What Happened to 2018 As The Year of the Teacher?

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This year teachers took their mission way beyond the classroom.

 

Starting in West Virginia, we staged half-a-dozen walkouts in red states across the country demanding a better investment in children’s educations and often getting it.

 

Then we took that momentum and stormed our state capitals and Washington, DC, with thousands of grassroots campaigns that translated into seats in government.

 

It was so effective and unprecedented that the story began circulating that 2018 would be known as “The Year of the Teacher.”

 

And then, just as suddenly, the story stopped.

 

No more headlines. No more editorials. No more exposes.

 

So what happened?

 

The gum in the works seems to have been a story in The Atlantic by Alia Wong called “The Questionable Year of the Teacher Politician.”

 

In it, she writes that the teacher insurgence was overblown by unions and marks little more than a moment in time and not an authentic movement.

 

It really comes down to a numbers game. Numerous sources cite high numbers of teachers running for office. Wong disputes them.

 

National Education Association (NEA) senior political director Carrie Pugh says about 1,800 educators – both Republicans and Democrats – sought seats in state legislatures this year. Likewise, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), a group that works to elect Democrats to state legislatures, puts the number at 1,456 educators.

 

Wong disputes these figures because she says most of these people aren’t currently K-12 classroom teachers.

 

She writes:

 

 “The NEA uses the word educator liberally, counting essentially anyone who currently works in or used to work in an education-related job, such as professors, guidance counselors, and school administrators.”

 

Maddy Will and others at Education Week agree with Wong’s assessment. According to their analysis, out of the thousands of education-related candidates, they could only prove that 177 were K-12 classroom teachers.

 

And there you have it.

 

A story about teachers taking over their own destinies is dead in the water.

 

However, this begs two important questions: (1) Is not being able to corroborate the facts the same as disproving them? And (2) Is being a K-12 classroom teacher a fair metric by which to judge education candidates?

 

First, there’s the issue of corroboration.

 

Wong, herself, notes that part of the disparity, “…may come down to the inconsistent ways in which candidate lists are compiled from state to state and organization to organization.” It’s unclear why that, by itself, throws doubt on the NEA’s and DLCC’s numbers. These are verifiable facts. Journalists could – in theory – track down their truth or falsity if their parent companies ponied up the dough for enough staff to do the hard work of researching them. The fact that this hasn’t happened is not proof of anything except low journalistic standards.

 

Second, there’s the question of whether Wong and Will are holding teachers up to a fair standard.

 

Since the Great Recession, more than 116,000 educators have been out of work. If roughly 1-2% of them decide to run for office, doesn’t that represent a rising tide of teachers striking back at the very representatives responsible for neglecting schools and students? Aren’t they seeking to right the wrongs that put them out of work in the first place?

 

Even if we look at just the people currently employed in an education field, why are college professors defined out of existence? Why are guidance counselors and principals not worthy of notice?

 

Certainly K-12 classroom teachers are at the heart of the day-to-day workings of the education system. But these others are by no means unrelated.

 

Carol Burris was an award-winning principal at South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District of New York before becoming Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE). Diane Ravitch, who co-founded NPE, is an education historian and research professor at New York University.

 

If Wong and Will are to be believed, the work of Burris and Ravitch on behalf of public education should be discounted because they are not currently working in the classroom. That’s just ridiculous.

 

This isn’t about logic or facts. It’s about controlling the narrative.

 

The Atlantic and Education Week are artificially massaging the numbers to support the narrative their owners prefer.

 

And let’s not forget, both publications are in bed with the forces of standardization and privatization that educators of every stripe have been taking arms against this year and beyond.

 

Though The Atlantic is a 162-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment, it was purchased on July 28, 2017, by the Emerson Collective. This is Laurne Powell Jobs’ philanthrocapitalist cover organization which she’s been using in a media blitz to reinvent high schools by way of corporate education reform.

 

Likewise, Education Week has always had a corporatist slant on its editorial page and sometimes even in the way it reports news. Nowhere is this more blatant than the publication’s annual Quality Counts issue which promotes the standards-and-testing industrial school complex of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, etc.

 

It’s no wonder that these organizations would want to stop the narrative of insurgent teachers taking a stand against the very things these publications and their owners hold dear.

 

They want to cast doubt on the record-breaking activism of parents, students, citizens and, yes, teachers.

 

But the facts tell a very different story.

 

From West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to Colorado and Arizona, educators took to the streets last spring to rally for adequate, equitable and sustainable K–12 funding.

 

All over the country, we’re demanding properly equipped classrooms, better wages, and stronger public schools.

 

In Connecticut we sent the first black woman to the legislature from the state, Jahana Hayes, a school administrator and Teacher of the Year.

 

We took down Wisconsin’s anti-education Governor Scott Walker. Not only that, but we replaced him with the state superintendent of public instruction, Tony Evers, on a platform centered on schools and learning.

 

And he wasn’t the only educator with a gubernatorial win. Tim Walz, a former high school teacher, became governor of Minnesota.

 

In Oklahoma, former teachers Carri Hicks, Jacob Rosencrants, and John Waldron all won seats in the state legislature, who along with others riding the pro-school tide increased the state’s “education caucus” – a group of bipartisan lawmakers committed to improving schools – from nine members to 25.

 

Even where candidates weren’t explicitly educators, mobilizing around the issue of education brought electoral victories. Democratic candidates were able to break the Republican supermajority in North Carolina because of their schools advocacy.

 

Even in Michigan – home of our anti-education Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor after campaigning against public-school funding cuts.

 

In Illinois, anti-education governor Bruce Rauner got the boot, while Democrat J.B. Pritzker unseated him on a schools platform.

 

And in Kansas, not only did school districts successfully sue the state for more funding, Laura Kelly defeated conservative incumbent governor Kris Kobach on a platform of further expanding school funding.

 

These victories didn’t just happen. They were the result of grassroots people power.

 

The NEA says even beyond educators seeking office, members and their families showed a 165% increase in activism and volunteering during the midterm election over 2016. This is especially significant because participation tends to flag, not increase, around midterms.

 

So let’s return to the disputed numbers of teachers who sought election this campaign season.

 

Of the 1,800 educators the NEA identified, 1,080 of them were elected to their state legislatures. When it comes to the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 109 of 178 educators won.

 

If we go by Education Week’s numbers, just 43 of 177 won.

 

Clearly, this is not the whole picture.

 

The education insurgency was more than even getting candidates elected. It was also about changes in policy.

 

In Massachusetts, we successfully repealed the Ban on Bilingual Education so educators will be able to teach English Language Learners in a mix of the students’ native language and English as a bridge to greater English proficiency.

 

In North Carolina, we successfully lobbied state lawmakers to stop for-profit charter schools from taking over four of five public schools.

 

And everywhere you look the stranglehold of high stakes standardized testing is losing its grip.

 

Because of our advocacy, the amount of time spent on these deeply biased assessments has been cut in states like Maryland, New Mexico, West Virginia, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania.

 

The highly suspect practice of evaluating teachers on student test scores has been dropped in Connecticut and the weight it is given has been reduced in New Mexico.

 

Now with new policies in Idaho and North Dakota, 10 states have explicit laws on the books allowing parents to opt their children out of some or all of these exams.

 

Half of New Hampshire’s school districts have replaced standardized tests in most grades with local, teacher-made performance assessments.

 

I don’t care what corporate journalists are being forced to report by their billionaire owners.

 

These accomplishments should not be minimized.

 

Teachers are at the heart of communities fighting the good fight everywhere.

 

And in most places we’re winning!

 

We’re teaching our lawmakers what it means to support public education – and if they refuse to learn that lesson, we’re replacing them.

 

If that’s not “Year of the Teacher,” I don’t know what is.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Holiday Season Brings Fear and Resentment for Many Students

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“I hate Christmas.”

 

Teachers hear that with surprising regularity around this time of year.

 

I hate Christmas. I hate Thanksgiving. I hate every holiday.

 

America’s public school students are living under tremendous pressure.

 

The social safety net is full of holes. And our children are left to fall through the ripped and torn fabric.

 

The sad fact is that one in four students in America’s classrooms have experienced a traumatic event.

 

So if your classroom is typical, 25% of your students have witnessed violence or been subject to a deeply distressing experience.

 

That could be drug or alcohol abuse, food insecurity, severe beatings, absent caregivers or neglect.

 

These figures, provided by Neena McConnico, Director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project, are indicative of a truth about this country that we don’t want to see.

 

Our Darwinian public policies leave many children to suffer the effects of poverty – and our society doesn’t want to deal with it.

 

In impoverished communities, these percentages are even higher and the results more devastating.

 

The Center for Disease Control’s comprehensive Adverse Childhood Experiences study links the toxic stress of unaddressed trauma to heart disease, liver disease, and mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

 

Young children exposed to more than five adverse experiences in the first three years of life face a 75 percent likelihood of having delays in language, emotional, or brain development, according to McConnico.

 

This translates directly to negative behaviors in the classroom.

 

Children who witness violence often have trouble in school because they suffer from post-traumatic stress, which can manifest as inattention, distractibility, hyperactivity, insomnia, aggression, and emotional outbursts.

 

Or, alternately, these children can sometimes withdraw and appear to be unfazed by their experiences. In some ways, that’s even more dangerous because while they avoid negative attention, they often get no attention at all.

 

It’s bad enough in the everyday. But it gets worse around the holidays.

 

Some of it is due to the structure and safety of school being removed. During holiday breaks, children are left to the mercy of sometimes chaotic and uncertain home lives.

 

Some of it is due to unrealistic expectations inevitably conjured up by the holiday season, itself. Even grown adults have trouble with depression around this time of year. But when you’re a troubled child, the unrealistic expectations and disappointments can be doubly impactful.

 

Loved ones are missing due to incarceration, divorce, abandonment, health issues, or death. Talk of family gatherings or a special meal can trigger hurt feelings for children who know their caregivers can’t or won’t provide them.

 

And it’s not always neglect. Sometimes there just isn’t the money for these things. We live in a gig economy where many people work multiple jobs just to survive. All it takes is missing one paycheck or one illness to disrupt holiday celebrations.

 

Even when parents have enough money, some just don’t bother to buy their kids anything. Sometimes families get to a better financial point but children have had to live through a period of food insecurity and are haunted by it. So even though the household is stable now, kids eat all their treats on the way to school because they always are fearful that the food will run out.

 

When kids have these sorts of fears, the ubiquitous holiday movies, TV shows, Christmas songs and commercials can set them off further.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of year for some, but not for all. For many students, the holidays are a time of dread and resentment.

 

That’s why it’s so important for teachers to be aware of what’s happening to their students.

 

For the quarter of American children who experience trauma at home, school may be their only safe harbor in a world of storms. Teachers may be the only people they see all day who offer a safe place, a stable environment and a friendly word.

 

For some kids, teachers are the only adults in their lives who make them feel valuable and supported.

 

We offer our students so much more than reading, writing and math. We’re allies, mentors, protectors and role models.

 

I wish we could save them from all the terrors of this world, but we can’t.

 

Let me be clear – I am in no way a super teacher.

 

But here are a few things I do in my classroom to help alleviate some of the stresses of the season – and often year round.

 

1)  Prioritize Relationships

 

Let your kids know you care. The student-teacher relationship is sacred. Nourish it. Be reliable, honest, and dependable.

 

As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

2)  Listen to Them

 
Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is just listen to students’ problems. You don’t always have to offer a solution. Our kids are dealing with so many adult pressures. Offering them the ability to get it all out in the presence of a caring adult can be a treasured gift.

 

“It’s really that simple,” McConnico says. “Listen, reflect back to them that they have been heard, validate the child’s feelings without judgment, and thank the child for sharing with you.”

 

3)  Create Opportunities to be Successful

Some people see teaching as essentially an act of evaluation and assessment. We observe students and then tell them what they did wrong.

This is extremely narrow-minded. When you get to know your students, you can offer them tasks in which you expect they’ll succeed. It’s the kind of thing we do all the time – differentiating instruction and offering choice so that students can achieve the goal in the manner best suited to them.

Sometimes you really have to work at it. If a child has extreme behavior issues, you can observe closely to find the one thing he or she does right and then praise them for it. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, it pays off tremendously!

Positive experiences lead to more positive experiences. It’s like putting training wheels on a bike. It scaffolds learning by supporting kids emotional needs before their academic ones.

4)  Routines

I am a huge fan of routine. Kids know exactly what we’re going to do in my class everyday – or at least they have a clear conception of the normal outline of what happens there.

I try to have very clear expectations, timelines and consequences. For kids who live in chaotic homes, this is especially comforting. It’s just another way of creating a safe place where all can learn.

 

5)  There’s Nothing Wrong With Downtime

I know. Teachers are under enormous pressure from administrators to fill every second of the day. But sometimes the best use of class time is giving students a break.

 

Let students finish assignments in class, read for pleasure, draw, even just daydream and relax. You can overdo it, but everyone can benefit from a little R & R.

 

This is especially true for traumatized children. Give them time to regroup from the mental and emotional stress. I find that it actually helps motivate kids to work harder when assignments are given.

 

The holidays can be a stressful time in school.

 

Kids get overexcited, they can’t concentrate, they’re torn left and right by the various emotions of the season.

 

As teachers, it’s our job to understand the full scope of what’s going on with our kids and make our classes as nourishing and safe as possible.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Billionaire Heiress Lashes Out at Unions Because Her Fortune Didn’t Buy Election

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Speaks To Media After Visiting Students At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

 

Betsy DeVos is furious!

 

She and her family spent boatloads of money this election cycle and few of their candidates won.

 

Instead, lawmakers were largely selected by these things called… ew… voters.

 

She was so enraged that she used her platform as Secretary of Education – another prudent purchase by her family – to lash out at teachers unions for – get this – having too much influence!!!!!

 

She told Fox Business Network:

 

“The teachers union has a stranglehold on many of the politicians in this country, both at the federal level and at the state-level.”

 

That’s rich coming from her, but one can see where she’s coming from.

 

In the midterms 23 states had double-digit percentage-point increases in turnout compared with 1982-2014. That resulted in a blue wave in the U.S. House – one of the largest and most diverse groups of freshman Congresspeople ever.

 

This is the third-highest turnover since 1974. We showed 104 incumbents the door.

 

DeVos didn’t pay for THAT!

 

How dare those Joe and Jane Sixpacks come out to the polls and upset the plans the billionaire class had plunked down their hard-inherited wealth to ensure!

 

How dare teachers and school employees pool their nickles and dimes to have a say about their own professions!

 

The only people who should have a voice in public policy are the… uh, public?

 

No.

 

Parents and students?

 

No!

 

Plutocrats like DeVos and family?

 

Yeah! That’s right!

 

You can’t spell Democracy without DEMOnstrative Wealth!

 

We can’t let our schools be run by parents or students  or the people who work there. Decisions can’t be made by just anyone. It has to be by the BEST people. And who better than the rich?

 

That’s why this election cycle has DeVos so irate.

 

She spent $1 million through her affiliated Students First PAC to elect Scott Wagner Governor of Pennsylvania – but those darn VOTERS spoiled everything by re-electing Gov. Tom Wolf instead!

 

The DeVos family spent more than $635,000 to keep Scott Walker as Governor of Wisconsin, but those naysaying nellies who pay taxes decided to go with Democratic challenger Tony Evers, instead.

 

I mean, come on, people! That’s just not fair!

 

We’re making her waste her enormous fortune without getting any return on the investment!

 

And she DOES expect tit-for-tat.

 

She famously wrote:

 

“I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”

 

Her boss – and philosophical soul mate – Donald Trump feels the same way. He once bragged at a rally:

 

 “I’ve given to everybody because that was my job. I gotta give it to them, because when I want something I get it. When I call, they kiss my ass.”

 

DeVos doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks the walk.

 

One of the most infamous examples of quid pro quo was when the DeVos family gave Michigan Republicans $1.45 million over a seven-week period as an apparent reward for passing a no-accountability charter school law in 2016. That’s $25,000 per day! The editors of the Detroit Free Pressdescribed it as a “filthy, moneyed kiss.”

 

Yet somehow it’s unions that have a “stranglehold” on politicians and policy!?

 

Let’s get one thing straight – money should not be able to buy political influence. Period.

 

That’s union money. That’s billionaire money. That’s anyone’s money.

 

But that requires major reforms to how we finance political campaigns. It requires several Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United to be overturned. It requires additional regulations and transparency from our legislature.

 

Until that happens, no one can afford to stop making these campaign contributions.

 

In Buckley v. Valeo and several additional rulings that built on it, The Supreme Court wrongly ruled that money equals speech and thus any limitation on political spending would violate the First Amendment.

 

Therefore, no one can afford to limit their voice by voluntarily closing their pocketbook.

 

People with truckloads of cash – like DeVos – cry wolf when the unwashed masses pool their resources to the point where they can come close to matching the wealthy.

 

But make no mistake – with the rampant economic inequality in this country, the rich can outspend the poor. And they often do.

 

It doesn’t take a political genius to see that our national policies invariably favor the wealthy and ignore the poor. That’s no accident. It’s the rich getting what they’ve paid for.

 

If anyone has a “stranglehold” on politicians it’s silver spooned magnates like DeVos who can transform the whims of winning a lottery of birth into political appointments and massive influence on policy.

 

But DeVos wasn’t done whining to a sympathetic audience on Fox Business Channel.

 

She continued:

 

“…they [i.e. teachers unions] are very resistant to the kind of changes that need to happen. They are very protective of what they know, and there are protective, really protective of adult jobs and not really focused on what is right for individual students.”

 

Really? How would you know? You never sent your kids to public school. You never went to public school, yourself. You’ve only ever visited a handful of public schools after purchasing your position in Trump’s cabinet (Check the receipts to the Senators who confirmed her!).

 

Moreover, it takes a certain level of ignorance to claim that teachers get into the classroom because they DON’T care about children. That’s like saying firemen don’t want to protect people from fires or lawyers don’t want to serve their clients legal needs.

 

Having a well-educated, experienced, caring teacher in the classroom IS what’s in the best interests of students. That means having a teacher with collective bargaining rights so she can grade her students fairly without fear of political ramifications if someone complains to the school board. That means being able to blow the whistle if classroom conditions are unsafe or policies handed down by functionaries (like DeVos) aren’t helping kids learn.

 

Teachers want change. They’re begging for change – just not the kinds of change DeVos is pushing.

 

But she went on:

 

 “One of the most fundamental things again is focusing on individual children and knowing that all students are different, they learn differently. I have four children, they were all very different, very different learners.”

 

This is not exactly a news flash to any teacher anywhere. We’re constantly differentiating our instruction to help students with different learning styles, kids in special education, kids who are gifted, kids on the autistic spectrum, kids with dyslexia, etc. It’s just too bad that policy mavens like DeVos keep pushing more standardized tests and Common Core. Sure today she’s saying all kids learn differently. Tomorrow she’ll be pushing us to assess them the same way.

 

But she went on:

 

 “We have to allow for more kinds of schools, more kinds of educational experiences, and to do that we need to empower more families to make those decisions on behalf of their students.”

 

And there it is! Her obsession with school privatization – charter and voucher schools! She’s selling them because her portfolio is heavily invested in them. She is not a philosophical believer in a certain kind of pedagogy. She’s a privatization pimp, pushing schools without transparency, accountability or regulations so that public tax dollars can flow into private pockets – and to Hell with what that does to the students enrolled there!

 

To enable her scheme, she needs to attack teachers:

 

“We have a lot of forces that are protecting what is and what is known, a lot of forces protecting the status quo. We need to combat those, break them, and again empower and allow parents to make decisions on behalf of their individual children because they know their children best.”

 

Betsy, charter and voucher schools are not reform. They ARE the status quo. They’re the same crap championed by Obama and the Bushes and the Clintons.

 

Republicans are famous for their privatization advocacy. But most Democrats are in favor of it, too.

 

Sure most career Democrats will argue against school vouchers while quietly approving Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits (OSTC), Educational Improvement Tax Credits (EITC) and a host of other Trojan horse programs that do the same thing under a different name.

 

We’ve been increasing school privatization and standardized testing for decades. It hasn’t helped anyone except investors.

 

More than 90% of parents throughout the country send their children to public schools. That’s not because they have no other choices. Every time – literally every time – there is a referendum on school vouchers, voters turn it down. Civil rights organizations from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to Black Lives Matter and Journey for Justice are calling for a moratorium on charter schools. In fact, for the last three years, charter school growth has stalled. It’s  dropped each year – from 7 to 5 to 2 percent.

 

That’s because people are sick of these far right and neoliberal policies. If we listen to what parents and students really want, it’s not the garbage DeVos is selling.

 

This whole unseemly tantrum from our Education Secretary is just sour grapes.

 

Her stranglehold is loosening. And she doesn’t know how to regain her grip.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teachers, It’s Okay to Smile

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I’m standing in front of my first period class after a long Thanksgiving break.

 

Papers are rustling.

 

Pencils are being sharpened.

 

Voices are lowering to a whisper.

 

And it occurs to me how glad I am to be here.

 

So I tell my students.

 

“We have a lot to go over today,” I begin and most of my middle school faces turn serious.

 

“But I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be here.”

 

Curiosity moves across those adolescent brows like a wave from one side of the room to the other.

 

Some even looked worried like they are afraid I am going to tell them I’m sick or dying.

 

“It’s true,” I continue. “I’m glad to be here this morning with all of you.

 

“I think teachers sometimes don’t say that enough.

 

“This is a great class. You’re all really good students, and I’ve watched you work hard and grow.

 

“For many of you this is the second year you’ve had me as your language arts teacher. For others, this is your first time with me. It doesn’t matter. I’m glad I can be with you and help get you ready for the challenges that you’ll face next year in high school.

 

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I am not just some guy who stands up here and gives you assignments. I’m your resource. If there’s anything I can do to make your year a better one, please ask.

 

“If you’re having trouble with the work or you’re confused about something, I’m here. If you need help with something – even if it’s not school related – I’m here. If you just want to talk or someone to listen – I’m here.”

 

I pause to see if there are any questions.

 

There aren’t, but neither is their any apparent doubt, bewilderment, perplexity.

 

The class looks back at me in silence with serene eyes and smiling lips.

 

And then we go on with our day.

 

Is it a big deal?

 

No.

 

But I think it’s worth noting.

 

Not that I’m some super teacher. I’m not.

 

I mess up all the time. But I feel like what I said this morning was right somehow.

 

It’s simple and easy and more of us should do it.

 

Kids can get the impression that teachers aren’t human. They’re these mysterious creatures who pass judgment on them — and where do they even go when class ends? Who knows?

 

I remember when I was a young educator one of my mentors told me the old chestnut “Don’t smile until Christmas.”

 

I saw where she was coming from. It’s easier to command firm discipline if students don’t think of you as anything but an educating machine. But I could never go through with it.

 

I smile on the first day – probably the first minute students walk into the room.

 

I greet them with a grin – every day.

 

And I think that’s right.

 

Discipline is a means to an end. You have to have some sort of order in your class so you can facilitate learning. But that doesn’t mean you should preside over prisoners locked in a penitentiary of their own education.

 

Learning should be about choice, fun and curiosity. It should be about expressing yourself as much as it is about finding details and forming grammatical sentences.

 

Everything we do should be in service to the student.

 

Reading comprehension is to help the student understand what is being said and then form an opinion about it.

 

Writing is to help the student express the maelstrom of their own thoughts in a way that can be understood by others.

 

I think we lose sight of that.

 

It’s okay to enjoy the work – for both students and teachers.

 

It’s okay to enjoy each other’s company.

 

In fact, you SHOULD do so if you can.

 

It does not somehow degrade the experience of learning. It enhances it.

 

When my classes are over, I always have several students gathering around my desk wanting to prolong our interaction even if it means they’ll be late to lunch or late going home.

 

Kids ask about my break and I ask about theirs. We talk about favorite TV shows, songs we like or even local news stories.

 

They share with me their middle school crushes and ask advice.

 

You have to draw a line between teacher and friend – and between teacher and parent. Because the kids are looking for you to be both.

 

But you can’t.

 

We walk a strange middle ground, but I think that’s necessary.

 

If I’m going to help students know things, I have to let them know me to a point, and I have to get to know them.

 

I can’t share everything with them, but they have to know I care.

 

As Theodore Roosevelt said:

 

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

So go ahead and smile, teachers.

 

Let your students know you care about them.

 

It will improve both your lives – and maybe even your teaching.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Dear Lawmakers, Please Hire Teachers as Education Aides – Not TFA Alumni

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Dear freshmen lawmakers,

 

We did it!

 

After a fiercely contested election, we have finally begun to turn the tide back toward progressive politics.

 

Midterms usually are sparsely attended, but this year we had an unprecedented turnout.  A total of 23 states had double-digit percentage-point increases compared with their 1982-2014 midterm election averages.

 

And the result is one of the largest and most diverse groups of freshman Congresspeople ever!

 

We got rid of a ton of incumbents – 104 lawmakers won’t be returning to Washington, DC, in January, making this the third-highest turnover since 1974.

 

 

And those taking their place will be largely female. Out of 256 women who ran for U.S. House or Senate seats, 114 have won so far (Some races are still too close to call), according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That makes the 116th Congress the largest class of female lawmakers ever.

 

Moreover, this incoming group will be incredibly diverse.

 

We have Jahana Hayes, a nationally-recognized teacher, who will be the first Black Congresswoman from Connecticut. Ayanna Presley, the first black Congresswoman from Massachusetts.

 

Angie Craig will be the first out LGBTQ Congresswoman from Minnesota. Chris Pappas, the first openly gay Congressman from New Hampshire.

 

Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland from Kansas and New Mexico will be the first Native American women elected to Congress – ever. And Davids will also be the first openly LGBTQ Congresswoman from the Sunflower State.

 

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib will be the first-ever Muslim women in Congress. Omar, a former refugee, will also be the first Somali-American and Tlaib will be the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress. This is especially noteworthy because there have only been two other Muslims to serve in the legislative branch, both men: Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. André Carson.

 

And let’s not forget New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Not only is she a Democratic Socialist, but the 29-year-old will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress!

 

With so many new faces and so much more representation, is it too much to ask for a change in the way things are done in Washington?

 

Many progressives are hoping not.

 

After all, it was people power that propelled these new lawmakers into government.

 

We marched in the rain, licked envelopes, made phone calls, wrote letters, and knocked on doors. We went to rallies and bake sales and stood by the polls with our little signs and fliers.

 

And we did it, because we wanted a change.

 

So, incoming lawmakers, that’s why I’m writing to you.

 

As a public school teacher, a father of a school-age child, an education activist and a concerned citizen, it really matters to me what happens to our schools.

 

Yet so many politicians – Republicans and Democrats – have turned a blind eye to our concerns for years.

 

No matter their party affiliation, they’ve pushed for increasing school privatization – charter and voucher schools. They’ve hammered us with biased and unscientific standardized tests and used the results to justify any number of atrocities including school closures, withholding funding and even stealing the democratic process from taxpayers. Instead of listening to the concerns of teachers and parents, they’ve followed the caprice of every bored billionaire who thinks they know how to better our schools with halfcocked schemes that cost us billions in taxpayer dollars while wasting children’s time and depriving them of an authentic education.

 

They’ve chased every new technological fad without regard to how it affects students or their privacy. They’ve let our schools become increasingly more segregated and made deals with private prison companies and unscrupulous security and business interests that made our schools a gateway to incarceration as much as they are to college or careers. They’ve actively engaged or silently stood by as classroom teachers lost autonomy, rights and professionalism. And finally, though many of them talk a good game, they haven’t done nearly enough to ensure that every student gets the same opportunities, resources and equitable funding.

 

Why?

 

Often the answer is ignorance.

 

They don’t properly understand the issues facing our schools. They don’t hear from parents, teachers and students – the rank and file. They only hear from the wealthy businesses and philanthrocapitalists preying on our schools like vultures over road kill.

 

In many cases this is because of the poor quality of education aides on Capital Hill.

 

Several years ago, I went to DC with other education advocates to ask our representatives to change course. Though we made reservations to speak with our duly-elected lawmakers months in advance, very few of them had the guts to see us face-to-face. We were almost always sent to education aides – well meaning and fresh faced kids only a few years out of college – who wrote down our concerns and sent us on our way with rarely any follow up from the people we’d come to see.

 

And more often than not, these eager young go-getters were Teach for America (TFA) alumni.

 

I’m not sure if you know what that means.

 

TFA is a nefarious neoliberal organization more interested in busting unions and influencing policy than helping kids learn.

 

They recruit people in college who didn’t major in education to become teachers for a few years before moving on to bigger and better things.

 

Often these rookies have only a few weeks training and just hours of experience before taking over their own classrooms. And unlike education majors, they only need to commit to the job for two years.

 

This not only does our children a disservice, it does very little to make these former teaching temps into education experts.

 

But that’s how they’re treated on Capital Hill.

 

Through programs like TFA’s Capitol Hill Fellows Program, alumni are placed in full-time, paid staff positions with legislators so they can “gain insights into the legislative process by working in a Congressional office” and work “on projects that impact education and opportunities for youth.”

 

Why do so many lawmakers hire them? Because they don’t cost anything.

 

Their salaries are paid in full by TFA through a fund established by Arthur Rock, a California tech billionaire who hands the organization bags of cash to pay these educational aides’ salaries. From 2006 to 2008, alone, Rock – who also sits on TFA’s board – contributed $16.5 million for this purpose.

 

This isn’t about helping lawmakers understand the issues. It’s about framing the issues to meet the policy initiatives of the elite and wealthy donors.

 

It’s about selling school privatization, high stakes testing and ed-tech solutions.

 

As Ocasio-Cortez said on a recent call with Justice Democrats, “I don’t think people who are taking money from pharmaceutical companies should be drafting health care legislation. I don’t think people who are taking money from oil and gas companies should be drafting our climate legislation.”

 

I’d like to add the following: people taking money from the testing and school privatization industry shouldn’t be drafting education policy. People who worked as temps in order to give themselves a veneer of credibility should not be treated the same as bona fide experts who dedicate their lives to kids in the classroom.

 

But that’s what many lawmakers of both parties have been enabling.

 

It’s not hard to find authentic experts on education.

 

There are 3.2 million public school teachers working in this country.

 

There are still 116,000 fewer public education jobs than there were before the recession of 2007, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive nonprofit think tank.

 

If we add the number of teaching jobs needed to keep up with growing enrollment, we’re missing 389,000 educators.

 

So that’s hundreds of thousands of laid off and retired teachers out there – a huge brain trust, a plethora of professionals who know – really know – what goes on in our schools, what they need to succeed and what policies could fix them.

 

THAT’S where you should go to find your educational aides – not TFA.

 

And these experts are not hard to find. You can contact the teachers unions – the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. Or, better yet, contact the various education activist groups focused on policy – the Badass Teachers Association or the Network for Public Education. And if you want experts at the crossroads of education and equity, you can contact civil rights groups who focus on our schools like Journey for Justice, a nationwide collective of more than 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in several cities.

 

Or you can give education bloggers (many of whom are teachers or former teachers) a call – people like Peter Greene, Mercedes Schneider, Nancy Flanagan, Jose Luis Vilson, Julian Vasquez-Helig, and others.

 

Heck! You can give me a shout out.

 

We’re here.

 

We want to help.

 

So congratulations on your election victories. Let’s work together to transform them into intelligent policies for all our children everywhere.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Linda Darling-Hammond vs. Linda-Darling Hammond – How a Once Great Educator Got Lost Among the Corporate Stooges

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Linda Darling-Hammond is one of my education heroes.

 

Perhaps that’s why her recent article in the Washington Post hurts so much.

 

In it, she and her think tank buddies slam education advocates Diane Ravitch and Carrol Burris for worrying about who governs schools – as if governance had nothing to do with quality education for children.

 

I’d expect something like that from Bill Gates.

 

Or Campbell Brown.

 

Or Peter Cunningham.

 

But not Hammond!

 

She’s not a know-nothing privatization flunky. She’s not a billionaire who thinks hording a bunch of money makes him an authority on every kind of human endeavor.

 

She’s a bona fide expert on teacher preparation and equity.

 

She founded the Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University, where she is professor emeritus.

 

And she was the head of Barrack Obama’s education policy working group in 2008 when he was running for President.

 

In fact, she was the reasons many educators thought Obama was going to be a breath of fresh air for our schools and students. Everyone thought she was a lock for Education Secretary should Hope and Change win the day. But when he won, he threw her aside for people like Arne Duncan and John King who favored school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

These days she spends most of her time as founder and president of the California-based Learning Policy Institute.

 

It’s a “nonprofit” think tank whose self-described mission is “to conduct independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice.”

 

The Learning Policy Institute published a report called “The Tapestry of American Public Education: How Can We Create a System of Schools Worth Choosing for All?

 

The report basically conflates all types of choice within the public school system.

 

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to have policy analysts admit that there ARE alternatives within the public school system above and beyond charter and voucher schools.

 

On the other, it’s frustrating that they can’t see any fundamental differences between those that are publicly managed and those outsourced to private equity boards and appointed corporate officers.

 

Hammond and her colleagues Peter Cookson, Bob Rothman and Patrick Shields talk about magnet and theme schools.

 

They talk about open enrollment schools – where districts in 25 states allow students who live outside their borders to apply.

 

They talk about math and science academies, schools focusing on careers in health sciences and the arts, schools centered on community service and social justice, international schools focused on global issues and world languages, and schools designed for new English language learners.

 

They talk about schools organized around pedagogical models like Montessori, Waldorf and International Baccalaureate programs.

 

And these are all options within the public school system, itself.

 

In fact, the report notes that the overwhelming majority of parents – three quarters – select their neighborhood public school as their first choice.

 

However, Hammond and co. refuse to draw any distinction between these fully public schools and charter schools.

 

Unlike the other educational institutions mentioned above, charter schools are publicly funded but privately run.

 

They take our tax dollars and give them to private equity managers and corporate appointees to make all the decisions.

 

Though Hammond admits this model often runs into problems, she refuses to dismiss it based on the few instances where it seems to be working.

 

Despite concerns from education advocates, fiscal watchdogs and civil rights warrior across the country, Hammond and co. just can’t get up the nerve to take a stand.

 

The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on all new charter schools in the country. Journey for Justice has requested a focus on community schools over privatization. But Hammond – a once great advocate for equity – can’t get up the moral courage to stand with these real agents of school reform.

 

She stands with the corporate school reformers – the agents of privatization and profit.

 

“School choice is a means that can lead to different ends depending on how it is designed and managed…” write Hammond and her colleagues.

 

In other words, if charters result in greater quality and access for all students, they are preferable to traditional public schools.

 

However, she admits that charters usually fail, that many provide worse academic outcomes than traditional public schools serving similar students.

 

She notes that 33% of all charters opened in 2000 were closed 10 years later. Moreover, by year 13, that number jumped to 40%. When it comes to stability, charter schools are often much worse than traditional public schools.

 

And virtual charter schools – most of which are for-profit – are even worse. They “…have strong negative effects on achievement almost everywhere and graduate fewer than half as many of their students as public schools generally.”

 

However, after noting these negatives, Hammond and co. go on to provide wiggle room for privatization. They discuss how state governments can do better making sure charter schools don’t go off the rails. They can provide more transparency and accountability. They can outlaw for-profit charters and put caps on the number of charters allowed in given districts and states, set rules on staffing and curriculum – all the kinds of measures already required at traditional public schools.

 

But the crux of their objection is here:

 

“In a recent commentary in this column, authors Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris erroneously asserted that our report aims to promote unbridled alternatives to publicly funded and publicly operated school districts. Quite the opposite is true.”

 

In other words, they continue to lump privatized schools like charters in with fully public schools.

 

They refuse to make the essential distinction between how a school is governed and what it does. So long as it is funded with public tax dollars, it is a public school.

 

That’s like refusing to admit there is any difference in the manner in which states are governed. Both democracies and tyrannies are funded by the people living in those societies. It does not then follow that both types of government are essentially the same.

 

But they go on:

 

“The report aims to help states and districts consider how to manage the broad tapestry of choices available in public schools in ways that create quality schools with equitable access and integrative outcomes.”

 

Most tellingly, the authors admonish us to, “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” (Emphasis mine).

 

The way a school is governed is not FOR ADULTS. It is FOR CHILDREN. That is how we do all the other things Hammond and co. suggest.

 

“Work to ensure equity and access for all.”

 

That doesn’t just happen. You have to MAKE it happen through laws and regulations. That’s called governance.

 

“Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities and resources.”

 

That’s governance. That’s bureaucracy. It’s hierarchy. It’s one system overlooking another system with a series of checks and balances.

 

“Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”

 

Again, that doesn’t just happen. We have to write rules and systems to make it happen.

 

Allowing private individuals to make decisions on behalf of private organizations for their own benefit is not going to achieve any of these goals.

 

And even in the few cases where charter schools don’t give all the decisions to unelected boards or voluntarily agree to transparency, the charter laws still allow them to do this. They could change at any time.

 

It’s like building a school on a cliff. It may be fine today, but one day it will inevitably fall.

 

I wrote about this in detail in my article “The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School.”

 

It’s sad that Hammond refuses to understand this.

 

I say “refuse” because there’s no way she doesn’t get it. This is a conscious – perhaps political – decision on her part.

 

Consider how it stacks up against some of the most salient points she written previously.

 

For instance:

 

“A democratic education means that we educate people in a way that ensures they can think independently, that they can use information, knowledge, and technology, among other things, to draw their own conclusions.”

 

Now that’s a Linda Darling-Hammond who knows the manner in which something (a state) is governed matters. It’s not just funding. It’s democratic principles – principles that are absent at privatized schools.

 

“Bureaucratic solutions to problems of practice will always fail because effective teaching is not routine, students are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable, or standardized. Consequently, instructional decisions cannot be formulated on high then packaged and handed down to teachers.”

 

This Linda Darling-Hammond is a fighter for teacher autonomy – a practice you’ll find increasingly constrained at privatized schools. In fact, charter schools are infamous for scripted education, endless test prep and everything Hammond used to rail against.

 

“In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”

 

I wonder what this Linda Darling-Hammond would say to the present variety. Privatized schools are most often test prep factories. They do none of what Hammond used to advocate for. But today she’s emphatically arguing for exactly the kind of school she used to criticize.

 

“If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”

 

Isn’t this how they routinely teach at charter schools? Memorize this. Practice it only in relation to how it will appear on the standardized test. And somehow real life, authentic learning will follow.

 

“Students learn as much for a teacher as from a teacher.”

 

Too true, Linda Darling-Hammond. How much learning do you think there is at privatized schools with much higher turnover rates, schools that transform teachers into glorified Walmart greeters? How many interpersonal relationships at privatized institutions replacing teachers with iPads?

 

“Life doesn’t come with four choices.”

 

Yes, but the schools today’s Linda Darling-Hammond are advocating for will boil learning down to just that – A,B,C or D.

 

“We can’t fire our way to Finland.”

 

Yet today’s Linda Darling-Hammond is fighting for schools that work teachers to the bone for less pay and benefits and then fire them at the slightest pretense.

 

In short, I’m sick of this new Linda Darling-Hammond. And I miss the old Linda Darling-Hammond.

 

Perhaps she’s learned a political lesson from the Obama administration.

 

If she wants a place at the neoliberal table, it’s not enough to actually know stuff and have the respect of the people in her profession.

 

She needs to support the corporate policies of the day. She needs to give the moneymen what they want – and that’s school privatization.

 

This new approach allows her to have her cake and eat it, too.

 

She can criticize all the evils of actual charter schools while pretending that there is some middle ground that allows both the monied interests and the students to BOTH get what they want.

 

It’s shrewd political gamesmanship perhaps.

 

But it’s bad for children, parents and teachers.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Grit is Sh!t – It’s Just an Excuse to do Nothing for Struggling Students

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Let’s say you’re out in public and you see a crying child alone in the street.

 

What would you do?

 

Would you run up to her and help? Or would you just shrug, mutter some derisive comment about the brat and walk on?

 

Our public school policymakers want us to do the later. In fact, they have a whole pedagogical justification for ignoring the needs of children.

 

It’s called “academic tenacity,” a “growth mindset” or “grit.”

 

And it goes something like this:

 

That child isn’t learning? If she just worked harder, she would.

 

It’s the political equivalent of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” applied to the classroom.

 

And it’s super helpful for politicians reluctant to allocate tax dollars to actually help kids succeed.

 

The idea and the euphemisms used to describe it were coined by Carol Dweck as early as 1999. It was subsequently popularized by seventh-grade math teacher and psychologist Angela Duckworth.

 

In the early 2000s, Duckworth realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating successful students from those who struggled. There was also the tendency to overcome adversity or not.

 

Hey, Angela. Darwin called. He wants his Theory of Natural Selection back.

 

You know Survival of the Fittest was never meant to be prescriptive. As human beings, we’re supposed to be better than mere animals that typically leave the pack’s sick and injured behind to get eaten by predators.

 

But whatever.

 

The term “grit,” is defined as a “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” according to Frontiers in Psychology. And it’s become one of the buzziest of buzzwords in academia.

 

So much so, that as you’re reading this, standardized test manufacturers are working to develop an assessment to find it in students.

 

The agencies that administer the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are close to including character assessments as a measure of student performance.

 

Oh goody!

 

They foresee a brave new world where multiple-choice tests will determine not just the entire scope of human knowledge but character as well!

 

But what no one wants to admit is that grit is… well… shit.

 

It’s just an excuse for a society that refuses to help those most in need.

 

In our world, there are haves and have-nots. But if we stop there, we ignore how and why this situation came to be.

 

Who places kids into segregated schools? WE DO.

 

Who allocates funding based largely on parental income? US.

 

We set kids up to succeed or fail before they even enter the school system with an economy that rewards the already rich and punishes generational poverty.

 

Yet when anyone suggests offering help to even the playing field – to make things more fair – a plethora of policy wonks wag their fingers and say, “No way! They did it to themselves.”

 

It’s typical “blame the victim” pathology to say that some kids get all the love, time and resources they need while others can do without — they just need more “grit” and a “growth mindset.”

 

Life’s tough. Get over it.

 

That’s easy for YOU to say! Because it’s the have’s who make the rules, it’s the people at the top who are telling the people at the bottom they’re to blame for their own suffering.

 

So you forget all the ways society has helped you and yours. YOU deserve all the credit for your successes.

 

But for those people over there, let’s forget all the ways society has refused to help and instead blame THEM for not overcoming the obstacles (we put) in their path.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying effort counts for nothing. But it’s part of a complicated matrix of nature and nurture.

 

Our environments shape us, but we have some control over what we do with what we’re given.

 

Yet as a society, we can’t simply ignore our responsibilities toward others and throw it all on the individual.

 

Good teachers know how to get the best out of their students. We know that most kids – if given a safe, encouraging environment – can succeed.

 

The key often is to scaffold that success. Give them something to do that they can actually master. Then give them something slightly more challenging.

 

You teach them that they have the ability to succeed and success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – and not the opposite.

 

However, the teacher – and even the school, itself – can only do so much.

 

As a society, we need to change the environment in which these kids grow up.

 

We need to fully fund our public schools to meet the needs of all students. That means more funding, services and opportunities for the underserved than for those who already have the best of everything and don’t need to rely as heavily on the school system for support.

 

We need wraparound services, counseling, tutoring, after school programs, community schools, jobs programs, continuing education for adults and other services to help heal the trauma of growing up poor in America.

 

But leaving it all to this magical thing called “grit” is just ignoring our responsibilities to our fellow human beings.

 

When you see someone suffering, you need to help them – not comfort yourself with excuses for ignoring them.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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