Archives for category: Teachers and Teaching

Ohio Algebra II Teacher, a regular commentator on the blog, wrote the following wonderful speech to the graduating class at Madeira High School.



As a Harvard-educated public school teacher, I’ll paste in my speech to graduating seniors from last week. I’ll also note that I wouldn’t have become a teacher had I known what was coming.



Superintendent Kramer, Assistant Superintendent Matsudo, Mr. Olson, Mr. Kimling, President Gelis, Graduates-in-waiting for the Class of 2015,



Last month I attended my 20th Class Reunion at Harvard Law School. Just another event that lets you know you’re getting older and time is passing quickly. When you attend something like this, you can’t help but reflect and assess where you stand among your peers. The boy I played squash and poker with is the junior Senator from Texas and is running for President of the United States. The guy who put me in his makeshift home movie wrote the screenplay for “Precious” and won an Academy Award. Every one of my best friends from law school is making seven figures a year in exciting cities like New York, Washington DC, and Atlanta, and another one of my friends started an internet company that landed him in Forbes Magazine of richest people in the world. Everyone around me is rising, rising, rising. Meanwhile, I look in the mirror every morning and find myself exactly where I was 18 years ago…right here…teaching at Madeira High School.



Now it’s not like nothing has changed. Physically, I’m a little slower and weaker than when I arrived in the 90’s. The hair’s a little thinner, a little grayer, and there’s been an ever-so-slight deterioration of my natural good looks. Mentally, I tire a little more easily. I can’t do math in my head as well. I occasionally forget things, sometimes forgetting what I’ve forgotten. And I’m not even that old! I look to my more experienced friends in administration and…just teasing Mr. Olson!…But I have to believe what we lose in physical strength and mental sharpness, we make up for in wisdom.



The last time I spoke at Baccalaureate in 2007, I spoke about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay called “Compensation.” In this essay, Emerson spoke of the fact that for every loss you suffer, there is an equal and opposite gain – you just have to find it. I have been fascinated by this idea over the years, and I have found it to be true. So often disappointment is followed by fulfillment, defeat is followed by glory, pain is followed by a healing leaving you stronger than you ever were before.



I have always marveled at Helen Keller. This deaf, mute, and blind woman was one of the most brilliant philosophers our world has ever seen. Would she have had such insight had she been “normal” and “just like you and me?” Helen Keller is the model of compensation – someone who found the equal and opposite benefit associated with loss.



And compensation is all around us. Your class has shown me dozens of examples. Our terrific musicians and singers, our wonderful actors and artists, our award winning students in so many competitions including the state Latin convention, Budget Challenge, Cincinnati Academic League Tournament Champion Academic Team, and our National Champion Jets Squad, but the coach in me gravitates to the athletic field. I first met Toni Alloy when she moved to Madeira in junior high school and attended my soccer camp. I instantly knew that Toni was my kind of player – a combination of streetball meets master tactician – and I’ve loved watching her play both soccer and basketball in high school. When Toni was seriously injured last fall, my heart bled for her. I can remember in high school when I was injured and how much it upset me. You still root for the team, but there’s a tiny part of you that hopes that the team misses your presence. Toni refused to let the setback affect her attitude or her spirit. She vocally supported her teammates. When the team had big wins without her on the field, no one was more celebratory. Toni rehabbed behind the scenes, and somehow managed to return to action. Even at less than 100%, from central midfield, along with her fantastic senior teammates and Coach Brady, she was able to help lead our Zons to another District championship. Toni may have moved here, but from the classroom to the athletic field, she represents everything that is great at Madeira.



Kyle Rizzuto was the one member of the Varsity basketball team short enough that I can look at him eye-to-eye. For years Kyle worked on his ballhandling, passing, fitness, defense, and shooting to be able to compete well with players much bigger than he is, and his efforts were rewarded when he earned the starting point guard position. The team was doing well – much better than preseason expectations – but Coach Reynolds believed the team could be even better if Kyle would be available to give the team a spark off the bench. Being replaced in the starting line-up is difficult for anybody. Now, add in the fact that Kyle was replaced by a freshman. The situation could have easily shattered the team, and I’m sure it would have if the individual involved was someone with less maturity and less character. Not only did Kyle accept his new role with the same energy that he attacks all challenges, but he did everything in his power to help his freshman replacement thrive. I can remember when I was a freshman soccer player doing whatever I could to both survive and make a positive impression on the coach. I vividly remember the senior who tripped me in the middle of one of my sprints because I was trying too hard. I also remember well the senior who told me I could make it. Kyle, the consistent overachievement of your teams began with your example. At one of the best athletic small schools in the state, I want to congratulate you on being named the outstanding senior boy athlete. I salute you for your leadership, and I want you to know that your example will live on in future Mustangs.



One of those future Mustangs is second-grader Will Unger. I’m not sure there is a bigger Madeira fan than Will. Will’s favorite team this year, of course, was our awesome Madeira Amazons basketball team. I can’t tell you how many times he’s made me play Kline v. Kline on our front yard basketball hoop (he was always Celia, but don’t worry Mallory, I played lockdown defense on him). But Will’s imagination was also captured by a less publicized winter sport. On Friday, February 27th, four members of our school…including two of our outstanding seniors, Ryan Stephenson and Jack Mantkowski, competed in the Ohio swimming state championships. Thousands of laps, countless strokes, endless practices before school and late at night resulted in a number of dominating performances. Will and I saw these awesome competitors triumph multiple times in the District meet, and he peppered me with question after question about the swimmers who could become the first boy state champions at Madeira in over a decade. During the state meet, we were glued to our internet as the live results came in. In the 200-yard medley relay, we placed 5th. In the 200-yard freestyle relay, we placed 5th again. The final event of the meet was the 400-yard freestyle relay. With one lap remaining, our boys were in the lead. Coming down the stretch, we were stroke for stroke with Seven Hills. At the wall, it was impossible to see which team had won…but the electronic timer showed we had come in second place…by 5 hundredths of a second. Five hundredths of a second! 16 laps and 400 yards came down to the length of a knuckle. If the race is 1 yard shorter or 1 yard longer…we win. What possible compensation could come from this heartbreaking result?



The situation brought me back to one of my favorite soccer players on one of my favorite soccer teams. In 2006, I had a senior, Nate Ervin Class of 2007, a back-up who – despite battling a knee injury his entire career – did everything a coach ask for. His example raised the level of more talented teammates, and he became a legitimately strong substitute forward for our team. With twelve seconds remaining in the State Semifinals, our boys had valiantly fought to a one-one score against the #1 ranked team in the state, and it looked like we were heading to overtime when a ball flew out of bounds by our bench. Nate easily could have let the ball roll harmlessly to the fence. Instead, he made the sporting gesture of retrieving the ball for Worthington Christian. Our opponents took advantage of the situation by scoring a dramatic last-second game-winning goal and three days later followed up by winning the State Championship. To lose that way was shocking. Just like that, I was no longer coaching the most overachieving group of seniors I’d ever had the privilege of coaching. Needless to say, Nate was devastated. A few months later, I received a letter from the parent of a Worthington Christian player. In it, he wrote: “On watching the videotape of our winning goal against you, we were stunned to see that one of your players got the ball for us on the sideline. It was a class act by a class team. Through the years, we’ve learned that Madeira players show great respect for their opponents and great respect for the game.” The defeat was gut-wrenching, but what an unbelievable compliment this was to my player. As I told the boys after the game, you should never have to apologize for acting with decency and honor. That game and that moment were among my proudest as a coach.



I left law to become a teacher and a coach. I can say with complete honesty, that it kills me to be away from coaching. I want to thank the senior boys soccer players for making me feel as much a part of things as they possibly could. In the best programs, tradition never graduates, and thanks to you, it doesn’t retire, either. The greatest compensation I’ve had as a retired coach has been the opportunity to spend more time with my son. But, boy, does he wear me out with his questions. As I mentioned earlier, he couldn’t ask enough about our swimmers. And what could I tell him about Jack and Ryan? Both are outstanding students. Both are super citizens. Both are great friends to many. And, like so many of you, they are shining examples of this incredible class from this wonderful school. Was Ryan and Jack’s effort diminished by coming 1 inch short of their ultimate goal? The longer I coached, the more I understood Kipling’s famous quote: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” Through the years I’ve learned that in the end, competition and participation is not about the glory, the wins, trophies, banners, or titles. Rather, it’s about the created memories, the character developed, the stories shared, and the relationships forged during a pursuit of excellence. As I told Nate Ervin back in 2006, if my son could grow up to be like Ryan Stephenson and Jack Mantkowski, I’d be a very proud father.



Over the past four years, I’ve read my fair share of books. I’ll read just about anything, but my favorite books are biographies and autobiographies of great men and women. I read these books in the hopes that I can learn from these people. Some common lessons have come through. Nearly every successful person I have read about has had a period in their lives where they were down and out, periods of terrible frustration, periods where they made horrendous mistakes, periods of desperation where achievement seemed beyond reach. Thomas Edison had over 10,000 failed experiments before he finally invented the light bulb. One of my favorite coaches, Joe Torre, set a Major League Baseball record for having the longest career as a player and manager without ever reaching the World Series. That was before he managed the New York Yankees to four World Series titles in five years. Anne Sullivan was Helen Keller’s phenomenal teacher. After being taken for granted and stymied by Helen’s parents, Ms. Sullivan, who was legally blind herself, became so depressed with her situation that she nearly left the Keller household in disgust before seeing even a fraction of what was to become Helen’s miraculous progress. Abraham Lincoln lived through “many days which tried men’s souls” before bringing a conclusion to the Civil War which ended slavery and saved the United States of America.



A common theme among nearly every great person who ever lived is that they were able to hang on just a little longer where other people may very well have given up. They were able to find the positive aspects of negative situations. They were able to demonstrate an understanding of Emerson’s compensation.



Understanding compensation and reaping its benefits largely comes down to your attitude. Will you be the type who wallows in self-pity? Will you be the one who always sees the sky falling? Or will you be the one who sees the silver lining in every dark cloud? And will you be the one who anticipates the sun coming up tomorrow?



As you move into your futures, I am not going to wish you a fairy-tale life where you live happily ever after. I am not going to wish you a road without bumps and dead ends and obstacles. I am not going to wish you a world without hardship. Instead, I am going to wish you the strength to persevere when everything around you is falling apart. I am going to wish you the ability to rise from the ashes and bounce back stronger than ever when it seems like nothing is going your way. I am going to wish you the faith, wisdom, and guidance to overcome all which comes to you, to find the silver lining in every cloud, to find the compensation in every loss. Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach, put it well when he said: “The glory is not in never falling down. The glory is in fighting to get up every time you do get knocked down.” Another writer said this thought in a different way which I have always found inspiring: “Only when the sky is darkest can I see the stars.”



Yes, my friends from Harvard are garnering fame, fortune, and power. They can order meals at the fanciest restaurants in the world, while I get to jostle with you in our cafeteria lunch line. They can pay for all the hired help they could ever need ten times over, but they can’t get the gratification I feel when students like Colin Voisard or Franny Barone or Madeline Gelis and many others are ready and able to help me with the cheapest of labor when I need help running a dodgeball tournament or keeping my son occupied during a basketball game. They get interviewed by the New York Times and Oprah, while I get interviewed by Bianca and “What’s up, Madeira?” You don’t become a teacher for the fame or the money. And I’ve got a news flash for all those educational policy experts in Columbus and Washington D.C. You don’t become a teacher to raise a student’s math score three points on a test. I didn’t enjoy the great company of Patrick Miller and Julie Yeomans nearly every day after school last year for them to become nuclear physicists but to learn that with extra effort they could do better than they every believed they could. I didn’t treasure Theodore Graeter’s otherworldly class participation in the hopes he might uncover some unknown theorem but to further develop his one-of-a kind personality. I had no illusions that making my good friend Marc Puma spend time on Khan Academy during all vacations to raise his otherwise unacceptable grades would lead to a Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Now, Jack Good, on the other hand… Like every teacher at this tremendous school, I became a teacher for many reasons. Maybe the biggest reason I became a teacher was to help my students dream just a little bit bigger, and to have just a little more confidence when pursuing those dreams and just a little more ability to achieve them. I am proud of my famous and successful friends, but I am just as proud of being a small part of your achievements. I look forward to many more of your success stories, and I look forward to sharing those stories with William Jason Unger, Madeira High School Class of 2025. It has been a privilege teaching you and an honor speaking to you tonight. I wish congratulations and Godspeed to the Madeira High School Class of 2015.


The Albert Shanker Blog posted the findings of a study about the importance of school contexts in retaining teachers and helping improve their practice.


Matthew Di Carlo introduces the scholars:


“Our guest authors today are Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay. Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University. Papay is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. In 2015, they received the American Educational Research Association Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award for the research discussed in this essay.”


The authors write:


“When you study education policy, the inevitable question about what you do for a living always gets the conversation going. Controversies over teachers unions, charter schools, and standardized testing provide plenty of fodder for lively debates. People often are eager to share their own experiences about individual teachers who profoundly shaped their lives or were less than inspiring.


“A large body of research confirms this common experience – teachers have large effects on students’ learning, and some teachers are far more effective than others. What is largely absent in these conversations, and in the scholarly literature, is a recognition of how these teachers are also supported or constrained by the organizational contexts in which they teach.


“The absence of an organizational perspective on teacher effectiveness leads to narrow dinner conversations and misinformed policy. We tend to ascribe teachers’ career decisions to the students they teach rather than the conditions in which they work. We treat teachers as if their effectiveness is mostly fixed, always portable, and independent of school context. As a result, we rarely complement personnel reforms with organizational reforms that could benefit both teachers and students.


“An emerging body of research now shows that the contexts in which teachers work profoundly shape teachers’ job decisions and their effectiveness. Put simply, teachers who work in supportive contexts stay in the classroom longer, and improve at faster rates, than their peers in less-supportive environments. And, what appear to matter most about the school context are not the traditional working conditions we often think of, such as modern facilities and well-equipped classrooms. Instead, aspects that are difficult to observe and measure seem to be most influential, including the quality of relationships and collaboration among staff, the responsiveness of school administrators, and the academic and behavioral expectations for students…..”

Vicki Cobb, author of many children’s books about hands-on science, recently spoke at a children’s literature conference in Florida. She was disturbed to meet a new breed of teacher: teachers who had grown up in the era of high-stakes testing and scripted lessons. Too many thought that this is the way school was supposed to be, because it was all they had experienced.


She attributes the change to the takeover of education policy by non educators:


The business and government suits, who have hijacked educational policy in a top down approach, are not professional educators. Their knowledge of education comes primarily from what they themselves survived (endured?). Most do not know what good education looks like. Their idea of a well-ordered classroom is rows of desks with students quietly bent over a test. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost in the preparation of the next generation of Florida’s classroom teachers. Their professors tell me that they call them the “FCAT babies.” These young people are the pre-service teachers who have grown up in Florida’s test-taking climate. They have a “mother, may I?” permission-seeking approach to their own classroom behavior as teachers. They think test-taking and test prep is normal. They have seen nothing else. They are afraid to think for themselves.


As she posed questions to a group of students, she noticed that they answered quickly to her questions, not pausing to think. She sensed the test-prep culture, the reflexive search for the right answer. And that was not what she wanted to see.


She missed what she calls “the artist-teacher.” What is the “artist=teacher”? “An artist is someone who brings his or her own self-expression to an activity. An artist expresses personal, closely held views, thoughts, images and passions with such truth and clarity that others immediately connect with this revealed humanity. Thus the personal becomes the universal. Therein lies its power.”


Instead, teachers in Florida told her about scripted programs whose goal was to make sure that every teacher was on the same page at the same time teaching the same things. Scripted lessons are “turning teachers into automatons, when American education is crying out for the return of the artist-teacher. This is the teacher who takes one look at the textbooks and goes to the library to find much more powerful reading on the same subjects. This is the teacher who knows each student intimately and can write a poem for each one. This is the teacher who figures that good teaching trumps test prep and is not afraid for her kids’ test outcomes. This is the teacher who has the courage to justify what he’s doing and why he’s doing it to powers-that-be who are not fully equipped to evaluate creativity. It includes a lot of the “best teacher” awardees. This is the teacher who wants to spend more time creating powerful lessons and less time doing accountability paperwork. For the artist-teacher, teaching with autonomy, mastery and purpose is a subversive activity, much as art is subversive in a dictatorship.”


Our current educational culture, driven by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core standards, is rewarding robotic behavior and punishing artist-teachers. In the current climate, good teaching is a subversive activity.

In this brilliant article, Marc Tucker explains why the civil rights community is making an error by supporting annual testing as a “civil right.” He knows their leaders believe that poor and minority children will be overlooked in the absence of annual testing. But he demonstrates persuasively that annual testing has done nothing to improve the academic outcomes of poor and minority children and that they have actually been harmed by the pressure to raise scores every year.


Tucker writes:


First of all, the data show that, although the performance of poor and minority students improved after passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, it was actually improving at a faster rate before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Over the 15-year history of the No Child Left Behind Act, there is no data to show that it contributed to improved student performance for poor and minority students at the high school level, which is where it counts.



Those who argue that annual accountability testing of every child is essential for the advancement of poor and minority children ought to be able to show that poor and minority children perform better in education systems that have such requirements and worse in systems that don’t have them. But that is simply not the case. Many nations that have no annual accountability testing requirements have higher average performance for poor and minority students and smaller gaps between their performance and the performance of majority students than we do here in the United States. How can annual testing be a civil right if that is so?



Nonetheless, on the face of it, I agree that it is better to have data on the performance of poor children and the children in other particularly vulnerable groups than not to have that data. But annual accountability testing of every child is not the only way to get that data. We could have tests that are given not to every student but only to a sample of students in each school every couple of years and find out everything we need to know about how our poor and minority students are doing, school by school.



But the situation is worse than I have thus far portrayed it. It is not just that annual accountability testing with separate scores for poor and minority students does not help those students. The reality is that it actually hurts them.



All that testing forces schools to buy cheap tests, because they have to administer so many of them. Cheap tests measure low-level basic skills, not the kind of high-level, complex skills most employers are looking for these days. Though students in wealthy communities are forced to take these tests, no one in those communities pays much attention to them. They expect much more from their students. It is the schools serving poor and minority students that feed the students an endless diet of drill and practice keyed to these low-level tests. The teachers are feeding these kids a dumbed down curriculum to match the dumbed down tests, a dumbed down curriculum the kids in the wealthier communities do not get….



It turns out that there is one big interest that is well served by annual accountability testing. It is the interest of those who hold that the way to improve our schools is to fire the teachers whose students do not perform well on the tests. This is the mantra of the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama Administration. It is not possible to gather the data needed to fire teachers on the basis of their students’ performance unless that data is gathered every year.



The Obama Administration has managed to pit the teachers against the civil rights community on this issue and to put the teachers on the defensive. It is now said that the reason the teachers are opposing the civil rights community on annual testing is because they are seeking to evade responsibility for the performance of poor and minority students. The liberal press has bought this argument hook, line and sinker.



This is disingenuous and outrageous. Not only is it true that annual accountability testing does not improve the performance of poor and minority students, as I just explained, but it is also true that annual accountability testing is making a major contribution to the destruction of the quality of our teaching force….


The evaluation systems recently created has serious flaws. Their goal is to fire teachers, and those likeliest to be fired are teachers in minority communities. Meanwhile applications to professional education programs are plummeting. This is a very bad scenario for children and teachers alike; it harms teachers by putting the fear of failure in their minds, and it harms the children by giving them a stripped-down schooling and a revolving door of teachers.


Time to think again, says Tucker. I agree.












Carol Burris posts a letter from a young teacher in DC who graduated from Burris’ school in Long Island. She is not happy with the high-stakes testing, test-based accountability, and Common Core. Want to know why so many teachers are leaving? Corporate, punitive, gotcha reform.

Katherine Sokolowski has written a post you will enjoy, about her teaching and her students.


It begins like this:



I opened up Word to write a blog post about Pearson, CCSS, and PARCC. After two days of learning about the test administration, I typed around three hundred words of frustration about these bleeping mandates that are taking away teaching time from me.


And then, I hit delete.


Because, truly, everyone can likely guess how I feel about them anyway. And while it irritates me to no end that I have to give five tests to my students in March – and three in May – they haven’t changed what happens in the four walls of my classroom on a daily basis. Because in my classroom…


I still work hard to teach children to treasure books.
I work to make my students understand that their writing is a gift.
I try to impress upon my kids that being a good person is vital.
I pour love into every child who comes in my room.
Every day.
And I pray that every child will see their value by the time they leave.


PARCC, Pearson, CCSS, and any other crazy acronym or corporation that comes along can’t change that,
And they really haven’t changed my teaching.


I know what is important.
I see it in seventy-seven beautiful faces

Anna Jacopetti recently retired after a career in education of 50 years. She taught every grade from 1-14, she was an administrator, and she taught teachers. In this article, she shows the contrast between today’s emphasis on high-stakes testing and deep learning.


She reflects on a different approach to education, one that is definitely discouraged now by federal policy. What is in favor now is data-driven decision-making, scripted lessons, and Common Core-aligned readings.


She writes:


I found a job teaching reading in a school that still encouraged teacher initiative. I chose to use the Junior Great Books, a series that employs rich and varied language to tell age appropriate stories. Second Grade children are word sponges, full of curiosity and pleasure as they gain understanding of the world around them through expanding vocabularies This is not a rote learning process. These children enjoyed the fairy tales and legends that they could vividly imagine through the rich language, but they were most excited about learning new words that they could use in their own stories and in their conversations. We wrote their favorite new words on the board . Soon the children were bringing in other words that they had heard (but not understood) from their reading or from conversations overheard at home. We added these to our Words of Power and the list grew, with words like soporific, synchronicity, catastrophe, and surreptitious to remember only a few. The whole class was now engaged and there were no discipline problems. Reading fluency improved by leaps and bounds.


After Easter break, we had exhausted our Jr. Great Books and I turned to an Open Court textbook series that the school had purchased. I was pleased that it presented classic stories and myths, but after a few days the children balked. They told me that they didn’t like the new book. When I asked them why, they quickly consensed that all the Words of Power had been taken out of the stories. Open Court had carefully limited the language to words that were prescribed for Second Graders and these words were declared “boring” by the class. So I asked them to tell me what made a word “powerful” and they were quiet for a few minutes. Then Esme raised her hand and said ,“When you look up a word of power in the dictionary and you read all the definitions, you still don’t know everything it means.” I have never forgotten this moment. Moments such as these kept me going through decades of teaching. In such moments learning is palpable and children’s eyes light up with understanding and pride. These moments can’t be scripted or measured, but they are exemplary of an emergent, radiant process of learning that education should nurture, respect and protect at all costs.


I am highlighting here what it means to nurture capacities rather than “teach to standards”. Had I introduced vocabulary lists, assigned all the children to look up words in the dictionary as homework and then tested them to see if they had “learned” the words, I would have had a very different result. Children have a capacity for language acquisition in early childhood that is quite remarkable. They master complex syntax and the basic grammatical constructions of English before they go to school. They have learned subject verb agreement, verb tenses and proper use of adjectives and adverbs by kindergarten. They learn through conversation and by listening. The richer and more omnipresent language is in their surroundings, the more stories they hear, the stronger their language skills and their imaginative faculties become. Many first and second graders will know the lines to a play or a story “by heart” after hearing them only a few times – faster than older children and much faster than adults. Nurturing and building on this innate capacity is a key for language instruction in the early grades. Reciting and retelling come before writing. Dictating and then finally writing their own stories is a very engaging and empowering process for children that ideally precedes reading.


As we move deeper into the era of test-based accountability, teachers like Ms. Jacopetti will retire, and what she knows will disappear. Will teachers still know how to think for themselves? Will it be permitted by the state or the federal government? Will they still exercise their judgment? Or will they act as robots, programmed for compliance?



At a conference in Néw York Coty, Wendy Kopp praised the alumni of Teach for America, saying that most of them remained in education and were fighting for social justice in new leadership roles. Perhaps she was thinking of John White, state superintendent in Louisiana, who led the fight for vouchers and Common Core, or Kevin Huffman, the former state superintendent of Tennessee, who pressed to strip teachers of any job rights, plus charters and vouchers, or Michelle Rhee, who supported pro-voucher, anti-union candidates.

Some might think that the fight for privatization and union-busting is not the same as battling social injustice. One might study the history of the Néw Deal to understand how unions built a middle class in the U.S., lifting people from poverty into decent jobs whose hours were limited, jobs that paid a living wage. TFA has received $60 million or more from the Walton Family Foundation, which is vehemently anti-union and pro-privatization.

Kopp’s claims were contested by Andrew Hargreaves of Boston College, this year’s winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award.

“Dr Andy Hargreaves of Boston College compared teachers on the programme to Macauley Culkin’s character in the 1990 film Home Alone.

“Teach for America was, he said, symptomatic of the way education systems mistakenly prioritised confident individuals over teamwork.

“It’s the image of the 9-year-old boy in Home Alone,” he said. “Somebody with incredible competence and supreme over-self-confidence [who] believes he can fight off crime and intruders by dropping strange contraptions on their heads and propelling them back out into the snow just with his own individual gifts, abilities, grit and guts. A bit like Teach for America.”

“Such teachers might be “great” for schools lacking support, he said, but they only stayed for two or three years. Finding ways for teachers to work together was more important than supporting “heroic, overgrown 9-year-old individuals who want to save the system for us.”

A reader contacted me and told me that Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor emeritus at Lesley University and early childhood education expert, gave a wonderful graduation speech at Temple University. I reached out to Nancy and post it here with her permission.

She said:


Nancy Carlsson-Paige
May 8, 2015

Good Evening, Everyone!

I am truly honored to have this opportunity to speak to you today. This is a big day for you, graduates, and for your families. It’s a celebration of your accomplishments, all your hard work—I know it wasn’t always easy getting here. And this is a day also to appreciate those many people who have helped you, supported you, and loved you on your path to this graduation.

I’m so glad that education is the field you have chosen! It is a rewarding and meaningful profession. It is through education that our minds expand, we get wiser, and better able to improve the human condition. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

This moment in time that you have chosen to enter education is a rocky and uncertain one. In recent years, the meaning and purpose of education has narrowed. In the eyes of many today, education is seen as a delivery system to transmit units of knowledge and specific skills to our young people that are then tested to ensure they’ve been learned. It’s a one-dimensional, restrictive view of education that has led increasingly to the disappearance of engaging, holistic curriculum, the arts, recess, teacher innovation, teacher collaboration, and education for citizenship.

Classrooms for our young children have seen a dramatic disappearance of play. But we know play is the way young kids learn. And it is also how they build inner security and resilience. I learned this lesson when my own two sons, who are now grown, were very young.

It was a winter day, after my teaching and the boys’ day at school. The three of us were together in the living room of our rented apartment. An accidental fire started from the fireplace—accidental in the sense that I wasn’t trying to burn down the house, but tired after work, I’d made a sloppy fire. I do wonder as I look back now how overwhelmed I might have been as a young, single working mom. So the flames were leaping out of the fireplace, lapping the wooden mantle. I began trying to suffocate them with a heavy blanket. My older son Kyle was trying to help. But my younger son Matt, who was then five years old, ran out of the room.

I started having success suppressing the flames but then I was wondering: Where is Matt? And then after some moments, he ran into the room. He was dressed in his red corduroy bathrobe, his fire fighter’s hat, his black galoshes and a sea divers mask. He had a little piece of rubber tubing in his hand, it wasn’t connected to anything, but he was spraying it in the direction of the fireplace.

The outfit Matt had on was the one he wore for his rescue hero play.
–He had it on now because wearing it was what he could do to put out the fire.

A young child in a rescue hero outfit IS a hero in that moment—and he can fully believe that by wearing firefighter clothes and with his rubber tube, he can put out a fire.

When kids pretend to be Superheroes and other Rescue fantasy characters, it helps them feel safe and in control. Life presents so many challenges to young children, this kind of play helps them develop a sense of security and inner resilience.

Studies are now showing that play is rapidly disappearing from classrooms for young children, increasingly replaced by more teacher-directed instruction.

This test-driven education climate we have today, reinforced with accountability measures and high stakes, has made teachers fearful and discouraged. Currently 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. I don’t want you to be included in that percentage of educators who become too demoralized to continue.

It is ironic that at this very moment in history when we need an expanded vision of education, the blinders come on. We are teaching as if we think that what our youth will need to know in the future is already known.

Our young people are going to have to exceed our limitations. They’ll need to develop wide-ranging competencies to be able to live well in the world they are inheriting. They’ll need to think in new ways, initiate, create, explore and solve problems, collaborate with others, make ethical decisions. They will have to grapple with all the problems we are handing them–climate change, income inequality, mass incarceration, nuclear weapons, war and terrorism.

These critical competencies that our young people will need are not quantifiable. How could you test for creativity on a computer-based exam? Or measure original thinking on a fill in the bubbles standardized test? (Let’s hope no one tries.) What passes for education today—all the facts and skills that can be defined, pinned down and tested– is a very small part of what education truly is and should be.

When I was a new teacher about forty years ago, I came across a letter that a principal had written to the teachers in his school. The words had a profound impact on me, and they have stayed with me all these years—as a reminder of the true purpose of education.

This is the letter:

Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:

Gas chambers built by learned engineers.

Children poisoned by educated physicians.

Infants killed by trained nurses.

Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education.

My request is: Help your students become human.

This letter was written in 1971. And it is so relevant for us now.

It calls on us to understand education as a human and moral endeavor. In school we learn knowledge and skills and the moral and ethical awareness to choose how we use them. We educate whole people—their minds and hearts—so they will become citizens who can think for themselves and make choices for the good of others as well as themselves.

John Dewey believed that the aim of education was democracy and citizenship.

And that each generation had to learn citizenship anew– learn it by living it. Ideally from their first days in school.

I was in a kindergarten classroom one day early in the school year when the teacher was sitting with the children in a circle. She was asking them, “How do we want to be with each other in this class?” The children were raising their hands and saying things like: “We should share! No hitting! If you hurt someone, say you’re sorry.” The teacher was writing down the children’s words on chart paper. She told me that each morning she reads this list with the children. As the children have more experience with each other, they add more ideas to their list. Soon they start coming into the classroom and reading the list by themselves. The words are their words and the children want to learn how to read them.

In another kindergarten I visited more recently– during this era of high stakes testing—all of the children were sitting silently at tables. The teacher was testing one little boy at a computer. The other children were copying words from the chalk board. The words were: “No talking. Sit in your seat. Hands to Yourself.” These were the teacher’s rules.

Most of the children looked scared or disengaged, and one little boy was crying. For them, learning to write was something required; someone else’s words–disconnected from their ideas and passions.

This teacher was required to complete mandated testing of each child in her class—one by one at the computer– 3 times a year. She had no classroom aid. The program’s funding depended on the test scores. It would have been hard for any teacher in this situation to give children engaging, play-based curriculum, and community building experiences.

In the narrowed education climate of today, some people think of teachers as technicians. But good teaching can’t be pinned down to a recipe. Good teaching is a form of art.

Of course our work is grounded in science. But it isn’t enough to know only the science. In education, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Being a good teacher means knowing how to apply what we know, when and how to use it, and how to innovate upon it—and that takes talent.

There was an incident that happened in a high school in East Harlem, that taught me a lot about the art of good teaching. It was at a time when there’d been two incidents in NY City—within a couple of weeks, two teens had been shot and their coats stolen. In this school in East Harlem, there was a conflict resolution program, and the teacher had been talking with her students about these shooting incidents, and the kids were practicing ways to deescalate conflict.

Raymond went to this high school and he had recently bought a new coat.

On this day, Raymond arrived at school without his coat and profoundly upset. At the subway stop near school, he’d been surrounded by three guys who demanded he give up his new jacket.

The teacher called a class meeting immediately, with Raymond’s permission, so he could share his story and express his rage.

Teacher: Raymond I know you are very upset. Could you tell us what happened?

Raymond: I was getting off the subway stop right here in East Harlem and all of a sudden I was surrounded by three guys who told me that I better give them my coat. One of the guys had his hand in his pocket and I thought maybe he had a knife.

Teacher: Go on Raymond. We’re right here listening to you and all of us care a lot about you and what happened.

Raymond: Well, before I could even think, I started to unzip my coat, and I said to the guy who I thought had the knife, “This is incredible. I was just getting ready to give you my coat.” I said, “Who should I give it to?” One of the guys snatched the coat and all of them started to run off as fast as they could. Then, of course, I wanted to pick up some rocks and throw them at them, but I didn’t.

Maria said: I can’t believe you did that, Raymond. I think you saved your life. How come you didn’t try to say “no” or fight back? I think that’s what I would have done.

Raymond: I don’t know. It just came to me, but now I feel so angry and humiliated and I can’t believe I don’t have my coat. It’s 20 degrees out there today and I walked three blocks without a coat.

Teacher: Raymond, how do you think you were able to respond in this way and–I would agree with Maria–probably save your life? Remember just last week this same thing happened in Queens and the young man didn’t give up his coat and was shot to death.

Raymond: Well, I was actually thinking of what we were talking about last week of what makes violence even worse and that’s more violence. I also remember when we were talking about what happened to the kid in Queens, you said, “Remember, you are not your coat”. So I guess I decided to do something that would de-escalate the conflict and not give back more violence, and that’s what I did.

Manuel: Raymond, I think it was more courageous to not fight back and use your skills, but I don’t know if I would have been able to do that.

Teacher: So Raymond, it looks as though you really put your skills to use in a horrible situation. And when you asked who you should give the jacket to you were also de-escalating the conflict by staying neutral.

Anthony: How much was that jacket?

Raymond: Well, it was $119.00.

Tanya: There are 92 seniors in this school—that is a little over a dollar each.

Teacher: What are you thinking here, Tanya?

Tanya: I’m thinking that if I had help I would be willing to collect this money for Raymond to buy another jacket.

James: I would be willing to help. I can’t believe you were able to do what you did Raymond.

Teacher: Well, this sounds like a wonderful plan. Do we need to do anything else to make it happen? How do you feel about that Raymond?

Raymond: Wow. I can’t believe you would all do that. But I know my mother wouldn’t be able to buy another coat. Maybe don’t ask everybody or say, “Only if you can afford the dollar.” That would make me feel better.

This high school teacher had the skill, compassion, and the artful ability to respond to her students in the moment and to build community from their experiences and ideas. And she had enough autonomy as a teacher to be able to create a teaching moment from what happened to Raymond.

Too many external requirements stifle a teacher’s ability to practice her craft.

Teaching is so much more than transmissin of information, test prep, and data collection. It’s why you can’t be replaced by a computer. Or by someone who had a 5-week summer program in how to teach.

But teaching like the teacher in East Harlem is a lot harder today. Many teachers say there isn’t room anymore for conflict resolution programs, community building, and student-centered projects when so many mandates fill the day. But teachers also know what good education looks like–and they hear its beating heart. They keep on finding creative ways to teach even in this climate.

The singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote: “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

You are holding that light now. You, with all of your energy, your fresh ideas, your idealism (I hope you have it and hold onto it), your knowledge and talent. You’ll shine that light where you can—in whatever situations you find yourselves.

We have to keep our eyes on an expansive vision of education. So wherever we are, we find ways to move toward it. When I look around I see so many teachers, parents, administrators, and students—even a couple of politicians– taking steps toward a more holistic and human vision of education. And I feel sure that we—individually and together—are going to move that big needle.

Margaret Mead’s words, uttered decades ago, are timeless and history has proven them over and over to be true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

A teacher left this comment on the blog:

G. K. Chesterton said, ““The Madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Those that champion ed-reform are basically those that have lost everything but their reason, they reduce education, as they reduce most everything else, to what can be benchmarked and quantified, in a data driven environment everything is “rational” and “reasonable” but little else. There is no room for whimsy, there is no room for beauty, there is no room for sanity.

But as long as the classroom teacher is sane, does see the importance of whimsy, beauty, the individual and the discovery of the individual that lives beneath the surface of every student, real education will ultimately triumph. The real subversive work of the teacher is what happens in the classroom. That is why I think it is important that we, as classroom teachers do not lose sight of what we are really called to do. I think sometimes we become so strident in our opposition to what is happening in the larger world that we lose sight of what we can accomplish in the world of the classroom. In our stridency we are in danger of losing everything but or reason and in the process become like those we oppose.

Our students have one crack at an education. Each student I teach in 9th, 11th, or 12th grade (the grades I teach) will only have one chance at 9th, 11th, and 12th grade and they deserve a meaningful and “sane” 9th, 11th, and 12th grade. It is important to fight as best we can the battles going on outside our classroom, but w also need to do the best we can to see to it that our students in our classrooms today get the best and most meaningful education we can give them.

Sometimes I believe I am being asked to teach with both hands tied behind my back, but as long as I have a voice to speak with I can leave the gesticulating to others. If we reach the students we teach they will become the future and the best way to change the insanity of the present is to prepare those that will inherit the future. If our students are able to keep their sanity as they go into the world there is a real possibility that they will make the world they help to shape a more sane one.

Two more words for the “The Educational Devil’s Dictionary:

Leader – First follower.

Leadership – The ability to get others to do what they are told by do doing what they, the leaders, are told better than anybody else.

J. D. Wilson, Jr.


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