Social. Emotional. Learning.

What a difference a few years—and a pandemic and an insurrection—make.

Remember when a ‘growth mindset’ was all the rage among reformy types?

In addition to teaching kids about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on student mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset.

Speaking for all the experienced teachers who were introduced to the ‘growth mindset’ concept and its promotion as silver bullet teaching practice: Would that it were so easy. And researchers are just now noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on what students are thinking? Seriously?

And what about grit? The desirable persistence, an ability to pursue goals in the face of discouragement, the thing that underachieving slackers in public schools didn’t seem to have inculcated? They weren’t dumb (or hungry, scared, exhausted or neglected). They just lacked grit. Right.

Both of those things, packaged as programs, were embraced by professional developers, as part of a suite of soft skills that could be used to enhance student performance. There are plenty of other terms veteran educators have run into: Character Development. Restorative Justice. Conflict Resolution.

They all fall under the general category of encouraging the social and emotional welfare of students, giving them tools to manage their emotions and relationships—so they can learn. Also: (unspoken but obvious) so their test scores will go up.

Social-emotional learning (SEL–the reality, not any official program) is just a rather random collection of ways that school staff has always made students (who have all kinds of reasons for feeling anxious and off-balance these days) comfortable enough in a school setting that they can settle down to learn.

Different SEL programs have different foci: Positive behaviors. Making friends. Sticking with tough tasks. Being more thoughtful, less aggressive. Every time you hear a teacher say ‘Use your words’ or ‘What would you like to say to Jason?’ or ‘Take a minute to calm down’—they’re riffing on SEL ideas.

In a good column at Curmudgucation, Peter Greene says that SEL is a real thing, all right, but he can’t defend SEL programs which are now taking a beating from parents. These are, one has to assume, the same parents who thought grit was just the ticket for kids who were living in their family’s car, or that telling certain kids they were smart could cause their heads to swell and spoil them for the workforce.  

A whole lot of the murkiness around what SEL is, and how it relates to Critical Race Theory (CRT)—spoiler: it doesn’t—comes from masterful manipulation of language.

A year after a terrible incident at a local HS, where students of color were put ‘up for sale’ on Snapchat, some parents here still think that systemic racism doesn’t exist here in Traverse City. Some of them saw the incident as simple bullying, no big deal, and others thought it was a matter to be handled by police rather than the school board, although the idea started and was centered among HS students. All of them seemed to think addressing it would cause even more divisiveness.

Why wouldn’t you want teachers, using developmentally appropriate strategies and language, to address emotionally sensitive issues? If students don’t have these conversations in school, under the watchful eye of an adult (especially an adult with the skills to help them process their feelings and social challenges), where will they learn to keep a lid on? To distinguish truth from foul lies? To learn the art of cooperation? Restraint? Respect?

Where will they learn to use THEIR words, instead of picking up a gun?

The interesting thing to me is that none of this is new. Twenty-odd years ago, I was recruited to be part of a video series produced by the Annenberg Foundation, called The Learning Classroom. I had a film crew in my classroom (and my office) for an entire week, capturing footage around how I used social-emotional learning to teach more effectively.

I prepared lessons designed to engage my middle school band students emotionally, by learning Ashokan Farewell, the music Ken Burns used to great effect in his Civil War series, then tying the plaintive tune to the letter that Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife in 1861, a week before being killed in battle. We talked about how many of the recruits at the end of the Civil War were no older than the boys sitting in the band room, how bloody the war was, dividing families.

The filmmaker wasn’t looking for a lesson that used emotion to drive home learning (something that teachers do all the time, by the way, from reading great literature to the exploding mysteries of the baking soda volcano). She wanted to see stormy outbursts from middle schoolers.

Your classroom is like Mayberry, she told me. Everyone is friendly and nice. I desisted from telling her how long it took (speaking of grit) to build a community of 13 year-olds who worked together. I did not say that there were, in fact, days when the emotional temperature of the room was not so pleasant.

While the film crew was there, one of my students returned to school from a month at home recovering from surgery and treatment for testicular cancer. The other kids were happy to see him, and the film director asked me where he’d been. Oh, wow, she said, when I told her. Let’s use this in the episode.

I was aghast. Absolutely not, I said. Not everyone knows why he’s been out—only that he was ill. It would be a terrible violation of his personal privacy. He would never trust me again. He is so fragile right now—how can you even suggest something like this?

The next morning, the film crew was gone, two days earlier than planned, leaving my office filled with dirty coffee cups and discarded papers. I didn’t hear back from the production company, and never got the complimentary set of videos I was promised—so I never saw myself trying to teach using social-emotional learning. Whatever that is.

Last week, when I was doing some reading on SEL, I accidentally found the Learning Classroom series, and the video where my students and I were featured. If you’d like to see it, our part starts about 15 minutes in.

Seeing the video again made me realize that my students displayed more emotional intelligence than the filmmaker. There’s another lesson there.

Pedagogy, Lesson Plans, Instructional Materials—and Politics

This is a blog about Teacher Stuff—the pedestrian daily tools of successful instruction. The boring and ordinary instruments of professional work that teachers, from kindergarten to AP chemistry, use every day.

A story: Several years ago, I was facilitating an on-line mentoring program for career-change teachers, who had previously worked for a Big Well-Known Corporation.

BWC decided to off-load a layer of expensive senior employees (those with 20 years or more) by giving them an exit ramp: Go back to school (on our dime) and become certified teachers. We’ll even subsidize your student teaching. Then resign, and we’ll replace you with cheap recent graduates.

That last line wasn’t actually in the program description, but everybody involved knew the score. BWC promo-ed the program on their website—Giving Back to Your Community!–and added an additional sweetener: BWC would provide e-mentoring, through a national non-profit, for the novice teachers’ first year, since they understood that public schools were filled with terrible teachers who couldn’t possibly be of assistance. After all, their (too-expensive) employees were masters of applied STEM content, who could probably teach veteran educators a thing or two.

It was an interesting gig.

A lot of the work was just dealing with misconceptions. Like the woman who was upset when she was told by the university where she was taking ed classes that she couldn’t have a student teaching placement as a ‘third grade math instructor’ because the job didn’t exist in most places. She could student teach in a 3rd grade, but would also have to teach reading, social studies, science and accept bus and lunch duty, which was a deal-breaker for her. She left the program.

One of my mentees had just started a job as a chemistry teacher in a suburban Connecticut high school. He had been assigned four sections of chemistry and one of AP chemistry. In our first exchange, he was panicked because he had asked for the lessons plans to go along with the texts, and was told they didn’t exist. He checked with his official on-site mentor (the other chemistry teacher at his school) who told him that books didn’t come with lesson plans because you have to tailor lesson plans to the students you have.

Which my mentee thought was not just rude but ridiculous. You mean I have to make up ten separate lesson plans each week? How inefficient! At BWC, all the work was pre-organized. You just followed the templates. This is why public education is such a disaster, yada yada.

If you are not an educator, it might in fact be surprising to suddenly be immersed in typical pedagogical practice where what initially appears to be ‘inefficiency’ turns out to be more effective in the long run. I’m thinking here of those little flip-top heads on a conveyor belt, receiving ‘content’ in ‘Waiting for Superman’–director Davis Guggenheim’s conception of how children learn.

My point here is that the other chemistry teacher was spot-on: Good teachers structure learning goals, lesson plans and instructional methods to meet the needs and quirks of the students in front of them. They also pay attention to results in real time (meaning—you don’t have to wait for test scores), and re-adjust when things aren’t going well.

Peter Green recently wrote an accurate (and amusing) blog that summarizes why teachers will never completely outgrow the need to plan, also listing a half-dozen ways that required lesson plans can become a pointless power struggle or an example of planning theatre.

I spent thirty-odd years planning the week ahead on Sunday nights, with a glass of wine. My plan book was where I scribbled notes when I had a brainstorm (or a failure). The plans were always messed up by mid-week, but I had five preps, and absolutely couldn’t teach without them. But nobody ever fly-specked my plans to make sure I wasn’t inserting CRT or SEL or any other acronym into the pedagogy I saw working for my students, on a daily basis.

Alfie Kohn takes this discussion about teachers’ daily work a step further, reminding us that it’s not just curriculum and lesson plans that the (well-funded) right now wants to control. It’s the way we go about teaching—our pedagogical practices, including things like the pre-eminence of phonics in the Faux ‘Science of Reading’ wars.

Just as social conservatism is all about religion, so religion — or at least this version of it — is all about not only order and obedience, but also faith (which means belief without evidence) in the conviction that Truth resides, fully formed, in certain texts. Carole Edelsky, an emeritus education professor at Arizona State University, has explained that “the far right’s love affair with phonics” reflects their “universe of moral absolutes,” the goal being to decode “what is ‘there’ [and to affirm] appropriate hierarchies – the authority of text over interpretation and ultimately of (the Christian) God over man. To the theocratic right, promoting phonics is a tactic for asserting Christian control of schools.”

That one made me stop and think.

The great irony here is that obedience and faith are what certain politicians want—but not the blue-chip businesses who will be hiring our graduates. Education Week just surveyed ten such companies, asking: What problem-solving skills do you want to see from early-career job seekers that tend to be lacking? And what should K-12 schools do to help bridge those skill gaps?

Corporations said: Flexibility. Cooperation and collaboration. Soft skills. Real-world applications. Learning to fail. Curiosity. Appreciating diversity. Service learning. Teamwork. Creativity and innovation—out of the box thinking.

All of which require a great deal of careful planning, diverse instructional strategies and materials, and zero emphasis on standardization and compliance, which is the pedagogical train we’ve been on for two decades now.

Can those traits and skills be taught? I think so.

The question is whether teachers and school leaders will follow their hearts and minds or be beaten down by politics.

That Infiniti Commercial

Several years ago, I wrote a blog entitled “I Hate American Idol” for Education Week. EdWeek changed the title to “Music Teacher Hates American Idol”—lest they be accused of trashing one of America’s iconic entertainment boondoggles—and it drew thousands upon thousands of readers and a whole array of nasty comments, which could be summarized thusly: Grow up, whiny music teacher.

Here’s the lede:
I hate American Idol. I really do.

I think it’s an insidious and destructive force on the American media culture (which– let’s be honest–needs all the help it can get), an omnipresent televised influence causing Americans to believe that unless your voice and public persona meet some amorphous standard of style and quality, you should just shut up and stop singing.

Or maybe I should just lighten up. But still.

Everyone who can speak can sing. Really. Singing is just extended, rhythmic speech. Singing is a great gift–a fun, wholesome activity that builds community, expresses joy, sorrow and humor, entertains and binds us together in life’s transitional moments. There is no activity that is not made richer or better illuminated by music.

Community singing around a campfire got ragtag groups of settlers across the prairie, and singing has comforted those who remain behind, bereft, when lives are lost. Music releases emotion far more effectively than words. While it’s wonderful to listen to exquisite vocal harmonies, nothing is more satisfying than actually singing yourself. It’s what we were meant to do as human beings.

And that’s what I tell my students– they are born singers.

If you watch television, you’ve seen the Infiniti commercial where Rich White Lady inexplicably drives her luxury vehicle into a tiered room where children are filmed simply holding—often incorrectly—orchestral instruments. There is a soundtrack marked by significantly scratched tone and seriously out of tune chords, unpleasant to the ears of 21st century consumers who are used to perfect (and often auto-tuned) music. RWL rolls up the window, shutting out the sound, lowers her seat, adjusting the rear view mirror so she can see her adorable daughter, who later rides home in the back seat.

Message: Owning the right car will shut out the cacophony of life. Including the disgusting sounds your children make.

Music teachers universally hate this commercial. Many took time out of preparing for spring concerts, the school musical and recruiting musicians for the 2022 marching band (something everyone in the bleachers on Friday night expects) to comment. There’s plenty to say.

For starters, the piece the students are pretend-butchering is Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem based on a literary work by Friedrich Nietzsche, which incorporates the idea that God is dead. So there’s that.

There’s also the fact that the children portrayed are not actually playing the piece (something that’s obvious to instrumental music teachers)—or even attempting to play an instrument. Shots of cute children incorrectly holding musical instruments are commonplace in advertising (see below).

It’s this ‘cute’ angle that’s most annoying. Children, as previously noted, are born to make music—to sing, to move, to create. Teaching them to appreciate a delicate instrument, to persist through the difficult challenge of making good sounds, learning to work together to create something magnificent—isn’t this the critical essence of authentic education?

I found the commercial insulting to my life’s work.

 And I’m wondering:

What if RWL had rolled up her window and ignored her little soccer player, averting her eyes in embarrassment because he was running, knock-kneed, toward the wrong goal?

What if she was scrolling on her phone while her daughter was on stage at a dance performance—unable to watch because the dancing was so painfully inept?

What if she told her 4th grader that her artwork—on display at the school’s art show—was ‘amateurish?’

Parents who reject their children’s efforts at anything because those efforts are clumsy, childish or hard to hear are doing damage. Telling your child that they shouldn’t do something unless it comes easily or can’t be done perfectly is personal vandalism.

I’m not suggesting kids be praised when praise isn’t warranted. I have had literally hundreds of parents joke about their kids’ early efforts at playing an instrument: Moose mating (low brass). Geese honking (oboes). Pigs squealing (clarinets). If accompanied by encouragement and tolerance, these moments can be light-hearted.

One parent remarked: I have sat through a lot of kid concerts and some of them were painful. Let’s face it, when kids are learning, they often do suck.

Nope. That’s the response of an adult who misunderstands the role of persistence and effort. If it’s ‘painful’ to listen, imagine the pain of a child whose parent shuts out their first steps in any endeavor by rolling up the metaphorical window.

Another comment, from a fellow musician: In my band directing days, when parents and staff would joke or complain about the first beginners concert, I’d tell them it was my absolute favorite concert. Four months ago, they didn’t even know how to assemble their instruments. They might not even have known what instrument it was. And now we’re making music.

The first concert was my favorite, too. All six notes, and all the shining faces.

And pretty soon—with time and effort—they can sound like this, taking those skills and friendships into the adult world. No matter what kind of car they’re driving.

Because we’re all born to make music.

Good Times, Bad Times. Public Education.

I should start by saying that while there were occasionally some very Bad Times indeed in public education in the last century or so—the folks who are in the classroom at this moment are undisputed champions of working through the mind-bending challenges and crises coming at them.

It’s been chaotic even in the best-run schools, a kind of perfect storm of global pandemic and political upheaval, for more than two years. And we’re going to pay for it, down the line, in loss of professional staff and community goodwill. When I say ‘we’—I mean all of us: teachers, parents, and especially students.

You can’t beat good people up ad infinitum; no matter how dedicated they are, teachers eventually tire of trying to balance the rewards with the downside: underpaid, disrespected. And lately, exposed to a dangerous virus and not trusted to teach their own subjects.

It’s easy to tire of ‘Why I’m Leaving’ articles, but this one caught my eye: Teacher Job Satisfaction Hits an All-Time Low:

‘Past research suggests that many of the people who indicate plans to quit won’t actually do so. But experts warn there are negative consequences from a dissatisfied teacher workforce. Research shows that when teachers are stressed, the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students all suffer. And students tend to do better in schools with positive work environments.’

Let’s pause here, to say: Duh.

“What people want is to be able to teach and teach well, and if they can’t do it because they can’t afford to do it or because they have a toxic work environment, that discourages them from acting as teachers who are learning and growing and getting better and increasing their commitment to the work,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ working conditions and satisfaction. “That’s the side of satisfaction we need to pay attention to—it’s not just keeping people in their positions.”

‘Also, the low satisfaction levels of teachers already in the classroom may impact the pipeline of future teachers. Enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined by about a third over the past decade, and experts say that is likely in part due to the perception of teaching as a low-paid, thankless career.’

Low paid. Thankless. And eligible for food stamps, in some states. What’s not to like?

In the linked article, there is a graph showing the percentage of K-12 teachers who say they are ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs, beginning in 1980. There’s a big dip in 1984 (down to 33%). Beginning in the early 90s, there’s a steady upward climb (to 62%) around 2005 or so, then a downturn, a slippery slope to where things currently stand: 12% of our teacher workforce is very satisfied with their jobs.

Educators aren’t happy.

Remember the famous Santayana quote–Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? There have been terrible times in education before—segregation and gross inequities, pre-Brown Decision in 1954, and the shameful reaction to it, for example. School funding crises and hot-button issues bubble up periodically.  Hard times are not new.

I actually remember that dip in the early 80s. There was a serious economic downturn, and oil prices shot up. I worked in the suburban outer ring around Detroit, and the financial crisis hit the auto industry, where lots of our parents worked, particularly hard. For the first time, the district lost students, and families.

I remember waving to a tenor sax player, leaving with his school-owned instrument on the day before spring break. He didn’t come back—and his family’s house went into foreclosure. The family left, and took the sax. We waited for a request for records from a new school that never came. There was no internet to cross-reference serial numbers. Bye-bye, Selmer tenor.

I used to think those were bad times. I was wrong, by orders of magnitude.

It’s not a hopeless situation. Here’s a short list of some ‘just for starters’ things we could do to engender a turnaround.  The first two are about a major increase in salaries, and loan forgiveness for those who commit to teaching. So basic, and so essential.

What’s your metric for generating good times in public education?

What Music Teachers Do in the Summer

Scrolling through FB posts from teachers these days is an exercise in sorrow. There’s no other word for it. What’s happening is deliberate damage to the very heart of public education, and most of it is highly politicized nonsense.

I follow an Elementary Music Teachers FB page, filled with suggestions for the Spring program, quick lesson plans for tomorrow and advice for any number of classroom management issues. I just skim through it, admiring the teachers who are digging in, paddling and paddling through deep and stormy waters.

Today, someone said they’d signed up for Orff Training Level One (a summer program to teach an elementary music method that uses keyboard percussion, among other techniques and instruments)–and discovered the training was two weeks long.

What followed was 41 comments from other teachers encouraging everyone to take all three levels (that’s six weeks, in the summer, folks) because it was fabulous. Even though there was homework every night, and six hours of classes in the day. It’s great, person after person said–I use what I learned every day. Take the training!

We got all the way down to the 42nd comment, before someone said: Hey. Does your district pay for this?

Nope. Nope. I get $100 year for professional development. I asked the PTA for a scholarship. Nope. District has a policy not to pay for professional development unless they select it. Nope, nope, nope.

So. It’s April, and music teachers are encouraging each other to sign up for useful summer professional development, on their own dime. During a pandemic.

I don’t know whether to be proud that I’m a music teacher, or angry that there isn’t enough money to send teachers to summer programs (let alone pay them for going).

Shout out to music educators everywhere, who spend their summers working.

Teachers Want to Teach. Just Not in the Way They’ve Been Teaching.

Headline in Michigan Advance: Two Michigan educators exiting this month, many others may soon follow.

I was eager to read the piece—because I know these two, both of them stellar educators. I’ve read her students’ work. He guest-blogged on my Education Week site. They are experts. Veterans. Teachers with a full professional toolbox, and insight into how the system works, in both well-heeled and disadvantaged districts.

The article made much of the fact that they’re leaving now—in March—rather than slogging through the rest of the school year. But in many ways, leaving now is the right thing to do, for two interrelated reasons. It gives districts maximum opportunity to hire in the spring as a few newly minted teachers graduate, and provides a heads-up: Look. Get cracking. You’re going to be short lots of critical personnel, and soon.

It also means that teachers are now behaving like the rest of the working world: Choosing the best and most lucrative opportunities to share their skills and talents. Hiring on and leaving those jobs when it’s convenient. Making their own decisions, based on the way their employers and clients have behaved, rather than being made to feel guilty.

Teachers who leave in mid-year are acknowledging that teaching is a job, like other jobs. It’s not a divine calling or moral obligation like, say, parenthood. Not anymore.

I generally haven’t retweeted or commented on blogs from teachers who have HAD IT, and are leaving their jobs. Long before I got my first writing gig (a local newspaper column) 20 years ago, I contemplated leaving my job, pretty much annually. If you’ve been a teacher, you can guess at the reasons: Lousy pay. Ridiculous class sizes. Overwhelming workload, leaving little bandwidth for family. Evil administrators. And so on.

While the oft-repeated data shows that half of teachers leave their jobs in the first five years, the actual numbers (where did those teachers go?) are murky. Some of those folks aren’t leaving the profession forever—just that building, at that time. Some people who leave teaching stay ‘in education’ (just ask Teach for America). Divided opinion on whether that’s good or bad.  

My take on this is that there is a pre-pandemic baseline for teachers jumping ship, and we won’t know until August just how much trouble public schools are in, when it comes to staffing. But two years’ worth of pandemic teaching has undoubtedly changed the calculation.

Teaching—I repeat—is just a job, and teachers now have plenty of first-hand evidence of how their employers, their state governments, and their clients (parents and older students) value their time, dedication and expertise, during a national health crisis. Answer: not so much.

A couple of days ago, a memo from an Applebee’s franchise executive made the rounds at an Applebee’s restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, resulting in a mass exodus, both local managers and those paid largely by tips:

“Most of our employee base and potential employee base live paycheck to paycheck. Any increase in gas prices cuts into their disposable income. As inflation continues to climb and gas prices continue to go up, that means more hours employees will need to work to maintain their current level of living. The labor market is about to turn in our favor.”

I would theorize that lots of teachers who are leaving now still like being a teacher—just as there are probably plenty of Applebee’s servers and line cooks who think they could probably do worse than work at Applebee’s.

The point here is that the curtain has been pulled back—legislatures are proposing that untrained college students and bus drivers maybe could, you know, fill some classroom jobs. The labor market is about to turn in favor of those who are chipping away at funding public education, as well as those trying to squeeze a little more out of people who spend half their income on a crappy apartment.

Finding out that the people who control your pay, hours, and the tasks you’re assigned, are plotting to take advantage of your desperation will not lead to an uptick in loyalty or effort.

Teachers, of course, are in a different employment category—most of us see the work as professional, highly skilled, and attuned to a common goal of improving the lives of our students.  And there have always been anti-teacher, anti-union forces roiling the waters of public education, trying to establish ‘value schools’ to minimally educate the poors.

What’s different now is gubernatorial candidates turning school board meetings into political rallies.  The infusion of dark money into what should be local debates over masking and curriculum. The demonstrated increase in violent and criminal behaviors, as the pandemic (maybe) winds down.

Can you blame a teacher—let’s say a teacher who has the financial wherewithal to seek another job, or live carefully on a pension—for deciding that it’s time to get out of Dodge?

I personally know at least a dozen teachers who have either quit, turned in their early retirement papers or are holding off on telling their districts that this is their last year, worried about retribution. I know another handful who are actively interviewing for alternate jobs that either pay more or will provide a better lifestyle than teaching.

I talked to one yesterday. Three times in our conversation she said this:

I really love teaching, but______________.

Fill in the blanks.

My Little Town

In my little town
I grew up believing

God keeps his eye on us all
And he used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord, I recall my little town

And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back in my little town

Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town
—Paul Simon

Back in the 1970s, when I interviewed for a teaching job in the community where I would work, and then live, for more than 35 years, the principal told me that the small, rural district was the “far edge of white flight.”

He was right. The district never stopped growing while I was teaching there, morphing from a cute little town surrounded by farmland, to a kind of sprawl of dozens of back-to-back subdivisions, each new sub with bigger and more pretentious houses than the last. It remained persistently non-diverse, however, both in demographics and in thinking and behaviors.

When I interviewed there, I didn’t pay much attention to these factors. I was desperate to get a teaching job—we were experiencing a teacher glut at the time, with most Michigan universities exporting newly minted Baby Boomer teachers to states where the pay was abysmal. I wanted to teach in Michigan.

When I got the job in Hartland, I couldn’t believe my good luck. It was a charming little village, with a library, a music hall and the first high school in the county, built in 1921—the building, in fact, where I had the interview. And it was growing—I didn’t need to be worried about being pink-slipped!

My students were generally polite, and their parents showed up for conferences and programs. My colleagues were outstanding—smart, funny and generous with their time. I taught in what used to be the high school band room—probably the nicest classroom I had in all my 30+ years in the district.

Teachers often talk about their disastrous first year of teaching—but it wasn’t like that for me. I loved teaching band and general music at Hartland Middle School. In fact, if it weren’t for my really awesome first year, I might have walked away from Hartland a dozen times.

The trouble started in Year Two, when I was let go (along with 20 other first- and second-year teachers) because of a millage failure. We all signed full-year contracts in April, but two summer funding votes failed, so after starting school in September, the Board decided to lay off a couple dozen teachers. In October.

We took them to court (thank you, strong union), and all of us got a job back—just not the job we were hired to do. I became a district-roving sub, and had to be available from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (split sessions, due to the cutbacks). I was pink-slipped an additional five times over the next few years. We were dependent, it turned out, on an ultra-conservative, anti-tax community.

I also started going to Board meetings, to hear what the nice white people in my community said—about the curriculum, sex education, teacher pay, offensive books in the library, and why don’t we sing Silent Night at the Christmas program like we did back in the day? It was illuminating, hearing parents urge the Board to make ‘necessary’ cuts in their ‘wasteful’ budgets—kids didn’t need music, art, counselors, librarians or other frills. What did they need? Well, football, mostly.

I learned that most people who addressed the Board were concerned only about their personal children, that those children would have access to the educational goodies parents wanted—a gifted/talented program, perhaps, or a soccer team, or maybe a snazzy computer lab. Or a new math program, since the one adopted by teachers didn’t work for Jennifer.

I once attended a Board meeting where a mother demanded that the marching band (MY bailiwick) wear spats. Her kids weren’t in the band, of course, but she just thought they looked good, and insisted we should be wearing them. This is a true story. What’s also true is that her husband was on that Board.

Note: I never heard a parent talk about all the kids in the community—the disabled children, those who required free lunch, the bullied or the bullies. It was always about advocating for My Child.

None of those issues was particularly upsetting. This was the reason, I thought, schools have elected Boards—to hash out contentious issues, to represent community beliefs, to address problems that arise.

Over time, those problems grew exponentially more serious. The Hartland football team made national news by hiring strippers to entertain them before a game—then confessed that they usually just watched pornography, but this was a big game. There was a series of bomb threats. There were student suicides. There was overt racism.

None of these things were directly related to curriculum and instruction—but they were reflective of how we handled emerging and controversial concerns with the children entrusted to our care. School—and yes, this is a broken record—is the stage where we prepare our children to handle what’s coming down the pike. Not a place to avoid, cover up and deny what’s happening in the world.

Slowly, it started to feel like maybe Hartland wasn’t such an innocent, wholesome place. Most of that dawning recognition happened when I started paying attention to the students who looked different—the five percent of students who were Black, or Hispanic or Asian. It wasn’t such a comfortable place for them. When students started communicating via device, outside of adult supervision, the cruelty and disrespect became endemic.

I began to understand the role of the public school teacher as much more than Person Who Delivers Academic Content. Teachers are role models, confidantes, discussion leaders and arbitrators. If we want a better, more just, equitable and democratic society, teachers and schools are part of that equation.

I no longer live or teach in Hartland. Since I left, there have been many more unsettling things. One of the men who planned to kidnap and possibly kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer lives in Hartland.  And a year ago, a Black student had to be escorted off the Hartland HS campus after being threatened with lynching.  Four students were charged with stalking her, as well as assault and battery. The district was offered assistance from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, but eventually turned away this help, due to parent pressure, and Board worries about the incident leading to (faux) CRT in the district.

I am always cognizant of something my friend Maria Stuart said. Maria lives in the next town over from Hartland—Howell–where there was once, years ago, an active KKK, and even a Grand Dragon. Maria helped found a Diversity Council there, which did a lot of good work to rebuild a town with an ugly reputation for racism and intolerance.

Once, when I was doing exactly what I’m doing in this blog, trashing people in my little town for undemocratic and racist behaviors, Maria reminded me that things don’t improve when people are accused of wrongdoing. They improve when people promote healthy, accepting communities. When they’re commended for welcoming diversity and inclusion. Not shamed.

I want to believe Maria is right.

But towns that understand diversity is a strength have better prospects than towns where a high school girl has to deal with threats of being lynched. A town that can’t adapt to change, hanging on to centuries-old prejudices, is in trouble.

Makes me sad.

A ‘Diverse’ Community Needs to Hear the Truth

It was the most prosaic of news items: a local township planning commission working on a new master plan.  They secured a skilled, experienced civic planner who provided a draft, which included (as all good municipal documents do) a brief analysis of the township’s demographics: “94.7 percent of the population reported as white, 2.6 percent of the population as American Indian/Alaskan Natives, 0.2 percent reported as black or African American, and 2.5 percent as Hispanic or Latino.”

Which drew this response from a member of the planning commission:

“I’m opposed to this whole color issue. In my opinion, you’re either a citizen, or you’re not a citizen. And with this government listing everybody by their color, that’s the government and the media promoting racism. I would suggest we make a comment [in the master plan], something to the effect that we have…a diverse community.”

The planning expert: “Well, you don’t. You’ve got a 94.7 percent white [population].”

It went downhill from there—rapidly—and ended up with the hired expert and another member of the planning commission resigning, and a third commissioner stating that the ‘race thing’ in the plan was ridiculous, and oh, by the way, his brother-in-law was Black.

I share this (stupid) story for all the school districts and teachers that feel that they have been unfairly targeted by what seems to be one of our ‘new normals’—rampant, unhinged intolerance.

In other words, teachers and conscientious school leaders, it’s not you—or just you. It’s racism. Or homophobia, or xenophobia.

It’s ignorance. The problem that never goes away—and society expects public educators to solve, somehow, without ticking off parents.

You may have, to your surprise, become the enemy (after two grinding years of serving children and families during a global pandemic), for simply teaching facts and showing compassion and commitment to your students. But you’re not alone. And this is not new.

These anti-truth, anti-education campaigns come and go, in waves. Disinformation and blind opposition and noisy meetings have always been part of government-provided services.

The world is currently witnessing a devastating, lethal master class in international propaganda in Ukraine. Who will tell the truth to our students? Not TikTok.  When civic authorities assert that a 95% white township is a ‘diverse community,’ someone needs to speak up for the truth.

In a spectacularly good article in The New Yorker, Why the School Wars Still Rage, Jill LePore traces the history of this power struggle in American public education, using the Scopes trial as long-term case study:

In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history. Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state. It’s not clear who’ll win this time. It’s not even clear who won last time. But the distinction between these two moments is less than it seems: what was once contested as a matter of biology—can people change?—has come to be contested as a matter of history. Still, this fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about “parents’ rights,” and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.

LePore ranges widely, sharing plenty of negative, even frightening, examples of the aforementioned American ignorance now being codified into law (as well as cautionary language for elites who feel their progressive views about raising children automatically trump those of conservative and evangelical parents).

She also makes the point that Black intellectuals immediately understood that bills to prevent the teaching of evolution weren’t really about the theory of change in biology, something that is evident to any farmer. It was about the idea that we all spring from common ancestors, that there is no real difference between human races. That’s what really scared folks in the South, some 55 years after the Civil War.

It’s easy to feel discouraged. In Whitewater Township—where the planning commissioners think they have a ‘diverse’ community—60.9 percent of the voters chose Donald Trump in 2020. Presumably, some 40 percent of those believe he actually won the election, if national survey data holds in this tiny, nearly all-white enclave.

Which is why we have to take a deep breath—as educators and citizens—and keep telling the truth.

Because the truth will set us free. Although it may take a long, long time.

Here’s a great story from Jennifer Berkshire to hearten those of you who feel that Truth no longer matters, that the anti-public education crowd, the Moms for Faux Liberty, are winning. Tag line:  An upset victory last week in a red state suggests that the Republican Party’s game plan for attacking public education may not be a winning strategy.

The red state? New Hampshire, where 93.1 percent of the population is white.

Have faith.

The Glorious Adaptability of Music Teachers

Teachers are my favorite group of people on the planet. There’s been a lot of scare-baloney lately about how much schooling has been missed, learning lost blah blah blah—but a pandemic that’s cost us over a million lives is no joke. And teachers have reliably been heroes, showing up to teach, in spite of a firestorm of unsubstantiated criticisms.

I want to offer a special shout-out to music teachers, my super-super-favorite people. And I want to make a prediction: As awful as the pandemic has been in damaging long-standing gold-star music programs, the net effect could be a useful re-thinking of traditional music education.

I joined the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association in 1975, as a newbie instrumental and vocal music teacher. In subsequent decades, I was a district and statewide officer, festival host and adjudicator.

The organization existed, in large part, to organize and run festivals. I played the game, attending hundreds of meetings, festivals and conferences, some years with as many as four performing groups. I followed their rules. And in my 40+ year association with the MSBOA, not much changed.

This is not a criticism, by the way. Lots of organizations stick with what worked in the past.

But this year, the MSBOA—wisely—changed their previously rigid festival requirements. They listened to their members’ pandemic teaching woes, and eliminated a couple of technical challenges that might keep school bands and orchestras from participating. They tried, in other words, to increase access to the good things about performing for critique, and made the process more flexible. The new rules are set to expire in three years, unless members choose to keep them permanent—or change them again.

We typically teach secondary music through performing ensembles, and award-winning programs are usually run by teachers with student populations and resources that allow them to cherry-pick talent and supplement instruction with outside lessons and coaching. There was some grumbling about ‘lowering standards’ with the new festival rules from some of these directors (don’t call them teachers). But I saw this as a giant leap forward for music education.

For the past two years, I have marveled at how adaptable music teachers are—teaching from home, using brand-new technologies, holding classes outside or in tents, jerry-rigging masks and sharing information on bioaerosol emissions, something none of us studied in college. I have seen some utterly amazing and ingenious things. Standing-ovation dedication and creativity.

But I also understand that the pandemic has had hidden consequences for music teachers. A small urban program that usually has 45 kids in the HS band has only 23 this year, as students have to re-take classes they failed online, rather than a 3rd or 4th year of band. A choir teacher has become the in-building sub for teachers out with COVID, as her three select choirs are combined into one class. A novice middle school band teacher lost her job in 2021, because her beginning instrumentalists were unable to perform at the Honor Assembly in June, having spent months learning online, instead of playing as a group.

Wondering about all those cast-of-hundreds bands and choirs that inspired you from those little online boxes? Why couldn’t school bands use technology like this?  (Click on it—you won’t be sorry.)  

Unless you’ve access to some advanced recording and mixing equipment, the skill to use it, and reliable broadband for all your students–you’re not going to be doing a lot of detail work on rigorous traditional literature. In fact, the person who works magic in those little-heads recordings is the engineer, not the conductor or the individual students. Not to mention—someone taught every one of those 1400 musicians how to play before putting a microphone on their music stand.

I think ‘lost learning’ is total fallacy for all students and subjects, but especially for music. It doesn’t really matter when students (or adults) learn to master an instrument, or start singing with a choir. Music is a life-long skill and pleasure. Introducing competition, benchmarks and timelines into music instruction is almost always counterproductive.

It’s occurred to me that the slower pace and greater individuality in learning might lead to stronger musicians overall, students who will play for enjoyment long past school contests. When live performances have been pushed into the background, there is also time to focus on other aspects of music education: history, culture, elements of musicianship, improvisation and composition. Maybe even fun.

Also: relationships, the heart of all learning. I hear from teachers that kids are quitting because practicing is no longer possible at home. How can we make it possible for those students to continue making music with their friends, when school is the only place that can happen?

Can use what we’ve learned teaching online by setting up computer-based instruction for kids who can’t fit band into their schedule? Or develop alternative music classes to bridge the gap between the advanced orchestra playing Shostakovich and more basic music-making?

Maybe we decide to be music teachers, not competitive ensemble directors. That’s not all bad.

It’s a matter of creativity and flexibility, something music teachers have in spades.

Lock and Load and Learning Loss

This is a blog about the escalation of smack talk—the reckless/threatening/false/vindictive/facetious things people say, in an effort to gain power by demeaning others– and a thought or two about how much easier it is to be a smack-talker in 2022 than just a few years earlier.

We’re also seeing more smack talk in schools and about schools. Critical race theory and learning loss are among the many widely abused terms that media perceives as real issues. The terms are essentially meaningless, however, in the daily operation of real schools, places where teachers are paying attention to the well-being and nascent citizenship of real children.

These days, schoolboard meetings are hotbeds of vigilantism driven by smack talk, and we’re witnessing members of Congress—Congress! —trash the sitting President’s strength and motives during a delicate and critical time of international unrest.

Traditionally, school is a place where smack talk is not tolerated, even if it is a regular feature of students’ home life. Poor-mouthing classmates, the use of offensive language, and overt lying are generally suppressed by school cultures, even strongly authoritarian climates where teachers use harsh language to control students.

Every now and then, someone points out that what our students need most now is not Calculus, but media literacy, a carefully developed skill of discretion when bombarded by corrupt but persuasive language.  We used to worry about students being overly influenced by Bart Simpson or semi-dressed babes on MTV—but these days, the filthiest and most damaging lies are coming out of the mouths of politicians and news media. How do you teach kids to ignore their own duly elected Senator?

In 2017, I was part of a local ‘listening tour’ sponsored by my county Democratic party. We knocked on doors and asked people what they wanted from their local government. We wanted to know what their issues and needs were, for upcoming campaigns—but were also willing to listen to their feedback on the 2016 election. We did not call on strong or ‘leaning’ Republicans—only independent voters and those who may have leaned our way at one time.

What we learned: every single person we talked with had a distinct opinion on Trump vs. Hillary (the gender dynamics of the last name/first name contrast being kind of smack-y in itself). Most were willing to tell us who they voted for, and why, although we were trained not to ask.

They did not like or trust Hillary Clinton—and the ones who declared themselves Trump voters were clear about what attracted them to him: the way he talks. He says what he thinks! He isn’t mealy-mouthed like other politicians. He’s down to earth, but strong. His disrespect of women was ‘just locker room talk.’ More than once we heard: Give the guy a chance. Asked about local issues and government, most of them had no ready response.

What our neighbors had to say was almost completely unsubstantiated and unrelated to governing or current issues, not to mention decades’ worth of real facts about Trump’s history as grifter and narcissistic braggart. They took the measure of a candidate by his (or her) willingness to make insulting remarks. To get in a good dig, to trash your opponent. A few men spoke admiringly about Trump literally stalking or silencing Clinton on the stage, during their debates. He was a ‘fighter’—and would fight for us. Which ‘us’ they were talking about was unspoken.

Although hard to prove, beyond prima facie observations, smack talk has become more prevalent everywhere in American life. In my former State House district, for example, one of the Republican candidates told the crowd at a rally to “be prepared to lock and load,” and “show up armed” when going to vote. A Republican gubernatorial candidate suggested voters pull the plug on voting machines, if they didn’t like what they saw at the polls.

Are K-12 students influenced by this kind of loose, vindictive talk? Recently, at a school basketball game, students from a 95% white rural school made monkey noises and used racist insults when Black players on the opposing team were on the court. The report talks of similar occurrences at other games, listing several of these over the past two years.

What interesting to me is the response from the MI Department of Civil Rights: “To ignore the situation without taking those individuals who perpetuated it to account causes a problem and obviously allows it to occur again. So that situation should be controlled not only by the people who are officiating the game, but also the officials who certainly have some control over the students and the actions that they might have later on or during the game itself.”

I agree. Racial slurs and dangerous threats are best handled when they first emerge by the people closest to our students. This is what lies under at anger over faux CRT—adults influencing children to analyze their own prejudice, and respect differences. Good teachers have always done this; it’s the practice of building a classroom community.

So it’s no wonder that judgmental terms like ‘learning loss’ have caught on, and Serious Reports are warning that children in poverty have ‘lost’ the most. All children have been exposed to danger and loss during this pandemic, but whether they’re testing on grade level—whatever that is—should be the least of our worries.

We should be thinking, instead, about turning them into caring and confident citizens, able to identify coarse and deceptive language and reject it.