Tagged: education

Knowledge is Golden

I’m one of those people who would probably be happiest being a full-time student. I wouldn’t want to write the papers and take the exams, but I would be happy sitting in class, taking notes, reading the material, and taking part in classroom discussions.

I think it all started with The Golden Treasury of Knowledge.

I probably learned more from The Golden Treasury of Knowledge than anything I learned in school. The Golden Treasury of Knowledge was something akin to The Encyclopedia Britannica, only on a much smaller scale. I think my mom and dad bought them on sale at the grocery store. To a shy, nerdy, bookish grade school kid, they were knowledge nirvana.

I had the first six volumes. Each volume spent three or four pages on different subjects. I particularly liked the pages on gems because I loved collecting rocks. I was also kind of fascinated with the medieval ages.

I spent many summer afternoons reading through the books. I went back to them all the way through junior high and high school. They taught me a lot.

I always loved school, especially grade school. I loved learning. High school was different. My senior year I felt like all I was doing was biding my time until graduation. I was ready to be done, and didn’t put much effort into my classes. The sad thing was, no one really seemed to notice.

Maybe it’s blasphemous coming from a teacher, but I don’t think formal education is necessarily the only–or best–way to learn something.

As a former grade school teacher, I have to acknowledge that at least a quarter of the school day was spent transitioning from one class or activity to another. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never understood the unrelenting push for “time on task.” Try sitting all day in a seminar or conference with no breaks and you’ll get what I mean. No one is meant to spend eight full hours engaged in learning, least of all small children. And the push to get rid of gym, music, art, library, etc. in order to spend more time on “academic” endeavors (i.e. test taking prep) =  complete insanity.

I think anyone can teach themselves anything on their own. In my world, the answer to almost anything can usually be found in a book–or the internet. If I have a problem with anything in life, I usually head for my computer first, a book next, and then all my friends.

Michael and I are teaching ourselves how to garden. We’re building a fence. Neither of us expects perfection, which is key to teaching yourself anything.

When I started running six years ago, before I joined a running group and learned from the experiences of others, I read every book about running I could get my hands on. I still go back periodically and consult the books, especially when I decide to start training for a new race and make a new a training plan.

For me, the best teacher is experience. I’ve learned more about running by just running than anything I ever read in a book.

Michael taught himself everything he knows about computers. Despite a degree in something completely unrelated to computers, he now makes his living from data and computers. He’s also recently taught himself photography and videography.

Hel’s also directly responsible for my own exit out of the technological stone age. A few years ago he showed me how to set up Power Point presentations for my fifth grade social studies lessons. Then he talked me into giving up my Blackberry for a smart phone, and I spent a very stressful weekend reading the online manual trying to understand the mini-computer in my hand.

By the time my son gave me an iPad for Christmas, it took me no time at all to learn the ropes.  Learning to blog and upload photos has been huge for me this past year. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

I still love to read and learn new things, especially science. I wish I’d had better science teachers when I was younger.

I recently read a book by Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which Wikipedia called “a Roots for the human species.” Sagan is one of my idols, and I wish he was still alive. I have to admit, the book was a little dry, but I learned a lot.

I have no idea what happened to my Golden Treasury of Knowledge, volumes 1-6. Like other things from childhood, I suspect it either found a new home or met its end in a trashcan. I can’t imagine not having computers and the internet, but I think we did okay without them when I was growing up.

I don’t know if there’s some type of internet equivalent of The Golden Treasury of Knowledge, but I hope there is. It taught me a lot about the world.

Brooklyn’s Finest and the Defeat of Teaching

About a week ago I watched the movie Brooklyn’s Finest and it touched a nerve.  At first glance it’s not my usual type of movie, but I liked Training Day and thought another movie by the same director might be just as good. For some reason I really connected with one of the characters in the film, and in a strange way his job made me think of my own teaching job.

The movie is really a character study of three NYC cops and follows them for a few ultra violent days in their lives.  All three are good at their jobs (one supposedly less so than the others), but they are also all depressed, stressed, and cynical.  There’s no separation from the cop and the man, or their jobs and their “real” lives. Their job is their life, and the people they work with–even the ones they are paid to infiltrate and betray–are their family. They have learned to do what it takes to survive in their jobs, and to accept that after years of sacrificing their lives and ideals, no one really cares. The people in charge make ridiculous demands and tell them they’re not working hard enough, even when they’ve sold their souls from giving so much.

These men are unappreciated, underpaid, and despised, and spend most of their days dealing with drugs, danger, and chaos.  In the end, only one man is left standing.  He survives by keeping his head low, not trying to be a hero, and is reminded several times that he’s really nothing special on the police force.  He’s one week away from retirement and he just wants to make it through.

Another cop is working undercover, trained on the streets where he grew up, snitching on men he’s perhaps known since childhood, and asked to turn traitor so he can get off the street and behind a desk.  He’s so entrenched in his undercover life that there’s no separation between his job and his “real” life.  The last cop is a narc with seven kids who steals drug money so he can buy a new house to replace the too small, moldy-walled one that sends his asthmatic, pregnant-with-twins wife to the hospital.  He needs money–fast.

Suffice it to say that these burned out, hardened men have seen the absolute worst side of humanity and still manage to get through the day.  These cops are hated and reviled by some, but they carry on and do their jobs. It’s what they do.

But this post isn’t actually meant to be a movie review. Rather, I recognized something in the face of the veteran cop a week from retirement that I see all around me.  I used to see it in my own face when I looked in the mirror.

It’s the face of defeat.

It’s the face of someone who knows they work within a system ruled by idiots, one that’s so broken it might not be fixable, a system that takes over every minute of your life, that takes advantage of your idealism and optimism and in the end turns it into cynicism and disbelief.  It’s when the bad guys turn the good guys into something worse than themselves, turn them into people who do things they know are wrong but are not strong enough to resist. The system may be broken, they tell you, but it’s all your fault.

I’m talking about teaching.

I might not have taught in NYC, or dealt with drug dealers, guns, and prostitutes in the classroom, but the jobs are nevertheless very similar.  The effects of the two jobs can be the same, and I’ve taught in some rough neighborhoods.  I’ve seen those faces on many of the veteran teachers I’ve taught with through the years.

Yes, you know them, the veteran teachers:  those women and men who are apparently failing our children, not teaching them as well as other countries around the world, the ones who supposedly have tenure and are living the good life off their generous retirement packages.  The ones with the short working hours and all the time off.  The ones who shouldn’t expect to keep their jobs just because they’ve given 10, 15, 20, or 50 years to it.

Those evil public school teachers.  I was one of those people for 19 years.

The veteran cop is given an assignment that is senseless and dangerous: he’s asked to take brand new recruits with him into the worst precinct in the city and act as a mentor. He’s portrayed as being uncooperative, burned out, biding his time, ineffective, a has been, and his methods are looked down upon and second guessed by the new cops–with unfortunate results for them.  This man knows what he’s doing, and has learned to pick and choose his battles. He’s not flashy, doesn’t pump himself up in front of others, and doesn’t ask for anything other than to be left alone to do his job.

Most importantly, even though everyone has written him off, you come to know he still cares deeply. You also realize it’s part of the reason he is such a broken man.

He is the true hero of the film, as are the teachers, police officers, fire fighters, social workers, and anyone else who chooses to work in a job that takes more than it gives. These jobs have never been about the money–no one gets rich being a teacher.

This summer I found a Facebook group of people who went to my elementary school. Someone is always posting old photos of the school and their classes and classmates from the 1960’s and 70’s. Almost to a person, everyone loved school and their teachers back then. No one comments on what they learned, or testing, or even the innovative curriculum that was used in the classroom. Back then, the teacher sat at a desk at the front of the room and everyone sat in rows. We did a lot of seatwork and the only time we got up from our desks was when we left the room. There were no collaborative groups, no differentiated learning, no multiple intelligences. We did a lot of rote memorization and a lot of answering questions from the textbook–what we would call “busywork” now. We read a lot of books, and we were always copying things from the chalkboard. The teachers were strict and didn’t put up with excuses, we had art, music, and recess, and it was a shorter day.  We all look back fondly on those years.

First grade: top row, under the candy cane

These days, if I had taught the way my teachers taught me, I would have been fired. I’m not saying things were better back then. I had some pretty bad teachers, especially when I got to junior high and high school. But my point is this: everything we hear these days about public education seems to say over and over that teachers are the problem, that they’re somehow failing our children, that they’re not doing their jobs, that you can’t get rid of the bad ones, that all they care about is preserving their retirement benefits and tenure, and that they’re unwilling to change. Are teachers really that much worse than the ones we had when we were in school? If so, why is that?

Teachers’ hands are tied by administrators and policy makers who don’t know the first thing about teaching. Every year there’s a new magic bullet, something that’s going to raise test scores and fix everything that’s wrong with education. Every new change means more paperwork, more restructuring, more accountability. By the time teachers start to get a handle on the changes, everything changes again. A new principal is placed in the school, teachers are indiscriminately switched to different grade levels or different subject matters, and a new cycle begins, over and over and over, until the next great thing appears.

There are a lot of good ideas out there, but the majority are never given a chance to work before they’re abandoned for the next big fix. Most of these fixes come from universities that are paid millions of dollars for something that’s nothing more than common sense repackaged with a new name and new jargon. Even when you do what’s mandated, and the students don’t do well, it’s still your fault, never the program or curriculum you’re forced to implement. Everything is data driven, and children become nothing more than a test score–and “proof ” that a teacher is doing their job–or not.

Everyone from Washington politicians to Steve Jobs seems to believe that teachers’ unions are the Death Star, that education is going downhill because principals can’t get rid of bad teachers (and I’m not talking about Cameron Diaz), and if we just treat education like a business it will solve all our problems.

My point in all of this: it wears you down. You give all of yourself only to turn around and see that you have become the enemy. You must be, because there’s no one else to blame.   You do what you know how to do, which is teach. You close your eyes and ears to those who’ve never spent a minute in the classroom, those who suddenly have all the answers, those who never take the time to visit schools and see firsthand what the problems really are, who can’t be bothered to ask teachers what should be done to save public education. Perhaps we should all be asking ourselves this:  is all this blaming and fuming really about education and how to save it, or is it more about the money–lots and lots of money that other interests would be only too happy to spend?

The system is broken, but the ones taking the fall are the only good, sane things left.

Like the cop who prevails in the end, the one who carries on despite the odds, you learn to do your job and not listen to the wolves howling outside your door. It doesn’t matter if no one else cares. You care, you give, you make a difference, until all you’re left with one day is the face of defeat looking back at you in the mirror.

School Budget Cuts: Educators Fear Deepest Cuts are Ahead

I Never Felt Old Until My First Job Interview in Twenty Years, Part II

I went home and thought about what had happened in the interview.  I had tried to defend myself during Mr. Charter School’s tirade against veteran teachers. I told him I had excellent test scores, that I stayed in my district for so long because I truly believed the inner city students I taught deserved to have a good teacher, and that I had always kept abreast of new innovations and pedagogy in teaching–on my own time, with my own money. I told him how my friends from college were all amazed when I put off grad school and went into an alternative teaching program to teach kindergarten in an elementary school, how they all told me how lucky the school system was to have me, and how I put so much into teaching those first few years that I never made it back to grad school. I told him how I’ve stayed with teaching, year after year, despite serious discipline problems, lack of supplies, educational quick-fix programs, and the crush of mindless paperwork from people above me making twice my salary who need the paperwork to justify their jobs.   I told him I created my own curriculum because the district’s was sub par.  I told him I have great test scores.


More than anything else, though, even more than feeling old, I couldn’t help but wonder: When did I become the enemy? What about all those first year Teach for America teachers, would they be in the same situation as me if they stayed with teaching nineteen years? Will their years of experience be seen as a negative if they try to change schools after so many years? When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones? Yes, there are bad teachers. There are also bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hairdressers, bad plumbers, and many bad principals and superintendents. Yes, teachers get great vacation time–but we don’t get paid for it. We only get paid for the days that we work, which to me means it actually is a pretty decent salary–but it still isn’t great, and certainly no one goes into teaching for the money. In my state there is no teacher tenure and teachers’ unions have very little power. Since we are a “right to work” state it is illegal for teachers to strike.  I sign a new contract every year.

Charter schools, like the one I interviewed at, may choose their students by lottery, but they can kick them out at any time, especially for discipline. Public schools can’t. We take everyone who walks through the door, regardless of if it’s the first day of school or the last, and we are held accountable for every single one of them, specifically through test scores. One disruptive student can make all the difference in the classroom, and can keep the other students from getting the education they deserve. A good teacher will be able to handle most discipline problems, but there are extreme cases, and administrators are not always willing to assist.  Neither are a lot of parents.

Some years, especially like now when economic times are tough, the classroom can turn into a revolving door of students coming and going throughout the year. Poor families seem to move a lot, and it is not uncommon to have a student enter a classroom who has already attended five or more schools in the current school year, and may only stay a few weeks in your classroom before moving on again. Children come to us whose parents are in jail, are dead, or are on drugs and are being raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles. They live in one bedroom apartments and sleep on couches with their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We take them all, and we teach them, and we love many of them. We are strict, we don’t feel sorry for them, and we give them everything we can. I’m not making excuses, but when did choosing to stick with it and not give up become a bad thing?

For the record, I don’t intrinsically have anything against charter schools.  I was interviewing at one, after all. What I do have a problem with is all the hype, all the articles and stories and news clips about how public education is failing in this country, and more specifically, how teachers are the problem, especially veteran teachers. Bull. I’ve always said, it’s all about the money. Massive amounts of federal funds go to public education and everyone wants a piece of the pie.  If public education is failing then let’s fix it, but let’s start at the top, not down in the trenches with those who are doing the real work.  If more schools become schools of choice, and public schools are merely the schools for those no one wants, what will happen to those children who’ve been dealt a rotten hand in life?  What will happen to our society?  Will we simply raise the white flag and build more prisons instead of schools?

In the end, I decided not to go for that second interview with Mr. Charter School.  I debated going in and giving a killer sample lesson, and defending myself vociferously in our scheduled “extensive interview,” but I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be there.  Instead, I sent a short email apologizing for canceling and telling him I didn’t think I was the person he was looking for.  I decided it wasn’t the school, it was him, and he was someone I didn’t want to work for.  Mostly, I took it as a lesson on not beating myself up over someone’s perception of me based on their own stereotypes.

I’m not ready to mail in my AARP card just yet.  Even with all the cool discounts.