What teachers do

This is what I did on my first morning of freedom from the classroom after completing the 2012-2013 school year; I spent three hours composing a response to a thought-provoking blog post by David Warlick.

School ended yesterday, and it was a difficult but rewarding year. Reading 2¢ Worth  provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my teaching philosophy and frustrations. I hope my heartfelt response is taken in the spirit in which it is intended, with an eye toward helping our struggling public schools during a time of rapid social and technological change.

I feel that teachers, administrators and parents must unite in an attempt to save our schools from ill-informed politicians and greedy business people who seek to make personal gains and profits from the field of education, rather than to help chart a course based on decisions that advocate for and assist students.

Personalized learning in public schools is a JOKE because children (even up to high school age in many cases) have no interest in reflecting or conversing about learning activities.* They would rather be fishing : ) Or playing video games or walking around the mall or daydreaming or doing just about anything else besides talking about learning activities. That is why teachers have jobs. What public school teachers do, for those bureaucrats who don’t have a clue, is reflect and converse about relevant and interesting activities that will engage and inspire our students (while sneakily teaching them a few basics about communication that will empower them to become educated, competent citizens. AND THEN, we plan, organize, purchase supplies for, and DO these activities from September to June with large, socially-diverse groups of distracted, behaviorally-challenged, needy children.

An example of what I’m trying to say:

My son (a teenager, a good kid, a smart boy) would rather eat peanut butter m&m’s and Oreos for breakfast everyday. It’s my job as a mom to gently guide him in another direction and try to teach him why. Then hopefully when he is an adult he will make good choices about breakfast. But if he doesn’t, at least he will be an adult, responsible for his own decisions, good or bad. If I let my son eat m&m’s and Oreos in the morning without at least trying to acquaint him with the virtues of oatmeal and fruit, then I am doing him a great disservice.

It is the responsibility of parents and teachers to protect children from their underdeveloped decision-making abilities. It’s not always easy. They resist. But it is our job.

In school (I teach fifth grade) my students want to learn about football plays, video games, One Direction, Family Guy, antique cars, fashion trends, and just about any topic that doesn’t seem remotely educational. They will absorb information and learn about those things on their own without my assistance. Will they, however, choose to broaden their horizons, of their own free will, by reading a poem by Carl Sandburg or Maya Angelou or historical fiction about the Revolutionary War or a Chinese folktale that reinforces the concepts of patience and persistence?

Do fifth graders really care about multiplication facts or estimating subtraction with decimals, until they’re standing in a checkout line on their own, wondering if the $10 bill in their pocket is enough to purchase three packs of Yugioh cards for $3.42 each? They don’t necessarily care about these things now, but I see it as my job to expose them to a wide variety of literary, mathematical, scientific and historical topics during a time in their lives when they are exploring, questioning, and growing as individuals. Children ARE underdeveloped, and the job of parents and teachers is to nurture and encourage them to be the best they can be!

Now, imagine assembling a group of 20+ children, most who would rather be somewhere else, many who have difficulty socializing and making good choices about their behavior,** some who are neglected, hungry, or poor, but being responsible for providing each of them, in the same room, with significant personalized learning experiences, with few quality resources and dwindling support from overworked administrators. Add to that pressure from state and federal agencies to improve student performance or risk losing your job or precious funding for your district. This is what takes place in public schools in this country everyday.

Believe it or not, it is do-able! But it is a much easier, more enjoyable endeavor for dedicated, professional educators when we are not being criticized, condemned, and constantly forced to document and justify our worth using well-meaning but misguided measures created by people who have never spent time in a classroom.

One of the challenges of teaching is to provide the perfect balance of just enough structure and just enough free choice. Again, a good life provides the same balance. Effective teachers make this look easy, 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, 180 days a year. (Then they spend another 17 hours a day, 2 days a week, 186 days a year reflecting on and conversing about how to do this. Yes, we reflect and converse in our sleep, and every year is a leap year for teachers!!!) It IS Exhausting, and it IS Worth it!

Teachers have a job to do, and most very much wish they had adequate time to do it, without all the outside distractions of teacher evaluation paperwork and political debates about education reform. There is an efficient system in place for training, certifying, and hiring passionate and enthusiastic teachers. The people who don’t trust teachers to do this job of reflecting, conversing, planning, organizing, and implementing engaging activities for students should homeschool their children and do all these things themselves.

* I still do it with them, mind you, but it’s not their choice; it is mine.

** Largely because of cutbacks to counseling and social services and increased spending on standardized testing and other irrelevant initiatives.


In a guest post on the The Innovative Educator blog entitled Class size matters only when the teacher does everything, Mark Prensky describes his work helping to integrate technology in elementary and middle school classrooms in New York City schools. During this experience his best idea was to “require that all my students, whenever they had ‘idle’ time . . . spend that time focused on increasing their expertise about whatever their passion was.”

But my final conclusion is this:  As we continue to struggle with introducing more and more technology, it is also extremely important that we train our students to self-direct their own learning, so that they can continually make learning progress, whether or not everything—the technology, the teacher, the weather, or anything else in their life—works perfectly that day. That is why knowing how to continually learn about their own passion is so important.

When all our kids are taught to do this, and actually start putting it into practice, I believe our schools will have made enormous progress.

Come teach in Asia

More Clay Burell in a blog post about America’s disdain for teachers:

Somebody said “A person ages into the face he deserves.” The same is true of a civilization. If America has aged into a face of illiteracy, innumeracy, historical, geographic, and scientific ignorance, it’s no mystery why.

According to Burell, teachers are respected in Asia.

To teach

Clay Burell, Beyond School, on the teaching profession:

“All of the forces in modern culture commanding we not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and instead obey the dictates of money-grubbing, we teachers disobeyed. We chose the apple over the greenback, love over lucre, and Mammon be damned. And if we really love the forbidden fruit we’ve been sentenced to teach, our sin was our salvation. It’s a blessing to be paid to love.”

Bring it on

Love this guy!

Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution

He speaks of a “crisis of human resources” that parallels the climate crisis. Here’s just a tidbit:

“Education, in a way, dislocates very many people from their natural talents. And human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them. They’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves. And, you might imagine education would be the way that happens; but too often, it’s not.”

Why is this, you ask? Robinson proposes:

“We have built ourselves into a fast food model of education. And it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”

That’s all well and good, but does he offer a solution? Well, sort of. He provides a hypothesis but leaves the implementation to individual schools . . . He suggests we change metaphors. Transform from an industrial model of education to one based on principles of agriculture.

“We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And, you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

Hmmm, this 16-minute video is fast food for thought.

Nail. on. the. head.

When I read certain blog posts, I often have “nailonthehead” moments. This means, of course, that as I’m reading, I’m shaking my head vigorously up and down, muttering under my breath, “Yes! Exactly! You hit the Nail. On. The. Head!”

Here’s one from Assorted Stuff:

If we assume, as the report notes, “a growing body of evidence suggests that teachers are the single most important school-based influence on children’s learning” then the issue of how to recruit, train, and keep good teachers should be at the core of any education reform program.

But it’s not.

Here in the US we spend far more time, money, and effort on standardized testing (plus all the penalties that result when kids don’t get high enough scores), narrowing and scripting the curriculum, and basically preserving the educational status quo, than we do on improving the quality of teaching.

We certainly don’t provide nearly enough training and support for teachers once they are in the classroom.

It’s as if our current educational system is a company that puts almost all it’s efforts into inspecting products and very little into the process of designing and building a quality product in the first place.*

*I hate business analogies applied to education but this one fits!