Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Power of Language

Why I am no longer a teacher… but an educator.

educate |ˈejəˌkāt|

verb [ trans. ] (often be educated)

give intellectual, moral, and social instruction to (someone, esp. a child), typically at a school or university : she was educated at a boarding school.

ORIGIN late Middle English : from Latin educat- ‘led out,from the verb educare, related to educere ‘lead out’ (see educe ).

teacher |ˈtē ch ər|


a person who teaches, esp. in a school. -do-teachers-matter-not-as-cause-agents-but-as-learning-opportunities/

How Do Teachers Matter? Not as Cause Agents But as

Learning Opportunities

Written by Paul Thomas

Lost in the exaggerated claims of “bad” teachers being at the core of all that ails education and the

concurrent calls for greater teacher accountability, often linked to student test scores, is a careful

consideration of why we have universal public education in a free society and what the role of the teacher is

within that purpose.

Debates about teacher quality and education reform are doomed to fail if we do not first place both within our

purposes for and beliefs about education, human nature, and our culture. Universal public education, in its

essence, must rest upon a commitment to human agency and autonomy as well as a full and complex faith in

and support for democratic principles.

Once we embrace human agency and autonomy–everyone is born equal, including the rights of life, liberty,

and the pursuit of happiness–we have chosen a definition of “education” that rejects indoctrination and

enculturation, although these two purposes have dominated how and why our schools have functioned for

over a century. A people who believe in individual freedom must cherish the empowerment of every human

mind. To distrust human autonomy is to reject freedom and to call for some authority to determine the lives

of others–and thus either to diminish some people’s access to education or to reduce a system of schooling

to oppression through indoctrination and enculturation.

If, then, we are truly a people who believe in human freedom and thus appreciate the role of universal public

education as an opportunity for individual empowerment, agency, and autonomy, we must acknowledge the

complex and important role of a teacher within a commitment to individual freedom and democracy.

Let me clarify here that I have been a teacher from the middle school level through graduate education for

27 years now. In that time, I have taught thousands of students of nearly every possible ability, background,

and level of commitment. For the record, I have not caused a single one of those students to learn.

Teachers in an education system designed for a free society and people are not cause agents but

mechanisms for designing, providing, and enhancing learning experiences for every student regardless of

that student’s station in life. Ultimately, a student who is free is the final determinant of whether or not

learning occurs–as long as that student’s life allows that choice.

Calls for teacher accountability tied to student outcomes, such as tests, misrepresent the ethical role of a

teacher in a free society. Few people take the time to consider that viewing a teacher as a cause agent

(holding a teacher accountable for the behavior of another free human) and viewing learning as the mere

transmission of knowledge from a teacher-authority to a passive class of students are antithetical to our

beliefs in individual freedom and democracy.

Can a teacher through coercion, threat, bribe, or force of personality demand from a student a behavior that

appears to match a learning outcome? Of course.

But that is indoctrination/enculturation–not education. It denies the dignity and humanity of the teacher and

the student; it rejects the sacred faith in individual freedom and democratic principles.

Teachers of free people cannot and should not cause learning to happen; thus, we must focus our concern

for teacher quality exclusively on the characteristics of that teacher and the quality of the learning

opportunities that teacher provides. [As well, the pursuit of teacher quality must be situated appropriately in

the larger picture of what influences impact student learning, acknowledging that the quality of the teacher is

a small percentage (about 14%-33%) of those influences that are dominated by factors beyond the walls and

control of the teacher or the school.]

So, how do teachers matter, and how should we seek higher quality teachers, holding them accountable for

providing every child access to the learning opportunities all humans deserve at birth?

Teachers must possess and constantly enhance their knowledge base–the content they teach and their

pedagogy–by being life-long learners in formal classroom settings, such as graduate courses and degrees,

and by being scholars, actively engaged with the fields that they teach (the first is typical of K-12 educators

and the latter, of professors, but both should be elements of all teachers).

Teachers must be reflective and transparent practitioners of their craft, and here is a key element of the

debate about teacher quality that we are consistently failing to recognize. Teacher quality is not revealed in

student outcomes; in fact, student outcomes tend to mask and distort the quality and role of the teacher.

Teacher quality is best revealed in the act of teaching itself–although complicated and time consuming to

capture and evaluate, the act of teaching is the single best evidence of the opportunities a teacher provides

for all students. And those opportunities are the only rightful things for which teachers can and should be

held accountable because it is the act of teaching and creating learning opportunities that is within the

teacher’s power to control (although our bureaucratic approach to schooling has historically denied teachers

the exact autonomy that would support that accountability).

Rightful accountability must be limited to that which a person controls–all other accountability is unethical,

oppressive, and corrosive.

Yes, every child deserves a high quality teacher, one who is in a constant process of growth as a teacher

and not fixed at the moment of attaining a prescribed quality or goal. One truism that should guide how we

evaluate teacher quality is seeking ways to determine the difference between a teacher who teaches one

year twenty times and a teacher who teaches twenty years, informed by an equal commitment to being a


Focusing on prescriptive and external data points (student test scores) works to insure that we create and

reward the worst sort of teachers–fixed at a point in their growth, teaching one year twenty times. Teacher

accountability linked to student outcomes reduces teacher quality to raising test scores–a misleading and

minimal expectation for teacher quality in a free society.

Teacher quality matters, and we can identify and foster better teachers. But that process, if we truly value

individual freedom and democracy, must exist in a spirit of community and with a commitment to human

dignity and empowerment–for both teachers and students.

A system of self-evaluation, peer-evaluation, and supervisor-based evaluation–designed to support and not

punish or reward–that addresses teacher competence (content and pedagogy) and, above all else, the

quality of the educational opportunities offered to students regardless of their background is the sort of

teacher accountability and education reform we must seek.

However, any commitment to teacher quality and education reform for individual freedom and democracy will

not produce the results we seek for our children if we continue to see raising teacher and school quality as a

silver bullet and as an isolated avenue to social reform. Social reform must precede or occur simultaneously

with proper care for teacher quality or we will persist in our greatest failure of all–pointing an accusatory

finger at teachers and schools while the rest of society crumbles over our shoulders.

Finally, while clichés can fail us, let’s consider and revise a familiar one as we face teacher quality:

You can lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink. And if you do find a way to force the horse to drink,

and the horses die from drinking poisoned water, it may be time to stop focusing on who’s leading the horse

and attend to the source of the poisoned water.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

When did it get so complicated?

This is my pedagogical model for teaching. Be authentic, and engaging. Be both a learner and teacher.

And never ever forget to “get to know” your student’s.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Teacher I Need You

"All students are rude disengaged lazy.” Natalie Munroe

This comment on her blog by a high school English language arts teacher created a virtual flurry. The water cooler wag went from executive boardrooms to teacher lounges. She was suspended from her job (with pay) while her school district investigated. A debate ensued centering on two themes: 1.) That her comments were unprofessional 2.) That her censure by the board violated her right to free speech

Natalie will have her provoked fifteen minutes of fame. The debate will quiet. To me though the essential issue will sit under a rock, still unexamined. The important question (a key concept in learning theory) has not been addressed.

Natalie Munroe asked no question. She stated an opinion, or rather assigned blame. She judged and chastised the individuals to whom she is obliged not only as an educator but as a citizen. Natalie by her action volunteered to be sacrificial lamb to a world that fears for its children and their futures.

(We are all so overwhelmed that we protect ourselves with ennui yet clearly from the hyperbole surrounding this event we all care, passionately about our children’s education.)

Natalie has right to voice but the student’s would have been better served had she not laid the blame on them. She may have served cause better had she posed the question, “Why am I not able to motivate, engage the student’s? What are the obstacles? How can I design my instructions to facilitate accountable?’’ Etc. So she set off smoke bombs when what are needed are fireworks and a whole parade.

In my years as a teacher I often felt shackled to a covert silence. If you say anything, look with too much scrutiny you may violate the sacrosanct system of school or union. We are a family. We do not take our business to the streets. Weird message when our purpose is to serve the intellectual, academic and citizenship needs of our student’s.

Natalie is bold in honesty but not in integrity. We teachers must be bolder, braver. We must begin to speak in volume, resolutely to the Dark Ages of education. Too often we have turned our vision askance and silenced our tongue to a system that does not always serve students. School organizations are often paternalistic and have a system of cronyism best reward those who do not dissent. We may not ask too much or illustrate too much.
The paradigm must change. We must scrutinize education and the systems charged with this great goal. We must stop assigning blame, on families, the unions, teacher, to the student’s. We must dig deep. We must seek outside the box. We must probe deeply the structure and organization. We must look to the system in the same probing way we do at the CEOs of failing companies. How does the organizational structure affect employees, influence students performance etc.

We must design for learning, equality. We must equate funding with civil liberties and assure that equal monies and time be spent with and for all student’s.

We must ask thousands of questions about structural inequities. Communication with families and communities must bridge the school experience to the greater world. We must tend to the disconnect. Learning is not something that begins when the bell rings, it begins at birth. Those we have rendered powerless must have voice to their vision and dream.

Teachers are called. We have a vocation. Our expertise and commitment must be solicited on behalf of the organization and those we serve. Our training in the essential skill set of technological literacy should be the cornerstone. We must stretch our thinking.

When Natalie bellowed her angst perhaps this was our call to action. This is not a time for polarized, politicized posturing. Now is the time to adapt and revision.

It is an emergency…we must react to this eminent disaster…

Let us all exercise our right to free speech. May we speak resolutely on behalf of children?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Truth Rings

On February fourteenth 2011 I was proposed to. A banner day on a banner day. The proposal of marriage, an antidote to having been scathed by divorce and the disarming event of looking for love in the cyber age.

He held my eyes with his, his speckled brown’s looking lucid.

He locked his look into mine. Steading his ambly gait, he pulled up the slipping strap of his denim coveralls and asked,“Will you marry me?’ He peered intently. My response his mirror.

Looking like ET, he just stared at me. I from a realm alien to him.

I looked to his button eyes, holding his fate with my response. This moment somehow altering my destiny. “Why I believe you are the best offer I’ve had in years.” He handed me the plastic heart shaped ring that had minutes before embellished the holiday cupcake. He had sucked the gooey pink frosting off to clean sparkly trinket. I held the too small ring to my heart. We were sealed.

He knew in that moment that in spite of his age (11), diagnoses, frequent hospitalizations, and the contemporty art wiring of his brain love prevailed. He was loved and loveable. Most important was his tin man heart. He could love. He did love.

Bursting from him that Valentine Day, (not Cupid’s arrow, or the muse Venus) was the sweet beat of his own heart, palpitating for others. He knew that in spite of being erratically compelled by demonic thoughts and behaviors, light and love dwelled in his heart. (Perhaps he could grow it bigger and bigger till it reigned and edged out the darkness.) .

And me, I the tin man as well. I feared I had a hollow heart. I can get stuck on the love channel, that staticy place that whines about others failures. I stockpile till my heart becomes heavy. The silent phone, the empty email in-box my mirrors, measurement of my worth.

But in my years of teaching on that day of love the kids always got it. Children too young, to harden up their heart and stockpile their hurts became love’s gurus. With every candy heart, every block print uppercased “ I LOVE YOU”, they practiced love like sacrament.

They loved unabashedly, expressively, and expansively. Little fingers stuffing cards in envelopes, doilies, and glitter melty hearts, mushy chocolate. The greatest commandment of all “Is love”…. So my plastic bauble will forever sit among my gilded treasures.

On Valentines Day my betrothed and all the students I ever had “got it”. They lived on the love channel and sprinkled love about like an ever-flowing font, not seeking anything in return but just the right to say, “I love you”.

As brown-eyed boy (Mr. Coveralls) handed me his most prized possession, asked me to marry him, and told me he loved me, my teacher brain briefly took over. But who am I to bolt the door to hope. I said simply “ I love you too”. (and always shall as you gave me the lesson in love, and you young man were the teacher of that curriculum.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

“No matter what happens keep on beginning and failing. Each time you fail, start over again, and you will grow stronger until you find you have accomplished a purpose-not one you began with, perhaps but one you glad to remember.” And who shall count the innumerable times that she tried, failed, and conquered.

Helen Keller quote Annie Sullivan in the Biography Teacher Anne Sullivan Macy

Monday, January 24, 2011

How ever will we survive if we dwell in the box?

Once upon a boy...

There is always a backstory.
This back-story was horrific. It spanned continents and cultures. It could read like a case study of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or depression.
This is a story without an ending. It is a story about living, in the dark. It is a story about new beginnings, but never a fresh start.
We always want things simple. We long for a hero. We insist upon a villain. A story with a protagonist and antagonist.
It would be so much easier if we could just label the good guys and bad guys. If we could just assign everyone we could live comfortably in middle earth.
But there is much grey in life and occasional defining moment.

This is a story about a boy. Yes he is fifteen. Yes he looks more man than boy but when one has their childhood snatched from them through trauma they must catch up or quit trying. To quit trying is to live dying.

This boy lived many sad chapters. Too big for one lifetime chapters. The world his mirror. He understood all his losses to be a reflection of his worthlessness. The world quit him in multiples. It landed him in a land/country where he did not speak the language or the culture. The world quit him when he lost the chance to hear his mother’s heartbeat in his ear as he rested his boy head to her chest. In its very efforts to save him it tried to form him and thus abandoned him. Sometimes his insides got too big and instead of imploding would explode. Scared of himself really scared for his host he got angry and pushed his foster families away. Disillusioned and spent they packed him up. Mystical thinking, maybe he will do better in the next home. They once again were the mirrors he created to his lack of value. His rationale “I will quit before it quits me.”
At fourteen he moved yet again to another foster home…foster home number? No fresh start he was followed by the shadow of his clinical depression, the agencies case file and that forever mirror of nothing intact. He was clothed in negative perceptions from forever.

We long for a fairy tale ending. We want the story filed in the glossy pages of Readers Digest. We do not like the churning. We do not want to see headlines of terrorist living among us. Instead of looking for those hidden cells of loss and sorrow we become the blind. What we do not see will not hurt us. But how do we change course, how do we digress from this scripted story, broken boy, broken system, unfixable.
This boy man has glowy skin, hidden eyes that avert when you speak with him. He must only see the tarnished mirror, fearing what he sees in your eyes is scarier than what is in his own burnished view. As you look at him he seems to be willing himself small. Almost imperceptibly he can becomes small, a two year old with a binky in a safe corner all curled up. In his new home, just like always he took to the bed, took to the dark, took haven from the world in his own darkness.

A dance began. A dance the boy knew well. He was always righteous in the dance. He had been validated in his belief again and again and again. “Worthless” This new foster dad, stubborn, persistent, but still the boy had the power of dark to make this foster dad dance.

“You can’t stay in bed, you must go to school…” A familiar refrain to the boy. He has had this message always…bend…Foster dad…carries on with a refrain. Boy has turned to silence. “ You must go take any step to the light.” Louder, more resolute, a cacophony that boy knew to be the soundtrack to his mirror.
This foster dad was highly regarded by the community and the placement agency. He had been the keynote speaker at their yearly banquets. People Magazine had had requested an interview with this dad, who had singularly parented 12 young men. He was to be the cover feature with his United Nation household with children from Iraq, Sudan, Burma, Sudan, Somalia, and the US. He would be saint of the week. Foster dad says “No.”
He is a dad. Not a hero. He does not want his boys lives coopted for some feel good Nano second in the grocery store line. Or an Andy Warhol hero. Fifteen minutes of fame world stays stagnant.
But this boy, well no publication is going to come about for this dervish story of spiraling depression. No feel good photo op here.

Dad and boy dance the ever-familiar dance. The boy’s despair so deep that dad becomes Orpheus descending to a dark underworld. This place may envelop both.
There are others in this home. Young men, incrementally, boldly stepping into adulthood. They just keep doing the next right thing, with dad’s stewardship till it adds up to grownup. Brush you teeth, go to school, take care of your responsibilities, and get a little job…. Until that day when dad and boy man exhale and know flight is more than a notion. A village of men one behavior one boy at a time.

But this boy stymies dad. He upends the house. His behaviors begin to put the household in a position of vulnerability.

The boy has been diagnosed with a depressive disorder. A brain chemistry disorder that can be brought on in children by trauma alone. Experts have ascertained a severe clinical depression in this boy. Depression is a land minimalized and misunderstood by people who have not stood at her precipice and lived with the abyss ready to eat them up from the inside out. Debilitating. A place so dark that those who love folks who dwell in this realm are left with a taint of grey on their own persona.
Months in this dad have danced too much. He is spent. This boy must leave. The sanctity and ultimately the safety of the household must be preserved. Dad to prepare the household for the ending tells one of the foster brothers He is leaving. This foster/heart brother whose own mountains of loss were so great only one who has climbed the summits in Tibet could know the arduousness of his journey speaks on his foster brothers behalf. Dad, Dad…Give him one more chance. One more chance. (When do we use up our chances?)

So instead of dancing, foster dad planted his feet and stood his ground and gave one more chance. Like Orpheus with his music but this was more like a metronome of conscious with no room for navigation in pulsating tempo. “ You will go to school. You rise from that dark womb. I will stand next to you, like a one would with a little fellow who doesn’t yet know not to touch the stove, I will handed you your pill and watch you swallow it. You will stay. I will not cease. I will not give up on you. “

And so like those yellow cards on a Monopoly board the chance turned into more than a chance. It altered the outcome of the game. it took some time before the chance kicked in but with the strategy in place it slowly took hold. Boy went to school more. He swallows the pill; maybe he swallows some pride. He tells dad that he has messed up and when the snows came and dad worked late, he stood under the glow of the street light and cleared a path for dad after a day at work. Dad exhales. His breath has been bated forever with hope.
He says to this young man one morning when handing him his meds, trying to frame for him how he got from the in jail corner to the “Go” that taking these prescribed meds were helpful. “See how this pill helped you” The boy does not avert his eyes now. He seizes hold of “dad’s “ with an incredulous look. “It’s not the pills.”
Dad ceases to breath, think this is the music by which a new dance will begin. Perhaps he is loosing boy to the underworld.
Boy holds dad’s gaze. “It was you dad.” You did not give up on me. You kept loving me.
So People Magazine just print this.
Hero’s are any and all folks who are bold enough to love unabashedly, bold enough to stand in the dark lighting matches, giving glimmers of light to those who dwell n the dark. .