Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What I Learned by Writing a Book about Teaching

Six years ago, I sat down to write a book about teaching. I already knew a great deal about teaching.

I spent most of my adult life in a classroom.

I admit here, as well as in my book, that I knew nothing about heart surgery and almost nothing about plumbing. I served with the Marines during the Vietnam War. I’m no hero though. I was a clerk in a Camp Pendleton, California supply unit. I don’t know diddly about combat. So I don’t pretend I do.

I only know teaching.

Writing a book about the art of educating young people proved interesting and I learned a great deal in the process. For starters, I learned that people who know nothing about teaching seem compelled to write books about teaching.

Most of these books add nothing to a reader’s understanding and the worst (and there are many) may do actual harm.

It would be no difficult task to provide a long list of examples, but let me limit myself to but one. If you’ve never heard of Wendy Kopp, she’s the young college graduate who founded Teach for America back in 1989. Kopp quickly became the darling of school reform circles, quoted widely in magazines and newspapers, showing up with alarming frequency on cable news TV. Kopp was always happy to offer insights about teaching. Most of those insights centered on the idea that we needed to get more smart people—people like Kopp, who attended an Ivy League institution—into teaching. To paraphrase her message, the teachers we had were just dumb.

Kopp has three books to her credit, including Teaching as Leadership, which I find amazing. Not the book. No. I mean the fact Kopp has written three books about teaching without teaching.

(Call me Dr. Viall! I hereby claim to be a renowned heart surgeon!)

I don’t know if my particular book will sell. I do know I know more about teaching than Ms. Kopp and probably the top fifty “school reformers” combined. (Millions of frontline educators could say the same.) And I’m proud of the message I’m trying to relay. Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching is intended as a defense of all good teachers, one classroom combat veteran’s attempt to explain what good teachers can do—which is much—and what they cannot do without help.

I already knew, the day I began writing, that there was potential in every child. I already knew that my job as an educator had been to tap that potential in every way possible. What I learned while writing was that reformers like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee held frontline educators to an impossible standard. “Good” was not good enough. Even “very good” was akin to failure.

Oh no. They were prone to making bold statements like: “Every child deserves an excellent teacher.”

(More on that in a moment.)

Even a gifted writer like Amanda Ripley could offer up simplistic lines like the following, in a Time magazine article about education in 2010: “We now know that it is possible to teach every kid, even poor kids with wretched lives, to read, write and do math and science at respectable levels.”

I knew, of course—because I actually taught—that it was possible to teach every child. I had always felt that in my bones. I had lived by that philosophy in my own classroom for thirty-three years. But I knew what millions of dedicated teachers know, what Ripley did not, because Ripley never taught. “Yes, you are right,” we might have told Ms. Ripley, “but we have been in combat, so to speak, and you have not. It is possible to teach every child. It certainly isn’t easy and trying with all your heart and soul can wear you out.”

I remember a young man in my class back in 1981. He was absent 140 days in seventh grade alone. In the end, we had little choice but to fail him, because citing parents to court on four separate occasions didn’t help.

The next year he missed another 108 days.

Was it possible to teach him? In theory, it was. In reality, however, it was a daunting, depressing challenge. It’s easy to say, as a magazine writer, that it is possible to teach every child. It can be hard if you’re a teacher in this situation—unless, maybe, you possess some telepathic power.

What did I learn while writing to add to what I already knew from experience? I learned that these kinds of attendance problems were a national problem. I learned that researchers at Johns Hopkins University were reporting 10-15% of all U. S. students piled up a month or more of unexcused absences annually.

I kept hearing school reformers insist that every child deserved an excellent child. I kept wondering. Why isn’t anyone saying, “Every child deserve an excellent pediatrician?” Or: “Every child deserves excellent parents.”

At the same time, I learned our representatives in Congress had no idea what they were doing when it came to writing education policy.  These were the boneheads who gave us No Child Left Behind in 2002, who promised every child would be proficient in reading and math by 2014, who could not fix that flawed law even after it had clearly and catastrophically failed. And I learned that our lawmakers have spent eight years trying to recraft NCLB and still can’t agree on details.

What else did I learn?

I learned that pundits agree. Teachers are the problem in U. S. education. Kopp and many others think we’re stupid. Some say we’re too protected by unions. Some enjoy insulting teachers for the fun of it. Brent Staples, for example, put a finger on the “problem” in our schools when he claimed in a 2010 editorial that, “Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”

(I had to put down the paper for a moment and check my temperature to see if I could still be a teacher. Okay: 98.6°. I still could.)

I knew the day I retired in 2008, that I had always loved teaching. I knew, because students told me, that I was good in the classroom. I knew, by observing peers, and talking to students and parents, that most of them were good too. Excellent? Yes, some were excellent too.

Generally, I think excellence is rare in any field.

I do know I never once looked down a hallway at school and thought to myself, “Teachers. Yeah. We’re the problem.”

Here’s what I knew before I wrote single word for my book. I knew the boy who spent months living in a rusted out station wagon was going to struggle in school no matter what members of the staff at my wife’s school might do.

I learned by writing that 2.5 million American children were homeless for at least part of every year.

I learned that reformers insist “poverty” is an excuse teachers trot out so they can evade responsibility for failing to educate every child. That’s what Joel I. Klein, chancellor of New York City Schools, said in 2009. And, again, it almost goes without saying Klein never taught at all.

Klein’s big idea was to grade schools. I thought we might need to talk about “grading parents” or “grading society,” too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a former Marine. I believe in the power of motivation. I knew that my motivation as a teacher meant much. I also knew I did not teach in a vacuum. I knew education was a stool with three legs. I knew educators were one. Students were a second. Parents were a third.

Unlike all the arrogant school reformers, who offer up bold plans, but never bother or even dare to lend a hand, I knew we couldn’t improve education if all we planned to do was “hold teachers accountable.”

I knew that could never work.

I knew, because I met thousands of parents in the Ohio community where I worked, that most moms and dads were good, just as most educators were good. I knew some parents were excellent, too. I also knew parents were like a shadow, their influence and the values they inculcated in their offspring following them to school.

I knew, because I had tried teaching, that the boy whose schizophrenic mother came to my wife’s school and tried to kill the principal with a large butcher knife must face terrible problems in the home.

I knew the girl in my class who had been sexually abused by her father and older brother had problems that I might not be able to solve.

I would often wonder what we were going to do—as a society—to help children who suffered terribly, not in school, but at home. What were we going to do for the infant whose father beat her and stuck her in a freezer to stop her from crying? For the toddler whose mother filmed her smoking marijuana?

(Go to YouTube and search: “Pot Smoking Toddler” if you want to watch. I find it too depressing to even provide a link.)

You couple multiply these cases out into the millions. Why, then, weren’t all the bold school reformers focusing on parents responsible for three million cases of child abuse and neglect every year?

Yes, every child did deserve excellent teachers. But excellent parents would trump that every time. What about that third leg of the stool?

I already knew (because I had studied my colleagues for years), that principals and school counselors and psychologists were often overwhelmed by complex competing demands. I knew the situation had worsened as the focus on standardized testing grew.

I knew lawmakers at the state and national levels had failed to provide adequate funds, at least for the poorest schools.

I didn’t know—but learned while writing—that the United States had one of the highest poverty rates for children of all the advanced countries on the face of this green and blue earth.

I knew that as a society we did not do enough to help children growing up under trying conditions. I learned while writing that life was hard for all kinds of kids—that 2.7 million children had at least one parent behind bars.

I learned that 23 million Americans over the age of 12, nearly one in ten, were addicted to alcohol or drugs. (This included 1 in every 15 high school seniors who admitted smoking marijuana daily.)

I learned that a plague of prescription drug misuse was sweeping the nation, that in Scioto County, Ohio, 10% of babies were born addicted to drugs. I knew teachers weren’t the only leg to the stool.

I listened to the school reformers talk and talk and talk about how we needed more and more standardized tests. We had to “hold teachers accountable.” I tried to understand how standardized testing was going to fix all this societal mess.

I did learn we spent at least $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. I wished we could have taken that money and used it to beef up children’s protective services in every city and state in the land.

I knew from seeing the damage in my classroom, and the damage done to my two oldest kids, that even good parents were having increasing trouble—with the American family (including my own) battered by divorce and other negative forces. In 1950, for example, 6% of children in this country grew up in single-parent homes. By 2012 that figure had soared to 35%.

I learned that poverty does matter, not just in schools, but in hospitals, too. When it comes to life expectancy, the richest 10% of American men could expect to live eleven years longer than the poorest 10%.

I learned that in Chicago, Arne Duncan, who went on to be U. S. Secretary of Education, had been credited with “fixing the schools.” Sadly, after he left for Washington those schools didn’t stay fixed at all. Hundreds of school-age kids were shot and wounded every year in the Windy City. Gangs were the main cause.

In 2013, according to NBC News, Chicago had 100,000 gang members. Most were between the ages of 16 and 19.

I thought that seemed like a problem educators alone might not be able to solve, certainly not by “grading schools.”

I learned that critics seemed to have sweet kindergartners in mind when they talked about “saving every child.” I knew none of them had ever had to face down an agitated teen with a gun in a hallway at school. I knew they were not considering children with severe emotional problems. I knew, because I taught, what that could be like. In 1984 I had a young man bring a gun to school to shoot me.

I was lucky in that case; but I suppose we all learned—by watching the bloody news—that violence in America’s schools was rising steadily. I learned that since January 1, 2010, there have been more than a hundred shootings in and around our nation’s schools, with more than 250 teachers, students and bystanders killed or wounded.

I could never figure out how creating more charter schools was a priority, when the halls of the schools we already had were running crimson with blood.

I did learn while writing that school reformers, including the corporate types out to make a few million quick bucks, knew nothing about the problems frontline educators faced. And frankly, I learned that they didn’t really care. (Well, about anything besides money, I mean.) I learned that they blamed tens of thousands of real educators for creating “dropout factories.” These were schools, reformers howled, where teachers were rap-tap-tapping along some diabolical assembly line. We were purposely creating dropouts. The corporate types would stop us. They would create a business model for education that truly worked! (Translation: worked for them.) Secretary Duncan, perhaps the most clueless individual ever to hold his cabinet position, warned that there were 5,000 “dropout factories” spread across the United States.

I kept writing. I kept learning. I learned that pregnant teens were far more likely to drop out of school.

I learned in Ohio, that the law made it illegal for kids to drop out before age 18, without parental permission. Yet, 23,000 Ohio teens walked away from schools every year and never returned.

I learned a great deal more while writing about teaching. But I already knew a lot. I knew that the growing fetish for standardized tests had been crippling education and stifling learning in multiple ways.

I learned by writing, and by talking with hundreds of educators in the seven years since I retired, that the negative effects related to testing were growing worse with every passing season, like a metastasizing brain tumor.

I already knew, because I served with the United States Marines, because I pedaled a bicycle across the United States twice (with my role model Bruce Jennings, a young man who did it in 1976 with only one leg), because I worked with 5,000 teens, that there was one clear path if we wanted to improve what happened in schools.

I already knew everyone involved in education or interested in helping would have to be willing to pedal to reach their goals. I knew that two legs (and sometimes one, and even none) would always suffice.

So I wrote my book.

Now available Amazon.com.

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