Sunday, October 27, 2013

Begging for a "distinguished" Education that will "first do no harm"

*Remarks upon recognition as the 2013 Distinguished Alumni for Professional Achievement at Shenandoah University Alumni Weekend: 
It is with deep appreciation and humility that I thank you for this recognition. 
Thank you Dr. Fitzsimmons, members of the awards committee, faculty members who are present and especially Dr. Mary Bowser who advised me through my graduate work at Shenandoah.  I’d especially like to thank Theresa Manchey, for the introduction.  I have long viewed Theresa as a mentor of both good teaching practice and as a guide in negotiating our professional roles.
No one achieves anything without support along the way, and that is why I am especially pleased to have my family present.  My children Annie, Neil and Carolyn long endured my absences both physically and mentally as I pursued writing and teaching beyond the classroom.  Thank you so much for your patience.  My husband and partner Lynn has been most supportive by providing a safe landing at home and the freedom to follow my passions.  Also, he is a phenomenal cook and has nurtured all of us by providing endless meals.
In accepting this recognition, I cannot help but consider it as affirmation of the work that all teachers do in classrooms everyday, often going unacknowledged or recognized by the communities they serve.  So it is in behalf of those colleagues that I accept the title “distinguished.”
 I consider myself lucky to have found my calling:  I like young people and being around them day in and day out can be both energizing and fulfilling. Contrary to a widely held view, teaching is not for everyone—but for those who find their way, there is much to celebrate.

  • Teaching is intensely intellectual. The work requires the marriage of experience and knowledge, sometimes achieved on-your-feet in front of an unforgiving audience.  There is never a point in teaching when you can say “I got this.”  The target is always moving.
  •  Teaching is also intensely satisfying. Those who make it a lifelong career have a friend in every generational group. There is great pleasure in watching former students take their places as contributing adults.
  • But teaching is also intensely humiliating.  This is part of the work that every teacher struggles against on a daily basis.  We know immediately when we didn’t hit the mark.  We are aware of the students we were unable to save.  We know who we’ve reached, but also who we’ve failed.  Teachers carry the burden of failure poorly because our losses run counter to the mission of helping and serving the student.
 It is this awareness that has made the past decade extremely difficult for educators.  The high stakes testing that has taken center stage in our classrooms has been counter to what we feel creates opportunity for good instruction. 
And though the decade has been painful for teachers professionally, it has been even harder to watch as testing victimizes students.  Imagine a student who takes 32 separate high-stakes tests in the space of four years and fails every single one.  It happens.  What is learned from that experience?  It is only possible to learn one thing:  that you are a failure.  Repeated failure is often a reality for the student with the fewest resources to garner for the resiliency needed to overcome a setback.  Every failure pushes that student further from the goal, not closer to it.
The work which brings me here tonight has centered on raising the professional stature of teachers so that our classroom based knowledge is both valued and incorporated into reforms that improve rather than punish teaching and learning.  Though it has been engaging work, there is a long way to go to reach that goal. 
So it is with a sense of failure that I accept this recognition because, although the work continues, I have not yet seen the changes needed to ensure that every child is afforded the opportunity to experience success.
When that goal is reached I will feel that both my profession and the nation I live in has truly “distinguished” itself.

Thank you.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Watching "Teach"

I set aside two hours on Friday evening, September 6 to watch the CBS movie "Teach."  (I wonder if anyone besides a teacher watched this mea culpa by Davis Guggenheim, atonement for his teacher-bashing "Waiting for Superman"?)

It was as much a romantic whitewash of the teaching profession as Waiting for Superman was a scorched-earth review of public schooling. (Just look at the image that accompanies that movie -- a child at a desk in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.)

But, hey, if you're trying to attract young people to the profession, you certainly don't want to focus on the all night paper-grading marathons, the pointless professional development, the hours spent collecting data to prove your worth, the flat nature of the career, or the paltry pay that means many teachers can't afford to live where they teach or send their own children to university.

But for selling the "feel good" aspect of teaching, it was a hit.  I felt good.  But I already love my job and think teachers are the greatest human beings on the planet.

I also LOVED the commercials where comedians come back from the future to tell a young person that they will "lead a group of small aliens into a better future."  Fun.  I hope it makes some of our young people consider the career.

For those who did not see it--and I suspect there are more of those than not--the movie followed four teachers through a year.  All four received some collaborative help in improving their teaching.  All four "saved" at least one student before the end of the year.

Happy ending.

Also, at commercial breaks famous people came and sat at a student desk in a generic hallway and personally thanked a teacher for changing them.  And Queen Latifah also made a pitch for teachers. Her mom is/was one.  Subtext for teacher wannabes:  You, too, can have a famous person thanking you for your thankless task one day.  (Another message I despise: why bother giving if there's nothing in it for you?)

I felt pretty good about my job after the movie, and yet....something has nagged at me for weeks about what I saw.

And it wasn't the fact that teachers are being sold as superheroes again. That was clear the first time through.  Teacher as superhero is an unsustainable, if not impossible, reform idea.  We can't build an entire profession on the idea that selfless giving--to the exclusion of your own health and wellbeing--is the only way to rescue kids.

And it wasn't the accepted premise throughout the movie that student test scores are a true measure of what a child has learned. From the beginning there was no counter to the idea that high-scoring kids will be successful in our crazy, ever evolving world.

Both the idea that teachers must be superheroes and that test scores are unassailable were presented as truths.  I agree with neither of them.  There is little evidence that those who are strong academically will be successful later.  Bad premise.

However, what had me considering and reconsidering the movie over the following days were the faces of the students we followed. I was particularly affected by the little girl in Matt Johnson's fourth grade and the struggling boy in Shelby Harris' 7th grade math class. When the camera rested on them there was so much pain, loss, and confusion in their faces that I found it hard to watch.

Throughout the movie these students were referred to as "behind" and "below grade level."  These children had been labeled failures and losers from the very beginning of their school careers (until they met the superhero).  And they knew it.

Even the Algebra student, who had completely disengaged from schooling at the beginning of the year by exhibiting behaviors that any classroom teacher has seen time and again--putting his head down, answering with a dismissive "I don't know"--clearly saw himself as a loser.  The only real way to save face when you live with this label is to show the world that you do not care about the label.  It's all "stupid" when schooling reminds you time and again that you are a complete and utter failure.

It is very painful to watch.

It was the teacher's job to bring them up to grade level and thus save them from failure.  Get them to "catch up" with their peers.  Help them re-imagine themselves as a "winner" rather than a "loser."

This is what haunted me.  We still live inside the factory-model that forces kids through an unyielding  "system" attempting to stamp out lookalike products.   The system presumes that all children progress at the same rate.  It presumes that we all enter with the same experiences, grey matter, and motivation. It presumes that we can all learn at the same pace based on an arbitrary calendar made up in a vaulted office somewhere.  I noted that the Algebra teacher had better success with her students when she ignored the overcrowded curriculum map and slowed down to match the pace of the students who were trying to learn the material. That smacks of a problem with the map, the test, the curriculum, etc. -- not the kids.

When a child is placed in a grade level (arbitrarily based on a birth date) the inability to keep up is deemed the child's fault.  And this message is sent to the child time and again.  Hence the pained expressions on these children's faces throughout the two hours.  Hence my discomfort.

It is a poor system for bringing out the best in our children.  One that should be ditched.

As for the movie, outside of the *revolutionary* notion that teachers need time to collaborate, and a twenty-minute add for Kahn academy, (does Guggenheim own stock?)  it offered nothing new to the education world.

I hope young people decide to become teachers, and I hope they bring with them a new age of learning that revolves around the student and not outsider's measuring sticks.

But Davis Guggenheim is not a visionary.  He's just a salesman who uses images to great advantage. And the product he's selling is both short-sighted and simplistic.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

When Dads leave...

In 2005, the Satellite Site of the Northern Virginia Writing Project was launched. Following the directive to "write what scares you" I chose to work through Dad's death in January of 2004.
   I am grateful to my writing group who helped me work through my new position as girl without a Dad by listening to draft after draft of the scariest moment.  Not the happiest of Father's Day essays, but a moment we all face: losing a parent.

We sat in the waiting room with the walking dead.
My sister, my father, and I had come to Johns Hopkins cancer treatment center for Dad’s follow-up appointment.  We were to find out when the surgery would occur to remove whatever-it-was they found a month earlier in the ducts of his liver.
After the last hospital visit, he went home with a tube we flushed regularly for him that cleared his system of the fluids that built up.   Dad helped my sisters and I adjust to this new role—daughter as caregiver—with his usual humor.  Surgery was the next step, and today the adult children would coordinate the next phase of care.

We checked in at the door and then waited to be called by loudspeaker.  The waiting room was nearly empty—and huge. Arranged to mimic an extended living room, with clusters of chairs, sofas and lamps, it could easily hold three hundred and began to fill, a group at a time. All new arrivals were a contingency of awkwardly cheerful, overfed relatives, surrounding a paper-thin patient.
My eyes followed the first group circling a man shuffling through the door. He’s going to dieAnd that’s his mother and father.  He must only be about 25 or 30.
Another group came in.  A man bent over an IV pole, sliding his slippered feet along like an old, old man.  His white-grey skin was cloaked by a robe and pajamas that dangled as freely as if they were still on a wire hanger.
Another walking dead person, I think.  Did they bring him downstairs for this? Is he a patient somewhere up in this mile-high hospital?
Now, in comes a group of healthy men surrounding the patient.  He must have AIDs.  They aren’t his family
In this room, there are more sick men than women, but they all look eerily the same.  All have a set expression, so different from their escorts.  “I’m dying,” it says.  “I’m dying, and I need to concentrate all the energy I have left to do this next job.”  Fevered eyes burn in hooded sockets.
The place is surreal.  So many struggling to survive while their companions pat them, avoid looking at their wasted frames, fiddle with cell phones, make small talk after rushing in from busy, distracted lives.  My older brother shows up while we sit here.  He comes in too fast, entering from the world of the living and bringing that frenetic pace into a room where distance is measured in small, weak steps. 
Dad does not look at all like the other patients.  He is still overweight and pinker in the skin, though his walk has slowed to the same tiny steps.  He has not recovered from the earlier hospital stay and the trip from Martinsburg was long.  We aren’t any different from the other relatives though, chatting him up or letting him listen to our conversations as we catch up on each other’s news.  But I watch the other groups carefully, a portent of what might come: a series of visits, a wasting patient struggling against the poisonous cure.
When Dad is called, my sister—the trained nurse—goes back to the examining room while my brother and I wait.  My parents are in the habit of deferring to her when there is medical news.  They accept her presence in any embarrassing medical circumstance.  My parents have always divided the five of us into the roles we would perform.  Being in the middle, I never felt I had a clear calling, but for this crisis it seems I am driver, probably the only one who can remain calm in city traffic.
I hadn’t seen my brother in a while and quiz him about the time he spent in Johns Hopkins with Dad the previous month. Still, I keep one eye on the room that continues to fill.  It begins to look like the waiting room of an epidemic - a cancer epidemic - as one after another of the wasted and diseased comes in through the door. Nearly every seat is taken now.  Does this room fill up with a different group everyday?  It seems impossible that there could be so many.  I can’t stop imagining what every family is doing to cope with the devastation that has entered their lives – our life. 
Johns Hopkins appears to be a magnet pulling in the withered iron filings of wasted bodies, snuggling every last flinty remainder into this central location.  There are too many of them.  Maybe I’ll get used to this.  I steel myself to face lines of victims, my dad included, when we bring him back for treatments.
After only a short while, they call my brother and I back to hear about the next step.
Inside the examining room the air is laden with a conversation that occurred while I counted the doomed in the waiting room.  My father sits on a bed.  The doctor, an obviously nervous young woman, stands with her arms folded, an older doctor behind her.  She is uncomfortable and has called in support, a mentor?  My sister is on a stool.
The interrupted talk continues with an explanation of the possibilities of undergoing chemotherapy.  The doctor mentions that it would be Dad’s choice about whether or not he wants to pursue it.  It could help.  It might not.
I am baffled and look from one face to another, confused.  This conversation doesn’t make sense.
“What about the surgery?”  I ask.  “When will he have the surgery?”
There is a long pause. Everyone exchanges looks and Dad stares off at the wall. Finally, my sister says with deliberation, “There isn’t going to be any surgery.”
“Why not?”  I insist.  “Isn’t that what we came to find out?”  Everyone looks at me. The young doctor twists her hands.  She looks like a little girl—a girl who would like to be somewhere else.
“The surgery won’t help,” my sister says thickly. 
What...?  What does that mean?
There is a pause, one in which no one says anything.  No one says, “Your father will die.  There isn’t anything else we can do.”  No one says, “Go home and get your affairs in order.”  No one says, “I’m sorry.”   The poignant moment is left to be inferred.
Isn’t anyone going to say that there’s no hope? That he’s going to die?  Is he going to die?  Is that what they’re saying?  Don’t you have to say the words?
And then that was it.
Everyone knew. 
No one said.
The doctor added something about who to contact in Martinsburg if Dad wanted chemotherapy.  But, essentially, she was signing him out of her care.  Nothing to be done.  We mumbled OK.  We didn’t say thank you.
She left.
We left.
But only because that is what you are supposed to do next: get up and go out.
We walked out of the waiting room, and the room full of patients I had diagnosed as walking dead now looked like creatures whose eyes burned with hope.  The hall of horrors had become a sanctuary where thin IV tubes tethered wispy people to the solid earth and tied them to a circle of family. 
But we had been turned out, abruptly set on the street corner, alone.
The hallway we exited to had none of the comforts of the waiting room.  Sterile, like a shopping mall, two-story windows flooded light into a linoleum-lined atrium with a few hard benches placed as respite from a long hike between cavernous hospital buildings.  For minutes, with unfocused eyes, we wandered and stumbled around this space, the four of us, having nowhere to put the news we had received, or to form the words that would prepare us to face the end of life.
At the nearest bench, my father collapsed. He slumped over, chin on his chest, and began to cry like a child who has broken something that can not be put back together. My brother and sister kept wandering, looking for a place to rest their eyes – or maybe for something that looked familiar – unchanged, unlike the rest of the world. 
Because he looked so alone, and because he was my father, I went to him reluctantly, not wanting to stand in as a mother/wife for this father/boy who had lost his own mother to cancer so long ago.  Against the tall, light-flooded windows, I could see the shadow of the lost eleven-year-old, grieving not for his mother this time, but for himself.
“Oh, your poor mother.  What is she going to do?  Poor old soul.  She can’t live alone.”
My mother? What about my father?  What will he do?
And then we cried, the two of us.  In a sterile office building, where people strode with purpose between their obligations, we held on to each other and cried in a little forlorn heap, until I finally muttered something comforting, promised to take over the responsibilities he had modeled for us, and got ready to say goodbye to a father.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Zombies, Ghosts, and Raised by Wolves: A Student View of Test Creators

Teachers aren't the only ones who are not asked their opinion about standardized testing in schools.  Nobody asks the kids how they feel about it.

My good friend, Susan, a Teacher Consultant in the Northern Virginia Writing Project, used the testing schedule as an opportunity to get some creative writing out of her seventh grade students.

Currently immersed in the testing season--which eats up an entire month in middle schools--(we must test every subject in every grade) and ties up technology and the library for the duration, gave her students plenty of time to think about audience.  A good writer (and test taker) should know her audience.

Mosey on over to her blog "A Year in the life of a Writing Teacher" and see what the kids have to say about testing and the test creators.  They provide illustrations too.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Good teaching follows and leads the student

Came across this quote today in a book written by a British educator. It is by the formidable gentleman to the right, Edward Thring, Headmaster of Uppingham School.

There are probably few, except the reformers who insist on curriculum mapping and common formative assessment, who would disagree.

The teacher makes the taught do the work and occupies himself in showing them how to do it and taking care that they do it.  His work is to direct, suggest, question, enspirit; he adapts himself in every possible way to the individual minds, never resting until he had made them master of the skill required and seen them become capable of working on their own account.  Teaching takes any shape whatsoever, is fragmentary changing as the difficulties of the pupils minds change and disregards all precise plan, provided that a close, laborious and exact exercise of mind is the result.  The teacher makes the pupils work and stands and falls by what they do.

Thring, circa 1821-1887.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

From the category of OMG...

I missed this story:  Pearson is now including product placement in its tests.

Here is the post from The Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post.

Pearson argues that they are using authentic texts and the trademarks are part of the original readings.  In a recent third grade reading test for New York State, third graders read passages that included references to Legos and Mug Root Beer.

We recently gave the new reading test to students in Virginia, another Pearson product.  As promised, there were many more non-fiction texts than literature.

Many more.  And they were pulled from current media.  And there is a reference to at least two major American products.

Teachers, of course, are forbidden to speak of what is on the tests.  We are threatened with the loss of teacher credentialing.  Pearson is threatened with.....?

I suppose if teachers reveal the test content Pearson might have to create new items and that would cut into their profits.

So you will have to ask your local public school student what they had to read about.  I have an official gag order.

We used to read Emerson, Frost, excerpts from plays, short stories.  No trademarks on them.

Who's dumbing up or down?

I think Noam Chomsky had something to say about our culture creating savvy consumers and not critical thinkers.  "Too much democracy" can really get in the way of the indoctrination of young people into a "life of conformity."

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Virginia Doublespeak: New Legislation for Public Schools

The day job has made it too hard to get to the keyboard lately, but I have been thinking about our Virginia Governor's new education initiatives and George Orwell's 1984.

Here is legislation signed into law recently in the Commonwealth:  (Bold face type is the Governor's language.  All else is mine.)

HB2098 (Tata) / SB1189 (Martin): Red Tape Reduction Act. This legislation strengthens the ability of school divisions to request waivers from the State Board of Education from certain state requirements. Local school divisions may be released from Board of Education-approved regulations and standards of quality requirements.

"Red Tape Reduction Act" is Orwellian in the extreme.  This is a run-around the Standards Of Quality (SOQs), an agreement that the state will maintain certain levels of quality -- like class size and functioning school buildings -- so that teachers can do their work.  It was a quid pro quo for the Standards of Learning (SOLs). Teachers and other professionals are held to the SOLs while the state agrees to hold to the SOQ's.  We have not seen any slackening of SOL standards -- in fact the bar has been raised -- since 1995.

HB2076 (Stolle) / SB1131 (McWaters): Local Approval of Public Charter Schools. 
This [is] legislation to eliminate the requirement that local school boards who originate a charter school application must apply for authorization from the state Board of Education. Currently, school boards who wish to start a public charter school in the Commonwealth must first submit their application to the state Board of Education. This legislation will eliminate the process of receiving state Board of Education approval in addition to the consent of the local school board. Several Virginia localities are interested in establishing public charter schools, however, the best providers in the country have policies that conflict with multiple approval requirements for expansion.

"This legislation will eliminate the process of receiving state Board of Education approval in addition to the consent of the local school board."  According to McDonnell the "best providers in the country" have policies that conflict with our state requirements.  Really?  So we have state requirements for certain levels of education that are in conflict with the "best providers in the country?"  Who, exactly, are these best providers and why do they get a pass on our standards?  Maybe Virginia can look forward to cushy charter deals like the ones forged in New Jersey with non-educators.

HB2084 (K. Cox) / SB1175 (Ruff): Teach for America Act. A significant achievement gap still exists between our students. While the task will not be easy, TFA has been successful in working with schools to close the achievement gap. Teach for America recruits and trains the best and brightest recent college graduates from across the country to accept full-time teaching assignments in hard-to-staff schools. This legislation will allow for TFA to operate in Virginia and begin placing teachers in hard-to-staff schools starting in the 2013-2014 academic year.

Oh boy.  Virginia now can enjoy these highly (un)qualified teachers working with the students who are hardest to teach.  If you've followed this blog, you are aware of the dangers of that.  We can also look forward to high teacher turnover in the most unstable teaching environments as well as the further de-professionalizing of our teaching force.

HB1999 (Greason) / SB1207 (Stanley): A-F School Report Cards. Creates a pathway for the DOE to report individual school performance using a grading system in addition to the standards of accreditation. Simplifies the current school accountability system to an easy to understand A-F grading system. This school grading system will help parents to fully understand the performance of their child's school. The A-F report cards will make school performance clear and easily communicated to the public. The new A-F grading system will update the current system that is often too convoluted to understand. The new report cards will recognize schools for challenging all students to reach high levels of achievement. They will also give schools a tool to encourage more parental and community involvement. When parents and community members have a clear understanding of school performance, all students benefit.

This program is endorsed by Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education which has recently been revealed to have ties to Corporate backers who stand to profit from the legislation written by the foundation.  Virginians can look forward to transferring more state tax dollars to the profit makers.  

Last year we had legislation that mandated at least one on-line course as a requirement for graduation.  We already know who's pockets that money will go into.

Look forward to Reform and Innovation, Virginia-style.  

Governor Robert McDonnell's (aka Governor Ultrasound) term ends this fall in compliance with Virginia's one-term limit. Let's hope the mood on education reform undergoes a major shift by then.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Dark Ages

The retired head of the Atlanta School District, Beverly Hall, has recently been indicted for cheating.

According to the New York Times, some teachers were browbeaten into changing student answers in erasure parties where wrong answers were switched to the right ones.

Thirty-five teachers and administrators have been indicted in the case.

"Every time I play those tapes, I get furious about the way Beverly Hall treated these people," [said Richard Hyde, Georgia state investigator who taped hours of teachers wearing wires.]

Some of the teachers, single parents who feared losing a job--Beverly Hall's unofficial motto was "low score, out the door"--felt unable to resist orders.  Without a doubt, the losers are students and parents who were unsuspecting pawns in the deception.

The Atlanta scandal is only the most egregious of other scandals under investigation across the country.   Some don't even attempt to fudge the numbers.  Lying about student success seems to be accepted practice when the figures don't add up.  The governor of Georgia was under great pressure from the business community to drop his investigation into the scandal.  Business leaders wanted to be able to attract more business to a state with a well-educated population---even if they weren't.

This is the state of education today which lumbers zombie-like on to more testing and accountability under the new Common Core (some estimate tests may take eight to ten hours...) in spite of good science (about what really helps kids, about how testing distorts instruction)  that is currently ignored.

History will mark this the new Dark Age.

In our national experiment on a whole generation of children, two social science truths are now playing out.
  • If you want to motivate people to work harder in intellectual work they need more autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  When our motivation is unhinged from its purpose, we get what Daniel Pink calls "crap." We seem to be getting plenty of that.
  • Secondly, when you use numbers to determine social decision-making, it leads to corruption and a distortion of the social process.  This is known as Campbell's Law.  Duh.  See above examples of how these narrow numerical definitions of success have completely distorted teaching and learning, probably our most social behavior.
I declare this particular education experiment over.

Let's get back to creating a strong, innovative teaching profession.  And stop diverting money into the pockets of test developers.

***Ironic, too, that it looks like we will be throwing teachers and administrators in prison for a failed education/business model while the real Masters of the Universe continue to run an economy over a cliff.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Money, metaphor, and worth

My students write daily in their Daybooks, a safe space for thinking and experimenting in writing.  The requirement is to do the writing.  Screwing up is good.  Succeeding is good.  Venting is good. Not venting is good.  Just write.

Later, they examine the writing for certain entries they are willing to share.  At one point they must locate an entry they describe as representative of "original thinking."

A frequently flagged entry is from a prompt inspired by Robert Pirsig, a composition instructor and author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In the book he explains that  his students "write to a penny" for an hour.

Persig was frustrated with shallow, canned essays that did not excite the imagination or do more than rehash other's ideas. He wanted his students to discover and follow their own thinking.  Spending an hour writing leaves a writer with nothing but her thoughts.

My kids get a penny and seven minutes.  (For those who wish to repeat this activity, students write "to the penny," then pull a line that intrigues them, move the line to a new page and write some more.)

Still, even in that short space of time they are surprised to find they have something to say. What they say generally has them exploring the abstraction that money represents.

Me too.

I think about money a lot.  Especially as a tangible measure of an abstraction.  (Keep in mind that we made this whole construction up--money, that is--and we could change our minds about it any time we want.)

In America, our definition of money and worth falls along gender lines.

In the business world, money is a measure of worth.  Those who rise to the top are paid more, supposedly, because they have proven themselves as worth more.  And they are worth more because they have somehow managed to squeeze more profits out of their enterprise to divide among the shareholders.

And so you get CEO salaries that are stratospheric.  Timothy Cook of Apple, Inc., for instance, made $377,996,537 last year.  That's a salary. Per year.  Most don't make that much in a lifetime.

In the quarter century I've taught and participated in thousands upon thousands of evaluations of human beings from every ability level and walk of life, no one comes to mind who might rise to either this level of expertise or potential.  There just doesn't seem to be evidence for that extreme difference in ability.  My thinking is that Cook is more lucky than not.  Lucky to be in the right place and time among the many who are just as capable.

But business is, by and large, a man's game. Racking up points and its testosterone inducing chest thumping is what is really going on here.  It is a score.  The one with the highest score wins, right?

Conversely, money takes on a different character when attached to activities that do not result in measurable, money-based profits.  That is, occupations (largely dominated by women) that are centered on helping people better themselves.  There are many ways we profit from these enterprises, including making it possible for some to rise to the level of a CEO.  They just don't show up immediately on a ledger sheet.

In this context, money is dirty.  To speak of it as a measure of worth "cheapens" the activity.  We can't pay a mother to stay at home and nurture her children through the important early years.  That would be like paying for love.  Better that the mother drop out of the workforce and express her love for her children through a difficult old age where the loss in lifetime earnings makes a huge difference in how she might finish out her life.

In teaching, we are repeatedly told you didn't get into this for the money.  This particular rhetorical construct makes it extremely difficult to even ask for more pay.   Implied is that teaching is missionary or spiritual work and to ask for an increase denies or negates your intentions.  Apparently, the expectation of a decent salary reflecting a level of skill and knowledge gained in working with people is some form of prostitution.  Those in the ministry, whose salaries are historically low, are caught in the same trap.  Recall that we are asking the families of those who improve our society to sacrifice as well.  Perhaps the proper response is "I didn't get into this for the poverty either."

Money for help = bad.  Money for more money = good.

Our current system of compensation is pretty medieval.  Worth is equated with goodness (i.e. highly paid CEOs are the best thinkers, doers, providers) but the very best among us (selfless nurses, teachers, ministers, police, firefighters, service men and women) should expect to be among the poorest.

And yet, the argument turns on us in other ways.  When you earn less you must have done -- or not done-- something to deserve it.  (Teachers are victim to this reverse trap.  The "you didn't get into this for the money" becomes an accusation:  What did you think you were getting into?  You can't complain now.  If you were smarter, you would have made a better choice.)

Without a doubt, the current media conversation has established that salaries and earnings are way out of whack.  It is time to swing the pendulum the other direction.

When we change the conversation can we please stop talking about money as if it were unclean in any context?

The assignation of compensation is a moral question.  When we answer with compensation, we are answering these questions:

  • Who should and should not be able to adequately provide for their own children?
  • Who should and should not be able to live without anxiety?  
  • Who should and should not expect to end a life in relative ease? 

Teachers may not have gotten into the occupation for the money, but they get out of it all the time for just that reason.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Be Nice, Work Hard

There are a lot of rules centered on behavior in schools.  For years, I've had nagging doubts about whether we should be creating rules to manage and anticipate every instance of student misbehavior.

The inclination has always seemed out of step with the education mission.

Today I read an article on humanism in the Guardian by A. C. Grayling, and two sentences seemed to express that nagging voice.

Though the topic is religion, the last two sentences are what caught my eye.
Religious moralities assume that there is one great truth and one right way to live for everyone.  Another great flaw with religious morality is that it says if you do not obey, you will be punished.  The threat of punishment is not a logically adequate ground for moral behavior, even if it is prudent to avoid punishment by behaving as ordered. Unless one's moral outlook comes from being thought-out and chosen for oneself, it is at best an imitation of morality, at worst a subversion of it.
I'm a practical person, so I know that some rules are indisputable, especially where children are concerned. (You simply MUST leave the building when the fire alarm goes off.  We can't tolerate violence against another person.  Listening to adults in a time of crisis is non-negotiable.)

But there are other areas where teaching the child to think through an issue, choose for oneself, and make a moral choice is the slower, but ultimately better way to develop thoughtful, good human beings.  Growing people is what we are about, so a continuing conversation about choices should figure into the curriculum.

Threatening our way to good behavior puts a lot of pressure on the threatener and none on the miscreant.  Certainly there is something inherently good about making the right choice that could be shown, unfortunately sometimes only through trial and error.  It's the errors we continually prepare for in our phalanx of rules.

Students, especially good ones, grow preoccupied by the extrinsic rewards celebrated in a school--and that includes the awarding of grades--and can miss the larger purpose of education: to improve the self. Taking short cuts to get the rewards seems like a logical, if immoral, response to the game in play.

But who set up the false prize in the first place?

In the meantime, since I'm "all in" by now for this particular game, I compromise with two classroom rules poached from a colleague (who likely poached them from someone else).

They remind me of a description of the Torah I once read:  The Torah all boils down to: treat others as you would like to be treated.  Everything else is commentary.

Be Nice.  Work hard.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

SIMBY: Sequester in My Back Yard

In a recent faculty meeting, we were told of the effects of the looming Sequester on our district if Congress does nothing by February 28. (What a great job!  Do nothing: cause seismic teutonic shifts in the lives of the little people.)

To our small district the sequestration means a loss of $135,000 annually.  This is federal funding that will cut services to only three subgroups: the poor, our second language learners, and the disabled. Losses will come in the form of losing key personnel and resources dedicated to these specific groups.


Besides calculating how much time and labor has been expended as everyone--right down to the dogcatcher--has madly readjusted budget projections based on a non-action, we were treated to the image of pushing our most vulnerable children off the school bus, running over them, and then backing up and doing it again.

In our district, we know not only how many students will be affected, but also the faces and names of those, our neighbors, who will be condemned to fall even further behind.

Even if everyone does a do-over after this political temper tantrum, time lost to developing kids has large repercussions later.

In the giant pile of money which exists somewhere, $135,000 is not much. But amplify that cut across every school district and you get a picture of a nation divided into the haves and those who face losing what little they already have.  Of course the employees affected by the cuts will quickly be moving from one category to the other.

Oh, yes, some districts will be able to replace some monies from donations (a la 1,000 points of light?), but really, do we want to cast a safety net that has huge gaping holes?

How will the sequester affect your district?  Please share.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

America: Cruise Ship on the Rocks

It was hard to keep from laughing while reading about the rescue of the Carnival Cruise ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, while toiling with the next generation working hard for their own opportunity to charge a cruise to their Discover cards, the media was covering this tragedy minute by minute.  Missing out on the breathless commentary must have immunized me to the pathos of the poor victims of the worst vay-cay ever.

It is probably an occupational hazard, but it's hard not to see metaphor, metaphor, metaphor in every aspect of the story--starting with the obvious: the fun on the cruise was only a power generator away from calamity, and the glitter and the glitz but a thin, tinselly veneer over the true human condition.

Zap.  All pretense wiped away and the teeming masses quickly sank into a floating sewage container of their own making.  The ongoing buffett of over indulgence dried up within hours and vacationers were forced to subsist on ketchup and buns.

Can't help it.  It makes me laugh.  A cosmic joke for sure.

The idea of going on a cruise has never appealed, particularly after a trip to the east coast of Mexico where I acknowledge my own culpability as an over-indulged nomad.

First, I witnessed the Very Angry, Very Important, Very Righteous, Very Wealthy man at the hotel desk who loudly berated the staff, as though they were recalcitrant servants, for spoiling one of his Very Precious Vacation Moments.  As the staff behaved deferentially, I searched for a piece of furniture to crawl under, so embarrassed by a fellow American demanding that his hosts speak a more standard English.  Ugh.

As a part of that trip, our group went scuba diving in the underwater natural park just off the coast.  A behemoth cruise ship was moored offshore.  These floating hotels dwarf any other man-made building within sight.  Unless you've seen one, it is hard to imagine how these bright white, floating playgrounds for nearly 4,000 people dominate the seascape.

The Dive Master was disgusted.  He called them floating environmental disasters, leaving in their wake mountains of garbage and destroyed coral forests.  Once again, we paint a lovely picture of excess and entitlement.

I felt my own excess when our drive through some real hard times ended in the manicured, opulent hotel where our drinking water was filtered.

But back to the cruise.  The late David Foster Wallace wrote about his experience in his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."  He claims the experience transformed him into a self-described spoiled brat.

How much like a cruise is life in America?

Locked on a floating island with thousands of the continuously fed and catered to, encouraged to eschew the reviving sun and seaspray by sitting in darkened casinos dominated by ringing bells and flashing lights, entertained by crooners in spandex and sparkles.

Adventures ashore are highly programmed visits to shopping areas on impoverished Caribbean islands where the bubble of fun avoids any contact with the real lives of those whose memories we collect in native gee-gaws.  ("Don't look over there.  It's the face of poverty, and it will completely spoil your fun. And don't forget, we're having fun.  You deserve it.")  Friendships are arranged via assigned seating arrangements at the opulent meals.

Draw your own parallels.

And when the plug is pulled and the lights go out?  A real, stinky mess.