08 March 2013

All the "good people"

"And right then I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take." - Ta-Nehisi Coates

What are we willing to tolerate in our schools? Which behaviors are we willing to "accept" because otherwise, it gets too hard?

I'm not talking about kids. I'm talking about the adults that we employ. What guides our decisions when we consider teachers and other educators? And what does that choice of guides tell us about how we value children?

I am a huge supporter of American educators... teachers, principals, librarians, counselors, bus drivers, the people in the cafeteria, custodians, everyone. I believe in paying these people well, treating them like the incredibly valuable professionals they are, in tenure, in due process, in unions - all of that. It makes me sick that we live in societies in which stock brokers - who are nothing more than bookies in better suits - get paid more than teachers - who are in charge of our future. It speaks to a level of warped priorities that is hard to fathom, but...

Not everyone belongs in our schools. Not everyone who currently works in our schools should be in our schools. Not everyone who can graduate from a teacher education program is capable of being a teacher, nor is everyone who can write a cute essay and be accepted into Teach for America. These jobs are too difficult, and they are far too important.

We know that certain school paradigms (like KIPP - above) are racist and based on
false assumptions instead of research and knowledge, but too often we allow similar
nonsense to go on down the corridor.
Over the past two months I've listened very carefully to what educators, challenged to change, say. I've listened carefully because (a) that is my job, (b) this is my research question of the moment, and (c) because I am fascinated. And quite often I hear educators who deeply wrestle with how to make schools better for kids, and who wrestle with that every day. But sometimes I hear others. I hear the "yeah, buts..." as I've come to call them.

The "yeah but" response sounds like this, "I know this teacher is a problem, but she's really nice and she's been here a long time." Or this, "I know I should learn that, but its just easier to do what I've always done." Or this, "You know, you're right but we can't make our teachers uncomfortable." Or this, "Well, we're really trying to work on this, and he is trying to change a little."

What the "yeah but" response means is that the educator saying that has chosen to value the adults more highly than the children they work for. It might be themselves - their own comfort, their own laziness, their own lack of professional commitment - or it might be their "adult community" that they value more than kids - workplace harmony, an easier job as an administrator, the desire not to have the really difficult conversations. But whatever, the "yeah but" response indicates that the person giving it has divided the world into first and second class citizens, and then has placed the children in the "second class" position.

"I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people," Coates writes in the Op-Ed piece quoted at the start, and I want to ask the same questions in education. How often is it acceptable for students to say, as I've heard teachers say, "its easier for me if I don't learn that"? How often is it acceptable for students to say, as I've heard a few school librarians say, "its better for me if I have a few hours of quiet time by myself each day"? How often is it that an individual student gets to set the noise level in a classroom, a corridor, a cafeteria? How often do we accept children who, not doing anything near what we think is their best work, choose to continue to do that completely unchallenged?

Simple answer is, "we don't." Which means that if we "tolerate" answers like that from our adults, we have made a choice not to value our kids as what is most important. Often, yes, we are actually "saying" that a school employee's right to be lazy is more important than a child's right to the best education we can offer. Is that a sign we're ready to put up over our schools' entries?

If not, maybe we need to start saying something else...

One thing which must be unacceptable among adults in our schools is an unwillingness to be not just active learners but professionals who adapt their practices based on new learning. We literally know a million times more about the human brain and the universe than we did a generation ago, and it is incomprehensible to me that anyone involved in the education of children has not changed what they do and how they do it.

glia cells, ignored a decade ago, now show us remarkable things about learning
and FMRIs have revealed the teenage brain in incredible new light
Ten years ago, for example, most of the cells of the brain - how our brains work - was completely ignored. Five years ago we were only beginning to understand how playing video games not only boosts learning, but boosts "traditional" reading. If you attended college even this year, your understanding of the teenage brain is probably completely wrong, based in outdated, non-evidence-based assumptions which live on in textbooks written based on decade-old knowledge bases. Imagine going to your doctor and having her or him treat you based solely on knowledge and opinion gained in medical school in 1975.

That  "old doctor," the one who might not believe in MRIs and contemporary medications, might be a hell of a nice guy. He might have coached Little League for years, helped his neighbors, been a pillar of his church. He might be helping grandchildren get through college. But still, I don't want him in my hospital, I don't want him treating my family, or anyone else.

Coates builds his argument against "good people" around the racist incident at a New York City delicatessen involving actor Forrest Whitaker, "The other day I walked past this particular deli. I believe its owners to be good people. I felt ashamed at withholding business for something far beyond the merchant’s reach. I mentioned this to my wife. My wife is not like me. When she was 6, a little white boy called her cousin a nigger, and it has been war ever since. “What if they did that to your son?” she asked." Well, I'd ask the same question. If this was your child, would you want this "professional" teaching them? leading them? working in their school?

If your answer is "no," then, you have a responsibility to act, from whatever position you are in. And you have a responsibility to act with just one guiding question, "What is the right thing to do for our kids - all of our kids?" All the other questions? Those are just excuse-makers.

- Ira Socol


Unknown said...

This is another great post. This is the type of post that might not rub some people the right way but everyone needs to hear it. Me being just a sophomore in college, it makes me feel like my high school education could have been a lot better. I also agree that when I have children I don't want them to miss out on the best education they can get because there are friendships that will be challenged or feelings that will be hurt among the administration within the school.

Pam said...


I appreciate your response to this post - you identify the tension we have between supporting the most important profession in America - the world - and not being responsible that children aren't treated as second class citizens so that we don't have to confront the fact that not every teacher, even those who are decent people which almost all are, should be working in this profession - and this should include administrators, too. We must recognize that this profession is not a place to hangout and do time to meet your own needs as an adult. It's not a profession to meet one's need to control others. Great educators work hard every day - as learners themselves - to change practices, to think and reflect, to use new tools, and engage with kids - and adults - to promote a culture of participatory learning. Educators who aren't committed to this hard work will stagnate, resist change, embrace status quo. I'd like the profession to be honored at the highest level possible and paid accordingly. I also want every educator to be in kids' learning spaces and bringing the best we can offer our young people every day. We shouldn't tolerate less than that. Ira understands that and his post may "rub" some but hopefully it gives them pause.

Chelsea Strong said...

Hello my name is Chelsea Strong and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. Although I am not a teacher yet I completely understand everything you are talking about. When I was in high school I heard teachers talking all the time about non sense stuff. Thanks for this post is changed me.

abracadabra said...


Lots of thinking to be had here and essentially it boils down to power and who wants to keep it or give it up.

I think it was Illich who proposed that all teachers, every 5th year, join their students in class as students. I think that is the only approach that will work. You can't "cull" from the teacher profession - just too many issues. But you can get them to change through these kinds of experiences. Imagine Mr. Green being told he can't get a drink of water and that he should open the book now or face the consequences? Or to sit up straight?

Or am I being too romantic?


Nubie@2 said...

I understand exactly what you are saying sir. I am a special education teacher. I deal with a teacher or a regular basis whom everyone knows is very ugly to students and does not teach them. She doesn't even hide it. She has about 30 years in as a teacher, with a doctorate. No one challenges her. She knows too many people, has tenure, etc. In the mean time the students on my caseload are disrespected and worse she doesn't teach them.

I am a new teacher. I hear what you are saying about doing something in whatever position you are in, but I feel powerless.

Anonymous said...

No child left behind we are told! As public middle school builds four brand new buildings. yet im told there is no funding to get extra teacher in a crammed up, over crowded special education class; which my son is in this classroom. the children have the own needs some more severe. so wouldnt the rest of the class be left behind as a teacher is helping a child with more severe services? The teacher is way over ratio, the school.continually gets fined for this. so instead of paying daily fines, why not hire an extra teacher? Oh as im told no they dont pay the fines its added to the rest of the debt the school owes. Again so kids arent getting the services they need. Thats children left behind correct? my son can.do. Whatever he wants as with the rest class not be tending too.

my son gets taking out of his daily science class for a month to prepare for only the MATH TESTING. my son strengths is in math. so in a month he can return to science, missing a month of class. so again my child is left behind. i wasnt even advised of this. who makes these kind of decisions? so for a science grade whatever he makes as a grade for practicing state test. the highest scores will be added to his science grade. When was it decided to give children a grade for practing state test? my son has gym daily & a study hall daily but he taken out of core class daily. who decides this! plus he also has daily math core class. How is he benefiting from two math classes learning different things. ? his brain doesnt process thia way. and claims he isnt burnt out. Yet he stopped doing other core classwork & homework. with no.consequences. yet theres always money to take children out to eat as a treat. But no money for.extra teacher. money for new buildings. Son misses daily corw class. in my mind, my child is left Behind. Help all...

Kathleen Kosobud said...


I'm currently working with an organization, (studentadvocacycenter.org), which focuses on disciplinary issues, and zero tolerance laws. We recently presented information to a county about the uptick in their expulsion rates...to which we got a "yes, but" response: "We need to keep our schools safe from these people". I'm thinking: "These people" are our children...what's going to happen to them?

The obvious acts of humiliation that you cite are the end results of compounded little slights--the gradual erosion of children's faith that they will be treated well by adults. By the time we witness the overt debasement of others, they have endured incessant erosion of their trust over years.

I have no answers or fixes to this other than to ask people to consider their acts from the perspectives of others...and take the time to talk about what they find. There's a difference between schools where "order must be preserved" and schools where "we all learn together".

Anonymous said...

Special education teacher seems contradicting with my childs classwork/homework! First my child refuses to do any classwork in all classes and falling behind earning f's. I find out weeks later as I see a change in behavior,also refusing to complete homework. I contact teacher for a meeting. Just to see if behaviors were being noticed in classroom. I was informed for.weeks the refusal doing classwork. My child wasnt given any consequences for weeks with refusing work. I feel that my child should be held accountable and hold responsibility
for choices my child made. I wish I had notified weeks ago, I cant help my child, if I do not know what is going on. My childs choices arent fair for the teacher and classmates. I wrote in the planner trying to.communicate with teachers. also emailing. I didnt get a response. Sometimes i could get intouch with teacher on phone. she said my child still refusing to.do work for another few weeks. I asked for an meeting with principal & teacher because my child wasnt being accountable still.

Anonymous said...

Message continued, the principal had something come up a few times and missed meetings. in meeting im told as assistant principal in meeting that my childs grades were good and no worries, all classwork and homework is turned in. my child wasnt behind in any subject. confussionly as I was trying to understand this cause for a month n half she was saying the complete opposite. i asked how so because i began writting on every assignment when it was due & completed to keep track of work because no one communicated with me. and i had with me tons of incompleted work my child still didnt do. she said oh your child has been taking two worksheets completing it and turning it in by end of class the entire time. but taking an extra worksheet home to pretending to me (mom) that no work.was being done at all in class & homework in hopes to make me (mom) upset. But it wasnt my child telling me no.work is being done, it was special ed teacher. i said i honestly have never seen any duplicate work being brought home. not even in any graded papers cause i kept them all and had them with me. If its true why would a child do this.for a month and a half knowing mom will have child complete it. wouldnt a child get tired of doing double assigments that long? My child is all about playing. my child didnt get to have fun time, because i made sure my child completed work for a month & half. I.asked for any proof of duplicate papers, she said she didnt have them. and his grades are.good stop worrying. i asked why i wasnt informed this and why i was told my child did no work? She stated no need to worry grades are good. my child is autistic, with sensory disorders, severe adhd, o.d.d, and dyslexia and HATES WRITTING WITH A PASSION. but im told of duplicate work being done for month & half. im not making my child a saint by far. i dont know what to believe here. I want the truth, is my child not doing work or not. i know kids can be manipulative. wouldnt i have caught my child after a month & half as unorganized my child is? Please any thoughts here.

Bob Lipton said...

I hope every teacher in the world reads this post. If 5% of them would change their attitude, that's a start.

Hello, Ira, it's me Bob Lipton (twoberry) who found you in the wake of my train of thoughts today, which started with the hunt for the second marathon bomber to Chechnya to The Troubles to "thenarrator" to Google and finally here.

jr cline said...

You're so right. Not only are children treated as second class citizens by the education system, but where I live, children are treated as second class citizens (or worse) by most adults.

Unknown said...

Hello Ira,
I have enjoyed reading your blog. One of the things that I like most about your blog is your honesty. You are writing blogs and posing questions that really make teachers and prospective teachers think about. I find myself being challenged by you and not making my future students feel like second class citizens. If you were to think of a school like a business, then the kids are our customers. If we don't treat our customers with respect and care, then our business will fail. All children deserve the very best a teacher can give everyday.

Jennifer Hamrick
EDM310 University of South Alabama