The National Teacher of the Year has often been someone selected for their powerful, unique story. Mary Beth was simply a great teacher, from a medium-sized town in Minnesota. She was powerful in a completely different way. Time and time again, I heard her say: Any teacher can become a leader. You don't have to have a dazzling presence or a compelling background. Normal people can lead. Look at me, she would say. I'm so normal it hurts.
Kindergartner, dreaming of a better world: "I would have everyone go to the same school." Now there's a dream--what if everyone went to the same school, where there were plenty of art supplies and a teacher who nurtured drawing skills as well as conversations about the people who changed the country where these children live?
Affluence makes even mediocre teaching look good and poverty can make masterful teaching appear mediocre. It takes many clock hours within classroom walls to decipher the difference. Few education change-makers and upper crust teachers dedicate that kind of time to our neglected classrooms. The essential resource that is missing is our presence. Detroit's inhumane classroom conditions didn't occur overnight; they existed for at least a generation. Where were we?
The two mega-issues that emerge whenever teachers talk about missing assignments and justifying their actions toward late work are grades--always grades--and the idea that we owe kids "real" experiences to prepare them for the big, bad world where they will be presumably be working in a few years. But there's a lot more to think about.
It's wrong to characterize this string of protests in Detroit as selfish actions taken by a minority of teachers--or a union-driven overreaction to a belt-tightening. There's a lot at stake here, beginning with the survival of a major public school system. Think this could never happen in your state or district? There doesn't seem to be much to prevent collapse of public education in Detroit, except for the professional courage of its teachers.
Today, a group of Detroit teachers--fed up with Darnell Earley, the same Emergency Manager who presided over the Flint water scandal, and a raft of further harmful offenses to real Detroit children and their education--organized a sick-out. They did so in frustration, knowing full well they would be accused of greediness, or keeping children from their federally subsidized meals. They did so knowing they will be labeled "unprofessional," led around by their unions (false)--when their actions represent what is ultimately the core of what professionalism means: autonomy over important work.
Am I cynical about education in 2016? No more cynical---or positive--than I've ever been. I long ago learned that being upbeat and honey-not-vinegar is no more effective than being critical, cranky and pushy in getting what we need to preserve public education. And let's be clear: that's the goal. There are many facets to the goal, around testing, standardization, funding, governance, "data" and the steady erosion of the democratic concept of public good. In the end, however, all the shouting boils down to one thing: Will genuinely public--not publicly funded, privately managed-- education survive and thrive?
Themes around quality education are woven into Michael Moore's latest film: From France, delicious fresh-food school lunches, including a cheese course, designed to make students healthier and more conscious of good eating habits. Free college educations for all students in Slovenia (including American ex-pats, escaping absurd loan debt back home). Enlightened, non-punitive sex education. Teachers who feel entirely autonomous in their classrooms. European teachers who pity American educators, because their work is evaluated by their students' testing data.
How can we live in a nation where someone like Ramone Williams doesn't want to be a "distraction" to his fellow scholars? It's gratifying to read about all the families who offered Ramone a safe, warm place to stay over the holidays--and to think that, temporarily, he has enough money to finish a college degree and launch his adult life. But what about the other 56,000 students patching together their holiday "vacation" around donated food and temporary shelters--are they also trying to avoid being a distraction to the American academic conscience? Aren't we supposed to be Education Nation?
This was not an optimistic conversation. I don't have a list of all the things we touched on in my dinner with Alfie Kohn--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.