignorance of the road signs. Lack of school guidance beyond the middle school years was another factor, as was familial responsibility.

So, how did we all succeed in  life? How did we all become professional women with responsible, fulfilling careers?

We were educated in a public school by teachers who were able to teach us how to learn. And that most important lesson enabled us to draw upon that knowledge even years later and in a multitude of circumstances. For all the failings of the system in guiding us as closely as might have been useful, the teaching was more than enough! Career educators with deep commitments to their calling are responsible for enabling our successes.

Yet, we hold these very folks in such low esteem today, that we evaluate them with invalid instruments and sanction them as if they were recalcitrant children. And then we expect them to positively affect the life prospects of children. The amazing thing is, that they often accomplish that Herculean task! But the cost to them is so high, the path so steep – not to do the teaching part of the job, but to meet all of the inane administrative obligations – that they give up on what’s important in order to accomplish the inane. And then we sanction them for failing.

We were all ultimately responsible for our own learning, but we needed those teachers to open the doors with their information and to push us through a bit with their heart and passion for learning.

That 21st century world we are supposedly educating children for has very similar obstacles to the 20th century one that sent us down such different paths. Our children need the intellectual skills that will allow them to carve their own ways through their particular obstacles, not a rote set of facts and figures memorized for a test.

Show respect for what (and who) is truly valuable. Let teachers do the jobs they know how to do, the best way they know how to do them.

One night in 2043, over drinks and dinner, a group of friends will thank you.


You Want Real Change? Ask the Real Experts

“We’re on our third principal in a year and half – no one feels any security here; two of them were there in the morning and gone by the afternoon – moved to other schools.”

I had this conversation in the aisle of a local thrift store with a teacher who is on her “third tour of duty,” one she considers positive at the moment.  But what about next year, or next week for that matter?  If the classroom can change as quickly as the office does, she can’t feel too secure either.

We talked about community and knowing the kids and all that other “teacher talk” we lapse DILO March 06 - Teacher with Students - 7:33 AMinto when chatting with other teachers.  Teachers are tied to one another by the job, even after we stop doing it.  Teachers know what it takes to make the classroom work.  They can identify those things that do NOT work for their students – or them.  So why are so few people asking teachers how to fix education?

Much lip service is given to the notion that teachers served on the committees that produced the Common Core Standards as well as state assessments.  That is true, but the limitations of that committee service are hard to discern.  Were there many teachers involved? How many?  At what level?  In which states?  How were the teachers chosen?  And what about the state-wide tests that are now connected to the CCSS?  Were teachers involved with those too?  Did they have a voice in how or when students are tested?  In the format of the tests?  In the methods mandated for test review/remediation?

In trying to find the answers to these questions, one becomes mired in documents that have similar vague references to the diverse group that informed the content of the standards initiative.  Did anyone ask large groups of teachers their opinions on the implementation and testing of country-wide content standards? I don’t think they did.  In fact, the government-corporate partnership that led this initiative castigated the large bodies of teachers – in some cases teachers unions – as groups of people selfishly focused on their own needs, disregarding those of their students.

Michelle Ree recently accused teachers in Seattle of distracting students by acting against the students’ best interests. This blatant attempt to further disparage teachers in the eyes of the country backfired in some circles, as seen in Jesse Hagopian’s article. These teachers were, in fact, supporting their students and their parents in the boycott of one of the state’s several standardized tests.

But back to my teacher friend with the serial principals. In her inner-city school she reports that A teacher works with special needs students at...many wonderful things are going on – creative music programs, honors programs that motivate learners, after-school activities.  I asked how the administrators structured in these positive interludes to the test-oriented environment I know exists in her district. Her answer was not surprising: “oh, it isn’t the administrators;” turns out it’s happening because some creative, motivated teachers saw the need and have taken on the extra tasks and committed to them with gusto.

Now don’t get me wrong – administration still had to at least “allow” these efforts and hard-working teachers are a great thing – but for the school and its students, what happens when those teachers get transferred next year, or move, or burn out, or have a new administrator who is non-supportive of the effort?

We all know what happens – the wonderful, creative efforts die on the vine because they are only one teacher deep.  They are not part of a community of education, a part rooted so deeply in the school that the efforts continue even when one teacher moves, or one administrator leaves.  They continue because there are enough people who care about the whole school community that they are able to absorb minor changes.

Schools, teachers and students, however, cannot absorb entire overhauls of staff that happen in revolving-door fashion. This type of top-down management devalues the human quality of education. It engenders a robot-like approach to the teaching – and administering for that matter – that makes education community development nearly impossible.  The lip service this district gives to retention of personnel is ironic in these situations.

Another insidious outcome of this kind of management is that teachers are unable to form relationships among themselves and with their administrators.  This lack of cohesiveness keeps them from meaningful collaboration opportunities, supportive work communities, deep knowledge of their students, and the caring that can only develop when an educator becomes a part of the community in which they work.  Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think this is the intent, not a by-product of such management styles.English: Teachers from the Exploratorium's Tea...

When the top administration in a district wants to keep people in line, impeding relationship building is a great tactic. It is much easier to control people who feel vulnerable and isolated than those empowered by collegiality to stand up for what they know is right.

Teachers have enormous potential to right what is wrong with education.  But they can only do such difficult, important work if they have the necessary tools:

  1. A supportive, knowledgeable administrator who respects and trusts in the professionalism of her teachers and relies on them to do their jobs.
  2. Freedom to decide the what, when, how and why in their classrooms because teachers are on the front line of education and must make decisions accordingly.
  3. Freedom from oppressive evaluatory practices that demean and blame teachers when they cannot meet unrealistic or invalid goals.
  4. Curriculum inclusive enough to value the aspirations of all students, not just those who plan to attend a 4-year, traditional college.

In return, teachers must accept (as I believe most do) the responsibilities of educating students:

  1. Caring enough about the students to learn who they are and what they need.
  2. Teaching every child, not just the ones who learn easily or behave well.
  3. Motivating students to achieve the educational goals set by their community.
  4. Staying current in both their content areas and the methodologies of teaching.

These lists appear simplistic and generic, but they represent a huge paradigm shift from the business model that has become the U. S. educational norm.  The suggestions are not meant to become a one-size-fits-all standard.  This paradigm decreases the role of administration, especially above the principal level – and empowers teachers to take on the role for which they were trained.  The shift to the most localized interaction, that of teacher and student, is the shift that will bring about transformation.

Time to rise and shine!


My sister, Mom and I in 1978

Well I was born a coal miner’s daughter in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler. We were poor but we had love that’s the one thing that daddy made sure of. He’d shovel coal to make a poor man’s dollar.    ~ Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn

7:00 AM — The transistor radio on the table is blaring country music while Mom’s hollering, “time to rise and shine,” to my sister and me. The noise carries easily through the hollow door separating my room from the kitchen. No, I’m not from Butcher Holler, but Mom is working two jobs to support us. She’s off to work soon and it’s time to do my hair and choose the outfit least-likely to be judged uncool at Jackson Jr. High School. Definitely requires a Carol call — “what are you wearing and how soon will you be here?”

Forty-five minutes later, my best friend and I are rocking our mini skirts, platforms and pigtails as we mosey on to school, several blocks away. Having covered rising, I’m ready to shine in the environment I love most — school!

We are the lucky ones at Jackson, the “popular” kids. We’re in the “smart” class — so called because we make good grades and our teachers like us. Some of us are from the working class neighborhood around the school and others are bused in from even poorer areas. We travel together, changing classes, but mainly moving as a pack. We like it that way — safety in familiarity.

The hallways are chaotic and intimidating. But I learn quickly. Don’t be confrontational; don’t antagonize; try not to call attention to yourself in the cafeteria — and never use the bathroom unless you go to the gym where Miss Obenchain runs a tight ship in the locker room.

So why do I love it?  Because of what happens in the classrooms, not the hallways. The teachers treat me like a smart kid. They talk to me as if I’m a part of the educated world they know. They share their experiences, many foreign and exotic — ski trips, tennis lessons, sorority balls — not just their content knowledge in English and math. They believe we can be whatever we want and they make some of us believe it too.

Life — AKA school — iI good in these years.  And it will only get better, right? A large consolidated high school, more opportunities, what more could I ask? I’ve been rising and shining — and I’ll continue to — because I can be anything I want if I just study hard enough.

And I do, but most of my neighborhood comrades do not come along for my ride. The smart classes at the high school across town are  filled with only a few of my former classmates. The people I know are in different, non “college-bound” classes. Some have disappeared all together! Most of the inhabitants of my classes are from two other jr. highs on the more affluent side of the city. They know special information, like when to sign up for SATs and how to apply for scholarships. Most importantly, they know the path that is before them — college, career, success.

I’m no longer secure in the path I’ve worked so hard to be on. What if I fail? What if I’m just a girl who thinks she’s smart and someone finds out? I only applied for the one scholarship because my mechanical drawing teacher told me to. I didn’t know you should take your SATs more than once. I should’ve asked someone, I guess, but who? No one close to me ever did this college thing.  It’s so easy to panic when the unknown stares you in the face. instead of taking time to consider all my work and accept that all new things are scary, I panic. And in that state, I have only one option — turn in my scholarship and drop out before I have a chance to embarrass myself.

Years later, though, I’m still one of the lucky ones — I returned to school — on my dime this time, and figured out how to finish what I started. But a rewarding career in education is still marred by the knowledge that not much has changed in regard to educational opportunity.  Kids whose parents didn’t go to college don’t know the terrain; they need continued support, even after they “make it.”  Those who don’t want a college path have few (if any) viable options. Most importantly, the current test-oriented, accountability-dominated culture has taken away the best of what school has to offer – close associations with passionate educators who have the time and inclination to share not just curriculum, but themselves, with students who need so much more than facts and figures — and that’s all students.

It’s time to rise and shine again – to speak up – especially when those in charge would prefer silent acquiescence.  Because I know what’s right – my best teachers taught me how to recognize and fight for it.

Thanks Mom – loving, strict, tired parent who still served with the PTA and the Girl Scouts; Linda Sampson – beloved English teacher who took the time after school to “chat” about my life; Lauralee Grim – amazing 6th grade teacher who allowed me to compact my classwork and move on at my pace; Eleanor Futten – efficient Geometry teacher who made me think of myself as a “math person;” Lois Obenchain – master of the gym, whose discipline and forthrightness helped me excel in athletics; and Irvin Bowles – shop teacher who happily allowed 2 girls, for the first time, to join his mechanical drawing class.