Here are the opening pages to Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching. Chaucer is quoted on war (werre). I believe the school reformers who talk about fixing schools know no almost nothing about the real war to save children.
Grunts: the foot soldiers in the Vietnam War; in education, the men and women who do all the real fighting.
Talk to the Grunts
“Ther is many a man that creith ‘Werre! werre!
that woot ful litel what werre amounteth.”
I don’t drink much. Besides, it’s seven a.m. and I’m hardly awake.
“Not again,” I mutter, rubbing my eyes and adding a string of pungent expletives.
I hold in my hands another stinging editorial directed at teachers. This one, from The New York Times, carries the headline:
TEACHERS: WILL WE EVER LEARN?
The author is assistant professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. So you might assume he knows what he’s talking about.
(You’d be wrong.)
He starts by outlining a “tidal wave” of school reforms since 1983. I taught for decades. So I remember them all. The professor lists vouchers, charter schools, state standardized tests, No Child Left Behind and “Race to the Top.” With implementation of Common Core in the offing a fresh round of reforms is about to commence.
He leaves out a laundry list of changes veteran educators might include but sums up results. U. S. K-12 education remains “stubbornly mediocre.”
I feel myself wavering. Is it too early for bourbon?
What is it we keep failing to learn? Apparently, the problem with education in this country is teachers.
According to the professor we have too many dumb ones manning the classrooms. Only 23% come from the top third of their college classes. What about Finland, a country whose schools are almost too good to be true? Finland has smart teachers. America needs to find smart teachers, under some rocks or something, and pronto.
As a former teacher, suddenly I feel like such a dolt.
“Well,” I wonder, “will we ever learn?”
I set the editorial aside and gather my wits. I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I say I was a good teacher. I don’t think I’m hallucinating when I say I worked with a number of excellent educators and all kinds of good ones during my career. Call me stupid, I guess, but I would argue that teachers come in the same varieties, excellent, good, fair, and poor, as lumberjacks, car mechanics, Congress persons and Harvard professors.
I tell myself: “You can do your bit to answer the professor’s question if you do it right.”
The dilemma is how? How write a book about education that might offer useful insights? How capture the interest of some fraction of the general reading public? And is there some way to poke all the self-styled “education experts” where it hurts most?
I mean—in the ego.
Perhaps some sleazy sex and the right title might help: Fifty Shades of Grade Book? Nope. No way that’s going to sell.
All I did was spend my career in a large rectangular room in close company with teens. All I offer is a memoir about life in the classroom, a love story about working with thousands of kids.
Still, I’m compelled to try.
First, I mean this book as a defense of good educators—an explanation of what they do—and a look at the daunting problems they confront. There are plenty of bad books to choose from if you want to read about what teachers do wrong.
I also believe my book has value because of what it’s not. I won’t be offering the latest plan to fix the schools. I’m not an authority in the fixing field. I’m not Steven Brill or Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee. U. S. Secretary of Education Duncan and former Washington, D. C. School Chancellor Rhee we shall meet again. Brill is the prototypical critic and school fixer—a lawyer—who wrote a book about education, lambasting teachers: Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill never bothered to teach. He studied “war” at a safe remove and didn’t have to worry about getting killed or maimed.
What do I know? Part of what I know I know because I sat in class as if in a coma during my own misspent youth. Another chunk I know because I dropped out of college in 1968 and joined the Marines. I know what I know, in part, because I’ve pedaled a bike across the United States.
Most of what I know I learned by teaching: American and Ancient World History, for thirty-three years, at the seventh and eighth grade levels, for Loveland City Schools, near Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s not an especially long tenure in the classroom. Nevertheless, it represents more time spent working with kids than Rhee and Brill and all nine U. S. Secretaries of Education combined. That fact alone ought to tell us something.
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