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 school reformers will insist you're not.

LAST WEEK, I SEARCHED my soul and faced a harsh truth. I was a bad teacher. That realization was hard to accept.

True, listening for years while Secretary of Education Arne Duncan bashed our entire profession helped pave the way to the truth. Reading articles and books by leading school reformers also helped me plumb my pedagogical depths. 

Those reformers pretty much believe all teachers are stupid, lazy or do a terrible job

When I posted my full confession a few days ago (now: three years ago, as I update my post), I was heartened to learn I was not alone. Thousands of bad teachers felt a need to confess their own classroom crimes and sins. Many have spent years in education working with all types of kids. Like me, they loved teaching (I am retired) or do.

Like me, they thought they were good.

All that delusion—it hit me like a punch in the nether region. Suddenly, I knew teachers needed a Twelve Step Program, 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 feel free to comment on this blog. From what I can see from the safety of retirement, the job of teachers is only getting more difficult.

Still, together, I know we can recover.

NOTE: Participants in AA place their faith and fates in the hands of God. For our purposes (below) the higher powers—capitalized accordingly—will be School Reformers, Authors of Books about Teaching, Who Never Taught, etc.. 

In updating this, I have added Betsy DeVos, the Grizzly Killer, to the recovery mix. 


STEP ONE: Admit that you are powerless in the face of Testing Companies. 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. You may need to make it a double these days.

STEP TWO: Admit that only a Greater Power can restore you to sanity and health. Such as: the Grizzly Killer or a U.S. Department of Education Bureaucrat.

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

STEP FOUR. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of your faults. Feel free to use extra paper; according to the School Reformers you really do a terrible, terrible job.

This is a tough one. If you claim poverty harms kids, making it harder to learn, go back to Step One. 

If you dare hint that terrible parents are sometimes the biggest problem in kids’ lives, go back to Step One.

If you think any of the problems children face today cannot be solved by requiring them to take more standardized tests...you guessed it...back to Step One. 

STEP FIVE: Admit to all Politicians and School Reformers, and Authors of Books, 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 schools, those are the people who care about kids!  

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

Suggested readings include:

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

Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools by Steven Brill. He offers the same message as Klein.

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, whereas teachers in America are.

(Total teaching experience of the authors above: 0 years, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.)

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.

And yes, you must listen to the Grizzly Killer even though she never taught, never attended public schools and never sent her children to public schools.  

It doesnt matter; you must admit the Grizzly Killer knows more than you! Cant do it you say? Pack to Step One and try it again.

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 entirely my fault. I am sorry 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. I admit fault in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, in the spread of Ebola and for the inability of the Cubs to even make the World Series.

(Note: that last issue has been resolved.)

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

Tell your former principal you are sorry he or she got fired when test scores didnt rise fast enough, even if the tests were later replaced by other tests, because the School Reformers, Testing Companies and Politicians had better ideas about how to fix the schools.

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

Say it now: I was wrong! I thought I could teach. I was wrong! So wrong! I was wronger than wrong! I was the wrongest person in the entire field of education!

STEP ELEVEN: Seek through prayer or meditation to improve your conscious contact with Secretary Duncan (now: the Grizzly Killer) 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! Love any and all standardized tests.

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. 

Keep giving those standardized tests, too, even if you dont think theyre doing any good, and even if you fell they are doing actual harm to real kids.

                                                                                                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 sub test 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.


If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot.

Two Legs Suffice is also about what students, parents and others involved in education must do if we want to truly enhance learning.

The back cover provides a sense of what my book is about.