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