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My Dinner With Alfie

"So how should we reward teachers? We shouldn't. They're not pets. Rather, teachers should be paid well, freed from misguided mandates, treated with respect, and provided with the support they need to help their students become increasingly proficient and enthusiastic learners."

                                                                                      Alfie Kohn

Last summer, while attending a music conference in Boston, I tweeted my excitement about looking over Boston Gardens from my hotel room. I got a tweet in response--from Alfie Kohn, asking if I might have time to grab a bite to eat, since I was in town.

It would be hard to overestimate just how flattered I was. I remember reading No Contest shortly after it was published, in the 1980s--on my own volition, because I was wrestling in my band classroom with chairs, challenges and, yes, band contests. Every music teacher I knew was on board with the idea that band students would fail to perform until we structured their learning around competitions and ratings. The system didn't work particularly well for me, or for my students--but resisting habits is difficult.

Reading Alfie Kohn gave me courage to restructure a lot of my daily practice, and re-think assumptions deeply embedded in traditional music education. Here's one example.

I read Punished by Rewards next, then What to Look for in a Classroom. I especially liked Beyond Discipline, which reinforced my belief that most schools' discipline policies were counterproductive, and I was better off trying to build workable relationships with my students.

I mentioned Alfie Kohn's books often in the teachers' lounge, usually to blank stares, but occasionally finding someone who thought he was one of those all-theory/no-practice ivory tower dwellers (not true) who never had to manage real classrooms full of devious kids.

When the internet made cross-country discussion possible, I found other Alfie Kohn fans (and many more articles and videos). And of course, bitter adversaries. At that point, he had become a kind of anti-homework guru, and garden variety teachers were lined up on both sides of the Homework Hostilities.

I have always found Kohn's work logical and thoughtful, with a light sprinkling of wry humor--always a provocative read. More important, he seemed to be writing and presenting from a principled perspective, rather than trying to catch the latest grant-funded policy wave and ride it for recognition and profit. He's written pieces that poke at privilege. He's honked off any number of Big Famous Educators. These are things I admire, by the way.

We made arrangements to connect (not easy, given my packed conference schedule). My roommate, another musician, wondered if it was wise to meet--and stroll around in an urban area--with a man I had never seen, face to face. I assured her I would recognize him from the book jackets. And I did.

We walked down the block and had a sandwich and a great conversation. I got over being gob-smacked by Having Dinner with Alfie Kohn pretty quickly--because in person he's low-key and affable. He asked me about writing blogs for Education Week. I asked him about getting a flexible book publisher who will let you write about your passions instead of what they think will sell.

And then--we started talking about what's happening to public education in 2015. This was not an optimistic conversation.

I don't have a list of all the things we touched on--from data mining to innovative curriculum to building better teachers--but there was little about which we disagreed. This is not a golden age for public education--or for the public's valuing of education (two different, but interwoven, things). We talked as two professionals--a veteran practitioner and an education thinker--deeply concerned, deeply worried about the direction that America has embraced, in an effort to improve our education system.

Can the good things in the system--the old and cherished idea of democratic equality--be preserved? What forces pushed us toward the test-and-punish, no-excuses model we see everywhere? Neither of us had answers--and relief won't come from policy-makers, publishers or pundits. But neither of us has abandoned hope.

We walked back to my hotel in the dusk. When we got to the corner kitty-corner from the hotel, I stopped to wait for the crossing signal, but Alfie Kohn crossed four lanes diagonally, walking fast. Made me think that breaking the rules and challenging conventions is a fine thing, for an educator.

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