Look around you.

scaryThese are potentially depressing times. Turn on the “news” and you find out about brutality, intolerance, corruption and greed at almost every level of our society. As teachers we can’t ignore that. Too often we try to shelter our students and pretend to educate them in a world absent conflict. But that doesn’t serve them. It helps continue the problem that we do not prepare students for the real world.

Now I am not suggesting that we plop 1st graders down in front of Fox News or CNN and scare the bejesus out of them. That’s not teaching. But the children in your room come from the outside world to you and you are often times the safest space they have. So it is incumbent on you to find a way to both respect that space and give them tools with which to deal with the world they will re-enter after the last bell each day.

If you don’t feel comfortable addressing this, find a site online that might help you. You may have people in your District whose job it is to create lessons that adjust to this. Talk to parents to see what they are facing. There is unemployment, fear of a crumbling structure, racism, changes in living conditions, sexism, military deployments, it isn’t the Dick & Jane world I knew as a child and most classrooms operate under.

Do the research and don’t wait for someone else to handle it. “I just teach Math” or “I am just a 3rd grade teacher” are not valid excuses to not form positive and affirming relationships with your students. Maslow made it pretty darn clear that, if students don’t feel safe, you can have the meaning of life and they aren’t going to hear it.


What we say vs what we do

There is currently a bill on its way to the Governor’s desk in Michigan to require 3rd graders to pass a literacy test in order to move on to the 4th grade. On the surface, that sounds like something you can get behind. We want to make sure that kids can read, what could be bad about that?

Well, in Michigan, where the State went to court to prove it has no responsibility for quality education and won, you want to look just a little below the surface. Indeed it would be wonderful if we were supporting children to read and advance. But there is nothing in the bill that allows for that. All there is is the punitive step to hold you back. That’s like saying we won’t license you to drive until you can pass the test (sounds wise) and then not allowing you to see the information that you will be tested on (not so much).

We have to realize that supporting quality teachers (the exact opposite of the recent efforts of the State and the Michigan Department of Education) is the only way to get kids to where they need to be. Let’s take a quick guess at where this guideline will have the most impact? Quick, look up in the UP where poverty is spread out over great distances. Then take a look at urban areas where too many schools are already in the hands of privateers and emergency mangers looking to destroy futures. Because the new law allows parents to petition the state on individual cases, parents of low achieving children in wealthy districts will move on anyway. Who gets punished? The poor kids again. Why? Because we still choose to see poverty as a crime as opposed to a condition.

We need to ask more of people who are currently pretending to be in a leadership position. We need  processes and direction and collaboration and money to move kids forward, not a ruler to smack hands with. You can’t complain that children of poverty are unprepared for the world of work if they never have the opportunity to get better.

And just as a final note, if you are reading this and are feeling defensive because you do a good job with your kids and wonder why people are attacking you, stop it, you missed the point, this isn’t about you. But if you remain silent, it could become about you.

Coming Back

I have been gone for a while because I set a foolish standard for myself. So, my goal is to write twice a month on things educational. Hope you will join or rejoin me. Let’s get to it.

A friend of mine who is still teaching is starting an elective class: People to Remember.  It’s a great idea and she will do a fantastic job because she is a great teacher. But it brought attention to the fact of how intertwined our upbringing, our culture and our idea of worthiness are. Simply by identifying someone worthy of being remembered you have established a rubric that says these traits are worthwhile and these aren’t. There is nothing wrong with that, IF you remember to examine where the standards come from. Too often we assume that because most of the people we know agree on something it is a given, it is foundational. We do it as Americans: Democracy is what is good for everyone, so is Capitalism, so is Coke and McDonald’s.

But if we want our students to live and operate in a global economy we have to have the ability to hold several perspectives. Too often that is whined about as being politically correct and people worry that we will have no moral compass if we are willing to see things from so many points of view. Quick story. I sat down with the man who raped my mother and learned about what his life was like. I can say unequivocally that I did not find the act any less despicable nor did I find him any less accountable. So, seeking other perspectives can lead to understanding. But if your beliefs and morals can change with just a little additional information, they weren’t that solid to begin with.

We need to teach processes, not facts. I think my friend will move towards that, “How do we determine if someone is worth remembering?” is much more valuable than trying to argue for one individual over another. Teachers put you on a path, they do not profess, they do not instruct, they journey. Have a great year my friends.

Don’t jump down my throat unless you are headed to my heart

words1When I was in my teens, people started paying attention to vocabulary as a means of social change. So, I would say that I grew up in an era of what has come to be called Political Correctness. And, like anything that asks you to pay attention to yourself, we reacted strongly against it. We would much rather someone else be responsible than to take responsibility. But I remember going through J. Fennimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer and finding first-hand how we described Indigenous people (and he was seen as sympathetic). I bring this up, because my son pointed out to me that we seem to have arrived at a point where the precision of language is working against us. For anyone who knows me, there is clarity on how hard that is to write down. But let’s look at this.

In a time when racial, gender, and economic restrictions are being examined at levels heretofore unseen in this country along with a need to understand from a variety of perspectives, I have found we are edging out opportunities for growth. To illustrate, I will use myself to avoid liability litigation from others.

I became aware of issues around race, gender and class very slowly. I grew up in a white, middle class rural community. My contact to race was Soul Train, I had no idea that was any other way to look at gender than men & women seeking each other and economic disparity was addressed with food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I was the problem. But I was blessed to become part of the solution.

I have already posted where I have ended. But the key here, in this piece, is to make clear people tolerated me saying some really stupid things (stupid from my perspective today), informed me why they were ineffective and helped me to see a bigger picture. In the same way we are becoming clear that poverty is a reason, not an excuse, we need to have the same patience with the privileged. I know we want to make someone the bad guy. But my experience is that the opposite of war is not peace, it is collaboration. In the same vein as I would never tell a rape victim that she should forgive her rapist, I would never put forth that people of color need to just share a coke and hug with the racist in the neighborhood and life will get better. But the fact is, my job, as a “white guy aware,” is to connect with those folks, and get them to see a bigger picture.

What I am asking is that, in education, in social media, in discussions anywhere, try not to jump down someone’s throat because they use the wrong nomenclature. Not everyone may be as educated, as aware, as informed as you, but their heart may be just as big. Minds are changed through compassion and that works in all directions. I am blessed because someone, actually several someones, took the time to walk me through. Don’t be pissed because someone chooses not to, just keep moving. But the more conversations we can have where the emphasis is on precision rather than correctness, the more chance we have to move people to a new level of understanding. And THAT is what I want in my classroom.

Over the rainbow

rainbowThere is a common misconception in the public in general and in education specifically. It would sound something like this: “African-American history is for black kids,” or “”Women’s Studies is for girls.” It has plenty of other incarnations, but you get the drift. If you are going to be a teacher ANYWHERE, you need to have a firm grasp on the concept of cultural competencies. I am going to focus on an African-American perspective here for the sake of space, but you should substitute in Latino/Latina studies, Gender studies, Native Studies, and so on.

See, the idea that these specific focus perspectives only serve the folks that fit that category is what brings responses such as “all lives matter” to things like the Black Lives Matter campaign. We (meaning here, American culture) want to believe that we are inclusive, but we aren’t and we get defensive when we are called out on it. I feel safe in saying that because, if I stopped most any white person on the street and asked who Nat Turner was, we would have less than a 1% pass rate. (Of course to be fair, not many can id the Bill of Rights either.) The point is, integration in America has always meant that “minorities” become like the Euro-based culture. The more accurate word would assimilation, you know, like the Borg.

The problem is, I was raised with phrases like “the great melting pot” and “all the colors of the rainbow,” so that is what I expect. I also have come to realize, as an adult, that that perspective is much more productive and functional than the reality we are attempting to continue with this bury-our-heads-in-the-sand mentality. My life is richer and of more value to the community as a whole because I have opened myself to be educated about a variety of non-Euro-based cultures that exist here in the US. Never have I felt this a threat to my Irish/Scottish American heritage. I grow larger, not smaller by being inclusive rather than exclusive.

We need to find a way in American education to teach about all of our history and be able to point out problems and not feel like we have to see ourselves as terrible because we made mistakes. Humanity as a whole has not done wonderfully well in the morality category. Accepting that you are not perfect is a good way to start making a change. Ask anyone in AA.

Get it right

MichiganI live in Michigan and our largest metropolitan area is Detroit. Currently the Detroit Public Schools have been out of local control and run by the State for the last 6 years because of their low performance ratings and their high level of debt. In the time the State has been helping, the performance ratings have dropped and the debt has risen. Now, our business minded governor has proposed creating a second Detroit school District. The original one, funded by the taxpayers in Detroit will simply exist to pay down the half billion dollar debt. The second one will be run by an emergency manager that will have sweeping powers. (You may have heard about Emergency Managers in Michigan if you followed how well they took care of Flint’s water recently.) But the reason I bring all this up is because none of these actions handle the problem. They address saving money, but there is absolutely zero in here about saving schools. So we will cut school budgets, impoverish school staffs, possibly privatize several schools (a resounding failure thus far in Detroit) and no one of it addresses the real problem. Why?

Because no one knows what the real problem is. Trust me, if they did, they would be accepting their Noble Prize as they descended from their gold-plated cloud. Education in Michigan is a mess. People who should have a strong voice have been locked out of conversations by a legislature that is more worried about avoiding blame than actually getting something done. Our legislature makes sloths look like Richard Simmons. They won a court case with Highland Park schools that stated, essentially, as the major funder of the Public School system, they have no responsibility for the quality of that system, or to even provide a focus for what education should look like.

This is what happens when people want to run schools like a business. SCHOOLS ARE NOT BUSINESSES.  Just because there is money involved doesn’t mean it is a business. In a business, if your product or service doesn’t sell or work, you can close your doors and try something else. But we can’t do that with schools unless people are willing to stop have children until we get it all figured out.

Now I refuse to believe that the best and brightest in this State cannot find some processes that will allow for all kids to have a decent shot at a quality education regardless of where they live. But we are going to have to put making a profit on it aside and we are going to have to put political agendas aside. We are going to have focus, step way outside the box and fund appropriately whatever we come with. Because there isn’t anything more important in the long run than an educated and informed populace.

When they are no there

Early-Skull-Image-GraphicsFairyI want to swerve a bit and look at a very real part of teaching that no one will talk to you about and yet you will have to face. Some of your students will die before you. I cannot put it any more bluntly. For all of our “I love kids” and “They are the future” the fact remains that some of them won’t make it no matter what you do. You need to get your head around that and be prepared because it has sidelined some pretty wonderful teachers.

I taught for 23 years in the Flint Public Schools. Flint has lingered in the top 5 of the most violent cites in America for most of my tenure. It is, in fact, part of the reason I came here. I have a huge ego and I thought I could do something about the default option to violence that comes along with living in poverty and being seen as a second class citizen by those in power throughout the rest of the state. The simple fact is, you can’t save everyone. So, I probably attended more than my fair share of funerals of kids who did nothing worse than standing in the wrong place. There are a group of us who go to funerals together because we know there is nothing to say, nothing to do, other than to be there.

But even if you don’t teach in difficult areas (and not all of them are inner cities folks) the process of life will still get some down ahead of you. Illness, accidents, addictions, it all comes to play in those souls you touch and that touch you. As much as you want to believe that you give them everything they need in order to make it, something will go wrong. So that information led me to write the following on my Facebook page the other day after learning that a brain aneurism took a 40 year old former student who had a wicked sense of humor and huge heart for people the rest of the world often forgot. I finish with that post because it says everything that needs to be said. Be well.

“Our students are not supposed to predecease us. I was reminded of that far too often in Flint, usually in tragically avoidable contexts. I have had some other teachers post about losing students in the last week and just this weekend, one of my boys from Catholic Central passed from an aneurysm far too early. There is nothing that makes this “right,” there is nothing that makes it work out. It is simply part of the world and part of life’s process. I do not like it and that does not make it right or wrong. It is a reminder constantly of the need to continue quality relationships, to speak the truth to people. If that means to say, “I love you” or “You crack me up” or “I have learned so much from you” then, by God, make sure it gets said. Because the regrets that linger after loss are hard to put away. When we are left with only our memories, we want to be able to dance them and not have to avoid them. I will laugh Scott, because that is what you wish.”

Expanding your influence

Perspectives-circle-of-influenceLast time we talked about the importance of talking with parents. I want to continue that just a bit. Initially, share with them your expectations for the year, if you are going to do something really cool, let them know about it. If your district has adopted some huge change, go through that with them, make a friend, be a friend, bring your friend to understanding. Remember, your reality isn’t their reality. Let them know the importance of them reinforcing rules for homework and play, of creating a physical space for work to be done and that different kids have different needs and it may be ok to listen to music while studying.

As you progress through the year, you will have things to say about every kid. Sure, we all know the difficulty about talking with parents about the problem children, but they are few and if you have made a positive contact first, you have a more legitimate ground to stand on and a better chance of being heard. The eager learners are easier to talk about, but don’t skip them, they often need that reinforcement. The real challenge will be the middle kids. No major problems, nothing exceptional to say, but if you can find quality points and demonstrate you “get” that student, those parents will be your biggest supporters and you will lift your middle much higher than the norm. The amazing thing is that you will also discover that you become a better teacher for that. You will have many more quality relationships with your students because you have taken the time to get know them well enough to talk to their parents about them. In doing so, you will find that there are fewer children who will “disappear” in your classroom. The more you know about people, the more you will care about them. It is what makes June so hard.

So find ways to make your parents a part of your room. Invite in parents to talk about real life applications of the things you teach. Have a stay at home mom talk about how she uses math every day, if you have a CEO parent who plays the Cello, get them in to talk about how music enhances their skills and satisfaction in life, be creative in engaging parents. It strengthens the bonds you can create with both students and parents and the more support you have in this process, the more chance you have for success.

Making a complete machine

CogOne of the biggest failings in the current education model is the lack of inclusion of parents in the process. Most teachers and Administrators have simply accepted the fact that most parents aren’t going to be involved. While there are some bright spots in the lower elementary years, by the time you get to 7th grade, you have a very small percentage of parents who remain engaged in their child’s education. There are a number of reasons for that, most of which are very legitimate. We live in a culture that gives lip service, at best, to intelligence and the educational process. Ask any company how much time it gives off yearly for workers to attend school functions for their children? Ask any corporation how much money it has donated to primary schools? Ask how many CEOs are sitting on school boards? The world of money has simply deemed education unworthy. But that does not mean that you, as a teacher, have to accept that reality.

Like most relationships, communication is the key. You have, on average, around 180 days of classroom time. If we use that basic figure and consider 3 phone calls a night, you have the ability to make contact with parents 540 times in a year. Sure, you will get the occasional call that goes on for 20 minutes, but most will be 2 to 3 minute conversations. And here are some realities.

For most parents, you will be an anomaly because you took the time to reach out. If you start day one of the school year (or even the weeks before school starts if you want to be amazing and you have a District that can provide you info that early) you can make positive contacts and simply inform parents of what you are up to for the year and what they can do to assist you. For a huge percentage of your parents, this will be the first time they get a phone call from a teacher that isn’t negative. That goes a long way towards building support.(Either if something does go south later in the year or you need community backing down the road for an initiative of some kind.)

You want to have a plan for the contacts throughout the year. Do some research on what parents need and want to know about their kids. Sure there are some obvious things, but some things are pretty regional and may even change in your area from year to year. You are an agent of social change, take charge of that mantle.

It is what they see

Process“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”  General George Washington

I have been spending a large amount of time as of late talking with soon-to-be teachers about classroom management. At the same time I have been watching coverage of Presidential campaigns, arguments about gun violence and screaming matches over abortion rights. I know, as a teacher, I am approaching this with a bias. But I truly think that teachers have a role to play in how these issues are dealt with and it starts with classroom management.

I have stated in this blog before that quality management comes from people who know who they are, why they are doing what they are doing and want what is best for the students in their rooms. I have also started several times that we need to be about educating young minds more about processes than about facts. And this is where all this comes to a crucible.

We have to, as educators in America, begin to model the behavior of establishing processes for conversations. Surely, every year, issues come up in your classroom that are contentious. Whether it is who gets the blocks first in Kindergarten or whether you have the right to pass notes about who likes who in 4th grade or who gets to decide the dress code in 12th grade, discussions are going to occur. If you run your classroom with an iron fist and “Because I said so!” is an acceptable discussion ender in your room, you are creating adults who will not be able to handle intelligent public discourse.

We need to demonstrate on a daily basis how we get to the decisions we make. If you can’t outsmart your classroom, perhaps you should go into to business. (Because you know what they say, “Those that can’t teach are forced to pursue profit.”) You are watched every moment. You often have more influence than a parent in certain environments.

So look at what you are doing on a daily basis. Not just IN your classroom, but around it as well. How do your students hear you dealing with your peers, your administrators, and parents? Quite literally, practice what you preach. Cliché? Yes. Important? Indubitably. Whoever said, “Be the change” clearly understood that we have to show people how things work and if we don’t practice our policies, they hold little to no meaning for those we impose them on.

We keep saying on posters and in slogans that children are the future. But we act as if they are only here today.