Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What an NFL Star Says about Education

Richard Sherman: Stanford graduate 2011.

In all the talk about Super Bowl XLIX, one critical story was mostly overlooked. In days leading up to the contest, sportscasters, former stars and scientists weighed in on Deflategate. Later, players, pundits and even psychologists talked about the decision by the Seattle Seahawks to pass on 2-and-1, from the one yard line.

(You can watch a distraught Seattle fan head butt his television set after his team blows the win, below.) 

The story that I believe matters had nothing to do with an interception that sealed the Seahawks’ and New England Patriots’ fates. True, almost 1 in 3 Americans watched Super Bowl XLIX, included my son and I, an audience of 114.4 million, the largest in television history. I wonder how many read the story on Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman in Sports Illustrated earlier that week?

Most of the article focused on football, of course. At the end, however, Sherman turned to a subject of real importance: 
I got some news nine months ago that helped me reach a conclusion. My girlfriend, Ashley, and I are expecting our first child, a boy, any day now [born February 5].I’ve realized in the last year that I can evoke change by being a great role model: a man who respects women and police officers, who graduated from college and does everything in his power to be successful within the rules.
Circumstances dictate where you start—a single mother raised Kam Chancellor [a teammate] to become the man he is today—but each individual determines his course. Where I came from, in Compton, kids were brainwashed into thinking that if they weren’t athletes or rappers or drug dealers they were nothing. My son will understand that he’s in control of his own destiny and that education, work ethic and discipline will guide him to an even better life than I’ve enjoyed. He’ll be the man who makes the world a better place through positive actions and influence. 

Sherman may well be the best defensive back in the NFL today. But in the end nothing that happens on a football field ever really changes the world. What happens inside classrooms every day does.

Mr. Sherman knows this himself. He finished second in his high school class with a 4.2 GPA. He had offers from college football powerhouses, but chose his own path. “Ultimately,” he explains, “I chose Stanford University to make a statement about the importance of education.” He wanted to be more than a football star. 

He wanted to learn.

When he graduated in 2011 with a 3.9 GPA and a communications degree, Sherman could not know for sure that NFL stardom awaited. He was a fifth round pick. Many players taken that low end up getting cut or spend two or three years riding the bench.

Richard Sherman, though, had his degree just in case. He knew how important education is, how important it is might be even for those who hope to make a career in sports.

Today, he makes his mark in ways far more important than can be measured in “passes defensed” or interceptions. Sherman is an true example for kids. His charity, Blanket Coverage, provides “students in low-income communities with school supplies and clothing so they can more adequately achieve their goals.

His mission is clear. “Off the field,” Mr. Sherman explains, “I am a man of integrity and community. My passion is my foundation, Blanket Coverage, which gives back to the children in the community to provide all the necessary tools to get an education. Not a day goes by where I don’t think of where I come from and where I could be right now if not for the support given to me.

His own family was “adamant” about his getting the best possible education—and now he tries to pass on lessons he learned as a young man.

I suppose, I should add a brief disclaimer here, before continuing with my story. Yes, I’m a Cincinnati Bengals fan. So I have no idea what it feels likes to see your team win the big game. (And I admit I have been tempted to head butt my television set several times in recent years. But my son stops me and calms me down.) Still, I know in ten years most fans will forget which teams played in Super Bowl XLIX. Lives will not have been changed by a 28-24 score. We’ll all go on living in our usual ways.

What happens in schools, what one NFL star can do to help kids succeed in the classroom today—that will matter far more.

Sure. I’d be happy to see Richard Sherman in a Bengals uniform. 

In the end, football hardly matters. What he tries to do, stressing the value of education, trumps any Super Bowl win.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Teachers Anonymous: A Twelve Step Program for Frontline Educators

This student thinks you're a good teacher. But Arne Duncan and his crew
know you're not.
The new 12 Step Program for teachers may help.

Last week, I searched my soul and finally faced a harsh truth: I was a bad teacher. I admit: that was hard to admit.

True, listening to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan bash our profession for the last six years made it easier. Reading articles and books by leading school reformers also helped. They pretty much believe all teachers are stupid, lazy or doing a terrible job. In fact, when their plans to fix the schools don’t work they blame us for their failed plans too.

(A neat trick, don’t you think!)

When I posted my confession a few days ago, I was heartened to learn I was not alone. Thousands of other bad teachers felt a similar need to confess their crimes. Many have spent years in a classroom working with all types of kids. Like me, they loved teaching (and retired) or still do.

Like me, they thought they were good.

All that delusion—it hit me like a punch in the nose. Teachers needed a Twelve Step Program, just like AA. If I could come up with proper language, perhaps I could help others face their demons too.

Here, then, are the Twelve Steps of Teachers Anonymous. If you would like to offer suggestions or modifications send me an email or comment on this blog. Together we can recover.

I’m sure.

(NOTE: Participants in AA place their faith and fates in the hands of God. For our purposes the higher powers—capitalized accordingly—are School Reformers, Authors of Books, and so forth.)


STEP ONE: Admit that you are powerless in the face of the Testing Companies, like Pearson. Your life has become an unmanageable mess due to paperwork.

This isn’t AA, so if at any time you feel the need, pour yourself a stiff drink. Make it a double.

STEP TWO: Admit that only a Greater Power can restore you to sanity and health.

Place your fate and the fate of your students, in the hands of Politicians and Bureaucrats in state capitals and Washington, D. C.

(What could possibly go wrong with that?)

STEP THREE: Make the decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of the Testing Companies because tests rule over you and your students. Not to mention that Testing Companies donate millions to Politicians.

STEP FOUR. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of your faults.

This is a tough one. If you claim poverty harms kids, making it harder for them to learn, go back to Step One. If you dare hint that some really terrible parents are the main problem in many kids’ lives, go back to Step One. If you believe a child who misses fifty-two days of class in one year may be damaging his or her own education, and still refuse to accept blame, write a one page essay about what a bad teacher you are. Then mail it to Time magazine. (The editors at Time love any story that focuses on bad teachers.)

STEP FIVE: Admit to all Politicians and School Reformers Who Don’t Teach, and most of all to yourself, the exact nature of your wrongs.

You think you’re really helping kids in your class succeed? Come on! You’re terrible. Members of Congress and Lobbyists and Highly Paid Executives heading for-profit charter school chains, now those people care about kids!  

STEP SIX: You must put your fate in the hands of Authors of Books about how to fix education, for they will show you the defects in your character and your classroom techniques.

Suggested readings include:

1.    The Bee Eater by Richard Whitmire: a biography of Michelle Rhee, who taught for three years and then made a career out of bashing teachers.

2.    Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools by Joel I. Klein: who basically says, yes, we can fix the schools by firing all the teachers.

3.    Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools by Steven Brill. Same message as #2 (above).

4.    The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They got that Way by Amanda Ripley: the story of how kids in Finland kick ass in school because teachers in Finland aren’t dumb, as are teachers in America.

STEP SEVEN: Humbly support all current and future Secretaries of Education no matter what policy they choose to implement. Ask only that they help you overcome your professional shortcomings.

STEP EIGHT: Make a list of all the persons you have harmed and be willing to make amends.

Stand on your school lawn. Shout: “If any child has not succeeded in school it has to be my fault. I am sorry that the promise of No Child Left Behind was not fulfilled. I am sorry for pretty much anything that goes wrong with the U. S. economy, because I have failed to prepare kids to compete in a global economy. Plus, it’s my fault giant corporations are shifting production to places like China and Bangladesh. I also admit fault in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, in the spread of Ebola and for the inability of the Cubs to even make it to the World Series.

STEP NINE: Make direct amends to all those you harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Buy a former student who ended up working at Walmart for crappy pay a new car, or maybe a pony.

STEP TEN: Continue to take personal inventory and when you are wrong (which is always, according to the School Reformers), promptly admit it.

STEP ELEVEN: Seek through prayer or meditation to improve your conscious contact with Secretary Duncan and all School Reformers, praying for knowledge of their will and the power to carry it out.

If they say we must have tests tied to No Child Left Behind then you must love those tests! If they say we must have new tests tied to Common Core, you must love those tests instead. If various states revoke their decision to participate in Common Core and go back to state standardized tests—yes, love those tests too!

STEP TWELVE: Having experienced a spiritual awakening, carry this message to other teachers, all who think they are doing good work in the schools. Practice these twelve principles in all your affairs.

And remember. This isn’t AA. So feel free at any point to have another drink.

                                                                                                Yours truly,
                                                                                                A Bad Teacher

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Confessions of a "Bad Teacher:" I Loved Teaching like a Crack Addict Loves Crack.

I thought I was a good teacher. 
(I also thought the Bengals would win.)

My name is John and I have a problem. For thirty-three years I was a bad teacher. And I thought was good

Denial. That’s all it was.

Then, Sunday, I stumbled across an excellent article by Dr. Michael Flanagan and his words gave me strength. You see he’s a bad teacher too.

Dr. Flanagan had to battle through the same agonizing process I must now endure, although he does admit there were sometimes “free bagels and donuts involved.” And I am a complete sucker for donuts.

(I’m sorry. When I salivate I digress.)

For nineteen years he taught, successfully, or so he thought. Oh, sure, he heard school reformers say that the big problems in education boiled down to bad teachers at the front of too many rooms. Still, he refused to face the truth. Like me, he kept pretending he was good. He’d get awards for excellence…and he’d believe those awards meant something too.

As for me, I’d be grading papers at 11:30 on a Wednesday night and I’d tell myself, “John, you’re doing a good job.” I had an addiction you see. Grading papers was a crutch, like a bottle of booze to a drunk.

I’d go to work on Monday and students would tell me they loved my class, and I’d delude myself and think they were telling the truth. I would arrive at school early and let kids come in for extra work and I’d skip lunch to help and stay late too. I was hooked. 

I thought I was good.

Sure. There were times I wondered. I’d pick up the New York Times and read what the latest school reformers had to say. These reformers didn’t have the same problem I did because they always avoided trying to teach. But I wouldn’t listen, not even when Brent Staples said schools did a terrible job of screening and evaluating teachers, so that they hired “any warm body that comes along.” I heard what Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told an audience at M.I.T., that the big problem in schools was too many teachers were plain dumb and still I refused to face the demons.

I’d go right back to my phone. I’d call Vicki’s parents and say, “I love having your daughter in class.” Too late now, I see that call was a cry for help. I loved teaching like a crack addict loves crack.

Again and again, reformers tried to show me how wrong I was. Michelle Rhee bashed teachers every time she opened her mouth. Campbell Brown hinted that teachers were sexual deviants, protected by powerful unions. Arne Duncan, Steven Brill and Joel I. Klein all agreed that tenure and unions must go. Yet, I kept going back into my classroom day after day. I had to have that fix. I had to keep helping kids.

I know one step toward recovery is admitting a problem and trying to make amends to anyone you hurt. So let me say I’m sorry. I apologize for spending most of my adult life working with 5,000 kids.

I’m sorry, Steven Brill, that I called your book, Class Warfare: The Fight to Save America’s Schools, a steaming pile of dung. I should have known you were fighting harder than I did—just not in an actual classroom—or with actual kids. I should have known that you and Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America but never taught, were going to fix the lives of children with bold words.

I’m sorry for so much. 

I’m sorry for doubting politicians when they passed No Child Left Behind more than a decade ago. Now I see that lawmakers in Washington knew exactly what they’re doing all along. I’m sorry I said that law was flawed from the start. 

I’m also sorry that No Child Left Behind is totally dead.

I’m sorry I don’t believe Common Core will work. I’m an addict, as I’ve said. I’m sorriest of all because I doubted politicians in 2010 when they said they supported Common Core and doubted them again in 2014 when they said, never mind, we’re not for Common Core after all. In fact,
Governor Jindal I apologize particularly to you.

I’m sorry I didn’t face my problem when it might have meant something to all the wonderful young people I taught. I’m sorry for saying the standardized tests I saw during my long career were weak. I’m sorry I thought the social studies portion of the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT), implemented in 2004, and the last standardized test I saw before retiring, was a farce. I was wrong to think you couldn’t prove anything with a single fifty-question test if it covered three years of material (grades 6, 7 and 8).

I’m not just sorry. I’m sad. I’m sad the State of Ohio spent millions designing that social studies subtest as part of the OAT—and then dumped it in 2009—and will soon dump the whole sorry OAT and have to start from scratch again. Common Core is coming you know, or maybe it’s not. I’m sorry I said when I heard this kind of news that lawmakers in Columbus had absolutely no clue.

I’m sorry I once brought in fourteen veterans (from five wars) to talk to 700 Loveland Middle School kids. I realize now—too late!—that nothing they said could help any of those teens when it came to a standardized test. Especially now, since all those old tests are kaput. 

Today I understand it wasn’t just me. I hung out with other junkies who thought they were good. We had an outstanding band director at Loveland Middle School who thought it mattered if he turned teens into musicians. We had great art teachers who imagined that if they taught kids to sketch beautifully they were passing on something of value. We had a great drama teacher, who for some reason felt drama was worthwhile, and a French teacher who expected kids to speak French with skill, and we had fine coaches, who were all in denial too. Those coaches thought that teaching young men and women to work hard, to strive to improve, to win with character, might help them in life.

Poor souls—trying to help kids who were bullied—counseling pregnant teens about choices they’d have to make—wondering how to help a boy who lived with an abusive father at home. Who were my colleagues trying to kid?

Now I know we were all addicts, kidding ourselves, and I look back on my career and theirs and think, “How sad!”

But I do feel better today. I’m getting this off my chest and see I’m not alone. I can finally admit I was a “bad teacher” all along. 

I imagined that learning could be enhanced in ten thousand ways. And I was wrong. If it can’t be tested, can’t be reduced to A, B, C or D, it’s not learning at all. I have looked in a mirror at long last and have seen reflected an image I cannot like. Still, I can hope my colleagues and millions of public school teachers will get the help they need. As Dr. Flanagan has shown it’s never too late. We can all be “good teachers” if we choose.

The politicians with all the bold plans—those zealous reformers with their millions of words—they’ll show us the way.

They’ll show us all how to teach.

By way of Maria Montessori (and Bruce Maegly) on Facebook.

Friday, January 30, 2015

What a Difference a Century Makes

My father and mother, both age 27.

My father, James R. Viall, would have turned 100 years old today. So, what was different when he was born a century ago? 

One of the first differences we would notice would be that in 1915 there were simply not as many people

U. S. population stood at just over 100 million, less than a third of what it is today.

The world population would not hit two billion until 1927, when my father and mother were entering seventh grade. It would top three billion about the time my older brother, Tim, was in junior high. Population growth accelerated from there: four billion in 1974, when Jenny Viall, my father’s second granddaughter was born, five billion in 1987, when Sarah Viall, his fifth grandchild joined the fray, six billion by the time she entered junior high, seven billion by the time she graduated from Yale in 2012.

(Ellora Viall, born in 2014, is likely to see the world’s population reach nine billion before she turns 40.)

Medical care was far less advanced a hundred years ago. The first heart transplant was half a century down the road. Insulin had not been discovered. Any boy or girl who developed type-1 diabetes was doomed. (Glad thats no longer true, Emily Viall.) Smallpox was still a killer and a sister of my father’s succumbed in 1912. An outbreak of influenza would sweep the globe in 1918. The death toll was at least twenty millions, perhaps as high as fifty million. 

Life expectancy was 52.5 years for men, almost 57 for women.

A little more than 1 in 4 American workers (27%) were employed on 6.4 million farms at the time of my father’s birth. 

(The figures today are 2.2 million and 2%).

Speaking of workers, Henry Ford dominated the fledgling auto industry and his company would roll a millionth car off the assembly lines before the year ended.

Ford also had problems. He had perfected the assembly line but was having trouble keeping workers. He decided to raise wages. In 1914, the average Ford factory worker earned $2.50 per day for nine hours. Ford cut the workday to eight hours and raised the daily rate to $5.00, including bonuses. The president of Pittsburgh Plate Glass predicted ruin for Ford Motors, or for American industry, or both, as a result. The Wall Street Journal hinted that Ford was infected with Bolshevik tendencies.

Over half of all workers in mines and factories were foreign-born in 1915. Conditions were far from ideal. Almost 2300 coal miners would die on the job during the year, roughly average between 1903-1930. A steel worker could report working 68 hours per week. And no Saturday off for most workers! A Polish immigrant reported making $41 in two weeks at his factory job. He then had to pay the company $9 rent for living in a company-owned house, owed $24 for purchases at the company-owned store, and had to pay a fee of 50¢ for a visit to the company-owned hospital and 30¢ for the privilege of having his tools sharpened at the company-owned shop. “Company towns” were common in those days—with workers sometimes paid in “scrip,” or bills and coins only good at the company store. Only 1 in 10 American workers then belonged to a union.

April 5: In a heavyweight fight held in Havana, Cuba, Jess Willard defeated Jack Johnson, a match ripe with racial undertones. Johnson, a black fighter, had made all kinds of enemies over the years, mainly by pummeling white fighters, and seeming to enjoy it, as well as marrying and/or living with various white women. (Interracial marriage was then illegal in most states, which did complicate matters.) 

April 26: Francis Marion Harbit, the mother of my wife, Anne Viall, was born. (The middle name is for the Revolutionary War hero.)

The world she entered in 1915 was a place where women were still denied voting rights. Legally, in most states, a wife’s services also belonged to her spouse—so a husband could control her paycheck. In one famous case a St. Louis woman, long separated from her husband, lost her leg in an industrial accident. She sued the company for $10,000, only to have her long-lost man reappear, agree to settle with her employer for $300, and disappear with the cash. In some states it was still legal for the husband to grant custody of the children in his will to whomever he chose.

At the time only 1 in 5 workers was female. 

Only 1 in 25 medical school graduates was a woman, a figure that would remain virtually unchanged from 1905 until 1965. 

There were still almost no female lawyers, judges or elected officials.

One man who was enjoying himself was Babe Ruth. In the spring he signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox for $3500. The investment paid off, as Ruth, a lefthander, compiled a record of 18-6. As a bonus he led the Red Sox in homeruns with four. No other player on the team hit more than two for the season. The Boston squad would go on to win the World Series, 4 games to 1, vs. the Philadelphia Phillies. Ruth never had a chance to pitch and went 0 for 1 as a pinch hitter.

Charlie Chaplin was also having a fine year, having inked a deal to earn $1250 per week, mostly on the strength of a popular new character, “The Tramp,” who first appeared as a full-blown figure in a movie of that name in April.

Billy Sunday, the fiery preacher, was also in the news. In one blistering sermon after another he railed against dresses which showed too much cleavage, with “collars down around the waist.” He also warned against playing bridge, about listening to jazz, and said it was impossible to “see God through the bottom of a beer-mug.”

World War I had raged for six months by the time my father arrived as a squalling infant. In August 1914, news of war had been met with singing and cheering in Moscow, London and Paris. In Berlin one observer reported that the people were “mad for war.” Military experts predicted it would all be over within three to five months. Now enthusiasm was waning. On a single day in 1915, newspapers could report that 20,000 soldiers had been killed in just the last twenty-four hours.

On May 7, 1915 a German submarine put a single torpedo into the side of the great ocean liner Lusitania. The “floating hotel,” as the ship was then called, would sink in eighteen minutes, carrying almost 1200 passengers and crew with her to the bottom, including thirty-one infants aboard.

From that moment, pressure would grow on President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war on the side of France and England. He would refuse, and in 1916, run for re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” (Wilson would go to bed on election night believing he had been defeated; but final results, three days later, would show he had won a narrow electoral victory, 277-254, over Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes. Ohio had 24 electoral votes—California 13—Florida 6, in those days. Today the figures are 18—55—and 29—reflecting huge population shifts.)

July 26: My mother, Eleanor Cecile Winter, was welcomed into the world.

There was great concern at this time about the flood of immigrants. The term hyphenated American came into use. Teddy Roosevelt popularized the idea of the “one hundred percent American.” Would German Americans be loyal during the war? Were Italian Americans all criminals? What about the radical ideas of many foreign workers? Could these people even assimilate? After visiting one Italian immigrant family a social worker grumbled: “Not Americanized. Still eating spaghetti.”

From 1900 to 1915, three million Italian immigrants landed on our shores. The flow had been changing. More and more Jews, fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia, joined them. There were many others from Greece, Romania, Hungary and Armenia. On the eve of World War I, 1 of ever 4 Greek males at work was working in this country.

Edward Ross, a professor of sociology, watched the flood and saw only “hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality,” people who clearly belonged in “wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age.”

These weren’t the kind of people who built America—who made it great! (Doesn’t that sound familiar?)

The Ku Klux Klan was also having a good year, as membership blossomed, and the Klan message—anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant—resonated. Sometime during the 20s, I believe, my mother’s Catholic family looked out one night to see a cross burning on their lawn in Akron, Ohio.

A number of books during this era warned of the growing immigrant menace. Madison Grant, in The Passing of a Great Race (1916) talked of “a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish ghettos. Our jails insane asylums and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam and the whole tone of American life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarized by them.”

Almost 1.2 million immigrants landed on American shores in 1914. Then war in Europe cut the flow to just over 350,000 in 1915.

Spoon River was published in 1915. 

Lillian Gish starred in the film, The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of Southern women and Anglo-Saxon culture and civilization.

Anti-Semitism was also in vogue. Leo Frank was lynched in Marietta, Georgia after his death sentence was commuted in the murder of Mary Phagan, a young woman employed in Frank’s factory. (Many legal experts believed Frank was innocent all along.) A mob of outraged citizens dragged him from his cell and left him dangling from a tree. The Marietta paper approved of the mob action, referring to participants as “law-abiding citizens” who only wanted to see a just sentence carried out. For the year there were thirteen lynchings of white prisoners and fifty-six of blacks. Harvard and other elite institutions implemented quotas on Jewish admissions and Henry Ford, himself, published a newspaper which regularly attacked Jewish bankers and ordinary Jews in language that, after the Great War ended, warmed the heart of a young veteran named Adolf Hitler.  

Speaking of prejudice, African Americans, referred to in those days as “negroes” (if they were lucky), were denied access to the vote across the South. Literacy tests and poll taxes were employed to keep them off the rolls. In some counties, with majority black populations, a black man had a better chance of being lynched than he did of casting a ballot. In many places not a single non-white voter would be listed on the rolls until after 1960.

Finally, Americans were far less educated a century ago than they are today. Only 6 in 10 white children, ages 5-19, were enrolled in school in 1915. 

The figure for blacks was roughly 4 in 10 and the average number of years of schooling completed was 8.6. 

As late as 1940, my father would still be the exception—my mother and Anne’s mother even more so. The year they all turned twenty-five only 5% of adults had college degrees. (A year before the United States joined the fighting in World War II the average high school graduate was earning $1,661. The average college graduate was doing much better, earning almost a thousand dollars more: $2,607.)

Who knows what the next hundred years will bring?
Ellora Viall, b. 9-2-2014, great granddaughter of James R. Viall.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Teachers: Accountable for What?

The true task of the teacher is to convince students to explore.

Monday morning, 7:31 a. m.; January 26: You are a public school teacher and already ensconced at your desk. Typically, you arrive early for work; but today you feel rejuvenated after a relaxing weekend with your own family. You have your coffee and danish and soon you’ll be charged up and ready to go.

Unfortunately, you can’t shake a nagging doubt. You have heard all the school reformers say if we expect to improve U. S. education we must “hold teachers accountable.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is an avid supporter of Common Core, with a tidal wave of standardized tests to come. Test scores will be critical, Duncan insists, when it comes time to measure accountability.

This past weekend you saw another report indicating that politicians in several states hope to revoke their decision to sign up for Common Core. At a meeting in Iowa Saturday potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016 came out vehemently against what they now call “Obamacore.”

Sitting at your desk, you take a big gulp of strong coffee and shake your head. You might be a Republican. You might be a Democrat. You might even be a Whig. When it comes to understanding what teachers do, you feel reformers and politicians and Secretary Duncan have no clue.

“Accountability for what?” you mutter.

If you’re approaching the end your career you have even greater cause for doubt. You remember how politicians promised to fix schools in the 90s by implementing state proficiency tests. That plan didn’t work. In 2002 Congress stepped forward to pass No Child Left Behind, promising to fix everything by 2014. That didn’t work, either. Now Common Core is coming—or maybe not coming—and you wonder if politicians have revolving doors in their heads.

If you teach second grade, you think back to Friday. You know what Duncan never knows, what no member of Congress ever sees. You still feel sad about what happened, when you had to deal with an eight-year-old boy who wanted to wear his stocking cap all day in your class. When you asked why, he started crying. So you led him gently to the hall to see what you might do. He wiped his tears and felt better because you cared. He said his mother got drunk Thursday night. (He told you two months ago that his father disappeared soon after he was born.)

Anyway, mom decided to give him a haircut, but ended up clipping only part of his head, leaving odd patches of hair sticking up in every direction. When you asked if you could see, he slowly removed his cap and you knew you had to do something to help him through the day. You contacted the counselor and worked out a plan to have the school nurse trim off the last patches of hair.

(You were accountable to help. You were not accountable for what happened to the boy Thursday night.)

If you teach eighth grade American history, a fourteen-year-old will come to your room at the end of fourth bell today, just before lunch. “I’m pregnant,” she will tell you and together you will talk about choices she is going to have to make. A bell will ring again, signaling end of lunch. You will not have eaten, but will tell the young lady you are happy to talk any time she wants.

You are accountable to give counsel to the young lady. You are accountable for teaching about the Bill of Rights, the topic for the day.

(The young lady, the young man who impregnated her, perhaps their parents, too, are accountable for everything else.)

If you teach Language Arts at the twelfth grade level your plan on this cold January day is to pass back a set of essays on Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other 19th century authors you assigned students to write. These essays took fifteen hours to grade over the weekend. You earned nothing for your extra work. But you don’t begrudge the time.

You will discover, as the day goes by, that ten students have failed to complete the assignment. One boy is a regular pot smoker. (You don’t know that; but, he is.) Another will admit he stayed up till 4 a. m. twice last week—not to work on his essay—but to play video games. Three students who will fail to turn in work have chronic absenteeism issues. One boy missed 32 days during first semester. Another girl missed 40. After a recent stretch of two weeks’ absence you will learn today that she has dropped out. You will think back to a discussion you had in November—when you told her you could see she had college potential. She explained to you then that her father had lost his job, and her family was losing their home, and she had to look for full-time work to help out.

(You are not accountable for any of that.)

You don’t have time to worry about idiot politicians and arrogant reformers. If you teach kindergarten, you will be putting out fires all day, trying to direct two dozen five- and six-year-olds toward a better future. You will be busy helping one boy who recognized neither letters nor numbers when you met him last August.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are a high school football coach, you spent the fall trying to teach boys what it means to be men. Your season is over, but your team went 6-6. This was better than anyone expected, given the broken leg suffered by your first-string quarterback. You are proud to know that you plucked one young man out of gym class, because you saw he was a hard-nosed kid, and convinced him to try out for the squad. All season, he starred on defense and you think he might be able to play at the college level in two years. You know you change lives for the better, just as your colleague teaching kindergarten does.

In cavalier fashion you once heard a school reformer tell reporters, “We now know it is possible to teach every child, even the poorest kids, even from the toughest backgrounds.” 

You are a frontline teacher.

You know what the reformer said was true. Yet, you also understand that “possible” doesn’t mean “easy.” You know the kid with the drunken barber of a mother—or any of six million kids suffering through abusive situations every year—is going to be far harder to reach than the child seated behind him who comes from a loving home. You know the eighth grader who is pregnant is almost certain to eventually drop out.

(No teacher will be accountable if she makes that difficult choice. No teacher will be accountable for the senior who smokes pot every day, or for the junior who misses 40 days of school or more every year.)

Seated at your desk this morning, you shake your head. Then the bell rings and a wave of young people floods into the room. You smile and another day begins. You are accountable only for doing the very best you can.

An art teacher is accountable for helping students find their own talents.
A Language Arts teacher fosters the love of books. 

A history teacher brings in a World War II veteran to talk about fighting at Okinawa and Leyte Gulf.