Introduce Yourself in Seven Books

Saw it on Twitter—or, rather, what’s left of Twitter—and kept thinking about this prompt: Introduce yourself in seven books.

What I liked about the prompt was that it asked players to “introduce themselves”—and after reading a few dozen entries, you could sort the self-introduction tweets into categories: Braggers. Folks from non-American cultures. YA readers. Chick lit lovers. Educators. Dishonest academics. Economists (shudder). Political advocates. And so on.

The prompt didn’t say “What are your seven favorite books?” or “What seven books have been most influential in your life?” (although there were numerous tweets that began or ended with The Bible). It said—introduce yourself. Tell us who you are, through the lens of seven books.

I set out to write a quick tweet, listing the first seven books that came to mind. Then I crossed out two of those, because a half-dozen better titles bubbled up. I spent a pleasant hour or so, rummaging through my mental Books Read rolodex, asking surprisingly deep questions, like Who am I, Really? At one time, I had about 45 titles on the list.

Clearly, I had no idea who I was, beyond “wide-ranging reader.”

I started paring back titles, limiting authors, rejecting books I loved, years ago, but haven’t re-read, discarding show-offy titles for books that I didn’t merely complete, but books that steered my thinking in another direction.

Eventually, I ended up with seven non-fiction titles and seven fictional books. And a recommendation for those of you who like to read to try this exercise. It’s revelatory, for one thing. And because I’m sure if you posted yours, there might be something on it that I totally forgot, or would be excited to read.

The Non-Fiction Titles are one path to introducing oneself—teacher, gardener, social class observer, education reformer, etc.  Your mileage should vary.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Postman and Weingartner) All of Neil Postman’s work is worth reading, but this book made me re-think my entire career, forty years ago. 

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work  (Matthew Crawford) Did you like Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig) back in the day? Then read Crawford’s book about the reality of academic hoops contrasted with the practical value of working by hand and craftsmanship.

Nickeled and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich) Together with Crawford’s book, and my own working-class upbringing, this book is how I learned to understand class and power in the American economy.

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates) The first, and most personally moving, books on race. I read this book a sentence, a paragraph at a time, needing pauses. He broke the path for all subsequent reading on race in America.

Here Comes Everybody (Clay Shirky) Made me understand online organizing. Wildly outdated, but also prescient. You’re reading this because I read Shirky’s book.

Mrs. Greenthumbs (Cassandra Danz) I have probably 35 gardening books, but I read Mrs. G every spring. May she rest in her fabulous heavenly garden. I have her to thank for mine.

A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door (Schneider and Berkshire) On my first list, I had one of Diane Ravitch’s (excellent) books on education reform, which, sequentially, tell us what’s happened to public education in the past two decades. “Wolf,” however, is the newest and best-aligned with the abyss we find ourselves standing next to, at the moment. If someone asked me what I believe is true (another way of asking who I am) about my life’s work—I would suggest this book.


Perhaps you’ve noticed that there are no music books in the non-fiction titles. If I were asked to introduce myself verbally, the two nouns I would choose are teacher, and musician. Most of the best books I’ve read about music are fiction (sorry, Grout).  So let’s start Fictional Titles with one of those:

Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) A lovely book about how music changes people. Even terrorists.

The Whistling Season (Ivan Doig) What teaching really could and should be, set in Montana, a hundred years ago.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) First read it when it was a new book. Have re-read multiple times. Scary as hell every single time, woven with truths and warnings about sexual oppression.

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell) The author’s own description: Jesuits in space. And so much more.

The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson) Strangely hopeful, while centering on climate change and just how existential this crisis is.

A Separate Peace (John Knowles) This book introduced me to an entirely different model of education, and beautifully illustrated the role of relationships in learning and personal growth.

Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks) What would happen if there were a plague, and folks had to isolate, to save their own lives, and their neighbors? What would be the terrible cost—and the unexpected benefits?

Your turn. Introduce yourself in seven books. Cheating encouraged.

Thinking about Teachers at the Table

In the fall of 1993, the United States Department of Education (under Richard Riley, Secretary of Education) held what was intended to be the first annual National Teacher Forum. Organized by Terry Dozier, Special Assistant to the Secretary, state Teachers of the Year and their chosen outstanding teacher partners were invited to Washington D.C. to discuss how to bring the teacher voice into policymaking.

I’ve been to lots of conferences and seminars, but few impacted my life as a teacher leader more than the first National Teacher Forum. I can remember, verbatim, phrases—Honor what we know!—and aphorisms we used: Teachers want to be partners in, not objects of, education policy.

The idea of teachers at the policy-making table was downright thrilling. We deserved to be at the table—in fact, it was our table.  Our contributions could make a huge difference in policy around student learning and public school organization. We had answers to education’s persistent questions. Ask us!

We were all assigned a partner in the US Department of Education. We went to workshops (this was where I first heard of National Board Certification). We networked with the legislators and bureaucrats who were making policy around the work we did every day. We were encouraged to start our own state forums for accomplished teachers. Best of all, we started something few of us had heard of before this: an online bulletin board and discussion group. I was a moderator of that group—and still have many professional friends from that time.

I wish I could give you links so you could explore this wonderful program, and read the publications that resulted, but an hour of googling and a scouring of ed.gov have yielded zero information on the Forums (there were eight—the entire initiative and its published results were taken down in 2001, as No Child Left Behind turned education policy in a vastly different direction). I found two publications—Teachers Lead the Way, from the 1997 Forum, and a reprint of the 1994 Forum document, Prisoners of Time, which was apparently (and ironically) co-opted by the Education Commission of the States.

I share all this to illustrate the fact that teachers have long been interested in controlling their own professional work, and willing to share their expertise and perspectives with policymakers. Personally, I’ve been involved in several initiatives to bring teachers to various policy tables. After the National Teacher Forums bit the dust, State Teachers of the Year organized themselves—and even proposed Teachers at the Table legislation (which went nowhere). The idea keeps bubbling up.

Point being: the only people who think having a substantive teacher voice in education policymaking is a great idea are teachers. And, of course, their state and national unions—who represent the broad outlines of teacher-friendly policy via lobbying and advocacy, and are wary of independent teachers proclaiming their teaching expertise makes them policy experts, as well.

Publications and media about the teacher voice haven’t shut down in the intervening 30 years. Independent blogging, non-profits and social media have elevated pieces about the necessity of asking teachers whether a Big Sexy Idea about how to ‘fix’ issues in public education will work (usually, no) and what might actually improve teaching and learning.  

In short, as Jose Vilson says in his TED Master Class, no conversation about education should happen without the teacher voice front and center.

But—as with all things in education—there are caveats in thinking that gathering a group of teachers (even award-winning teachers) and asking for their policy ideas would be the fastest way to better schools.

Teachers aren’t trained to do policy creation and analysis. They can tell you, in excruciating detail, what bad policy does to student learning in their context. But good policy is written with measurable goals and specific outcomes in mind, accompanied by the supports and spurs that will get us there.  It requires imagining not only happy results but unintended consequences.

Policy is not (exclusively) mandates and incentives. Sometimes, it involves capacity-building, persuasion—or overt systemic change, which takes time and accrued data to analyze. Regularly asking teachers to comment on the changes wrought by policy shifts ought to be a no-brainer, however. Acting on educators’ feedback would be even better.

Here’s an example: My state instituted a third-grade retention law in 2016, wherein students who didn’t meet the third-grade standard for reading proficiency would be held back—a mandate, taking away a decision that had always been made by teachers and parents. Half the states in the nation now have similar policiesand politicized policymaking has made other states feel they need to crack down on those lazy eight year-olds.

It’s a terrible policy, for dozens of reasons, beginning with its target audience and punitive nature. In six years, it hasn’t yielded anything beyond angst and anger, much of which has been directed at teachers and schools, not clueless (or, sadly, vindictive) lawmakers.  

The good news here is that MI Governor Whitmer seems poised to sign a bill repealing the third-grade retention mandate. Nevada’s repealed theirs, too. The MI bill’s sponsor, Senator Dayna Polehanki, is a former teacher. A Michigan Teacher of the Year, Leah Porter, testified in hearings.

There’s a role for teachers in examining and fine-tuning education policy—and a strong need for teachers to run for public office to share their experience and expertise. As we said, at the 1993 National Teacher Forum: Honor what we know.

Teacher of the Year: Popularity Contest or Tall Poppy Syndrome?

My opinion on various teacher recognition programs has always been clear and simple: Teachers in America get so little in the way of acknowledgement and perks that every single teacher honored for their excellent work richly deserves the spotlight and whatever rewards come with it.

Teaching, as Lee Shulman famously noted, is impossible. And yet millions of teachers get up every morning and head off to do critical work that benefits our communities–and is also underpaid, misunderstood, phenomenally challenging and complex. If any of them get a public pat on the back, or a tangible bonus, it’s deserved. No question.

So I was surprised to see an article [pay wall] in Education Week, generally considered the educational equivalent of the Gray Lady, with the headline The National Teacher of the Year Award: A ‘Call to Service’ or a ‘Popularity Contest’? :

Past finalists and honorees have said the process of being considered for National Teacher of the Year was a humbling experience that allowed them to advocate for the profession they love. It’s not meant to elevate some teachers at the expense of others, they said, but rather allow them to represent the needs of teachers and students on a national level.

But, but, but—when the five finalists for this year’s National Teacher of the Year award were posted on EdWeek’s Facebook page, there was a flurry of negative comments—over 200, last I checked, beginning with the snark about Teacher of the Year programs being a popularity contest. There was some defense of the National Teacher of the Year program, but the bulk of the comments might be summarized as suspicious, even resentful, of teachers who are singled out for recognition.

Comments clustered around three assertions:

  • Competitions pit teachers against each other. This is a uniquely ‘teacher thing’—the desire to build community and work together is central to running a productive classroom. If you’ve ever been to a teacher award banquet or ceremony, you’ll notice that honored teachers cross the stage humbly, heads down, then “share” the honor with their colleagues and students, if they get to make remarks. Compare that to, say, realtors being rewarded for millions of dollars in sales—pumping their trophy, and promising that next year’s sales will be even higher. The metrics of good teaching are—and absolutely should be—personal and site-specific, unlike other careers where it’s easy to say who is “best.” There were also some spiteful comments of the “I can’t believe they picked this lousy teacher I know” variety.
  • Not all teachers have access to Teacher of the Year or similar awards. There were lots of remarks about the work that teachers needed to do to be considered for an award—papers to write, interviews to schedule, evidence to assemble. All of this takes away from being awesome in the classroom (true). In addition, teachers’ workplace conditions are vastly dissimilar. Some teachers have adequate resources and students whose families have helped them become goal-oriented. Other teachers have none of these things, but do their best anyway. How could that be fair, when assessing a teacher’s impact and outcomes?
  • All teachers are Teacher of the Year for someone. I absolutely agree that all teachers deserve more—lots more—than having one of their colleagues plucked out for a certificate or prize. I concur that teachers everywhere are grossly underpaid for the complexity and importance of the work they do, and—especially these days—unfairly beleaguered. But I’m not sure if this means that outstanding teachers (because there are outstanding teachers) should never be identified and feted. This feels like Tall Poppy Syndrome.

I am interested in all of this because I was Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, in 1993. I am also a National Board Certified Teacher—two very different, but credible teaching awards. I have seen teacher award programs from the inside, and heard all the remarks about defining exceptional teaching made on EdWeek’s Facebook article—some directed at me, of course.

My take: The single most gratifying—and humbling—accolade was being named Teacher of the Year in my medium-sized school district, where I was nominated by another teacher, where my work with students was well-known, and where I was surrounded by highly skilled and supportive colleagues.

Being named Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, by contrast, sort of dropped from the sky. I didn’t seek it (beyond writing and submitting the application, at the urging of my superintendent), and was dumfounded and a little dismayed when I actually won.

Few people understand how different “Teacher of the Year” programs are, district to district and state to state. In some buildings, the same teacher can be named year after year and it does feel like a competition. In some states, the TOY is released from teaching for an entire year, to travel and speak. Other states have significant perks: Leased cars. A seat on the State Board of Education. A wardrobe allowance, since the Teacher of the Year shouldn’t keynote conferences in her denim jumper.

During the year I served as TOY, I was also working full-time, at my regular job teaching 320 middle school band students. The district found (and paid for) subs for days when I had TOY responsibilities, which meant that frequently, teachers in my building were asked to sub when I had to leave early to speak at a banquet, or drive across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula for a workshop. I took every request that I could manage, often paying my own mileage and expenses.

I was out of the classroom 37 days. It was hard on my students—and even harder on my family. I had two small children and my wonderful husband picked up mountains of slack. It was exhausting, and I was glad when it was over. My superintendent put up a green and white road sign at the entrance to the village: Home of Nancy Flanagan, Michigan Teacher of the Year, 1993. Later, my husband retrieved that sign from a dumpster behind the school’s bus garage. C’est la vie.

During that time, I heard lots of sarcastic “famous teacher” remarks—and a few questioning whether I was actually TOY material. Five years later, I sat for National Board Certification, because I wanted to prove that I was indeed an accomplished teacher–to put a metric on the title, to provide evidence, a bona fide seal of approval. It was a great (and similarly exhausting) experience, but it’s worth noting that National Board Certified Teachers hear many of the same remarks about maybe being too big for their teacher britches.

By far the best part of being Michigan Teacher of the Year, however, came in the years after 1993. TOYs are sort of like Jimmy Carter—once you’re out of office, the stress subsides and the opportunities to do good work are endless. I got a gig at Education Week as a teacher-blogger. I discussed professional development on C-Span at the National Governors Association Conference.  I had interesting interactions with Michigan Governors.  I still got to teach.

And—I met incredible people, most of whom are educators. That’s the perk that all teachers should have—the conviction that the nation is filled with good teachers, plus the opportunity to exchange ideas and inspirations, professional goals and camaraderie, all of which is available to any teacher willing to reach out and start a conversation on social media.

I wish all of this year’s awardees the best.

My Life. Is Good.

It’s one of those Facebook things—asking ten people to post ten photos with the hashtag #MyLifeIsGood. No need to explain who’s in the photos, says the meme, but one assumes the pictures will be of family, friends, beautiful vacation spots and how one spends their me time.

If you run the exponential mathematics on that, assuming you have ten cooperative friends—and those friends likewise have ten cooperative–obedient? –friends, and everybody posts ten photos, there will, quickly, be tens of thousands of harvestable images on Facebook, all neatly tagged #MyLifeIsGood.

Now—this isn’t a scold-y post about all the innocent, family-oriented, grateful folks inviting us into their (good) lives: meeting the grandkids, marveling at a Lake Michigan sunset, riding their bikes—and being scammed by Mark Zuckerberg into telling Facebook’s algorithms which ads and promoted articles to send them.

Expensive Swedish pajamas for those darling children, perhaps. A new boat, maybe—or thick flannel sheets. Or perhaps something much darker, with the collected data about what someone considers a #GoodLife going God knows where.

Speaking as a person who once (perhaps naively) called Facebook and other social media sites “our new town square,” I post personal information, as well as shared articles, snarky cartoons and my own blog on Facebook, Twitter and (now) Post.

I ran a political campaign on a Facebook page (now taken down). I have also experienced obvious bots –why do people think older women want a retired Marine General in their life?–and eerily specific products that I swear I just thought about, but never looked for online.

The thing about #MyLifeIsGood, though, is that it feels weird, somehow, to craft a colorful little photo collage about what matters most to you. My own life, frankly, is great right now in a dozen different ways—but searching through my hundreds of photos to display how lucky I am is unsettling somehow. Maybe my life won’t be so great in 2023—who knows? Or maybe there are tender or tragic factors that #GoodLife participants feel they must hide, putting up a false front. None of that is healthy.

The first thing I thought of, getting tagged to take part in the #MyLifeIsGood juggernaut was Randy Newman’s song My Life is Good. Newman’s lyrics are biting—with the chorus, ‘MY Life is Good,’ being the worst sort of heedless braggadocio: Don’t get in my way, lesser personage. Because MY life—is good. Too bad about yours.

There’s a verse about teachers:

The other afternoon my wife and I took a little ride into Beverly Hills.
Went to the private school our oldest child attends.

Many famous people send their children there.

His teacher says to us:
“We have a problem here–this child just will not do a thing I tell him to.
He’s such a big old thing. He hurts the other children.
All the games they play, he plays so rough.”

Hold it teacher. Wait a minute.

Maybe I’m not understanding the English language.
You don’t seem to realize—

MY Life Is Good. My life is good, you old bat.

Unfortunately, veteran teachers recognize this dude (and his wife)—and their entitled child.  There’s something distasteful about the idea of simple gratitude for what one has, and pride over what one’s accomplished, morphing into boasts or competition, the antithesis of building genuine community in a classroom.

Or maybe I am way overthinking this.

I am going to post one photo. It’s a photo of my dog, Atticus, who is aging, in his first (and last) Christmas sweater. He is one of the reasons my life is deeply satisfying—and good.

Teach Your Children Well

Here’s a story about Crosby, Stills & Nash, and “Teach Your Children Well,” set in my middle school:

The Respect Team (an ad hoc committee) has agreed to do the display case in the front hallway for the whole school year. We want to build honest, respectful relationships in our building–we’re concerned about the building climate. It’s the 1990s, and our students’ behavior has, in our humble opinion, grown coarser and ruder–toward other students, and toward their teachers.

But we know that respect must be earned–and the foundation of respect is not fear, or anger. We can’t punish or publicly condemn our way into the two-way street that is respect. We meet often, suggesting ways to weave discussions and writing about respect into the curriculum. We post students’ writing–poems and short essays–about heroes, people we admire, in the display case. We have a school-wide assembly with a Holocaust survivor. Students create art around the theme of respect.

And then, it’s May. Only one more display case to be responsible for. We’re tapped out of ideas. Plus–well, it’s May. If you’ve been a teacher in May, you know how stressful it is to wind up a school year.

A last-minute, throwaway plan emerges: We’ll get teachers to give us pictures of themselves as teenagers–graduation pics, a school photo, a prom picture. And we’ll type the words of “Teach Your Children Well” using the single computer in the library, blow them up, and–the only place in the school we can do this–print them off!

Teachers grumble. They’re too busy to go through old photos! And what’s the point? So kids will laugh at their haircut? We go to each teacher individually, however, to explain–and eventually all but one or two give us a photo. We do not label the photos by name–just staple them up with the words…

You–who are on the road–must have a code

that you can live by.

And so–become yourself.

Because the past is just a goodbye.

We substitute the word ‘pain’ for the actual C, S, & N word ‘hell’

because we don’t want some hard-ass parent complaining.

And–BOOM. The display case becomes a kid magnet.

And a parent magnet. And a teacher magnet. The principal stands out there, checking the photos–hers is there, too.

Who ARE these people with the bad haircuts–or in their too-short basketball uniform–or the long white gloves and fluffy prom dress? One now-sturdy teacher with three sons gives us her wedding photo, where from her 22-inch waist spills a ballroom gown skirt and train.

It’s a bulletin board of shared youthful dreams.

… And you of tender years can’t know the fears

That your elders grew by.

And so, please help them with your youth

They seek the truth before they can die

Rest in peace, David Crosby.

Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum

There is a certain irony, I realize, in a music teacher writing a piece called ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Curriculum.’ Music education is generally one of those areas that Moms for Faux Liberty types ignore (unless—and this comes from personal experience—it’s critiquing the tunes chosen by the marching band whose entire existence, to some people, hinges on supporting football players).

Who cares what they’re learning? It’s just music! There’s a lot wrong with that assumption, beginning with the universality of music—as human beings, we’re swimming in it—but first, I want to talk about all everyday curriculum, across the K-12 spectrum–and who controls it.

My pitch here is about the individual teacher voice in selecting materials and designing lessons for students, and it’s based on two fundamental teacher competencies: *
1. Knowing your students well, and being committed to their learning.

2. Having deep and always-growing knowledge and pedagogical expertise in the subjects and developmental levels you teach.

The second of these is something that can and should be continuously improved, across a teaching career. It’s the point (if not the actual outcome) of what we call professional development.

The first, however, depends on the individual teacher’s character and temperament, their belief that all students have a right to learn.

Now—I’m not opposed to standards or other common agreements, whatever each state or district calls them, the big buckets of what students should learn and when. Broad standards can organize and sequence curriculum; outlining disciplinary essentials and giving all educators a framework for what students should know and be able to do, at the end of their schooling, is undeniably important.

What I’m saying is that site-specific agreements– what all 9th graders in the district should read, for example, or how to teach the life cycle of a butterfly–ought to be made by those on the front lines. The ones who know the kids, and are committed to their learning.

This idea ought to be glaringly self-evident—to educators, to parents, even to Joe Lunchbucket who watches Fox News. Kids who live in Flint, Michigan may need to know and be able to do different things than kids who live in Dallas—or Anchorage. Who is best positioned to choose engaging materials, develop concepts, deliver instruction, lead discussions and check for learning?

Certainly not Chris Rufo, who seems to be everywhere these days, merrily inserting his personal beliefs into college syllabi and waging gleeful war on beleaguered K-12 public schoolteachers trying dutifully to teach things, it must be noted, prescribed by others.

It was the linked article on Rufo—and this piece–that inspired this blog. The story is about an Ohio administrator who interrupts a teacher reading Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches during a recording session intended for an NPR podcast.  A third grader makes a very astute comment; the teacher (Mandy Robek) continues reading, but the admin (Amanda Beeman) shuts that whole thing down:    

“It’s almost like what happened back then, how people were treated … Like, disrespected … Like, white people disrespected Black people…,” a third grade student is heard saying on the podcast.

Robek keeps on reading, but it’s shortly after this student’s comment is made on the podcast that Beeman interrupts the reading.  

“I just don’t think that this is going to be the discussion that we wanted around economics,” Beeman said on the podcast. “So I’m sorry. We’re going to cut this one off.”

(NPR reporter) Beras tried to tell Beeman that “The Sneetches” is about preferences, open markets and economic loss, but Beeman replied, “I just don’t think it might be appropriate for the third-grade class and for them to have a discussion around it.”

I actually have some empathy for the administrator. She’s totally wrong—kudos to the teacher and the reporter for choosing the book and understanding the relevance of the child’s comment—but I’m sure Beeman envisioned her job security disappearing in a wave of rabid, sign-waving Moms for Control Over Everything at the next school board meeting, and panicked.

But that’s the point here: Educators need to be prepared to defend their curricular choices, with passion, conviction, and carefully considered rationales. Rolling over for the likes of Chris Rufo, the Hillsdale crowd, and dark-money funded and fully politicized organizations who wish to take down public education is not professional behavior.

Once they control what gets said and read in the classroom, the next target will be public libraries. All publicly funded services, the things that build healthy civilization and make diverse communities strong, will be on the chopping block. Ironically, this is about what the Sneetches were trying to teach the kids in Ohio: preferences, open markets and economic loss. What students learn, even in 3rd grade, matters, it seems.

This is a huge issue, wrestling over curriculum and parents’ desires, and it’s been part of public education since the very beginning. No matter how many standards are imposed, or school board meetings disrupted, however, the most critical aspect of instruction remains the individual teacher’s understanding of what is useful and important for the students in their care, and their personal knowledge and skill in delivering those things. 

Here’s a story:

In 2008, I was e-mentoring some first-year teachers in an alternative-entry program (in other words, not traditionally trained). They were white teachers, assigned to an all-Black district in eastern North Carolina, country that was once endless tobacco fields. Most of them came from elite universities, and all were laboring under the misconception that they were ‘giving back’ to society. A lot of their conversations were about raising the bar, making a difference, blah blah blah.

It was also the Fall of 2008, when Obama was closing in on the presidency. Students in the school were wild with excitement. One of my mentees, teaching Civics and Government, kept sending me long emails pouring out his concern over the ‘unprofessional’ teachers–the ones who had been there for years. They allowed students to disregard the official curriculum! They spent classroom time talking about this miracle that was about to happen, even letting students campaign. Unethical!

He, of course, maintained that he was sticking to standards and remaining neutral about the race. After all, the students would be taking statewide exams next spring, and he wanted them to score well.  He went so far as talking to the principal about his concerns.

I tried to suggest that he was teaching during events that could make history—and incorporating real life into lessons made them more meaningful. I asked if he had conversations with his veteran colleagues, about why they thought abandoning the prescribed curriculum was sometimes okay. Our dialogue got more and more strained, until he basically stopped communicating with me.

This young man had always considered himself an outstanding scholar in the social sciences. His lesson designs (debates, short-writes, small-group discussions, film clips) weren’t bad at all, especially for a newbie. He had some ideas about how to be a good teacher, and passion for the subject matter. What he was missing was knowledge of students and commitment to their learning. When the principal had a pep assembly to celebrate Obama’s victory, he was disgusted. For a public school, this is totally wrong! he wrote.

I have thought of him often—I’m fairly sure he’s not teaching any more. Which is too bad. Because being a master at custom-tailoring worthy curriculum to the students in front of you is a skill that takes time and confidence. It really cannot be outsourced.

* If you sat for National Board Certification, these principles will look familiar. If they resonate with you, check out the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Five Core Propositions. Good stuff.

Genuine Education Leadership

There’s yet another thread on Twitter today re: ‘rewarding’ teachers by allowing them to wear jeans on specified Fridays vs. giving them permission to go to lunch (with their students, of course) five minutes early. I have an entire bookcase filled with volumes dedicated to the topic of leadership in schools, but somehow, these casual conversations on social media better reflect what’s really happening than all the blah-blah about Reframing, Maximum Impact, Inspiration, Grit or–God help us–What Works.

The thing is—the success (however you measure success) of a school is almost entirely dependent on the people who work there, and their interactions. There are other factors, of course—resources, the surrounding community, thinking about values—but the best framework for doing right by kids comes from good people who like working together.

I’ve worked under dysfunctional principals, as part of a collegial staff, where teachers rose to mentor and support each other, deftly bypassing administrative snits and roadblocks. I’ve worked with great superintendents, gifted managers—and the occasional evil, ego-bound admin—but I am here to say that the real juice in school-based leadership comes from adults who care about kids and get along well.

Leadership emerges from respect, friendship and trust.

Not from someone with a title based on distributing perks—as we have witnessed this week as the leaderless party nominally in power tries to elect a Speaker of the House. Maybe we’ll see Kevin McCarthy offering Republicans the opportunity to wear jeans on Friday, or go to the Congressional cafeteria early. Ha.

My friend John Spencer thinks the ability to manage is an essential piece of being a real leader:

If a leader focuses solely on new ideas and new initiatives, they run the risk of confusing novelty for innovation. There’s no consistency or sustainability. People miss critical details. Often, the leader is so busy leading, they are unable to step back and maintain what’s already working.

Managing requires the unflattering role of maintenance. Maintenance can feel like drudgery. It can seem inconvenient. It’s a humble part of leadership that often goes unnoticed.

But maintenance is vital. A new bridge can connect people across a city. An unmaintained bridge can be deadly. The best principals I know will say, “I’m not much of a manager,” but they empower teachers to self-manage. They proactively step aside and provide the tools and resources that empower teachers. And in the end, empowered teachers empower students.

One thing John mentions really resonates with me: the inability of a formal leader to step back and maintain what’s already working. I’ve never been in a school—as a teacher, professional development presenter or classroom volunteer—that didn’t have some good aspects, things that needed to be maintained.

I’ve been in schools in deep poverty, the schools that public education vultures can’t wait to shut down, where the building is crumbling, and the playground is literally dangerous. I visited a school where there was one LCD projector in the building, bolted to the library ceiling, and a teacher stood on a table with a broomstick to operate it.

Those teachers—were genuine leaders. They knew the serious limitations they were working with, and kept going despite the environment there. I was merely a person who shared some Powerpoint slides. There were already good things happening in that building, courtesy of the people there. Professional development was superfluous, and they knew it.

Now—there are books about servant leadership and distributed leadership that aim for utilizing expertise rather than following a template for success. I’ve spent the last two decades trying to find a formula for teacher leadership that isn’t about giving someone more work and a small stipend, then labeling them a leader, whether their colleagues consider them leadership material or not. There is an endless parade of articles and commentary from teachers bemoaning the fact that they’re not at the table—they’re on the menu, happy to get a five-minute head start to lunch.

We’re still a long way from normalizing the respect, friendship and trust that are the basis of functional school communities, tailored to the kids they serve.

The issues media believes will dominate public education in 2023 are policy-related: Absenteeism. Mandated retention. Accountability (read: test score fluctuations). Educator shortages. Transparency for charters and vouchers. Funding, funding, funding. And of course, COVID and other viral menaces.

It strikes me that—once again—listening to those who have formed their own communities and informally recognize the leaders among them will have the most success in curbing absenteeism, bringing new, fully qualified teachers into the profession, putting the focus on real learning rather than meaningless data chases, and pushing back—from their own experience—against bad policy.

I’d like to share one illustration, a story from one of those trusted and respected veteran teachers, newly retired, about a favorite lesson that he could no longer teach. Read it—it’s a great piece, and he asks a lot of timely and relevant questions. He also says this:

The conundrum for a public high school social studies teacher teaching about the January 6 insurrection is not to sacrifice one’s credibility while also not pushing one’s own political beliefs on students. 

I had an advantage that other teachers trying to thread this needle may not have. I enjoyed the support of colleagues, administrators, students, and parents. You may be a high school teacher working in a less generous environment — one in which local and state politicians have trained their sights on teaching history. You have my thanks and deserve the thanks of all our fellow citizens for your dogged, noble work on behalf of American democracy.

That dogged, noble work? Let’s call it what it is: leadership.

Teaching Human History

“In this room, our colleagues across history have abolished slavery; granted women the right to vote; established Social Security and Medicare; offered a hand to the weak, care to the sick, education to the young, and hope to the many, doing ‘the People’s work.’”     

 Nancy Pelosi, this week          

The idea that history is written by the victors is—like most cliches’—an inadequate framework for learning about the powerful forces that have shaped our world. I say this as an American baby boomer, born when the future of the United States seemed limitless, and its citizens were justifiably proud of having saved the world from evil. The history I was taught, in the 1950s-60s, was full of stories about our scrappy upstart nation that freed itself from British colonialism, survived a civil war—then made the world safe for democracy.

When I was in my 20s, I spent a summer backpacking in Europe. I stayed in cheap hostels and went where the Eurail pass would take me. At the very end of the trip, the day before flying home out of Munich, I went to the concentration camp in Dachau.

It was a gray and rainy day, and I had the place nearly to myself. Dachau had been open to tourists for 10 years, but—some 30 years after the camp was liberated—there weren’t many exhibits and no docents, then. That’s not to say that the place felt empty. Far from it.

I’ve been in some historic places in my lifetime, but nothing like Dachau.

The first thing people notice is how the village, with its flower boxes and tidy homes and beautiful church, sits next to the main camp. I remember it as an easy walk from the train station, through a lovely old German town, which encompassed tens of thousands of German citizens in the 1930s and 40s, most of whom claimed they had no idea what was going on behind camp walls. Of course, those people assumed they would be the victors, and get to tell the story of their glorious conquest.

The camp—in 1977—was mostly just cleared space, its buildings torn down. There was a bunkhouse or two, and a horrific crematorium to see, some photos on display. But the power of being there was in the voices.

I sat on a bench, under my umbrella, for a long time, listening to and sensing what had happened, around me and under my feet. I can’t explain it any better than that. Whatever evil happened there was not erased, not by a long chalk.

Clint Smith, who wrote the powerful How the Word is Passed: A reckoning with the history of slavery across America, had a wonderful piece in the Atlantic this week, about Holocaust remembrance.  Smith begins by noting that Germany has a global reputation for handling their past with honesty and reparation. I’ve written about this myselfwanting to believe that nations can be redeemed, can be humbled, admitting guilt and teaching their children to do better.

Smith’s piece mentions stumbling stones or solpersteine—small brass plates in the sidewalks of places where Jews once lived or were assembled and sent to their deaths. There are more than 90,000 of these now, in 30 European countries. Schoolchildren raise money to plant more of them.

I was in Germany last month, and our walking tour docents frequently pointed these out. Americans whipped out their phones and took photos. I did not hear voices, but seeing them was sobering. In fact, Smith says that not everyone thinks putting brass plates in places where people can walk on them is the right thing to memorialize the loss of six million people. But, at least, the Germany citizenry is wrestling with the questions around its own guilt. Smith:

In recent years, Americans have seen a shift in our understanding of the country’s history; many now acknowledge the shameful episodes of our past alongside all that there is to be proud of. But reactionary forces today are working with ever-greater fervor to prevent such an honest accounting from taking place. State legislatures across the country are attempting to prevent schools from teaching the very history that explains why our country looks the way it does. School boards are banning books that provide historical perspectives students might not otherwise encounter.

There was, IMHO, way too much celebrating last week over anti-teacher, anti-‘CRT’ school board candidate slates NOT sweeping into power. Data on this, however, is a little murky:  

Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks U.S. politics, has so far counted 237 school board winners who took a stance on hot-button topics, including race and gender. Of those, 55 percent took the conservative side on at least one issue, compared with 43 percent who took liberal stands (the remainder had mixed positions).

Hardly a resounding victory, and the thing about school boards is that they’re the first access point for anyone with a political beef (real or imagined). You don’t even have to have children in that school, or live in the district.

There’s dark money behind school board races and vocal protests these days—and the reprehensible folks and thinking at Hillsdale College haven’t gone away. There’s also the Heritage Foundation and its faux education ‘research.’ The state of Virginia just removed Martin Luther King, Jr. from the elementary social studies standards.  

I’m happy that the nation seems to want to pull back from the political abyss—thrilled, in fact—but there’s a reason why lots of school boards, if not a majority, turned over last week, and the impact is just being felt. These are the people who do not believe we need redemption, to admit guilt and teach our children to do better. These are people who—as my friend and new State Board of Education member Mitch Robinson says—find the made-up problems in education more useful than the solutions.

There is no more important study than our own history. Nancy Pelosi illustrated that beautifully in her graceful step-down speech, as first female Speaker of the House this week. If we can’t learn from our own accomplishments and failures, we’re doomed.

Church and State

I have been a churchgoer much of my life.

Initially, my parents went to church, so I went with them. Aside from ditching Sunday School with my friend Sue in high school, I never really rebelled against their conservative religious training.

Then I went to college.

I experimented with other faiths—occasionally—on campus, but spent most Sunday mornings sleeping in, procrastinating and regretting my life choices. There followed a long stretch of life where church was not on my to-do list. Then I had kids.

It seemed important to give them some experience with religion. We fumbled around, rejecting churches that embraced the death penalty or excoriated abortion. One church— a campus-based Catholic congregation—refused to baptize our first-born because both of us had been divorced. We settled on a liberal congregation where our kids were part of services and programs. Eventually, I became the music director there.

Since then, I have worked for seven different congregations, my side-hustle of choice. For me, church is not about being saved, whatever that means, or being told what behaviors and beliefs are good or bad.

It’s about finding an inclusive community whose core mission is doing good. And it’s about the music.

There aren’t many places, anymore, where group singing is a regular occurrence. I’m a dedicated, lifelong musician, and much of the world’s musical literature has sacred roots. The central purpose of music is to illustrate powerful ideas, to release emotion, to spark joy. If you’re not getting live, participatory music in church, where can you get it?

I share these personal details, because I am worried about the separation of church and state—and I want to establish myself as a person who is not anti-church or anti-Christian theology (another thing I’ve seen a lot on social media).

I strongly endorse every person’s right to choose and practice any faith tradition or reject the idea of a higher power entirely. Up to you. But please—keep your religion out of government, be that the public school, the statehouse or the county commission. Or the midterm elections.

I’m well aware that mainline Protestant denominations in America are fading. Evangelicals are in decline, too, although not as fast. Roman Catholics aren’t doing much better. Modern first world nations –the places where people have universal health care, free post-secondary education and report the highest levels of happiness—are largely secular. Islam is by far the fastest-growing religion in the world, but the right doesn’t seem to acknowledge that.

So why did the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy—the Bremerton, Washington HS football coach who prayed with his team at midfield—spur another round of educators feeling as if Christian prayer in schools is somehow the answer to our national problems?

I’m also a veteran teacher, one who has wrestled with church v. state issues in my overwhelmingly Christian school district, mostly around Christmas music. I understand the difference between cultural expressions (OK) and proselytizing (not OK).

I used to share my classroom and office with a Catholic congregation that was building a church and paying to use our cafetorium, attached to the band room, for services. Father Dave kept his cassocks and vestments in my office closet, because he often went for a run before mass.

We all got along. But our functions, while in the same physical space, were distinctly different.

What music is OK in schools is a perennial, often heated, topic in social media groups for music teachers. The Kennedy decision isn’t going to help, or clarify. It seems to suggest that Coach Kennedy’s personal beliefs and freedom of religion—expressed by praying ostentatiously on the 50-yard line—did not impact his influence (this is where the proselytizing comes in) on his football players.

Baloney.

I was not a coach, but if I had ever talked to my students in December about a baby born in a manger, sent by God to save the world, I would have to believe that some of them, especially the youngest, would have thought I was telling them something important and real—something that might be On The Test. Unethical, to say the least.

Similarly, I am troubled by Republicans on our County Commission who, in May of 2021, passed a policy on partisan lines, to open Commission meetings with prayer. A flurry of rules, sub-rules and adjustments followed: Only official clergy could pray. From recognized religions. That had real churches. In Leelanau County (meaning that the closest synagogue, across the county line, could not send a representative).  

Eventually, after lots of letters and right-wing media attention, the Commission revisited their vote, and settled on a moment of silence. But it took nine months and diverted attention from their real work.

Which raises the question: Whose idea was inserting formal, clergy-led prayer into prosaic local government meetings?

The biggest church in my district makes subtle suggestions about how folks should vote—I read a column on the church’s website this summer, re: which party reflects this particular church’s values, urging congregants to choose that party in the upcoming primaries. I went back to find the piece and insert a link into this blog, but it was no longer there.

Probably because it’s illegal for churches, as tax-exempt organizations, to tell their members how to vote.

Separation of church and state. It’s a good thing.

Election Denial Blah-blah Goes to Local Schoolteachers

Two years ago, at this time, there was a national conversation speculating about what would happen if Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. Barton Gellman, in a much-discussed piece in Atlantic Magazine, posed several scenarios of what might occur if Trump refused to concede.

Gellman was more than prescient, but it all seemed faintly ridiculous at the time. The article quotes Joe Biden, who suggests that Trump might be briskly escorted from the White House if he was refusing to leave, providing us with a mental picture of two big dudes in dark suits and earpieces, frog-marching Trump out of front portico. Bye-bye.

The reality, of course, has become so, so much worse. And it’s still with us. Growing, even.

A majority of Republican nominees on the ballot this November for the House, Senate and key statewide offices — 291 in all — have denied or questionedthe outcome of the last presidential election, according to a Washington Post analysis. Although some are running in heavily Democratic areas and are expected to lose, most of the election deniers nominated are likely to win: Of the nearly 300 on the ballot, 171 are running for safely Republican seats. Another 48 will appear on the ballot in tightly contested races.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of concern—the collapse of our faith in free and fair elections means the collapse of American democracy. This election could go horribly wrong.

But—like Gellman’s and others’ warnings in 2020, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that one party would blithely destroy 250 years of confidence in voting as the democratic means to access political power.

Republican candidates are talking about overturning an election held nearly two years ago that every audit has concluded was fair, transparent and free of systemic fraud. These conclusions include a Michigan Senate Republican report and an analysis by conservative Republican legal experts.

As a Democratic candidate for local office—the County Commission—it’s disconcerting to see that election denial has filtered down to local politics. Several statewide and congressional candidates are deniers or skeptics, but suggesting that local elections were deliberately corrupted is a new wrinkle.

For the past few months, the County Commission has been hearing from local election deniers during public commentary. It’s a lot of the same people, showing up again and again, repeating stuff they found ‘doing their own research.’ And now, they’re organizing—meeting with the sheriff, calling themselves ‘Patriots.’

Even worse—one of their ringleaders emailed 251 County employees and 336 educators with the following message:

Hi to 336 Leelanau County Educators:

 I’m forwarding this message to you that I sent to the Leelanau County Commissioners on October 4, 2022.  I got all of your email addresses as directed from the Leelanau County Government website. I have been attending all the Leelanau County Board Meetings since March, and have given the Commissioners [plus all other listed government leaders (262 total)] 13 Flyers showing the massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, which you can read on my [ ] website.  I know that you all are very concerned about protecting children.  With that in mind, Founding Father Thomas Paine said: “To take away (voting) is to reduce a man to slavery.”  I’m also concerned about adults marketing the false foundation ‘LGBTQIA+’ to children.

There was lots more, including crazypants attachments, but you get the picture: Election denier (and gay-basher) gets access to all public employees to spew baloney.

It’s one thing for the County Commission to patiently listen to yet another election denier direct them to a random website or to consider the Sheriff’s role in secure elections. It’s another for a local crank to disrupt the work of teaching children about civic values and their personal worth.

Really—teaching is hard enough without having to be harassed by election deniers.

Deniers locally seem to be fixated on Dominion machines, and the need for hand counting paper ballots. The county already uses paper ballots, which are always available for hand counting. Our voting jurisdictions are small—a couple thousand voters, at most. Any race can be (and often is) re-counted by hand. As a candidate who won by a single vote in the primary, I’m all for ‘trust but verify’ in local elections.

And plaudits to Dominion for fighting back:

Dominion’s $1.3 billion lawsuit against Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, who was a leading figure in pushing the lies that the voting machines were rigged, is also moving forward, although in March she asked a federal judge to dismiss the case against her, saying that “no reasonable person would conclude that [her] statements were truly statements of fact.” On September 28, a federal judge dismissed her countersuit, in which Powell claimed Dominion was suing her “to punish and make an example of her.”

You can’t vandalize fairly run, democratic elections without damaging communities.

A significant majority of Americans see Trump and the MAGA movement as a threat to democracy. Those folks need to act in November.

Vote.