“Just Let Me Teach” Is What Teachers Hope and Pray They Will Be Allowed to Do!

“Just Let Me Teach” is not only the title of a great radio program, hosted by Justin Oakley on IndianaTalks radio, it is the perfect tagline for a movement to save public education in America.

Implicit in the definition of the word “teach” is that someone “learns.” If learning does not occur then we have not really taught.

The fundamental purpose at the outset of public education in America was two-fold. On the one hand, the purpose was to help kids learn the basic knowledge and skills that they would need to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship. On the other, our objective was to give kids choices in life by helping them develop their unique talents and abilities to the optimum level while also arming them with the strong self-esteem they will need to deal with life’s challenges and control most of the outcomes in their lives.

The mechanism for fulfilling our purpose in education was to place children under the tutelage of trained teachers and, from the outset, the most effective teachers were the ones who were able to form close, personal, nurturing relationships with their students. The idea was to create an environment in which we place teachers in a position to teach and children in a position to learn.

As we have said in a previous article, the relationship between teacher and student is where real and sustainable learning takes place. Relationship trumps everything.

After over a half-century or more of misguided reforms and a profusion of secondary agendas we find ourselves with a structure that prevents teachers from doing what society and their students so desperately need them to do and what teachers, themselves, so fervently want to do.

• When did it become our purpose to prepare kids for standardized competency exams?

• When did it become our purpose to see how students measure up against the performance of their classmates rather than focus on their own progress?

• When did we decide it was a good idea to push kids ahead to new material when they still struggle to comprehend?

• Whatever possessed us to set some kids up for failure and humiliation while we celebrate the accomplishments of their high-performing classmates?

How do these activities serve our fundamental purpose to let teachers teach and students learn?

Why is it so difficult for teachers and administrators to shout “whoa!” and acknowledge that what we are doing does not work for a growing population of American kids and we are not just talking about poor and minority children, although they are clearly over-represented in this population? The evidence is there for all to see!

The world has always been full of distractions but the powerful allure of “social media” and the ready availability of a full menu of multi-sourced media have had a supercharging effect on peer pressure. The result is that it is exponentially more difficult for parents and teachers to capture and sustain the attention of our nation’s children.

If, today, we were given the opportunity to reconstruct the educational process to achieve our fundamental purpose is there anyone out there who believes we would we choose to do any of the nonsensical activities that dominate the time and energy of modern-day teachers, a few of which we have identified above?

Instead, teachers would ask for more time to teach; more time for kids to keep trying until things begin to make sense and they begin to gain confidence that they can do it; more support from parents willing to share responsibility for the education of their children; and, less time devoted to unproductive busy work and recordkeeping, all of which the business community has learned to automate.

We know teachers everywhere look in the mirror, every morning, and offer up a wish or a prayer in which they say each day, “just let me teach.” If we work together, beginning today, we will create a reality in which teachers leave for school each morning with full confidence that teaching is exactly what they will be both allowed and expected to do.

Giving Hope to Our Public School Teachers

Last evening, when three members of the leadership team of the Bad Ass Teachers Association made a guest visit to Justin Oakley’s “Just let me Teach” on the IndianaTalks internet radio network there was discussion about getting more public school teachers to join the BATs and to stay active in their unions. It was suggested that many teachers are losing faith in their unions and are not remaining active.

No one knows better than the Bad Ass Teachers Association that American teachers are more discouraged than ever. Everywhere they turn they are under attack and it is easy to understand that they are losing hope that what they are doing for their students is making a difference and that their efforts are appreciated. That many teachers in Indiana and throughout the U.S. live in fear of losing their jobs if ISTEP+ and other standardized test results do not improve borders on criminal, particularly since most educators know that the infamous A to F grading system for Indiana’s schools really stands for “Absurd to Farcical.”

It is difficult to maintain a positive frame of mind when teachers are being blamed for problems over which have little or no control and when they are asked to work in environments in which they are as much victims of a system as their students.

What teachers need more than anything is hope that a better day is coming but to whom do they turn for hope and leadership?

They cannot look to their state and federal governments or the business community because these seemingly unassailable forces are linked together in what can only be perceived by the teaching profession as a relentless quest to destroy public education.

Many are losing hope that their unions and associations can withstand the withering assault on basic purposes that unions were created to serve.

Even the wonderful organization that we know as the Bad Ass Teachers Association and their rallying cry that “we’re not going to take it anymore,” are viewed with skepticism by some. What good does it do, some teachers ask, to stand up and shout that we’re not going to take it when, the reality is that teachers feel such a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that anything they say can make a difference.

As appealing as the mantra of the BATs may be, I hear some teachers saying that no one wants to hear us complain, they want answers!

Teachers can rally around candidates for public office, whether local school boards, or state or federal executive or legislative offices but almost always find themselves supporting candidates who are as short on experience in public office, or in building a successful election campaign strategies as they are short on funding. And, almost always, these candidates for office find themselves running against opponents with strong support of mainstream political parties, powerful political action committees, and a movement that professes to be working to save American children from the shortcomings or our public school corporations.

We live in hope that the miracle of Glenda Ritz’s election to Indiana’s office of Superintendent of Public Instruction was a turning point but how often can we expect the stars to be so perfectly aligned as they were on that election night that we recall with such fondness? Are we to be content to celebrate candidate Zephyr Teachout’s recent primary election defeat in New York City because she won 34 percent of the vote and raised awareness?

We listen with rapt attention to the celebrated champions of public education like Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling Hammond who stand for teachers and other educators and who speak with eloquence. Sadly, these few heroic champions must somehow offset the power and momentum of the corporate reformers like Bill Gates, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama and the legions of multi-billion dollar businesses and foundations who line up in support to the demise of public education.

The problem is that the champions of the cause for public education and our public schools and their teachers offer so little upon which we can all take hope. These champions cry out that the problems of public education are nothing more than a myth and that our public schools are performing better each year, even if in small increments.

The problem is that such protestations, no matter how eloquent the appeal, ring hollow to the overwhelming number of Americans and even to an overwhelming number of the teachers on behalf of whom such advocacy is offered. It is a message that has precious little credibility.

Advocacy Groups for the support of Public Education can be found in States all over the U.S. with Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education; Indiana Coalition for Public Education just two examples here in Indiana.

Why don’t these advocates and the leadership of our various unions, associations, and other organizations working on behalf of public schools and their students and teachers shout loudly that,

Yes! Public Education in America is in crisis but it is a crisis that exists in spite of the valiant efforts of teachers not because of those efforts.

Why do they not stand and proclaim that:

Professional educators are the only ones who truly understand what needs to be done to return the status of public education to its rightful place as one of the essential components of a democratic society and a healthy economy.

Why do they not shout out that they have:

a real solution to the challenges of public education that will protect rather than damage the all-important relationships between our public schools and their communities, not to mention our students.

Why do they not:

develop an action strategy to transform the educational process and present it to the professional educators to enlist their support and commitment to a real and achievable solution?

And, most importantly, why do they not begin:

the process of selling that solution to the American people?

In recent posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and in a recent tweet on Twitter I shared a message from a poster of Michael J. Fox that read:

If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.

Our teachers know exactly what must be done to turn our schools around so they meet the needs of all American children and not just those who have an affinity for academic endeavors.

Our teachers know that the educational process is flawed when we don’t assess where a child is when they report for their first day of school and then expect them to move down the same path with a diverse classroom of other children on the same chronological schedule.

Our teachers know that the educational process is flawed when they are unable to give children enough time to learn and instead are told that their job on that lesson is done and then give the student a “C,” “D,” or “F” and ask them to move on to the next lesson; a lesson at which they are even less prepared to succeed.

Our teachers know that the solution is to give children the time they need to learn and that, in the final analysis, what matters is not how long it took a child to learn but rather than they did learn and can now apply what they learned to future subject matter and eventually to solve the everyday problems of living in a complex democratic society.

Our teachers know that standardized testing is not a measure of a child’s level of knowledge or understanding any more that it is a measure of a teacher or school’s effectiveness. A test is snapshot of a student’s grasp of given subject matter at a fixed point of time and is useful only if it determines first, whether or not a student needs more time and assistance from his or her teachers, and second; where that attention should be directed if, indeed, it is needed.

Our teachers know that the most important determinant of a child’s success in school is the level of support and participation of the child’s parents or guardians working as partners with the teacher on behalf of the student. Teachers know the system is flawed when so many young parents have no faith or trust in our schools because they are, themselves, victims of an educational process that did not give them what they so desperately needed when they were kids.

Our teachers understand that we need to reach out to these parents and pull them in as partners in the educational process, to help them learn to trust that the school and teacher are there to help them help their child prepare for the rest of their lives.

Our teachers know that each child needs to feel that they are special and have relationships with people in their lives whom they can both love and trust. Teachers understand that the child who is hardest to love and demands the most attention is the child that needs it the most. Our teachers understand that every child needs to have experienced what many of us recall when we think back to our most favorite teachers. Our teachers understand that the educational process is flawed when it is not structured to support the development of the vital relationships between our children, their parents, and teachers.

Our teachers know the educational process is flawed when children have given up on learning and are no longer willing to try; choosing to act out instead. Our teachers understand that the solution to keep children engaged in learning as a natural, fun, and exciting adventure is to teach them that they can learn. Teachers understand that kids must experience the joy of success rather than repeated failure and humiliation.

Our teachers understand that our educational process is flawed when they lack the resources to spend their time and energy where it can do the most good rather than be bogged down in meaningless record-keeping, bureaucratic demands, and political interference. Teachers know that they need technology that empowers teachers rather than limit their freedom and creativity and mitigate their value.

Our teachers know all of these things so when are we going to empower them to do that which only they can do?

If we want to give teachers hope that they can live out their careers as a professional involved in the noble and loving act of giving of themselves to their students and families we must rethink what it is that we want to accomplish in education and reinvent the educational process to support that purpose.

These are ideas around which teachers can rally. It is something that they can reach out and touch and feel and that they can sell to the parents of their students and to their communities. It is something that is real and achievable and about which they can be enthusiastic and energetic and then be re-energized and re-enthused with every celebrated accomplishment.

The sad reality is that the educational process in place throughout our system of schools, both public and private, is flawed and that everyone knows it. Every time we shout out in loud denial all we accomplish is to confirm that that the assertions and allegations that public education is failing are frightfully and inarguably true.

Employers all over the U.S. know it when they struggle to find capable employees who can not only do good work but can also accept responsibility for doing their best. They know it when they must spend millions upon millions of dollars screening applicants to find a precious few who can do the job right from the get go and must also spend millions more to re-train and re-educate those who cannot.

The corporate reformers and the government officials who pander to them and who are laboring to privatize education did not wake up one morning having experienced an epiphany that there were huge profits to be earned by taking over America’s schools. They discovered that little truth only after they were compelled by their anger and frustration to address what they considered to be the monumental failure of public education in America because no one else seemed prepared to step up and accept responsibility for taking action.

Our military services know the educational process is flawed when a full quarter of the young men and women who are candidates for enlistment into the Armed Services cannot meet the minimum qualifications for enlistment and when many more are unable to score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify for the increasingly more skilled and technical jobs that need to be done at a high level of proficiency.

Our communities of the poor and minorities who live separate and apart from mainstream American society know that the performance gap that exist between their children and white, middleclass students is staggering in its breadth and scope and, most of all, in its consequences. The growing cultural disdain for the importance of education in the lives of their children is nothing more than a consequence of a prolonged case of hopelessness and powerlessness on the part of these parents that anything they do will make a difference for their children.

Most of all, as I have pointed out in my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America and in articles published in my blog Education, Hope and the American Dream, and elsewhere, our teachers know in their hearts and minds that the educational process is, indeed, failing in spite of their labor and sacrifices. They know that the warn-out insistence that the failure of our public schools is a myth is, itself, a myth the perpetuation of which can only have tragic consequences for our nation’s and our children’s futures.

We must open our hearts and minds to the idea that our professional educators are the only people who can solve the problems of public education. They are waiting for their leaders and advocates to stand up an offer a solution in which teachers and the American people can both believe and trust.

American teachers, the unsung heroes in the battle for the future of our way of life, are at the edge of desperation waiting for their leaders to stand up for the truth.

What are we waiting for?

Bullying in our schools: a symptom of a larger problem

Bullying was the topic of Justin Oakley’s online radio program “Just Let Me Teach,” which is broadcast, live, every Wednesday evening at 9:00 PM EDT on IndianaTalks, an online talk radio network. Notwithstanding the number of teen suicides, in recent years, bullying is an issue that must be taken seriously by every school district in the nation. It is a sad reality that some students who suffer from bullying choose to take the lives of other people as well as their own.

No school principal or classroom teacher in these troubled times can afford to ignore even rumors that bullying is taking place in their corridors, playgrounds, and classrooms or that bullies are following their prey home or are stalking their targets through social media.

Brittany Mason, one of the guests on “Just Let Me Teach” shared her own experiences that ultimately led her to choose to be home schooled as it seemed the only way to escape the harassment. Of particular interest in Ms. Mason’s account is the fact that her school principal reportedly suggested to Ms. Mason’s parent that she could be making the whole thing up.

What school principals, classroom teachers and parents must realize is that a student’s complaint about bullying is a cry for help and attention whether or not the child is telling the truth.  If we truly believe that every child is important, how can we turn our backs on young people who are not only suffering but may be in real danger?

Schools need to be aggressive in developing programs to provide comfort and counseling to the victim while thoroughly investigating and adjudicating the bullies themselves. Many imaginative programs have been developed in schools to educate students and faculties about this serious issue and principals and school administrators should be diligent in their search for a program suited to their particular school or community. We all know what they say about an “ounce of prevention.”

What we rarely discuss is the fact that bullying, like so many of the problems in education, is a symptom of a larger problem. The power of the peer group, relative to the influence of parents and families, may be stronger than it has ever been and social media has changed the game for parents and also teachers. It is difficult enough for parents to stay in touch with what is happening in their child’s life whether at school or when they are off with their friends. For all but the savviest parents, following their children through the labyrinth that is social media must seem as difficult as it is intimidating.

The absolute best chance parents and teachers have to compete with the power and influence of the peer group is for parents and teachers to partner up. Such partnerships strengthen the ephemeral connections that keep students linked to the community that is comprised of family and school making it that much more difficult our children to slip off, unnoticed into the Netherlands of today’s sophisticated web of subcultures.

It is relatively easy for schools to become impersonal places where students feel no connection to many of their classmates, particularly those who are different. We have always known that human beings can have irrational fear and hatred for things that they do not understand or for people with whom they cannot relate. We also know how powerful jealousy can be in influencing the lives of children.

Bullying is a symptom that some children have lost their sense of connection to the community that school can offer and are, themselves, struggling to find positive attention and affirmation. We need to work diligently to restore that sense of community. The best place to start is by pulling parents into active partnership with their children’s teachers and their schools. There are many other things we can do to strengthen that community and that will also have a positive impact on the quality of education we are able to provide.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, the action strategies that are offered are not independent actions intended to address this problem or respond to that. The plan is a coordinated strategy to address both the educational system and process as integral, interdependent whole. A big part of what we hope such a plan will accomplish, particularly during the elementary period of a child’s time in school is to elevate the level of intimacy and sense of family that embraces the child and makes them feel connected to teachers, parents and classmates.

We know very well, or at least we should, that the level of control and influence we have over the lives of our children during adolescence is determined almost totally by the quality of our relationships with them when they are small. Everything we do at school should be part of a well-conceived, comprehensive plan of action that is designed not only to teach young children but also to nurture them.

The Vergara Ruling in California will do more harm than good!

Wouldn’t it be more productive to focus our energy and attention on supporting and protecting our good public school teachers?

It seems that we always focus on the negative. Bad teachers can already be fired, tenure or not. Tenure does not prevent school corporations from dismissing incompetent teachers it simply requires that they take the time to do it right and to make a well-documented case.

At a time when teachers are already under attack, falsely accused of being the cause of the failure of so many American students, this decision comes across as more of a “witch hunt” (or witch/warlock hunt if we want to be politically correct) than as a reasoned decision in an attempt to address our nation’s most important issue – the crisis in education!

It is similar to what happens so often in the work place when a few problem employees abuse the rules and privileges of their employer. In these instances, management rushes in to create more rules or take away privileges and the only people they impact are the good employees who come to work every day and do the best job of which they are capable. The new rules and restriction of privileges are like water off the proverbial duck’s back to the abusers because the problem employees do not care and will not abide by the rules, new or old.

In education we are in a state of public panic in which government officials, corporate reformers, and other policy makers are rushing around like incorrigible children, looking for someone at whom to lash out—looking for someone to blame. Teachers just happen to be the most obvious target.

Few if any of these officials and reformers, and also judges, have ever spent so much as a single day in a public school classroom, striving to understand the challenges with which our teachers are confronted.

Instead, they see teachers as easy targets. They tell themselves and the world that they are taking bold action and they puff out their chests in false pride over their bravado, oblivious to the great harm they do.

Not only do they hurt all of the good public school teachers who come to work every autumn to continue an important and seemingly impossible job from which the majority of us would abruptly shirk. What they also do is distract us from taking the time to understand the dynamics of our educational process and taking meaningful action to fix real problems.

If the critics of teachers would take the time to walk in the shoes of our public school teacher these high profile reformers, officials, and policy makers would see that teachers are as much the victims of the  dysfunctional system that is American public education as are the students whom they strive to teach under what are often adverse circumstances. They would see minimal support from parents in our most challenging schools and an alarming lack of motivation to learn on the part of the children of those parents.

They would see the damage that is done when they provide incentives, in the form of vouchers for the small number of families who are motivated to take advantage of them, to abandon our most challenged public schools. In the process they leave the teachers and students of those abandoned schools in their wake to deal with the unforeseen and often invisible consequences of their action. They also deprive those abandoned schools and their teachers of much needed revenue.

It is the symbolic equivalent of washing their hands of the problems facing those schools and their teachers and, most of all, our nation’s most vulnerable kids.

This is unacceptable and it will not do! It is time for teachers to rally together and fight to put a stop to the misguided and paralyzing reform initiatives of people who know not what they do!

It is time for teacher unions and associations to re-examine their mission and work together with school administrations to develop meaningful measures to improve teacher skills on the one hand and to develop measures of true accountability on the other.

Just last night, on “Just Let Me Teach” a program host by Justin Oakley on Indiana Talks, an online radio network, a caller told us about a peer review program called PAR in Anderson, Indiana. It is a program making real strides to improve rather than harm our public schools and their teachers. It is a program in which teachers and administrators are working together to create real, meaningful, and sustainable accountability.

These are the kind of programs our elected officials and so-called reformers should be supporting and replicating all over the nation.

And, why are these high profile leaders not talking about the important role that parents play in the education of their children? Why are they not brainstorming with local educators to come up with meaningful programs to reach out into our communities and pull parents in as partners in the education of their children? Why are we not taking the obscene amount of money that is being squandered on meaningless reforms and investing it, instead, in a nationwide initiative to Pull Parents in as Partners?

We need to recognize that the absolute most important things we can do to fix the systemic deficiencies in the American educational process is for teachers, both individually and collectively to partner up with school administrators to work on teacher training and accountability while, in our classrooms, parents and teachers partner up to give our nation’s children the best education possible!