Things I Know 208 of 365: Let the teachers teach

The only way to predict the future is to have the power to shape it.

– Eric Hoffer

Ironically, though I won’t be teaching this year, I’ve attended or been party to more district commencement events than any single year I’ve been teaching. Most interesting about each of these events are the similarities I’ve seen across districts.

With only Sarasota and Philadelphia to use as my in-person barometers of district cultures, I’ve relied the last few years on what I’ve read on the edublogs I follow.

When those posts have echoed experiences similar to my own, I’ve written it off as an expected consequence.

Of course these people would have similar thoughts to mine. I’d chosen to follow them, hadn’t I?

This year’s commencement sampling has included reports from Nebraska, New York City, rural Texas, suburban Ohio and Chicago.

I’ve gone back to school virtually or physically all over the country.

Outside the realm of my usually reading, the sentiments of teachers are remarkably unified – let us do our job.

At least three of the districts a bracing for new state-wide standardized tests.

As one teacher put it, “We’d just about figured out the old test and now we’ve got to figure out a new one.”

I suppose one way to make sure teachers aren’t teaching to the test is to completely revamp the exam when students start to experience success.

Very tricky.

Five points to Slytherin.

In almost all of the schools and districts I’ve connected with, I’ve heard some variation of the phrase, “We’re in a transition period right now,”

This has meant anything from the traditional superintendent shuffle (no less off-putting than the Super Bowl Shuffle of the 1985 Chicago Bears), massive layoffs, the adoption of new store-bought curriculum (rhymes with “Fearson”), or re-structuring to bring a district into compliance with a newly-chiseled state commandment.

What strikes me with particular force as I encounter these stories is the fact that none of these changes are coming from the school or teacher level. All of them, without exception, are being handed down with compliance as the expectation and termination as the unspoken stick.

I have this notion that teachers can have some pretty innovative ideas and be tremendous forces for positive change if well-meaning, but misguided leadership got out of the way.

It’s just a theory. I’ve only ever seen it work two times.

My favorite line across state lines when it comes to commencement has been uttered by every superintendent I’ve encountered – “We are not teaching to the test.”


Are you sure?

Because you’re certainly not teaching away from it,

After a speech I gave recently, a teacher came up to me to explain why no one had engaged when I opened the floor up to Q&A, “Plenty of people wanted to,” she told me, “but we’re on lockdown with scripted curriculum. We like the ideas you talked about, but we can’t talk about them with the administration in the room.”

They were so frightened of getting in trouble for doing their job that they couldn’t talk about doing their job.

As she walked away, the teacher turned and said, “I wish they’d just let us do our jobs.”

Five points Gryffindor.

Things I Know 206 of 365: I’m going back to school

He who opens a school door closes a prison.

– Victor Hugo

I’m flying to Alice, TX at the moment. The good folks of Alice have invited me to speak at their back to school commencement.

This, to me, it weird.

I’ll be speaking about my work with the Freedom Writers Foundation. Specifically, I’ll be talking about what it was like to write and edit a book with 149 other teachers and what insights the process and the content of the book provided. I’m also trying to think about what I wanted to hear at the beginning of my school years.

Without fail, before heading back to the classroom, I consulted the writings of Harry Wong in The First Days of School. The first two years I read the entire book, sure what I needed to be the best possible teacher was contained within those pages.

It wasn’t.

Before my third year of teaching, I read only one section of the book. In fact, I read only two pages of the book – the section titled seven questions students have on the first day of school.

It’s only as I write this that I realize the help Wong provided was rooted in my answering of students’ questions, not his answering of mine.

In shifting my thinking toward anticipating and answering those questions for my students, Wong shifted my thinking from my summer mindset of paying attention largely to my own needs and wants to those of my students.

It started the ignition of my teacher brain.

Yes, I would need to be challenged and cared for throughout the year. I would have my own questions that needed answering. Those six questions, though, reminded me that even the toughest, most frustrating students entered my classroom trepidacious about what they were getting themselves into,and it was my job to start the year by anticipating and working to meet their most basic needs – to start our time together by assuaging as much of their fears as I could.

I’m not one for the customer service model of education. The adoption of any type of capitalist thinking into a realm that is only at it’s best when everyone is supporting everyone else, muddies the waters in a way that is counterproductive to the mission of a democratically educated citizenry.

We do not work to anticipate and meet the needs of students because of the gains it might garner down the road. We anticipate and meet the needs of students because they are people and we care for them.

I suppose that’s the larger message for tomorrow – I do not matter. More to the point, any advice I give does not matter. If I can ask the right questions and encourage the teachers of Alice to ask the right questions of how best to see and serve their students,  perhaps I will have done some good.

Things I Know 153 of 365: We have different nows

A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that “individuality” is the key to success.

– Robert Orben

Saturday evening, I listened to the salutatorian, valedictorian and student-selected faculty addresses at my sister Kirstie’s graduation.

The final speech from retiring physical education teacher, Mr. Butcher, made me want to get into an argument.

Though it wasn’t all particularly moving, the rhetoric of each of the preceding speakers hadn’t made me want to argue with any of them.

“Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that life is not a competition,” Mr. Butcher told my sister and her class.

He went on to explain their competitors would always be waiting for them to make excuses for why they failed. Their employers, though, wouldn’t care how or why the failed.

I got the feeling that Mr. Butcher took a hard-line approach in his teaching. I’ve known and been taught by several iterations of Mr. Butcher. Maybe you have as well.

I don’t dislike Mr. Butcher.

I disagree with him.

I don’t want to call him names.

I want to ask him questions.

I don’t want to compete with him.

I want to engage him.

I don’t see life as a competition. Further, I’m not preparing my students to compete. Perhaps I am, but without the goal of competition.

Either way, Mr. Butcher and I differ in our pedagogies.

That’s ok.

Though highly unlikely, if Mr. Butcher and I were to meet someday, there’d be many conversations worth having.

Retiring this year after 30+ years of teaching, he has more first person historical knowledge of teaching than most people I know. I’d enjoy learning with him.

Mr. Butcher’s speech and my disagreement with it also led me to think of the 140 Characters Conference next week in New York.

The tagline for the conference, “the state of now” excites me in the same way my mind starts churning when Chris writes about building modern schools. I like the idea of knowing where we are now.

We spend so much time talking forward and backward about then, that now gets little attention.

I wish I could be in the room at the conference next week.

Mr. Butcher’s speech highlighted the difference of my now and his now. My now is wrapped in learning with students toward the possibilities or interdependence and collaboration. Mr. Butcher’s now is one of competition and winners and losers. Both really, both felt passionately, both at odds with one another.

In the same way I wish I could sit for an hour and record a conversation with Mr. Butcher, I wish I could track the differences and similarities of the perceptions of nows that take the stage at the 140 Characters Conference.

I wonder if they would be so similarly different.