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.

As Strike Averted, CTU Affirms Rights and Contributions of School Teachers

Late Monday night, after two years of negotiations, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union reached a tentative agreement to avert a strike only minutes before a midnight deadline.

Emma Brown and Kari Lydersen summarize the terms of the tentative agreement for the Washington Post: “It calls for a four-year contract good through June 2019, including salary increases based on teachers’ experience and education—which had been frozen during contract negotiations—and cost-of-living raises in the final two years. The agreement also includes a cap on privately run charter schools and would require the school system to provide a teaching assistant in early education classrooms—kindergarten through second grade—with 32 students or more.  And in a victory for the union, it requires the school system to continue its contribution to current teachers’ pensions, though new hires will lose that benefit… The total cost of the tentative agreement, and the school system’s plan  for footing the bill, was not immediately clear.”  Chicago’s WBEZ and a local publication, DNA Info, speculate that the cost of the agreement will be covered through special Tax Increment Financing district funds.

The Chicago Teachers Union emphasizes that improving support for children is part of the tentative contract—the above-mentioned addition of an assistant in primary grade classrooms of over 32 children, and an additional $10-$27 million to hire more clinicians, wrap-around supports and restorative justice coordinators.  Teachers also won promises for two additional 15 minute preparation times per week beginning in 2017 and a reduction in required testing and excess paperwork.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s 800 member House of Delegates must ratify the agreement before it can be considered approved, followed by a vote by all 28,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Last February the union’s membership rejected a tentative contract as it became clear that when its complicated terms were added together, some teachers’ salaries and benefits would have been reduced. The school district has been negotiating in the midst of a serious financial crisis, with the district teetering on the edge of bankruptcy from time to time and its bond rating falling to junk status.

At contract time, it is common to blame teachers and their unions, particularly in these days when business rhetoric and celebrity dominate the airwaves.  Children are too often an afterthought; the people who educate children and adolescents work invisibly in the schools few of us visit or think much about after our own children become adults. Teaching is public work of great consequence; nothing a teacher says or does can really be taken back. Every teacher’s biggest worry is passing judgment or saying something hurtful that a child will carry through life; yet that same teacher knows she or he must insist on every child’s best effort at every turn.  Teachers don’t have power lunches as part of their day; they are simply present—supporting and instructing and mentoring our society’s children day after day and year after year. Teaching also requires considerable preparation—filling every day with well orchestrated curriculum that builds coherently through the semester and school year.

In a column published a couple of years ago in the Washington Post, Why Educating the Educators Is Complex, Mike Rose, a teacher of teachers at UCLA, reminds us about what teachers do:

“Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics.  Teaching begins with knowledge of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development.  But it’s not just that teachers know things.  Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others.  This takes us to the heart of what teaching is…. The teacher sets out to explain what a protein or a metaphor is, or how to balance the terms in an algebraic equation, or the sociological dynamics of prejudice, but to do so needs to be thinking about how to explain these things: what illustrations, what analogies, what alternative explanations when the first one fails?  This instruction is done not only to convey particular knowledge about metaphors or algebraic equations, but also to get students to understand and think about these topics.  This involves hefty cognitive activity, … but the teacher is doing it with a room full of young people—which brings a significant performative dimension to the task.

“Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity.  You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly, and from that reading make decisions to slow down or speed up, stay with a point or return to it later, connect one student’s comment to another’s.  Simultaneously, you are assessing on the fly Susie’s silence, Pedro’s slump, Janelle’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness.  Students are, to varying degrees, also learning from each other, learning all kinds of things, from how to carry oneself to how to multiply mixed numbers.  How teachers draw on this dynamic interaction varies depending on their personal style, the way they organize their rooms, and so on—but it is an ever-present part of the work they do.”

I am very glad Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who controls the Chicago Public Schools, felt compelled to affirm these realities as the school district and the teachers union negotiated on Monday night. At a press conference two hours prior to the agreement, Emanuel said: “Tonight, we are committed to remaining at the negotiating table as long as it takes to reach an agreement—to give teachers raises, to secure their pensions, to invest in our schools.” I hope Emanuel’s ongoing management of the school district will embody these values.

In the meantime, all praise goes to Karen Lewis and her negotiating team for insisting with dignity—despite hard financial times in Chicago and the state of Illinois—that the rights and contributions of school teachers remain visible.

PDK/Gallup Poll Says Americans Value Teachers and Want Teachers Supported, Not Punished

Too often lately when I read about teachers and teaching, I am bothered because I suspect the writer has never taught in any kind of school.  Even though I know that data from tests and classroom work has always informed teachers’ strategies for working with particular students, I am puzzled by people who assume that teachers keep in mind a compartmentalized mental file of each child’s standardized test scores as the key to strengths and weaknesses and a finite list of steps to be taken to erase the weaknesses. And I am troubled by statisticians calculating econometric formulas to measure the amount of knowledge particular teachers add to a child’s education.

To my mind teaching is an art, though teachers certainly need to inform their practice with what science tells us about psychology and sociology and child development. Teaching is relational.  It is not the mere imparting of bits and bites of information.  Teachers must come to know their students deeply and respect what each student brings to the relationship.  Teaching is about awakening interest, inspiring hard work, stimulating curiosity, listening, considering, supporting, encouraging and making students feel safe enough to learn from criticism.  Teachers need to be able to encourage students to analyze, be critical, and challenge authority while at the same time creating a safe and orderly classroom.  So much of today’s talk about teachers fails to consider what teachers really do.  When learning happens, there is a spark of connection.  Gloria Ladson-Billings titled her classic book about teaching, The Dreamkeepers; Sonia Nieto called hers, The Light in Their Eyes.

Even if I try, I find it meaningless to apply the “Value Added Measure” (VAM) concept to my experience with my favorite teachers. A lot of these measures would try to connect “value added” to the salaries I have been able to earn over the years—the economic value of my education.  While I certainly don’t want to scoff at the importance of my capacity to work, I don’t really value my own education at all from an economic point of view.  The teachers who took the trouble to connect with me, help form my habits of thought, encourage me to be and feel competent—these are the teachers I value, but I can’t measure the worth of my connection to my teachers or assign a numerical value to the experience.

Mike Rose, one of my favorite writers about teachers and education, describes what is rarely considered in much of today’s talk about schooling:  “I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind.  The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it.  Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it,  the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are.  We need to pay attention to the experience of going to school.”  (Why School?, 2014 edition, p. 34) I value my favorite teachers as the people who shaped that experience of going to school.

Today’s school reform—codified in the federal testing law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and continuing in the Obama Administration’s NCLB waivers that require states to incorporate students’ scores on standardized tests into formal evaluations of teachers—has failed to address the social conditions that affect learning in our poorest school districts and has failed to invest seriously in resource equity across school districts.  It has framed a conversation about closing achievement gaps but ignored a wide set of opportunity gaps that must be closed. The ratings of schools and teachers incorporated into these federal policies are designed to blame school teachers, supposedly to motivate teachers to to work harder and smarter.  A significant number of policy makers these days also seem to believe that we can improve public education through a regime of firing and replacing teachers who are not quickly raising the standardized test sores of their students.

However, there is encouraging new evidence that while Americans’ views of school teachers have been affected by all this negativity, many people have managed to hold on to a more nuanced understanding of education and teaching.  Yesterday Phi Delta Kappan and Gallup released the second part of their annual poll of Americans’ opinions about education.  Much of the material released yesterday explored Americans’ opinions about teaching.  It seems that although public opinion has been influenced to some degree by the widespread trend of blaming school teachers, the majority of Americans have retained healthy skepticism about attacks on teachers.

William J. Bushaw, the chief executive officer of PDK International and author of an analysis of the poll’s findings about attitudes toward teachers and teaching, writes: “Once again, Americans have identified a blueprint to support public education, and it is centered on investments in classroom teachers.  That is not a quick fix, but other countries have had success with this strategy, resulting in unmistakable gains in student achievement.” “Americans said they believe teacher evaluation should be primarily designed to help teachers improve their ability to teach.  If we listen carefully to the opinions of Americans, we need to research better ways to evaluate teachers and principals that are not overly reliant upon how students perform on standardized tests.”

The PDK/Gallup poll this year indicates that 61 percent of Americans oppose using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. The number of parents who have trust and confidence in public school teachers declined from 72 percent last year to 64 percent this year, but is still a wide majority. Fifty-seven percent of Americans still say they would be pleased if their child becomes a school teacher, down from 62 percent in 2005, but still a sizeable number of parents.

While those polled would like to see teaching improved, their focus—like Mike Rose’s focus—seems to be on improving the experience of schooling for America’s children by more thoroughly preparing their teachers.  Seventy percent of those polled would like to increase the length of the supervised student teaching experience to one year and make entrance requirements for teacher preparation programs more rigorous.  Finally 77 percent of Americans said the most important goal of evaluating teachers is not to punish but instead to “help teachers improve their ability to teach.”