Monday, August 24, 2015

We Hate You, Teachers, the School Reformers Said

Hello, teachers. We are the people with all the great plans to fix America’s schools. Did you know we hate you?

Yes, we do.

We are not the children you teach. Nor are we their parents. (In terms of ethics and honesty, the public rates you just below nurses, doctors and pharmacists.) It doesn’t matter to us. We hate you still.

Who are we? We are reformers who, in our insufferable arrogance, insist you must save every child. When you cannot—because no ever has—we denigrate your efforts. We question your professionalism. We are men and women who will not teach, or teach only briefly. And yet, somehow, we know it all. We are the Guggenheim’s and Bloomberg’s and Gates’ who have solutions for every problem in the public schools, but send our children to private schools.

In ways you can never fathom (probably because you aren’t very smart) we care more about children than you do.

We prove how much we care by offering up bold plans to save every child. You must implement these plans, of course. We are too rich and important and busy giving advice—and did we mention how smart we are?

If our plans fail, it can’t be our fault.

It has to be you.

Who are we? We are the politicians who hamstring your every move. We want you to save every child by piling up data. Data will save them all! Pile that data high!

Now pile it higher!

We want you to give plenty of standardized tests because lobbyists pay us to insure we push for more tests. We want you to stop complaining in your teachers’ lounges, even if we change our minds every August about which tests you must actually give. We tell all our friends your unions are the main problem in education today. We say dealing with you is like dealing with terrorists.

We want to punch you in the face.

We are the pundits who insult you daily in newspapers and on TV. We are authors of books about teaching, people who never taught, but we know exactly what we would do to save every child if we were in your shoes. Indeed, we blame you for every problem America faces today. We mock you.

We hate you, too.

But who are we, really? Sometimes, we wake in the middle of the night, and we think about what we’ve done. And we know in our hearts that we are cowards. We toss and turn because we know we have asked you to do all the fighting that must be done to save the children. We don’t save a soul.

We criticize. We don’t act.

We weren’t there at Sandy Hook when you and the children were slaughtered like sheep in a pen. We weren’t there when Colleen Ritzer was murdered in a bathroom at the school where she taught. We weren’t there to tackle the gunman at Chardon High. We have no plan to address violence in schools and don’t really care what happens to you. We are the fools in Congress, whose approval rating hasn’t topped 20% since September 2012. We are the governors and state lawmakers who hold out our hands to receive fat contributions from corporate education interests. All you do is hold the hands of traumatized Chicago second graders, or scared Nevada middle school kids who have just seen blood spilled, on the way to, or at their schools.

We are the men and women who act like we know more about saving children than you do, even if you have spent six years, or sixteen, or thirty-six in a classroom, working with kids. We have spent no time in a classroom, most of us, or labored only two or three years. Then we tired of the challenge. We realized we were better suited to giving advice and piling up fat speaking fees, often by lambasting you. “Here is what you need to do,” we insisted, “if you want to save every child.” But we don’t think you do. We tell everyone you are lazy, and protected by tenure, and stupid, too.

We are the bureaucrats who put together studies no one, save other bureaucrats, will ever read, who pile data in giant heaps. We say you can never have enough data, not when it comes to saving kids. We are the types who become U. S. Secretaries of Education without ever saving one child.

Who are you, teachers? You are nothing to us.

But who are you, really? Your students think you matter. Their parents do, too. You are the educator who teaches the painfully shy five-year-old to speak in kindergarten for the first time. You are the third grade teacher who consoles the boy who just found out his parents are going to file for divorce. You are the teacher who helps the fifth grader who weeps one morning at school, after his drunken mother shaves large patches in his head the night before, who sends him to the counselor. You are the counselor and the school nurse who cut off the remaining, random tufts of hair, so the poor young man will feel a bit better in the end.

You are the foot soldiers of education. The battlefield is your classroom, where all the fighting takes place. It is there you labor without respite to fire great kids from fine homes with a passion to excel. And on that same battlefield you try to save the sixth grader who comes to class smelling of urine because he and his mother call a rusted out station wagon home. It will not be easy saving this boy. You know that—even if the people who criticize you so cavalierly do not.

(Or perhaps they know, and don’t care.)

Who are you? You are the special education instructor who must help autistic twins fit in with the other kids in the seventh grade. You are the junior varsity track coach who motivates girls to run harder than they ever thought they could. You are the tenth grade Language Arts teacher who can spot the unnecessary word in any sentence, in any essay you receive, a word like a wart on a beauty queen’s nose, and convince a young writer to cut it out.

This is who you really are. You deal with teens every day, kids who belong to gangs, gifted teens, teens who are contemplating suicide and want to know if you have time to talk. Many of you have been fighting for young people almost your entire adult lives. You have embraced the challenge. You have not wavered or quit. But you are more frustrated than at any time in your careers.

You are sick of the haters who have no earthly clue.

You are the art teacher who fuels a fire of creativity in your fourth grade kids.

You are the middle school band instructor who turns bleating trumpet players into future professional musicians.

You are the health teacher who reaches that obese kid and shows her a path that will help her lose weight.

You are the biology teacher who inspires a young woman who goes on to Ohio State and to graduate school at Yale.

You are the math teacher who feeds the thirst for knowledge of a future Rhodes Scholar.

You are legion. You are men and women who give up evenings every week and Sunday afternoons to call parents, work on lesson plans, attend concerts and games, and catch up on tall stacks of ungraded papers, projects and artwork.

Really, who are you? You are the people who labor long and hard to save every child.

And, really, who are we? You do all the fighting. We talk and talk. We are shirkers in the fight to save children.

We hate you in the end because when we look in a mirror, we see what we truly are and what we are not.


No standardized tests necessary!!!!!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

In the Days of Corporal Punishment

Occasionally, I hear someone insist that we must bring back corporal punishment to our schools. I could write an entire chapter on that subject. 

The capsule version would be: I can’t agree.

Early in my career, I did swat, as most teachers did. One day, I gave a young man what I thought was a fairly ordinary swat. But he ended up bruising badly. In days and weeks to follow I heard from other students that other teachers had bruised them, too. I heard from parents that they’d been swatted as kids, bruised, but learned to behave accordingly.

In my case, I had bruised the boy badly. His mother was furious and filed a criminal complaint. I never blamed her for being angry; but I was charged with a felony assault and had to head for court. Lose that case, in 1982, and my teaching career is over. (Some might have said, “And justly so.”)

Someday, I may take the time to tell this story in detail. For now, let’s just say I was found innocent. 

I still don’t blame the mother.

I still understand why mom was angry—and still think I gave the boy only a normal swat. But one detail still amazes me and may prove revelatory to those who don’t know the full story. When the case was decided in my favor I returned to school the next day. My career could continue! That afternoon, Ed Lenney, our wonderful principal, called me into his office during my conference period. He said I had better sit down.

“John,” he explained, “Mrs. ----- [the mother who filed charges] just called.”

My immediate thought was: “She’s going to file a civil complaint [for damages]. I’ll have to go to court and defend myself all over again.”

“You can handle this however you want,” Ed continued, “but she wanted to know if you’d take Carl [the boy; using, here, a fictitious name] back in class.”

(Carl had been removed from my American history class, of course, once charges were filed.)

“WHAT!” I exclaimed. (I don’t recall if I added an expletive. I think I was too surprised.) “WHY?”

“Mrs. ---- says she thinks you’re a good teacher.”

Of all the developments in the story, this was the only one that really surprised me. I thought about it a moment, because I liked almost every kid I ever met, and never had any bad feelings for the boy or his mother. He did bruise badly, after all. That wasn’t a hallucination. Still, I quickly decided that it would be better for all if Carl continued to learn his lessons from another teacher.

I almost never swatted another student again—except in one or two cases where parents actually asked for their child to be given corporal punishment. (Usually, this was chosen in lieu of some kind of suspension.)

And I can assure you that in my experience swatting teens was never enjoyable. You can make the argument, however, that it beats arresting them, which is what schools started doing in the 1980s, and still do today, when school resource officers began to be needed to roam the halls. I am also fully aware that the word “beats” in the previous sentence is loaded with all kinds of different meanings.

(I should also note that today there are 17,000 school resource officers, or cops, to put the matter bluntly, roaming the halls of American schools.


Regardless, the argument against corporal punishment is effectively settled in the negative. I never missed using the paddle, myself, and instituted a regimen of Marine Corps pushups as my last line of defense when young men acted up in class. (I explain that whole approach in my book if you’re interested.)

So, on a lighter note, let me share one funny story from the Dark Ages, as some might call it, of corporal punishment. The rule in my class, when I was first teaching, was simple. Skip an after school detention and you earned a swat the next day. 

(Most kids who had detention after school had failed to complete several assignments and I preferred to keep them after rather than give them zeroes and let them waste their talents.) 

Beyond question, the award for creativity in such a situation goes to a young man named Ken 

Ken was a good-old-fashioned boy at a time when Loveland was a country district, not the affluent suburban community it would later become. Ken’s only problem stemmed from lack of motivation. He didn’t complete his work and earned a detention. Unfortunately, he failed to make his cameo appearance. 

As expected, Ken entered Room 207, at the start of sixth bell the next afternoon. “You know the rule, Ken,” I said almost immediately. I put the rest of the class to work and told him to step out in the hall.

He looked worried but made no excuse for skipping.

I asked another teacher to witness, as required, and when Ken bent over as ordered I gave him a moment to collect his thoughts. Then I gave him a swat. 

Normally, a swat made a cracking sound. This time it was more of a thump. Something was wrong.

“Ken, what are you wearing?” I inquired.

He looked embarrassed. But he was quick to admit the truth. “Eleven pairs of underwear, four pairs of gym shorts, two pairs of shorts, and sweat pants,” he explained sheepishly. 

I had to laugh. “Well,” I explained, “you out-foxed me this time. Just don’t skip detention again.”

Ken went back into my room and I followed, tossing my paddle on my desk with a clatter. Then it was back to teaching.

There are other ways to discipline children. This one: for arguing siblings.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Case of the Missing Homework

MANY OF THE BIGGEST NAMES in education reform insist that the only sure way to improve what happens in schools is to “hold teachers accountable.”

I worked with a few bad teachers during my day. Nevertheless, I don’t think I ever looked down the long hallway at school and thought, “You know, the main problem here is all the bad teachers.”

There was never any real evidence that educators were the main obstacle in the path of true learning.

Student reluctance to do the work necessary to earn a quality education seemed to be a far more important factor. And I don’t mean my students were all lazy. Not at all. Not at all. I was fortunate to teach thousands of hard-working kids. Still, I also discovered that a significant minority had a tendency to coast along, unless some teacher fired them with a desire to learn that they might not already have. 

            Or gave them a push.

            I knew what that was like when I was young. I knew a push is sometimes required.

Indeed, somewhere around the age of thirteen, my brain ceased functioning in any meaningful fashion and I spent my time in junior high and high school doing the least possible work I could manage. I was oddly proud of myself—to finish in the bottom half of my Revere High School graduating class. 

            I had a perfectly good mind. I just didn’t care to use it. (See proof below.)

At least I was doing well in American history and gym.

Fortunately, I discovered the great powers of motivation in 1968, at Parris Island, after dropping out of college to join the Marines.

When I became a teacher in 1976 I made it a point to make it difficult for kids to loaf in my class and hard for them to fail. I set high standards. But if students failed tests, I called home and asked parents to ensure their children studied and retook the test after school, or before school, or during lunch.

I didn’t average grades, the first F, and say, a B+ on the second try. 

           If a young man or young woman got a 92 B+ on the second test that was the grade that was inked in the book. 

I USED A SIMILAR APPROACH when it came to homework. I used to round up kids who owed me work, at lunch, or during study hall, like a cowboy roping strays. I’d bring in “failing” (i. e. not working) students and put them to work. I would agree to stay after school, or come in early, any time kids fell behind in class.

What I would not tolerate was lack of effort. (See my grades, above.)

In any case, former students might agree, I probably got mad more often if they didn’t use their talents than for all other reasons combined.

In third period one morning I called for everyone to turn in a set of questions that were due. Before I could manage to collect, Mrs. Kemen, one of the best young teachers I ever met, appeared at my classroom door to ask advice on some minor matter. I stepped into the hall to answer her question. Then I returned to class. When I asked again for homework not a single paper came up from the left side of the room. (I had student desks in a horseshoe seating arrangement. (See below.) Even Kyle, the most dependable kid in the class, said he forgot the assignment.
Seating chart used in my class. My post was at the open end of the horseshoe.

The middle section likewise produced zero papers.

“Unbelievable,” I muttered darkly.

When the right side of the room failed to produce a solitary paper, I slammed my grade book to the floor like a football coach who had just watched his defense give up a 99-yard touchdown pass.


With that I stomped out the door for effect. (I could always act mad with ease; I rarely was, in truth.) Like an actor considering how to do the next scene, I could reenter angry, or hurt, or adopt my cold, assassin’s voice. The only issue: Which reaction might convince a few teens to move in the desired direction?

To use their talents—not loaf.

I stepped back into the room and for a hundredth time tried to impress on my young charges that they needed to learn as much as they could, for their own good. I insisted that true learning required true effort. I went on in this way for two or three minutes, trying to stir a sense of resolve.

Finally, Kyle could stand no more. He yanked his homework out from under his notebook and waved it in triumph. Papers appeared from all directions and cheers filled the room.

“We love you, Mr. Viall,” Courtney called out merrily.

When everyone stopped laughing, including me, Kyle admitted having masterminded the ruse. 

Almost everyone had their homework; and as was so often the case, I was proud of my kids. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Creative Discipline for Middle School: Angie Collects Belly Button Lint

EARLY IN MY CAREER I came up with a humorous approach for dealing with minor violations of classroom decorum. 

I realized essay punishments could be humorous and effective. 

In most cases, I simply wanted kids to quit goofing around or talking too much. No sense treating breaches of etiquette like criminal infractions. Stick them with a 150-word essay as a simple reminder. Making it comical allowed peers to share a laugh and showed students you wanted to have fun in class, while still expecting everyone to abide by the rules. When Kayla was tardy too often, I had her write about how she became a fashion icon by inventing concrete shoes. On another occasion, Josh seemed to be writing a love note instead of doing his assigned reading. I had him write an essay about falling asleep in class and getting his history book stuck to his face for a week. 

As you might expect, he explained in his essay how his rare affliction made it impossible to flirt with the girl of his dreams.

One day, Angie got in trouble for some minor matter. I had her write: “I Collect Belly Button Lint for a Hobby.” Angie didn’t stop at 150 words. She was a collector in the truest sense. Her essay filled five pages. She had lint from actors, from every president in the last twenty years, and dreamed of finding the Holy Grail of lint—from the belly button of Elvis Presley (assuming Elvis was still alive). 

In most cases punishment fit the “crime.”  One day, Rob came flying through my door, with a friend in hot pursuit. Before I could tell them both to slow down Rob tripped and somersaulted across the linoleum. He dusted himself off without injury, but I made Rob write about his life as “The Human Cannonball.” 

Wendy R. (a straight-A student) had to write an essay after laughing once too often and disturbing class. I forget the title; but she pinpointed her friend Wendy M. as the source of all her difficulties “At times Wendy’s nostrils will go in and out as if they were controlled by a motor.”

That was her reason for laughing.

Max tended to turn around too often and talk to friends. One day I grew tired of viewing the back of his head. 

I HAD HIM WRITE about having a giant tongue. In his essay he called Landon, the friend who had lured him into sin, to inform him of his tragic condition. The essay followed the conventions of a popular Budweiser beer advertisement:

“Hello.” [Landon answers.]


“Hey, man.  I would finish the lines in the commercial but I just gotta ask. What’s wrong with your voice?”

“Miy tung.”


“Miy tung iz big,” I said angrily.

“Oh, I see.

“Wat sod I du?”

“Gee, got me.”

“Tanks, yor no hep.”  Then I hung up…..

ONE LAST EXAMPLE deserves mention. One day a young man got in trouble for talking during detention. I asked him to write “The Life of a Cucumber.”

His story began: “I started out the first part of my life in a little cold plastic bag. The bag sat on a shelf in the store, for a long time before some one decided to buy the bag of seeds.”

This essay was not particularly funny, but carried the name of the author, Brian ----.  Only Brian’s handwriting was unusually good.  

Normally, Brian’s handwriting was abominable. 

I still have my notes describing the incident:  “Caught Brian ----lying today because his mother wrote his punishment essay. Brian claimed, in declining order:  

1) he wrote it; she corrected it 
2) okay, no, mom wrote part 
3) well, yes, she wrote it all.

I called Mrs. ---- that evening and she offered lame defense: “I don’t see anything wrong with a mother helping a child.”

“Nor do I,” I responded. “But you weren’t helping. You did the essay for him and let him off his punishment entirely.” 

I told her Brian would have to write a different essay entirely; but if it had been in my power I would have given her a topic all her own to do: “What Happens to a Boy when Mom is an Enabler?” 

For more discipline tips you should buy my book!
Also: I loathe standardized tests and explain why in my work.