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.

Thank You, Supporters

Dear Friends,

Well, we gave my opponent, She Who Shall Not Be Named, a run for her money, but lost by 195 votes.

I learned a lot of things about the place where I live–and remain convinced that big changes are coming to Solon and Kasson townships, and we need to get out ahead of them. We need to stop pretending that there are no problems with housing, that our lakes are (and I quote) ‘sparkling clean’ and not in need of protection, that broadband is a luxury, and that nothing will ever change in our rural paradise.

Change is coming–we’re surrounded by natural beauty, and the largest bodies of fresh water in the Lower 48. Compared to other states, property is affordable. Unless policies are put in place, and residents understand what happens when expensive housing is dedicated to vacationers and workers can’t afford to live here, we’re on a destructive path.

During the campaign, I never misrepresented myself or my beliefs about what’s needed here, in the heart of Leelanau. I know that to some, I was just one of those ‘liberal’ newcomers–but the data and doorknocking told me that there are more and more of us here, concerned about the same issues. We did some good work for future elections, and I’m proud of that.

Why did we lose? For starters, the largest church in the district drew out its voting members, in an attempt to keep Proposal 3, which kept our current (clear, regulated) abortion laws in place, from passing. (It did pass, 56-44, statewide.) I was also relatively unknown in a place where family roots and reflexive voting habits go deep.

THANK YOU to everyone who voted for me.

Thank you to Allison Kimpfer, Mary O’Neill and Julie Kradel who ran against me in the primary, then turned around to help my campaign. We agreed, last spring, that our mission was proving that four smart Democratic women were willing to take on the Charles Grassley of Leelanau County, and we accomplished that.

There is a great deal of good news–it was a blue night for Michigan, and we held the County Commission. The three good proposals were all solid winners. All the work done by Voters Not Politicians, back in 2018, has paid off. It’s a fairer and more progressive state, un-gerrymandered–maybe even a model for other states–and both houses of the state legislature flipped blue, for the first time in 40 years.

Michigan has been a purple state, forever–and now our election results match our popular beliefs. That’s a great feeling. I’m going to be represented in the State House by Democrat Betsy Coffia (photo below), who has promised me that she’ll talk to teachers first when someone gets a big idea about how to ‘fix’ public education. That’s awesome.

Thanks for being on my side, readers. I appreciate all of you.

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.

The Heir and the Hillbilly

By now, you’ve probably seen Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance, author and candidate for Senate in Ohio, wondering why right-thinking dads don’t just ‘thrash’ teachers for inserting their personal ‘sex values’ into the minds of innocent children. We all know that Carlson is worse than a destructive ass–but ol’ J.D., the self-described hillbilly who rose from nothing, sat there nodding and grinning along with Tucker as he incited a little righteous violence against your children’s teachers.

Incident in the Teachers’ Lounge: A dozen teachers sit around a long plastic table, chatting and eating their packed lunches. A custodian enters the room, skirting the table, to grab a soda out of the refrigerator, then stands looking at the bulletin board, while taking long pulls on his drink. There’s a pause in the conversation, and he says: So. You guys think this is funny, huh?

He points to a piece of paper tacked to the board, an internet-distributed list of excerpts supposedly drawn from parents’ absence-excuse notes. Things like: Please excuse Sally. She was in bed with gramps.

There is silence, but the custodian isn’t finished. He says: This is what you do in here? Make fun of parents? He shakes his head and leaves the room. As soon as the door closes, teachers turn to each other and begin talking. What do you think they say? How do they feel?
——————–
I was reminded of this scenario from my own teachers’ lounge as I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. I was anticipating a good read—it was on all the “Best of 2016″ lists—but found the book shallow and insubstantial.

J.D. Vance grew up in a small town in southwestern Ohio in a working-class family. Aided significantly in a tough childhood by his ever-present, loving grandmother, and after a maturing stint in the Marines, he attended Ohio State, then got a law degree from Yale.

An impressive personal narrative—plaudits to Vance for his persistence—but hardly illustrative of the poor habits and prospects of an entire region of the country. Nor does Hillbilly Elegy illuminate any of the very real problems or crises, per the book’s title, facing working-class families in America today, beginning with the dangerous income gap between the haves and the have-nots that threatens the social order.

In fact, Vance is intermittently reproachful, blaming family members (mostly his mother) for being irresponsible and foolish, and chalking it up to their Scots-Irish heritage and growing up in Kentucky. He seems unaware of his own privilege—being a tall, nice-looking, intelligent white man in a country where those qualities are an enormous leg up, for example.

He describes his public school education as sub-par, with the exception of one demanding math teacher. The training and subsequent education benefits of a stretch in the military get short shrift. Ohio State? Easy peasy. It isn’t until Vance finds himself at cocktail parties where his admission to Yale seems to be paying off with high-level clerkships and job opportunities that he realizes he’s been handed a golden ticket, and he’s being watched to see if he can fit in.

Instead of reflecting on all that good fortune, however, he labels his family hillbillies, monetizing their salty speech, their blind loyalty to a particular funeral home, and their parochial weaknesses, as they struggle to survive in the most inequitable First-World nation on the planet.

In the post-war years, as millions of Baby Boomers became the first generation to attend college, class lines began to blur. It wasn’t until my Sociology 101 class that I realized my family was not “middle class,” but further down in the pecking order. It wasn’t until I read W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” that it occurred to me that moving up in the social order came with a cost to family relationships, and, sometimes, personal integrity. It wasn’t as easy as excelling in school and leaving your grubby antecedents behind—there were other important values besides “success.”

Here’s the question J.D. Vance avoids: Whose fault is it that more than 50 million Americans live in distressed communities, where nearly a quarter of residents lack a high school diploma?” Conversely, who is responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty? Is this a result of hard work and personal discipline only, “rising above” family characteristics—or do social supports, like public education, military training, and publicly funded scholarships also form the proverbial rising tide?

Most of the educators sitting in that teachers’ lounge were second- and third-generation college graduates. To them, the misspelled excuses were funny; their students were sometimes apples who fell near the poorly educated tree. Still, the custodian’s comment—You think this is funny?—found its mark. The post came down. Teachers responded with a mix of embarrassment and defensiveness.

A good public educator accepts all students, kids raised in hothouse homes with thousands of books and trips to the museum and kids who ate sugary cereal in front of the TV until their single mom unlocked the door at midnight. Kids across the spectrum benefit from public education.

J.D. Vance’s story is more about individual good luck than an analysis of a culture in crisis. I expect absolutely nothing from Tucker Carlson, but J.D. Vance ought to know better. He’d be a terrible senator.

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.

The Highly Unqualified Teacher

Remember the early days of No Child Left Behind? When everyone was trying to figure out precisely who was a ‘highly qualified’ teacher, under federal regulations?

Here is a sample state document—15 pages’ worth—of the required coursework, majors and minors, certifications, licensure tests and ongoing professional development credits that a classroom teacher needed to be deemed highly qualified, under NCLB. Your mileage, in other states, may vary—but not much. The feds were all about making sure the most capable and knowledgeable folks were in front of our public school classrooms.

Or so they said.

At the time, the education community protested: WE should be the ones to determine whether someone (a certified someone, with a college degree, of course) is qualified to teach X! We have seen that person in action!

But federal guidelines, and states that rolled over for them, caused havoc in public schools across the country. In my middle school, it meant that a beloved veteran– but elementary-certified–8th grade English teacher found himself teaching 3rd grade, one of many personnel shuffles.

Teachers with advanced degrees went back to take courses they could have taught themselves. Rural districts, where one Science teacher covered Biology, Earth Science, and Chemistry and Physics in alternate years, found themselves with a host of ‘unqualified’ teachers who’d been on the job, doing yeoman work, for years.

An avalanche of irritated hoop-jumping ensued.  So that all teachers could be highly qualified. Professional. Experts in their fields. On paper, anyway.

That was then.

There’s been a lot of press lately about the lack of qualified substitute teachers as we navigate a raging global pandemic. States are lowering—really, seriously lowering—the bar to get temporary but warm bodies in classrooms, to keep school doors open.

But chronic substitute shortages have been around (poorly-paid canaries in the teacher preparation coalmine) for decades. I spent three full (non-consecutive) years of my life substitute teaching, in addition to occasional sub gigs as a retired teacher. It usually takes an adult beverage for me to share the details of how those year-long stints came about, but my experience is confirmation that substitute teaching on a day-by-day basis is pretty random.

Some days, the kids are actually moving forward—the teacher has left solid plans and it’s clear that you’re in a place where order is the daily norm. Other days? I once was assigned a 5th grade and arrived to find these plans: ‘Reading—groups. Math—division. Science—rockets.’ That was all—six words.  Try to imagine a well-meaning school bus driver-turned-sub attempting to make lemonade out of that for seven hours.

It’s not the substitute teacher pool I’m worried about right now, however. It’s last-ditch moves (after more than a decade of warnings) to fix the leaky teacher pipeline during a pandemic that are really scary. Worth pointing out: if there were ample trained teachers available to work, and acceptable conditions for them (including compensation), the substitute problem would shrink and vanish.

But first, teaching, as a career, must be reconceptualized. We’re rapidly moving in the wrong direction on that score.

It is entirely possible to create an effective and enthusiastic teacher workforce, state by state. It would take time, money and research-based pedagogical expertise, but we, too, could have a uniformly professional teacher pool.  State and school-based leaders have proposed viable plans to begin doing just that.

We could also find alternative ways to bring job-changers and other school staff into the classroom, by dedicating real money and programming into mentoring, on-the-job professional learning, and skill/content development for those who want a longer-term career in teaching.

What doesn’t help is uninformed legislation to get highly UNqualified teachers into schools right away—and highly publicized hand-wringing over the pandemic-driven ‘crisis’ of unstaffed classrooms. It’s a crisis, all right, but it’s a temporary crisis (and one produced by bad education policies over time, more than COVID).

Speaking of bad policy, there’s a bill currently in the MI legislature to allow college students studying education to become teachers of record. These are not student teachers or even students who have been admitted to candidacy in a selective teacher training program. They’re just college students who wish to teach one day, maybe:

The bill differentiates these aspiring teachers from “student teachers.” The uncertified teachers allowed under the new bill would be paid for their work, and, unlike when working as a student teacher, the bill would allow them to teach completely on their own, without a mentor present in the room.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R) (ironically, a former art teacher) said this:  

“We’re at the point where we’re voting to put anyone with a pulse and breathing in a classroom to sub. We need to do something.”

Well, yeah. We needed to do something decades ago, but we followed our usual ‘starve public education’ modus operandi, and it caught up with us during an unanticipated public health crisis. So now we’re hoping ‘aspiring’ 19 year-olds will bail us out?

Bad policy on top of bad policy.

But this feels like more than another dumb idea from a Republican legislator (the MI Department of Ed, the teachers’ unions, universities and Democrats are all adamantly opposed, by the way). It feels like just another strategy to weaken and compromise public education by further de-professionalizing teaching.

Lower the bar into teaching, because EMERGENCY! Then, demand that new and inexperienced teachers share a years’ worth of lesson plans, assignments and ‘topics’ so they can be scrutinized by fired-up parents, or cost their district five percent of its already meager state funding.

Kind of makes you wish for the good old days when the bad policy was at least nominally trying to do the right thing by building some highly qualified teachers.

Legislators’ Guide to Making Useful Education Policy, v. 2.0

I recently attended a virtual kickoff rally for Betsy Coffia, who is running for the MI State House, in the newly drawn 103rd district. I first met Betsy after she ran—unsuccessfully—for the old state House seat, more than eight years ago. We met on-line, and she wanted to meet face to face, over coffee.

Betsy asked lots of questions; we had a great conversation. Although she had worked briefly for Head Start, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky. Personally, I was charmed by a candidate who was still hungry to know about ed policy from the perspective of a veteran teacher. In the next cycle, Betsy ran for County Commission and won—twice.

Betsy said (in 2014): “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy?” So I sketched out one and put it up on my Education Week blog—and from there, it was picked up by Phi Delta Kappan, among other media outlets. It drew lots of commentary—mostly positive.

I just pulled it out. And wow. You wouldn’t think things would be all that different, in eight years. The 2014 version below. Comments about changes in education policy-making—the 2022 version—follow the list of ten.

#1. You don’t know education just because you went to school.

Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here’s a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don’t know diddly about:

  • A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it
  • Formative assessment
  • Effect of class size on daily practice (not test scores)
  • Difference between standards and curriculum
  • Special education
  • Research-based value of recess and exercise
  • Differentiation vs. tracking
  • What quality teaching looks like in practice
  • The fact that ALL learning is socially constructed.

And on and on.

#2. Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you’re there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare. Play badminton in a coed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk, and just listen. Resist the urge to share the “good news” about legislation you’re cosponsoring. Ask questions instead.

#3. Take the tests that kids have to take. Then you’ll understand why “achievement data” and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers, and students.

#4. Be picky about what you read, listen to, and believe. Media is not fair and balanced. In an online world, information and sexy, upbeat story lines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they’re a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.

#5. Examine your assumptions. When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts (“No wonder he’s the way he is—just look at his parents!”), it’s teacher lounge talk. But, when elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: “Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach, and substandard service is being tolerated.” Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty, or kids today, check those biases at the door. Represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.

#6. Follow the money, not the party. A lot of what’s happening in education “reform” today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?

#7. Remember you were elected to represent your constituents’ goals and desires, not some special interest group. Even if the prepackaged legislation is slick and convenient and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses, do the work yourself. Looking yourself in the mirror will be a lot easier in the morning.

#8. Be like Rob Portman. Change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind — if you do it publicly, and don’t try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap dancing and weasel language — makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. After all, Diane Ravitch altered her views and earned herself a few million devotees.

Corollary: Admit when you don’t understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.

#9. Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results. Want to raise teacher quality? Don’t endorse firing the “lowest” quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers’ skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.

#10. Honor our democratic foundations. Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered and behind the technological curve, but systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is profoundly selfish and immoral. Don’t be that legislator.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

From the perspective of 2022:
Some of these are evergreen–#10 especially, but I could add a half-dozen bullet points (the so-called Science of Reading, for example) to #1, as things around which most legislators have zero expertise. The invitation to visit classrooms (#2) once a foundational strategy of reformy organizations like Teach Plus, is defunct in the time of COVID.

Suggesting that legislators take statewide assessments (so they can learn about the tests’ irrelevance and weaknesses) seems downright quaint now. We’re using admittedly bogus test data from 2021 to proclaim that poor kids suffered more under remote learning (which may have also saved their lives, but oh well… learning loss!) Because hundreds of non-profits would have to close if there were no giant data sets to analyze—testing went on, under conditions rendering the results invalid.

Actual policy-making skill, tailored to real needs rather than outside organizations’ agendas—numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7—has grown considerably worse. This is a result of four years of Betsy DeVos, increasingly divisive rhetoric in the media, a poorly managed pandemic, unregulated social media, and the fact that one of our two major political parties has decided that winning is the only thing that matters and to hell with the public good. Public education is now, essentially, for sale.

I’m trying to imagine any teacher cheerily saying to any Republican representative: Check your biases at the door! Those days are over—and the way Glenn Youngkin used deceptive education policy promises to win an election ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us. So much for civic engagement and community-building. So much for re-thinking and all the other blah-blah about improving schools. The action now is locked and loaded, standing on the Capitol steps.

I was really stunned to re-read #9, to remember that there was once a time when ‘big thinkers’ in education were talking about lopping off the lowest-achieving teachers. Now, of course, we’re inviting bus drivers and lunch ladies to substitute teach.  As Peter Greene notes:  It is amazing how quickly some folks have pivoted from “We must ensure teacher and educational quality” to “We must get students into a building with the word ‘school’ in its name no matter what actually happens once we’re inside.” It turns out that an awful lot of that big talk about educational excellence and quality was insincere posturing and as long as we can get schools open and students stuffed inside with something resembling a probably-responsible adult with a pulse, that’s good enough. 

I am optimistic enough to think that writing ten new talking points for writing good education policy is something that might be useful—at some point in the future, if not today. One thing I learned from reading Ibram X Kendi is that most social beliefs and practices are, when you dig deep enough, driven by decades, even centuries, of policy. And, of course, money.

Plus ca change…

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Five Decades of Ed Reform

Four days ago, I wrote a Blog of Despair—all about the forthcoming demise (or destruction, take your pick) of America’s best idea: public education. I’m not backing down from that conviction; I think the more or less permanent downfall of public schooling is inescapable, unless there are major, sudden shifts in public and political opinion.

One of my former students, now a mother with two school-aged boys, commented on the blog: If we could start over and build education from scratch, what would it look like? 

First—I have to admit that I’m proud of Kendra for asking the kind of question that doctoral students at research universities have been noodling over (without transformational results) since forever.

While there are optimistic legislative packages and snazzy new tools, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. The idea of starting from scratch lies under most reform—charter schools were originally touted as a way to get rid of red tape and innovate. (Pause for cynical laughter.)

The thing is: transformational change involves determination and investment. It’s uncomfortable, expensive—and it takes time. Most change in public schools is driven by forces—financial, technical, social—outside of education. We’re not very visionary or intentional about education.

Education policy thinkers tend to be Stephen Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That’s how we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Strategy to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.

But– no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but over two decades of No Child, in various incarnations, have come and gone– and we’re still considering why the results are proof that you can spend billions and not improve education in any meaningful way.

I have been a teacher in five distinct decades, each with its own policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We’ve been “at a turning point” more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations.  But what has really changed in classrooms? What’s the net impact on actual practice?

My–admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific–report on Five Decades of American Education:

The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975–something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview.

Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs–wasn’t that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted–no instructional oversight, no mandated materials and nothing resembling “professional development.”

Heard “don’t smile until Christmas” about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any “mentoring” I got.  Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)–and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away.

I was pink-slipped in Years Two, Three, Four and Six. Was always called back–once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment. All of this was tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.

Gave statewide tests–the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check–but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education–about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit–envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, and very autonomous job. Most days, it was lots of fun.

The Eighties:  Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two buildings and–since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject to 7th and 8th graders–a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating, if exhausting.

Finished a masters degree in Gifted Education, a popular cafeteria-style ed specialty (like Career Ed, Distance Learning, etc.). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers in other districts. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations.

None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did institute its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s. Teachers called these curriculum guides “the black notebooks.” Problem: not enough time, staff or resources to teach all the good things in the black notebooks.

Reagan’s release of “A Nation at Risk” interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing momentum gained in the air traffic controllers’ strike. Hoped it would blow over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett’s nostalgic morality fables was nauseating. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took leadership roles in the union–since they were the only teacher leadership roles available.

The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. H.W. Bush’s Goals 2000 are kind of inane–First in the world in math and science! –but there’s the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and the belief that public education can and should improve.

Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools–what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents, tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools, pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush–auto industry will last forever!

Real and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. There are national standards and benchmarks in most subjects, and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Required mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of student work. Required professional learning as opposed to blow-off in-service days, although the quality is still iffy.

Further upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus–fab new instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting immediately; others are intimidated.

Best Secretary of Education ever–Dick Riley–provides eight years of continuity of purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money–and a growing number of poor kids are still completely underserved.

The Naughts: A slow U-turn in policy and conventional wisdom. We’re not gradually improving, after all–in fact, we’re an international educational joke.  All public schools (not just poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful–and the people who work and believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must compete!

Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it’s exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building–genuine stinkers–look good under NCLB regs.

We begin administering tests to third graders–and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids’ writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now–the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it’s formally named.

Saw well-regarded suburban districts become defensive and start advertising as schools of choice. Urban and rural districts were shamed. Teacher preparation institutions–even the good ones– scorned. Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as efficiently as we replace technologies.

The Twenty-Tens: The decade begins with the depressing realization that the Obama administration has fully bought into the privatizing, standardizing “accountability” movement, where no child can go untested. There are tweaks to NCLB, but the idea that we can accurately measure teaching/learning excellence through data becomes embedded wisdom. Federal policy demands grow—and competitive financial incentives are dangled in front of states to meet questionable regulatory goals that do little to innovate or improve schools.

The Common Core State (sic) Standards are launched, adopted, fleshed out with assessments and aligned instructional materials during the first half of the decade. Teachers have lots of complaints, but are knocked down by the big systemic wave of federally-driven homogenization. Mid-decade, however, community pushback against the Common Core strengthens—another silver bullet with no results—and its trajectory rapidly descends. Baby Boomer teachers, like me, the core of the profession (for better and worse), leave the field; the conventional teacher pipeline begins to dry up, along with the concept of teacher professionalism.

Now retired, I visit classrooms every week, as substitute, volunteer, special instructor or teacher coach. Every school I visit still looks and feels familiar—the crowded hallways, the marginal hot-lunch pizza, the goofy Things Kids Say. Things have changed since the 1970s, and not for the better, but school is still school.

And then, there’s an election.

The day after the 2016 election, a group of middle schoolers in Royal Oak, Michigan is videotaped shouting ‘Build That Wall!’ to a cluster of Hispanic kids, in the lunchroom. Four years of destroying useful education policy and practice ensue, led by a cartoonishly incompetent Education Secretary and newly emboldened, racist policy-makers. Things in public education go from bad to So Much Worse.

And then came the pandemic.

In April of 2020, I wrote a wildly optimistic blog titled A Dozen Good Things that Could (Just Maybe) Happen as a Result of this Pandemic. I mention this, because I have often, like Kendra, asked myself how I would change public education, if I could start from scratch. I genuinely believed that a pandemic could serve as a cleared slate, a turning point, for our social institutions. Maybe it’s too early to give up on that idea—a reclamation of public education’s mission—but I’m not optimistic.

I would sketch the last 50 years of public education as a bobbling, but slowly rising curve through the 70s, 80s and 90s, with a downturn at Y2K, falling gradually until the last five years, after which the line plummets due south, rapidly. Way south.

A long, strange trip indeed.