Appreciating Teachers: Responding to Donald Trump Jr.

Recently at the President’s rally in El Paso for his border wall, his son, Donald Trump, Jr., warmed up the crowd with a speech in which he gratuitously attacked teachers: “Bring it to your schools… You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth.”  It is hard to know what all that means, although I suppose we can infer that attacks on so-called socialists are going to be a centerpiece of the campaign if the President runs for reelection in 2020.

Valerie Strauss covered responses to this disgusting ad hominem attack on schoolteachers. Teachers themselves have been speaking up, she explains, on twitter with the hashtag #loserteachers.

Strauss also published a response to Trump Jr. from three teachers—Jelmer Evers (the Netherlands), Michael Soskil (2017-18, Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year) and Armand Doucet (Canada) who co-authored a 2018 book, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice. Evers, Soskil, and Doucet write that for them, Trump Jr.’s speech was a chilling moment: “Throughout history, schools and teachers have always been among the first to be targeted by authoritarian regimes and extremists.  Independent thinking, creativity, compassion and curiosity are threats to dogmatic beliefs and rule.”  “Whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, right, left, center, blue or red—seeing and reinforcing the value of a teacher should be a national pillar that rises high above partisan politics and cheap applause…  If we can be accused of anything, it is that we are on the front line of democracy.  Education reformer John Dewey famously said, ‘Democracy has to be born again each generation and education is its midwife.’  As members of a global profession, we reject the narrowing of the mind and we stand by our colleagues defending academic freedom.”

President Trump and his son were both educated in private schools.  I suspect that neither has even visited a public school, and I wonder if either one has ever considered what teachers do, or what shapes teachers, or what teachers consider as they work every day with children and adolescents.  I thought it would be important to respond to Donald Jr.’s bullying remark with some additional thinking from people who have thought a lot about teaching and public education.

In his 2007, Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol responds directly to Donald Jr.’s assumption that a teacher’s primary role is to prepare students for some kind of economic function: “(T)eachers, and especially the teachers of young children, are not servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state and should never be compelled to view themselves that way.  I think they have a higher destiny than that. The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency; they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender expectations. They stalwartly refuse to see their pupils as so many future economic units for a corporate society, little pint-sized deficits or assets for America’s economy, into whom they are expected to pump ‘added value,’ as the pundits of the education policy arena now declaim. Teachers like these believe that every child who has been entrusted to their care comes into their classroom with inherent value to begin with.” (Letters to a Young Teacher, pp. 4-5 [emphasis in the original])

Gloria Ladson-Billings is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and former president of the American Educational Research Association.  Ladson-Billings’ book, The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, is a staple in colleges of education. Ladson-Billings explores what makes a particular group of excellent teachers effective.  Here she explores the importance of experience—teaching experience and life experience—shaping what happens in the classroom: “I wanted to know what was right with African American students’ education and what happens in classrooms where teachers, students, and parents seem to get it right. I searched for these teachers by polling African American parents… I asked principals and colleagues at schools in the district to recommend outstanding teachers to me. If a teacher’s name appeared on both lists… she became a candidate for the study. The most memorable thing about these teachers was that they had such few obvious similarities. True, they were all women, but I presume that to be an artifact of elementary teaching… After three years of working with these teachers I found two qualities that may explain their success. The first was experience. These women were very experienced teachers. None had fewer than twelve years of teaching experience… The second and perhaps more compelling factor was that each of these teachers could point to a transformative moment in their lives that forced them to reassess the way they did their work… These moments of transformation stand in stark contrast to the experiences of well-intentioned young people who come into teaching every year hoping to do some good for those ‘poor Black children.’ In my subsequent study with novice teachers I realized that it was important to select candidates who already had some life experiences that forced them to look closely at their lives and the lives of those less fortunate than they.” (The Dream-Keepers, “Forward” to the 2009 edition, pp. vii-viii [emphasis in the original])

Finally, in Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (1995, second edition 2006), Mike Rose, the education writer and professor of education at UCLA, traces four years of travel across the United States visiting and observing teaching in what he had identified as likely sites of excellent public school classrooms. Rose concludes: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable. They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning, and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal… As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity…  (T)eaching well means knowing one’s students well and being able to read them quickly and, in turn, making decisions to slow down or speed up, to stay with a point or return to it later…. This decision-making operates as much by feel as by reason: it involves hunch, introduction, a best, quick guess. There is another dimension to the ability to make judgments about instruction. The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society, gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.” (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423)

I wanted to share these passages from writers who not only teach prospective teachers but also help readers appreciate the real work of teachers. Most of us do not have the opportunity to sit inside America’s classrooms and become aware of the scale of this kind of work—across all of our communities—cities, suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Rose captures the importance of our system of public education with its millions of classrooms: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms… represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society… The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.”  (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)

It’s too bad our President and his son don’t get it.

Jonathan Kozol: A Prophet Calling Us All to Account

It was fitting that a huge crowd packed into the pews of Herrick Chapel at Grinnell College last Friday night to hear Jonathan Kozol, for while the 78-year-old Kozol is a quiet prophet with a Boston accent and a sense of humor, his life work has been to name the deepest sins of our society and call us to do something about them.  He writes and speaks about public policy—especially as it shapes education and the other institutions that embody the way we value or devalue our children, but he isn’t really a policy wonk.

Kozol does not arrive with a list of the perfect policy solutions.  Rather he writes from a location of privilege to challenge the blindness of privilege.  His purpose is to make us all see and feel responsible for how our society’s injustices are experienced by real people who share the same values and needs and humanity as those who have been positioned to shape public policy for their own benefit.  That Kozol is a prophet and not a policy wonk is why his 50-year-old Death at an Early Age is still read and his 25-year-old  Savage Inequalities remains timely despite the passage of a quarter century, despite that No Child Left Behind created another set of under-funded programs, and despite state-by-state policy changes that have rearranged the inequality.  Underneath the savage inequality in school finance is a moral failure: our society’s willingness to tolerate alarming inequality as long as those of us who have the power to move to farther suburbs can be sure our own children are protected and as long as we can allow ourselves not to see the children who have been left behind.  All this blindness, Kozol shows us, is possible because we are increasingly a society segregated and disconnected by race and class—even more so than when Kozol published Savage Inequalities in 1991.

For me Kozol’s most memorable words were part of a keynote at a Providence, Rhode Island church convention in 1999.  Kozol’s topic was welfare reform. Although Kozol is Jewish, he went to the New Testament for words that would touch an audience of mainline Protestants.  Here is what he said:  “When Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep,’ he didn’t say, ‘only the sheep who dwell in the green pastures.’  He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose mothers please us by acceptable behavior.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose fathers have good jobs and mothers come to PTA.’  He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep whose parents make smart choices.’ He didn’t say, ‘only the sheep that have two parents in the pen.’  He just said, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep.'”  Kozol is calling to account a society that would blame and punish individuals unable to pull themselves up even as we citizens have blinded ourselves to the role of the structural factors that are deepening poverty and intensifying inequality in America.  We are even willing to punish children for the perceived sins and failures of their parents.

So… what did Kozol tell us on Friday night?

Segregation continues to dehumanize us.  “Black and Hispanic children are more isolated intellectually and segregated geographically than at any time since the Civil Rights Movement.”  “Dr. King did not say, ‘I have a dream that we’ll have more efficient, test-driven, anxiety-ridden schools.'”  On top of the segregation and inequality, “The pestilence of standardized testing is sucking the beauty and spontaneity out of the lives of children.”

As we permit ourselves to dehumanize education—focus on standards and rubrics, ratings and test scores; manipulate data to shape technocratic policy; value competition and efficiency and forget that it is all about shaping children—we lose sight  of our human connectedness and our mutual responsibility for our children.  “The education reform business is a business now,” with all the cold language of competition and accountability.  Teachers “deliver” the lessons at prescribed times of the day to achieve “the outcome mandated for that moment of the morning.”  In the 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation, Kozol explains the danger of language that transforms the experiences of children and their teachers into abstractions: “By giving every particle of learning an official name, we strip it of uniqueness.  By forcing it to fit into the right compartment of significance or meaning, we control its power to establish its own meanings or to stir the children to pursue a small exhilaration in directions that may lead them to a place that experts haven’t yet had time to name.  Fascination and delight, no matter what lip-service we may pay to them, become irrelevant distractions.  Finding ‘where it goes’ and what it ‘demonstrates’ and how it can be ‘utilized’ become the teachers’ desolate obsessions.” (p. 77)

We have limited our dreams to the relatively tiny group of children we can save through a particular program, or one charter school, or even our favorite brand of charter management organization, but by definition justice must be systemic. Our education system cannot be reformed for a few exceptional children who earn a spot at a selective school or those whose parents are sophisticated enough to secure a place in a school choice lottery.  Kozol elaborates in the 2007 Letters to a Young Teacher, “The Hebrew prophets and the followers of Jesus did not make a false god out of elbow-pushing skills and hard-nosed competition.  ‘Savviness’ was not their ministry.  We ought to remind Americans of that.” (p. 148)

Public morality must be about shaping the institutions of our society to provide access for all.  Here is how Kozol explained it last Friday evening:

Competitive programs, whether in private schools or charter or voucher schools or public magnet programs, reward individuals with exceptional prowess or luck, but, “Charity has never been a substitute for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education.  Public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give to every child the feast of learning that is now available to children of the poor only on the basis of a careful selectivity or by catching the attention of empathetic people like the pastor of a church or another grown-up whom they meet by chance.  Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.”