It’s also likely this was just one of So Many Stories about Trump’s desperate behavior, post-election, that it has been eclipsed in the national memory, but on November 20, 2020, lots of Michiganders were pretty sure that Shirkey and Chatfield weren’t sitting in the hotel bar discussing truth and justice.
So–the former MI Speaker, Lee Chatfield, has found himself in a bit of a pickle lately.
Chatfield became Speaker of the House at age 30, and was term-limited out in 2020. He is now 33. He is married to his HS sweetheart, with five children. He claims his relationship with the victim (which began when she was 14 or 15) was ‘consensual.’ In MI, the age of consent is 16—18 if the older person is an educator.
Lots of hand-wringing by his fellow Repubs, of course. And disgust from people who have always perceived Chatfield as a hard-right lightweight, not worthy of the responsibility of making policy for almost 10 million citizens in Michigan.
What interests me in this story, however, is not the salacious details (and there are way more than the summary, above). It’s the fact that Chatfield was– it pains me to say this—a teacher. Not in any sense a conventional teacher (certified, licensed, prepared, ethical)– but a teacher nonetheless (and, every story reminds us, also a coach and the Athletic Director).
In fact, Lee Chatfield is kind of the poster child for why we have laws in education—why public schools must have elected boards, qualified and vetted staff, new-teacher mentoring and supervision, ongoing professional learning, teacher evaluation, and so on.
Chatfield’s district is not far from where I live—and I know that a small K-12 Christian school in the rural woods of northern Michigan might be appealing to parents looking for ‘choice’ and made fearful by the media-fed blabber about how their white children would be made to feel guilty in public schools.
They wouldn’t be terribly concerned about vetting the teachers—they’re Christians, right?—or investigating the curriculum.
(In fact, even though we had a curriculum night every year, wherever I was teaching, parents seldom struck me as being deeply concerned about finer point of disciplinary benchmarks and content outlines. They came to see the face and hear the voice of the person in front of the classroom. Which makes the whole anti-CRT crapola inexplicable, except as a politically motivated and funded scam.)
Sometimes, the person in front of the classroom is an entitled, over-confident predator.
There are plenty of lessons for policy-makers here, ironically, beginning with a reminder that almost everything we do in public education is controlled by well-worn laws and policies.
Genuinely ethical practice protects and nurtures children. And he who makes his own rules can’t be trusted.
“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
Potter Stewart, Supreme Court Justice
There is no more local-politics issue than public education.
From Mom gossip about teachers, watching Little Leaguers play, to intense competition for valedictory honors with all the teenaged strivers loading up on useless AP credits—any community’s buzz continually includes trash-talking the local public schools.
My first political activity, in fact, was phone-banking against a voucher initiative in MI in 1978 (it went down, 3 to 1—like two subsequent voucher proposals). The first time I went to a heated school board meeting, to defend my district’s well-designed sex education curriculum, was even earlier.
Public education has always been under-resourced, contentious and subject to the community it serves. The people who work in public education have always been underpaid, but generally aspire to improve society by helping kids. There are exceptions, of course, but years of history and research bear this out.
You might think I’d be used to this, what with all the banned books, slashed programs (often my own) and vehement parent rhetoric in my personal past. You might think I would be applying the evergreen ‘this too will pass’ theory to what’s happening today, confident that the pendulum will swing, the pandemic angst will fade, and we’ll be back to our highly imperfect normal: public education under siege, but still standing.
It’s taken some time for me to come to this opinion, but I foresee the end of what we currently call public education.
It’s a pretty good piece, featuring an array of teachers and curricular experts discussing the difficulties of teaching current events on the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, after the nation and the Republican party has had a year to, you know, just get over it.
There are brave teachers in MA and MT who are planning to show news videos and discuss the root causes and eventual outcomes. But there’s also a special ed teacher (and regional chapter chair of Moms for Liberty) in Indiana, who’s sticking to math and English, in an effort to be ‘unbiased.’
Unbiased against what? Protecting the rights of camo-clad faux-military marauders to despoil the U.S. Capitol and threaten the lives of Members of Congress? Not willing to sway student thinking about the peaceful transfer of power? Trying to stay neutral on the topic of domestic terrorism?
The story ends with a quote from a middle school teacher, Dylan Huiskan: Not addressing the attack is to suggest that the civic ideals we teach exist in a vacuum and don’t have any real-world application, that civic knowledge is mere trivia.
Veteran public school teachers like me have spent decades developing real-world content discipline applications for our students. We have fought against sterile data-driven education, the relentless pursuit of test scores, the pushing Science and Social Studies and the Arts out of the curriculum. We’ve been trying to DE-trivialize education, professionalizing our own work in the process.
But now we’ve got teachers who think their colleagues are indoctrinating students, by showing them actual live news footage, or discussing an event that happened within their short memory and has huge impact on their own futures as American citizens.
Once, years ago, I wrote a blog using the phrase ‘data Nazis’ and a friend I respect, and trust, chastised me. Use logic and facts, he said. You weaken your arguments when you oversell and hype the danger.
Nobody wants what’s coming, so nobody wants to see what’s coming.
On the eve of the first civil war, the most intelligent, the most informed, the most dedicated people in the United States could not see it coming. Even when Confederate soldiers began their bombardment of Fort Sumter, nobody believed that conflict was inevitable. The north was so unprepared for the war they had no weapons.
Is that overkill? Unclear.
But if it’s not—what are our weapons against losing genuinely public education?
For the last decade, I’ve set a goal of reading (at least) 100 books per year. I have accomplished that goal nine out of ten years (missing the boat only 2017, when I clocked in at 97).
I started logging my reading in 2012 with a goal of 135 books a year, mostly because my friend Claudia Swisher was reading 135 books a year. I, however, am no Claudia Swisher—more’s the pity—and have had to convince myself that two books per week, with the elasticity of a nice, round-number goal is Good Enough.
But I have my doubts about that statistic. Not that people aren’t reading—they are, probably more than ever. They’re increasingly sharing their thoughts about their on-line reading, as well. Books, not so much.
The whole ‘Do Your Own Research’schtick is based on reading. The January 6th Insurrection was organized via social-media reading and writing. Spelling, no—but being a good speller is usually the result of doing lots and lots of reading (of correctly spelled and reasonably accurate text, of course).
These are my five-star, recommended reads from the 110 novels and non-fiction titles I read in 2021. Eight fiction, six non-fiction. Fiction first, plus a disclaimer that I read voraciously and indiscriminately, and five-star my favorites, even if they’re not (ahem) literature.
Cloud Cuckoo Land (Anthony Doerr)It’s a difficult book to get into–and it’s long. You have to have faith that there will be an emotional payoff; it took maybe 100 pages before I started to feel like I was living in five stories simultaneously. There are moments in the book that are shattering–and poignant, and meticulously written (like the scenes during the Korean War, or the building of a cannon before the siege of Constantinople). And again, and again, the book makes us understand the terrible times we live in–that there’s essentially nothing new under the sun, just stories and human foibles.
Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone (Diana Gabaldon)I am a major Gabaldon fan—the only series that I regularly re-read—and it’s been more than seven years since her last ‘Outlander’ book. If you have only seen the TV show (which I also like, but feels pale next to Gabaldon’s writing and sense of time and history), you owe it to yourself to start with ‘Outlander’ (the weakest book in the series) and hang out with Jamie and Claire for a few decades, through the whole saga of nine. It’s a hard book to review (so much has Gone Before), but the book (all 888 pages) is loaded with small and lovely vignettes.
Early Morning Riser (Katherine Heiny) Jane, the protagonist is a second-grade teacher in Boyne City, Michigan (about an hour northeast of here) and all the local details ring absolutely true. The plot kind of meanders around, but every single one of the characters is uniquely drawn and…interesting. And the writing is spectacularly good, ranging from wise through long stretches of amusing with bolts of flat-out hilarious. Heiny gets school teaching (something authors frequently mischaracterize) absolutely right. She also gets love and marriage and life right.
Like all of Krueger’s books– his two standalones were also written from the POV of a boy–it’s easy to appreciate his flair for realistic dialogue. I spent 30 years teaching middle school boys, and Krueger gets their boy-boy smack-chatter just right. There’s one scene, in the last 25 pages of the book, of three boys sitting around a campfire, that feels like the dialogue from the movie ‘Stand By Me,’ which was adapted from a Stephen King story–half goofy, half profound. The book touches lots of subjects, especially growing up and understanding the world. It’s a well-written gem.
Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell)Shakespeare is a very flawed husband, in this fictional account, and his creative, intuitive but illiterate wife is the one with strength of character, grounded in her village and close-to-nature way of life. The most wrenching parts of the book, however, are the life/death rhythms of living in the time of plague, the fragility of life. They make the book both beautiful and heart-breaking.
Firekeeper’s Daughter (Angeline Boulley)I live in Michigan, have been on Sugar Island, know the U.P. territory (rural poverty) and trust that Boulley has the language and setting and events right. Her desire, which took years to reach, was writing a book from the POV of an enrolled Tribal member, for teenagers. It seems right to me. Boulley shares the tensions between Native Americans and white people, and Daunis’s enrollment, in a way that feels authentic to me.
The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson)The book is about reversing changes to the biosphere and what happens if we don’t, so it’s a book about all of the lives of all of the people on the planet. It is wide-ranging, covering economic systems, political systems, technologies, crypto-currency and carbon sequestration, the internet and terrorism, just for starters. As soon as I started reading it, I looked at the world and the United States differently.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E. Schwab)When you boil away all the historical references and characters (which I liked, a lot) and the romance, the story is one more Faustian fable–the devil cuts a deal and lets yet another clueless human live the life of what she believes are her dreams–with the moral being that nobody outsmarts the devil. Maybe. The story ends in a way I didn’t expect, but tilts the playing field and left me smiling, because Addie uses the oldest tricks (word chosen deliberately) in the book. NON-FICTION: Two titles about racism (and a third that illustrates why white people have a great deal to answer for and understand); Two titles about sexism (and a third that loops in historic sexism around the topic of adoption).
“Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today.”
American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption (Gabrielle Glaser)There’s a lot of good information in the book–and things I’ve not put together, like the money-making aspect of the adoption industry and why their ‘evidence-based’ policies were created. But what makes the book memorable is Glaser’s case study, woven through the facts and figures. The end of the book, while sad, is also powerfully hopeful. As an adoptive parent, I’ve read lots of books about adoption. This is one of the very best.
Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women (Kate Manne)I would estimate that 75% of the facts, cases and statistics in the book were things I’d read before, but even if the book were a mere pastiche of Famous Misogynistic Stories, it would be useful, just to see all the evidence in one place. It’s more than that, however. I really appreciated Manne’s perspective on Elizabeth Warren: she was undeniably the most community-building, smart plan-crafting candidate for president, and why because of (not in spite of) that, she failed.
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (Heather McGhee)This may well be–like “Caste” in 2020–the best book of 2021, the book that helps white people understand how centuries of racist policy have hamstrung ALL of us (not just people of color) and made our world poorer and weaker. And it’s based on a nationwide array of examples of just how racist policy has not only left a legacy of inequity, but continues to shape our thinking and our prospects and opportunities.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Robin Wall Kimmerer)Kimmerer is a lively writer, who weaves stories around data, and honors her Native ancestry and beliefs. I took lots of ideas away from the book, beginning with the fact that indigenous people lived in harmony with the earth for eons longer than the white people who make fun of their ‘primitive’ culture. It’s a book to make you re-think everything you believed about ritual and religion, fear of dying, the morality of climate change, even living through a pandemic.
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo) A sober and research-based work, covering a disparate set of topics–politics, sports, education, media and women in the workplace. Oluo’s observations are intersectional in nature, demonstrating how things that seem ‘natural’–things ranging from salaries, power structures, health and welfare–appear that way because policies have been designed to keep them that way. By white men.
So here we are, at our local schools, trying to stay afloat, with daily crises incoming.
The adults who are still bravely teaching, teaching, teaching (+ making administrative and child welfare decisions) in spite of the fact that the world seems to be on fire around them, need help. Don’t take my word—just read pretty much any educator-written blog from 2021.
When we have massive social problems, how do we generate and roll out solutions?
The answer is: Policy.
Policy is how we mounted a successful response before, during and after World Wars, developed and refined sequential national transportation and communication systems, and came back from significant economic depressions. We can point to any number of policy-driven transformations in these United States.
Once policy is put in place, and implemented, we can see its real-world effects. Optimally, the policy will be tweaked until it does what it’s supposed to do: solve the problem. Or at least move things in the right direction.
Yes, it’s infinitely more complex than that—designing good policy is way more than guesswork and a good feeling about how to fix the trouble. And yes, policies sometimes make things worse. Way worse.
I would argue that public education is one area where terrible policy is now endemic—and sometimes, after clear failure, overlaid with even worse policy. The sheer dispersal of decision-making responsibility is part of the reason. There are legislative levels—federal/state/local—and a whole array of other organizations (the PTA) and people (the Athletic Director, the Union president) who have policy-making roles, assigned as well as assumed.
In fact, it’s hard to think of an education-related policy that has effectively and sustainably worked, beyond the granddaddy of all ed policy: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every American child, no matter what they bring to the table.
Lately, this wrong-policy trend in education has been on steroids—both the frightening gravity of the problems as well as the foolish, even ludicrous suggestions to address them.
PROBLEM: Student scores on standardized tests remain stagnant, or go down
WRONG SOLUTION:Fix the teachers, through rigorous evaluation of their behaviors and ‘success,’ including those same test scores. If this solution feels convoluted—well, the idea that a mountain of data could serve as a spur to improve practice has never worked particularly well, anywhere. It’s a data-focused non-problem, with a data-focused solution, neither of which matter much, in the real outcomes we want from public education.
PROBLEM: As COVID numbers rise, merely coming to school is stressful. Widespread absences and anxiety.
WRONG SOLUTION:Adding more half-days to the school schedule. This one started out on the right track—less time exposed to unvaccinated children, pre-planned time away from face-to-face learning. But, as most districts have learned, asking for Wednesday afternoons off is not likely to endear you to parents, who have pushed for full-time school in a pandemic, because they need to work. Less time in school and more technology-focused interaction is probably where we’re headed anyway, like it or not. Four-day weeks. Virtual conferencing. On-line lessons. The new normal. But let’s not worsen the child care crisis in the process.
Where should policy-creators get their ideas about solving big problems?
Because we are living in a completely different world now than we were two years ago, we should look first at the proposed solutions from people who are up close and personal with the problem. The people who are still, in spite of the danger and frustration, willing to be public school educators.
One last thing, for those who would like to tailor solutions to ‘the marketplace’ rather than the common good: Problems in public education are also problems in private and quasi-private (read: charter) schools. School violence, student mental health, the empty teacher pipeline, lack of resources—they’re apparent across the country, in all kinds of schools.
I got a heart-tugging message from a friend who is Principal in a small Catholic elementary school on the border of Detroit, a couple days after the shooting in Oxford. Local police had alerted her to threats that were ‘terrorist in nature,’ suggesting the school close down. But in consultation with her staff, they thought students (who had lost many relatives and caregivers over the past year) would be safer in school.
She said it was a fairly normal day, although she couldn’t wait for the dismissal bell. Then, she went home and threw up.
I am so done with all of this. My job is no longer one of an educational leader. I am an emergency manager around pandemic, school safety, bad weather conditions that flood our school or knock the boiler out… It is rare, very rare to have anything to do with education. I want to return to overseas international schools where the innocence has not been stolen from children. What we have here in the USA is worse than when I fled Sudan due to a revolution. I could understand a revolution. This I do not understand.
It’s been a terrible week for teachers in southeastern Michigan. A terrible week for students and families and school communities as well. Early yesterday morning, school districts—by my count, at least 60, but that was an early tally*—began announcing that out of the proverbial abundance of caution, they were closing down for two days.
They’re not closing due to COVID (although Michigan’s school-based infection rates are ghastly at the moment). They’re shutting down because of spiraling threats of in-school violence, spread on social media.
School leaders are terrified. Not one of them wants to be the next school where an angry, disaffected kid shoots off more than his mouth.
I have dozens of friends who teach near Oxford, site of Tuesday’s massacre in Oakland County, and know many others who have children or grandchildren in the district.
I have been reading their social media threads: First, the reassurance that they’re fine. Then, sharing of how they knew the students who were injured or killed: a friend of their daughter’s, their babysitter, the boy who was in their second grade class, years ago. Sometimes, anger over the words and actions of the shooter’s parents. Photos of the dead, and #OxfordStrong hashtags.
Then, inevitably, the conversation turns to blame. Copies of the two messages of reassurance sent by Oxford school administrators to parents earlier this month—saying hey, we know about these threats and we’re doing something—are shared. There are repeated acknowledgements that the school followed all the recommended safety protocols. So how did this happen?
Two things—true things—are repeated endlessly in these dialogues. The first is that the nation exposed its true values nine years ago after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, choosing unrestricted gun ownership over the lives of children. The second is that we need a greater understanding and focus on mental health. In our schools, of course.
What is often missing from these heart-wrenching discussions is the fact that schools are just like malls and movie theatres and churches and political rallies—stages for playing out what it means to be an American citizen in 2021, our deepest principles and beliefs.
Despite selfless and heroic actions, despite good parenting and good teaching and due diligence on the part of school administrators and counselors—we live in a pretty ugly country right now.
None of this mitigates the reprehensible behavior of this teenager. He is fully responsible for what he did. But it’s worth thinking about the unique context of growing up in America, the people respected as leaders in this nation, the ruthless tactics used to acquire and maintain power and ‘freedom.’
As Eugene Robinson said: I wonder if the people of Oxford, Mich., feel they have more freedom today than they did before Tuesday.
There are kids like [Ethan Crumbley] in high schools around the world. But only in the United States do we enable them to express their teenage angst by bringing guns to school and opening fire on the students, teachers and administrators they see as their tormentors. Only in this country do we make it easier for youths to get their hands on a handgun or an assault rifle than to work up the courage to ask a classmate out on a date.
That leaves us with the broad recommendation that we need more attention to mental health, everyone’s favorite ‘solution’ to the problem of social violence. I always wonder just what people think enhanced mental health services look like, in schools. Who’s in charge? What do they do?
I am a strong believer in school counseling, but anyone who’s worked in a school knows that counselors—if they even exist—are stretched over multiple responsibilities and way too many students.
The urgent, squeaky wheels for counselors are often standardized test administration, scheduling and college applications, not dealing with individual students’ bitterness or rage. If we had ten times as many qualified counselors, it would only be a band-aid on mental health for children. Compared to other nations, we have miles to go.
I would argue that public school teachers in America understand the simple fact that kids can’t learn when they’re anxious, depressed, or hostile. Everyone’s running their own informal, ad hoc SEL program, all the time.
It’s called caring about your students. * Per Bridge Magazine, over 150 school districts in Michigan shut down, as a precaution.
I once was on a panel at a Governors Summit on Education in Michigan. The topic was ‘teacher leadership.’ It was the usual format—each panelist gets a pre-determined number of minutes to pontificate (which they invariably overrun)—and then (theoretically) there is open discussion among the panelists, and questions from the audience. The line-up was: A state legislator, a representative from one of Michigan’s two teacher unions, and me.
I was the first speaker and started with the premise—copped from Roland Barth—that if all students can learn, then all teachers can lead. I fleshed that idea out, a bit—that practicing teachers need a voice at the policy-making table, that teachers’ control over their own professional work would enhance their practice and enthusiasm for teaching, as well as their efficacy. And so on.
Legislator was the second speaker and he strongly disagreed. He asserted that his role, over so-called teacher leadership, was oversight. Teachers are public employees who need to be kept on a tight rein; their work rigorously evaluated. If they want to lead, they can lead their second-graders out to the playground for recess (audience laughs). He and his colleagues were the rule-makers and goal setters, not teachers.
Then the union guy spoke. And he, too, felt that ‘all teachers can lead’ was a falsehood. Teachers had no business sticking their nose into policy. That was the union’s job. And it was an administrators’ job to lead a district or building—and suffer the consequences of failure. He knew plenty of teachers who were excellent classroom practitioners but didn’t have the skills, desire or moxie to lead. If they wanted to lead, they should run for a position in their union, or get administrative certification. Applause.
Because the Summit was on a weekday, the hundreds of people sitting in the ballroom were mostly legislators or their staffers, heavily from the Governor’s party, plus university and Department of Ed folks, and reporters. Not teachers.
Although I enjoyed a delicious, expensive banquet lunch afterward, I met nobody whose thinking was aligned with mine, re: organic teacher leadership.
Not a great experience. But telling.
Now, many years later, I still believe that experienced teachers want to lead, and are well-positioned to inform the conversation around education policy.
Teachers are under siege. It’s not surprising that free-floating angst, generated by a highly disruptive pandemic, has been aimed at public schools. It happens cyclically—everything from rising pregnancy rates to chronic illiteracy in poverty-ridden neighborhoods is blamed on educators.
Because–you know what’s coming–everyone went to school and thinks they understand schooling. A pandemic that shuts the entire system down, however, is exponentially catastrophic, impacting everyone. Anger at public schools, even for made-up reasons, is inevitable. It’s the nearest target.
For the last century or so, teachers have been an increasingly female workforce, seriously underpaid and subject to increasingly rigid control from government and on-site leadership. Pretty much the model my co-panelists understood and defended: Some of us make the decisions, others do the work. And hey—enjoy your summers!
But it’s a relatively young and inexperienced teacher workforcenow, and the frightening stories about teachers leaving, in droves, with nobody to replace them, ought to force the education community to ask themselves: What would keep the EXPERIENCED TEACHERS WE ALREADY HAVE (sorry) in the classroom for a couple more years, until we rebuild a leaky pipeline?
Well, it isn’t the ‘Wellbeing’ worksheet (see photo, below), which feels like one of those make-work reproducible masters teachers used to pull out on a sub day. Self-care dittos.
Here—fill this out. Feel better! Clearly, whoever designed this worksheet does not understand the relationship between drinking more water and the one three-minute window per day when peeing is possible.
Hiring the best possible people, paying them fairly, giving them time to work collaboratively, honoring their expertise, and releasing their creativity? How does that sound as a recipe for school-based self-care?
Greene writes, with a certain edge, about a variety of education topics, and he has receipts for his opinions. When I read his words, I am right back at C lunch, listening to the veteran teachers I worked with grumble and snicker about the people who were trying to ‘fix’ schools. And didn’t have a clue about how schools worked, or what happened in real classrooms.
How could you know that every class is a balancing act—attention, content, challenge—whether your students are six or sixteen, unless you’d spent considerable time in front of a classroom? And did so recently—not 40 years ago, when we didn’t expect kindergarteners to read and everyone to take Algebra II?
As we wrestle with ‘To Mask or Not to Mask’ and just what Critical Race Theory actually is and isn’t, we need to hear lots more from experienced teachers. Greene’s aforementioned blog, titled How I Taught Controversial Texts, is precisely what persuadable parents should read right now.
Persuadable parents are those who genuinely care more about the education their children are getting than scoring political points, or throwing their weight around. They’re curious; they want the best for their children. They may be liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat—but they’re mostly wondering ‘What kinds of things might our kids talk about in class? What will they learn?’
Well, Peter Greene tells you. In doing so, he condenses decades worth of teacher wisdom into a few pithy paragraphs, around ideas like this:
Teachers often say that students are welcome to their own opinions in the classroom, but students will wait to see if you mean it, or if this is a class where you get points for agreeing with the teacher. So you have to show them. Once students believe that they really don’t have to agree with you, all sorts of good stuff can happen.
Offer perspectives, but let them wrangle. Let them have the argument in their own voices.
Students are where they are. Despite all the panic over teacher indoctrination, the fact is that you will rarely budge the needle on the beliefs that they bring from home.
Don’t get out the controversial stuff before you’ve built an environment of trust, respect, and safety.
There’s more—read it here—but Greene sounded like every good teacher I ever worked with: a person with a deep understanding of their students and a strong sense of the content and activities that would push those kids to think deeply and express themselves clearly.
Of course, my teaching career in a small town in Michigan and Peter Greene’s career in a small town in Pennsylvania overlapped considerably—and we both spent a long time teaching in one place, where families learn to trust teachers.
Teaching has changed radically in the immediate past, mostly due to terrible policy-making at multiple levels, policies that have chipped away at teachers’ professional work and judgment. The pandemic explains only some of those bad decisions.
It’s time we started listening to the unfiltered voices of teachers.
I spent several years reading 12-page portfolio entries, coaching for teachers seeking National Board Certification. I was always amazed at the differing ways teachers wrote about their practice.
It was an honor to tap into their thinking (and watch videos of their lessons). For some, explaining their choices and results seemed to come naturally, something they did every day. They could explicate and justify their learning goals, and included language like Peter Greene used: Trust. Respect. Safety. Let them have the argument in their own voices.
The National Board’s word for this kind of practice is reflection. But teaching public school in 2021 doesn’t leave much time for introspection, planning learning goals and checking for results. Having your state legislature pile on doesn’t lead to better teaching or learning, either.
Writing about what it’s like to be in the classroom now may be the only way well-meaning parents get some insight into ordinary life in schools–the constant effort to turn students of all ages into engaged and curious citizens, good neighbors and conscientious workers. Especially difficult now, when their young lives have been seriously impacted by an uncontrolled virus.
Keep sharing your perspectives, teachers. We need to hear from you.
Had I known when I was younger what these students were sharing, I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis–a paralysis that arose from never knowing enough of my own history to identify the lies I was being old: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today. (Clint Smith)
The students Smith is referencing, above, are performing as part of a rich Juneteenth celebration on Galveston Island, TX. They were part of a six-week summer program sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, designed to teach children the real story about where they live and what happened there.
Don’t all children need to know about the place they come from? Its triumphs and failures?
In the book, Smith—then a doctoral student at Harvard—visits a number of historical sites around the country that chronicle the record of slavery and its impact on every aspect of American life. He begins at Monticello, sharing his conversations with two white women in his tour group who had no idea who Sally Hemings was– the enslaved woman who gave birth to four surviving children by Thomas Jefferson.These older women, interested in ‘seeing history,’ are astonished to hear about the 600 human beings owned by the great statesman.
Each of the chapters is distinct, featuring plantations, graveyards and annual memorials. The chapter on Angola Prison, in Louisiana, is grim, beginning with its original purpose, in the Reconstruction era: to round up, then house, a low-cost workforce for plantation owners who can no longer rely on the enslaved. The chapter on New York City makes clear that nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line can claim that slavery only existed in the South.
The chapter on Goree’ Island takes us to coastal West Africa, where captured Africans were sent off to their new lives (or deaths) as enslaved workers, and includes this quote from the curator of the House of Slaves, a museum on the Island:
After the discovery of America, because of the development of sugarcane plantations, cotton, coffee, rice cultivation, they forced the [Native Americans] to work for them. And it was because the Natives died in great number that they turned to Africa, to replace the Natives with Africans.
And there it is—this is and always has been about gross economic development. How to make money off exploitive and unpaid labor of others, and the ugly rationalizations used to defend such ugly practices. And how far back this goes—long before the Middle Passage.
In a time when employers are begging for workers after a deadly pandemic (that some employers denied or downplayed), this is a particularly resonant message.
This is, indeed, the book we need now.
Smith tells us, in an Afterword, that he went to many more places than the seven he describes in great detail in this volume. That suggests that there are always places nearby—places where students have been, places they are familiar with—that can serve as testimony and memory of our local history.
As educators, it is up to us to teach that history. This is what all the anti-‘CRT’ protestors fear: the truth.
Smith illustrates that learning the truth is never divisive. It may be painful, and may produce rage—but knowing how this country was built, whose backs and hands produced the wealth and power only some of us enjoy is the cornerstone of building a more equitable society. The truth can unite us, over time. But we have to listen to each other.
Clint Smith is a published poet, and he writes like a poet and storyteller–there is lots of detail and description. Once you get past an expectation of fact-based academic writing, you begin to appreciate his nuanced depictions of people and places, the colorful, palm-strewn islands and damp, gray prison cells. Smith adds only enough data and dry content to enrich, not drown, the narration.
The book is easy to read. I read it one chapter at a time (which I recommend), pausing between to absorb and think, because each segment shares a unique perspective. Smith reiterates, in a dozen ways, that slavery didn’t start in Africa, and African-American history didn’t begin with the capture and selling of human beings.
It was a global wickedness, economically driven, but it still impacts America–the idea and the reality of America–deeply. We can’t get past it until we know the history.
I worked in the same school district for more than 30 years. Mostly, I taught music—band, choir, elementary music—but occasionally other things: Seventh grade Math (two years), English as a Second Language (for which I was totally unqualified), and a class called Homework Hall.
This was a kind of holding cell where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent–pulled from elective classes–to receive coaching toward filling in the empty boxes in their teachers’ grade books. A second chance to pass classes they would otherwise fail. A way to protect their permanent record, so to speak.
Back then, the county was a cluster of pretty little all-white towns, interspersed with farmland. When I applied for a teaching position, in the mid-70s, the principal called the village where I got my job “the far edge of white flight.” He was right. More and more people were pushing outward from Detroit, claiming they were looking for a more bucolic setting, and then being surprised when they had to provide their own water, septic and garbage pickup.
Still, it was a good job, and they were hard to come by in 1975. Parents—many of whom had grown up in the area—came to concerts and parent-teacher conferences. They took their kids to the library and volunteered to lead scout troops. They rented band instruments for their children and coached Little League. For a long time—decades—I thought teaching there was ‘easy.’
True, there were worrisome things—the town where my cute, second-floor Mary Tyler Moore apartment was had a reputation as the home of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan. There was lots of local trash talk about Flint (30 miles north) and Detroit (50 miles to the east)—although the area’s transition from rural farmland to outlying suburb was driven, economically, by the auto industry, centered in those two cities.
White flight, indeed. My middle school students occasionally made unfiltered, racist remarks—things they’d likely heard at home—but I was never afraid to call them out. That was then.
Here’s a one-minute video that will tell you all you need to know about this town in 2021, shot earlier this week: Click here.
If you haven’t listened to the NY Times podcast series ‘Nice White Parents’, I heartily recommend it. The tagline captures it all: If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public schools, you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in shaping them: white parents.
Sometimes, a kind of common sense prevails—but nice white parents have experience in complaining and getting some action and relief. As a veteran teacher, I can think of dozens of issues that brought angry parents to school board meetings, from sex education to the math curriculum, from bus routes to which neighborhoods got to attend the new, high-tech elementary school (the well-heeled ones, naturally—because those are the parents who showed up to demand access to the new building).
Homework Hall—that class where students got to make up missing work—was created when nice white parents approached administrators, worried that their kid might be doing a second year in the 7th grade. Nice white parents know how to get what they want. And they’re resentful when they do not succeed.
Sarah Schwartz of Education Week: In the months after the 2020 election, former Trump administration officials and allies built up a network of think tanks and donor groups dedicated to continuing to advance his policy agenda. Critical race theory has become a central issue for several of these organizations.
Nice white parents, in other words, are organized and funded. There are partisan threads running through this anger, and differences between parents with a college education and those without. Religion plays a role, as does race and gender.
Political scientist David C. Barker summed it up this way:The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.
At the base of all the fury over education policy, however, is the fact that white parents have historically had way more success in shaping school programs and practices. And most of the stories in education journalism come from white journalists.
As Ray Salazar writes: When journalists come from backgrounds where they usually found success in traditional systems — systems that perpetuate inequality — they report from that worldview, bypassing the insights that would be meaningful to people with a different reality.
That different reality is endangered, along with democracy. Those think tanks and donors supporting Trump’s education policy agenda are made up of nice white parents, not the parents of students who are struggling to learn without adequate broadband, materials and well-trained teachers.
Final point: This isn’t getting any better. Most Republicans now believe the Big Lie. State legislatures are working to limit voter access. Trump is still relevant, the overwhelming favorite in 2024. The anti-democratic political crisis is worse, not better, than it was in January.
It’s a crisis in public education leadership as well.
Does it seem to you as if the logical world has tilted on its axis? Does there seem to be an inordinate amount of destructive mania loose upon the land—shattering norms and making citizens on both the political right and left jumpy? And nasty? Even murderous?
I’ve been bemused by the angst over TikTok’s influence on kids’ behavior. Ridiculous pranks are something teachers are accustomed to—all the way back to stuffing kids in phone booths. From the Tide pod challenge to those goofballs falling off milk crates last summer, there’s always some Stupid Human trick to attract school-age kids. Part of the fun (for kids) is scaring their parents and teachers. You could put an eye out with that BB gun, son—and so on.
If the elected leader of the Western World is openly promoting lies and cruelty, it shouldn’t be surprising that loosening the lug nuts on your principal’s carseems like a fun and even justifiable caper. After all, he’s annoying and gets in the way of what you and your fellow seventh graders feel like doing.
Teachers I know have addressed the roiling surf of tamping down student misbehavior during a pandemic with some low-key, on-the-fly brilliance. A friend reported that his school is encouraging kids to post TikTok videos of random kindnesses—like a crew of high school kids repainting a bathroom wall after the paper towel dispenser took a walk. That kind of thing.
Others have reported deep and serious conversations with their students about issues you would think are universal: Respect for everyone. Stewardship of communal resources. Building a better world.
Some of my best moments as a 30-year classroom veteran, came when there was a crisis—a missing instrument, or someone whose dignity had been damaged by another student. You really can build students’ humanity and kindness by modeling it and talking about it.
As a long-time teacher of teenagers, I say: Good luck with that. You can pass all the laws you want, but kids need adult role models, people who are able to build communities of disparate teenagers, and do some work and learning together. And that’s going to happen a lot less when teachers are threatened by legal or local forces.
Turns out, however, that the book in question has been used for five years at this school, with no problems, largely because every child who took the course had to have a parent sign-off on a statement acknowledging that the college-level materials used in the course might be considered inappropriate. That’s right—parents had to grant written permission for their child to be exposed to writing prompts about drinking and sex. For five years. But in the divided climate of 2021, it suddenly became a Big Issue, worthy of terminating public employees.
Why? And why now?
Why do you think kids all over America are destroying public property, then sharing videos of themselves rampaging in the restroom of their local middle school? Where have they seen behavior like this before—adults despoiling a beautiful public building, then posting videos of themselves as ‘patriots’?
Still, I’m tired of hearing about the schools ‘failing to teach Civics,’ when the same critics show up at Board meetings to complain about discussions of racism in society. What do they think civics is?
We have a lot of work to do to heal the country, in every sense of the word. Public schools and community colleges could be instrumental in that. Schooling has always reflected what’s going on in the nation—and that’s what all those parents and lawmakers are afraid of, and trying to prevent.