Tag: concepts of failure

Our Miss Brooks

After the War, teacher self advocacy remained muted but other sectors of the culture ramped up to alter public education as the primary tool for building a modern society, and with it, the public’s perception of what it meant to be a teacher.



The movie movement began in earnest to influence the perception of public education. In 1955 Hollywood chose to highlight violence in “The Blackboard Jungle”. Rather than providing an impetus to problem solving, it became a rationale for criticism and downgrading of public education’s image. On Broadway Continue reading “Our Miss Brooks”


The Real Estate Board and Your School

Working in community development for a Midwestern urban government, I had my innocence shattered around the illusion that the school district, as an agent of the state government, was actually operating quasi-independently of other major groups in the city.

I soon learned how the collusion of the real estate board with controlling media outlets affects schools. Here’s how it works:

People like to live in a good neighborhood. A good neighborhood is one that has a good school. People may be very content with their school. However, their home may be getting old. You can’t charge as much to live in an older home as a new one. The real estate board exists to promote the interests of the realtors. Realtors like to sell new homes.

Q: How do you get people to move out of their house often enough to sell enough new homes to keep you going at the level you want?

A: You start trash talking the school, or even the district.

By reporting on problems and not reporting on strengths, the reading and viewing public begin to question the quality of the school. The quality of the school, mind you, may not have deteriorated at all. Or any negative stories about schools in outlying areas are suppressed.

Soon homeowners with children begin to get nervous. “Perhaps we had better begin thinking about moving out to a neighborhood with better schools,” they say.

Glowing reports of the fabulous quality of the school in the developing residential area begin to flood the news. Simultaneously, trouble, trouble, trouble is publicized about the school or district designated for downgrading. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative media leads to negative parental and student perceptions leads to more hostility toward the school leads to making the job harder, you get the picture.

I have personal experience with this. I worked and lived in an urban district. I knew firsthand about the skill levels of the teachers, their dedication, the innovative and effective techniques they used, the programs the district had that offered opportunities to the students.

While it was true that students from less affluent families attended, that did not equate with those students being inferior in character, behavior, desire or skill levels. It didn’t mean the teachers didn’t care. It didn’t mean good teaching wasn’t going on. Not yet anyway. But the forces were at work.

Our urban district had had a preschool for decades. An outlying district decided to provide a preschool program. The news media lauded it as the most progressive program to be seen in decades. No mention was made of the older district’s programs or their successes.

Then my coworker moved to a suburb with a “premium” school district. Their security guards did not wear uniforms so the parents didn’t know they had, or needed them, or if they did, they didn’t want the image of needing them. Their student problems never made the news. Their students crashed cars, tore up property, and generally were teenagers, but it wasn’t publicized. The desire was to keep the property values up so the news about the school had to always be stellar.

Before “A Nation at Risk,” the state was pretty much content to let the schools do their job. They did not overtly participate in the campaign. However with pressures increasing, and consulting with business groups including real estate boards, the state legislators and administrators began to pressure  ill-advised and ill- planned “reforms” or “improvements” on the urban districts especially. Most of these were invented by college professors who had not taught in the demographic, not teachers in the district. Each year was a revolving door of a new program when the previous program had not been given a chance to succeed. States were afraid to be seen “behind the times” so whatever educational fad was being touted was enforced. Thus began the instability which the urban school or district was then blamed for and which compromised the educational process itself. This contributed to the attack on older districts as well.

Then, after No Child Left Behind, the state, relying on the merciless and useless testing programs (which also made money for testing and textbook companies by mandating changes every year) the state began to “grade” districts and the schools in them. Of course the urban districts always got the worst grades.In an “add insult to injury” move, they tied the funding formula to this. So districts that were already challenged because the property values of older areas were declining (schools are funded through property taxes) were now doubly beat up by the state.

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One urban district decided to fight back. They had good schools, good teachers, and good kids. The parents wanted their kids to get an education. They had motivating programs and activities for the students. In other words, they kept doing a good job. But each testing season showed their ranking declining…and their funding and possible accreditation. Why? Because they were in an older residential area.

They took the state to court for unfair practices…and they won! They challenged them to show how the same measures were not begin applied uniformly. They challenged the evaluations. They challenged the definitions and the formulas. They challenged all these things, not because they were against good education, but because they recognized a political game when they saw one.

Kudos to those who stand up and fight! A home does not depend on the house. Education doesn’t depend on how new the school building is. In both cases, it’s the people inside that make it made with love.


A Teacher’s Anonymous Meeting

Welcome to the Friday night meeting of Teachers Anonymous

Hi, I’m Kathy. Welcome to the Saturday morning meeting of TA. Let’s open with the Prayer for Patience. “God, give me patience, but give it to me now!” Harry, will you read the Preamble please?

Harry: “Teachers Anonymous is an organization of teachers who share their experience, weakness and despair with other teachers in order to support one another and save our sanity. TA makes no claim as to expertise, excellence, or exceptionality. TA does not affiliate with any professional educational organization or support any educational trend of movement. Discussion of what is best for the student, lesson plans, or educational techniques are not allowed during the meeting.”

Kathy: Thank you, Harry. We’ll now have introductions.

Lois: Well, I’ve had a relatively good week. I was able to surrender the idea of being all things to all people. A parent came up to harangue me about her son’s failure to do any work, but I was able to realize it was her problem and stop apologizing or attempting to soothe her in her desire to escape facing the kind of person her child is becoming..

All: Thanks, Lois.

Grover: Well, I’ve struggled this week. The principal is still after me to take all the responsibility for student behavior in the halls, but I was able to sort out in my mind administrative responsibility from teacher responsibility. Now I’ve got to get the courage to act on it. He tried the old ruse that if my lessons were interesting…no, entertaining enough, the students would just want to be in my class. “You can’t make the horse drink water but you can feed it salt,” is one of his favorite brow beaters.

All: Thanks, Grover.

Vivion: My week was really emotionally disturbing. I’m still being expected to show a month’s test score gains for one month of instruction and my kids cannot focus on the printed page for over five minutes. I’ve got to release my anxieties. The doctor said he cannot prescribe any more medicine in good conscience.

All: Thanks, Vivion.

Mike: I’ve had a good week. Since last week’s meeting, I stopped trying to get all my emotional needs for a sense of accomplishment from teaching. I realize now I can’t be Super Teacher. The kids must take some responsibility. If the administration, parents, business community, government and general culture can’t reinforce what I’m doing, it’s not reasonable for me to flagellate myself, one person, any more for the entire school’s failures.

All: Thanks, Vivion.

Mary: Yes, I’ve learned it’s not my job to spoon-feed anymore. I used to apologize for everything, feel responsible for everyone and others were more than willing to dump on me. I thought being a good teacher meant people-pleasing, blame-taking for all. I started to see that teacher infighting and disunity was the result of a sort of oppression we’ve suffered all these years. Divide and conquer through guilt trips, intimidation, and supply rationing has been the strategy. Snitches have been rewarded. They talk about wanting creativity, but you really get into trouble when you want to go the extra mile. I know now I’m not a bad teacher because I want decent pay and don’t get turned on by the light in a kid’s eye when I can’t live above a lower-class standard of living, even though I have a college degree and 30 years of experience. There’s got to be a larger reason why there’s so much lip service for better pay but it never quite keeps pace for the last 50 years.

All: Thanks, Mary.

Kathy: Well, we’ve had quite a meeting. We’ll turn now to our daily meditation for the following week:

“I am a professional person, not a child. The world is not my parent. I am not responsible for the sins of the culture.”

Let’s join hands as we close. Peace be with you all. See you next week.



Shooting Our Feet

Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher, recently had an excerpt from her new book “The Gift of Failure” published in The Atlantic. She points out that the relentless pressure to achieve has devastated the love for learning that students begin with. This pressure comes from parents, teachers, and society at large.  I appreciate her honesty and am glad she has had the opportunity to be heard.

However she does what too many of us do – she includes herself in the blame. This would be authentic if teachers had not increasingly lost professional autonomy since the 1980s. Schools by definition are always swinging between contradictory mandates that vie with each other at different times, but which leave teachers swinging like a pinata. One end, the more predominant one, says schools must prepare students for life (economic) success and social adjustment. On the other end is the need to uphold the myth that society wants to support individual freedom to pursue one’s own talents and interest. Even teacher unions have not advocated enough for teacher autonomy and power but have lost leverage, along with other unions, to corporate and political forces. A compelling explanation of this development is Michael Apple’s “Teachers and Texts.” (You can read a review of this work at Levin, H. M.. (1988). [Review of Teachers and Texts: A Political Economy of Class and Gender Relations in Education]. American Journal of Education, 96(4), 560–562. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1085226)2015-01-02 13.49.57-1

The unrealistic expectation of teachers, which I call the “Scapegoat Syndrome”, is that, in spite of all pressures, teachers will somehow rise heroically above conflicting expectations and “save” our precious children from the effects of society at the same time they prepare them to meet them. It is an ongoing outgrowth of the idea our culture holds dear: that whatever social or economic ill we  have can be laid at the classroom door for solving. Of course this is impossible. We go, then, from the Messiah view of teaching to blaming them for failing us. Historically, the role of women, society’s scapegoat.

Nursing, another traditionally female profession, has gained a greater measure of leverage because problems in service delivery are more quickly and visibly felt. Even they, however, are continuing to chafe under impossible demands. Educational fallout takes longer to realize and, unless you are in the profession, less visible. When the fallout begins, the cycle just repeats: it’s the teacher’s fault. Let’s increase the demands and legislate more.

Jessica points out that we have taught her student  “‘that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character.'” We have also taught her that it’s better to quit if success cannot be assured and to worship perfection.

From a woman’s experience, the first statement is different but the second is already too familiar to us. I was raised to believe my intellect made a difference and made me equal. However this has not changed as much as we would like. We still see the ceiling operating. But character? That has been the job of women forever. It’s up to make everyone good. Perfection,  on the other hand, has been our operating principle for a long time. As scapegoats, it is our first tool, a futile but persistent attempt to escape being blamed.

Because education is beholden to public support which has been systematically eroded for greed, teachers must find alternative ways to take professional autonomy back. Some have used the charter school option, but running a school is not the same as teaching. I’d love to hear success stories. But I know the first step is to stop being willing to again take responsibility without authority. Otherwise, we will just keep obeying the order to make bricks without straw, after we wrap our feet.