What roles do teachers have in creating kind and compassionate citizens?
Teaching is about investing in our future.
Teachers need to do more than teach content. We are so much more than knowledge transmitters and test proctors. We are human beings that have made it our life’s mission to improve the world through nurturing, guiding and educating the world’s children.
I became a teacher because I wanted to help children/teenagers become the best they could be. I had a few amazing teachers who changed my life, and I wanted to be that teacher for other people.
Teachers stand in front of the classroom and help a room full of people discover the beauty of knowledge, and discover who they are and who they can become some day. If teachers are not embracing the importance of their role, then they may be doing more harm than good. Whether we like it or not, we are role models; we are educational coaches and knowledge facilitators.
When I taught in the high school, I taught the whole child, not just my content area. I love English and everything in the curriculum: writing, grammar, literature and oral communication. But what I loved more was how the English curriculum lent itself to teaching my students life skills, particularly kindness, empathy, and compassion. I believe these characteristics are more important than content knowledge because they will help students become successful in all areas of life, not just in the classroom or with standardized tests.
As a mother, I am also a teacher and role model to my children. I am not the perfect parent by any means; however, I have been raising children for 30 years now; my daughters and stepsons are adults, living on their own, and enjoying happy, successful lives, through which they are contributing positively to society. Ian is thriving and making significant gains in school.
As I navigate through my parenting experiences, I struggle with many of the things parents and teachers are currently dealing with. I struggle as a mother on the other side of the desk with how my son is treated by teachers and students in the classroom. However, my experiences as a teacher have given me insight into my collaboration with my son’s teachers. What I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that if we all work at behaving as and creating kind and compassionate citizens, we can effectively help our children become happy, successful adults.
As important as it is for teachers and parents to model and teach kindness and compassion, students have a responsibility to engage with this part of their education as well. It is through the daily lessons, contrived or not, that students discover who they are and who they want to be. If we all work together, we will help students acquire the skills necessary to become civic-minded individuals who continue our work in improving the world through nurturing, guiding and educating the world’s children.
Much of this comes from the “Introduction” to my book, Uncommon Core: 25 Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in a Cookie Cutter Educational System. I have changed a few parts to focus on the question at hand.
How do we teach young people the rigorous critical thinking and research skills to distinguish news from propaganda? How do we ensure the next generation is one which communicates civically, values honesty, and recognizes reality?
First, we have to have courses for young people to take that are centered on critical thinking. Most college campuses have an introductory course that stands alone or coincides with a writing class, but until college, most students do not have intensive critical thinking instruction.
In the critical thinking class I teach at GBCC, we read about and practice observation skills, word precision, facts and inferences, assumptions, opinions, viewpoints (and their filters), arguments, logical fallacies, and inductive and deductive reasoning. The most important part of this course is not the tests students take, but the discussions we have as we explore the concepts and share our experiences with critical thinking or the lack there of. What students learn is that they need to read, ask questions, be willing to say “I don’t know, but I’ll research it,” and then actually do it. They learn to spot those logical fallacies and not be duped by them. I tell them never to just believe anyone, not even me. They cannot trust the majority of sources, including mainstream media, because everyone has an agenda.
However, within the constructs of my high school English classroom, I still made sure students received some critical thinking lessons. During research projects, I showed students how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sources, where to find those legitimate sources, and how to use them ethically. We also had a number of shared inquiry sessions during classes on the most controversial subjects that didn’t have easy answers. Here are a few questions I would ask during these sessions: Did George do the right thing when he shot Lennie? Who demonstrated the worst behavior in Romeo and Juliet? Who is responsible for the destruction of freedom and equality on Animal Farm? Through these discussions, students learned to listen to each other (regardless of whether they agreed with each other or not), go beyond their own experiences and care about people and/or characters outside of their own bubble, and look back at text support for their responses—all critical thinking skills.
Which brings me to me next point: Students need to read more, and not just for pleasure, but also for exposure to the human condition. Reading diverse texts will arm them with knowledge outside of their limited perspectives. People cannot be critical thinkers when they have limited knowledge and limited experiences.
Finally, it’s not just young people who need to learn these skills. We have far too many adults who are role models for these young people that do not have critical thinking skills. I’ve said it before and will say it again: We cannot expect our children to learn skills the adults in their lives are not demonstrating on a daily basis.
I know too many people who are not educators (and some who are) that are in favor of the choice movement in education. The biggest reason people want choice is to improve the education for their own children and then create competition so that other schools will be forced to improve or shut down. Unfortunately, both reasons are based in misconceptions about education.
I will concede that “choice” is not a bad thing when you are talking about businesses, service industries, and commodities. We definitely want businesses to compete for our money. Competition makes businesses strive for excellence. That’s why people, outside of education mostly, thought that “choice” would make all schools better, but it hasn’t.
Why? First, because education is not a business; it is a humanright (Article 26) that isprotected as part of our inalienable fundamental rights to which people are entitled simply because they are human beings, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour (sic), sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
In other words, if a business fails, the owners can start over, maybe poorer and a little wiser, but no real harm done. If a school fails, it has negatively affected the human rights of every child that went to that failing school.
So how does the “choice” movement hurt human rights? Bear with me as I try to explain this point.
If you are for “choice” in education, you want better “service” for your child. We all want what is best for our children–I’m not arguing that. But if your child is going to a failing school, and you have the money to pay for private schools, which is part of that choice movement, then you will no longer care about that failing school because you can give your child something better (unless your child makes a mistake which will result in an expulsion with no chance of return to that private school). That is great for you and your family, but what about all the other children who can’t afford to pay for private schools?
The next question is usually, isn’t that why people came up with charter schools, so that people who can’t afford private schools can still get a quality education? Yes. Charter schools, in general, are another great idea–on paper. You don’t have to pay for charter schools out of your own pocket—technically—but your tax dollars go to those schools. Our government gives charter schools a certain amount of money for every child enrolled in that charter school; so just like public schools, our government pays for your child’s education—that is if you are lucky enough to get selected, and your child behaves well enough to stay at that school. Most charter schools operate on a lottery system, so not all students will get in, and most schools will kick students out who make mistakes or make the school look bad in any way.
Once again, for those parents who want choice, this sounds great because those children who are selected have a great atmosphere for learning.
However, what people forget is that there are many students who will have to continue going to that failing school. If you can’t worry about someone else’s children, then just consider this: Pulling your child out of the failing school does not pull them out of the society in which they live. One way or another, the negative effects of that failing school will still affect you and your children.
Just to summarize the first point, education is not a business; it is a human right. Therefore, educational choice is about people only caring about their children—no one else’s. Those who can afford it will choose to pay for their children to go to private schools. Out of those that remain, some parents will apply to charter schools and a few lucky students will get selected. That leaves the rest in public schools because public schools will take every rejected and expelled student and do the best they can to educate those students within the confines of the system. Public schools also have incredible students who are successful despite the “choice” movement.
Is it any wonder our public schools look like they are failing if the wealthy and well behaved students are all going somewhere else? Along these lines, by eliminating the heterogeneous classroom in all three options, it makes it harder for those struggling students to see what work ethic, study skills, and perseverance looks like. On the other hand, a classroom that has students with different genders, talents, abilities, interests, backgrounds, and cultures will help all students work toward a higher standard. The students in heterogeneous schools can relate to the world better because they experience diversity on a daily basis. The homogeneous classrooms found in private and charter schools miss out on this necessary part of children’s education. Also, when you remove the top tier of motivated students, the learning culture deteriorates on multiple levels. Students with average ability, motivation, or interest lose that interest, and kids who struggle for whatever reason just give up. Remember, we want our children to be civic-minded and global citizens. How can they understand the global world or empathize with the struggles in our society if they grow up only relating to people just like them?
Second, it is important to note that private and charter schools don’t operate under the government’s watchful eye, which allows them to reject the highly controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and refuse to participate in the corresponding state tests. Since these schools operate independently, they don’t have to participate in the very reasons that people are complaining about public schools. As a matter of fact, many private and charter schools saw the CCSS as a flawed document right from the start and opted out of it.
Remember, CCSS and the state tests are mandated for public schools by the government, while at the same time, the government is pushing for more charter schools that do not have to follow the mandates of the government. Does that make sense? So how can this “choice” movement improve the quality of all schools, when public schools don’t have the autonomy to fix their schools?
Third, to make matters worse, the government is giving money to private and charter schools because of that “choice” movement in the form of vouchers—money that could be given to public schools to improve those failing schools. Of course private and charter schools are going to appear as the right “choice” when they have money to purchase the newest technology, have the freedom to be innovative, and can reject the foolish educational reforms that are more about money than about our children.
Those outside of education do not understand that public schools cannot choose to change their operating methods, so it is impossible for public schools to compete in this so called “business market.” Besides the fact that education is a human right and not a business, the business competition model cannot change public schools because public schools are at the mercy of the government that continues to cut the budget of public schools to pay for tests and to give vouchers to private and charter schools.
Fourth, people and the government are not paying attention to the problems with some charter schools. John Oliver did this great piece on charter schools that exposed the problems with the government funding these unregulated entities.
Many “nonprofit” charter schools are finding deceptive was to make a profit. Once again, if “choice” education is supposed to create competition and a striving for excellence among all schools, Oliver’s research shows how that business model is failing even in the charter school industry.
On the other side of this issue, though, I will admit, there are some amazing charter schools out there. This is my biggest frustration: If there are innovative schools that are working, why can’t we adopt those innovations in public schools?
If parents truly want choice, this is where we as parents and educators need to concentrate our efforts. In Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the statement that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” should be taken literally and used to fix public education for all, not to give choice only to the wealthy and the fortunate.
If we want true education reformation, we need to make sure the public tax dollars are being used correctly to create an actual choice movement within the public school system itself: Increase money being spent on public education to improve ALL schools, regardless of location; increase teachers’ salaries to create a true competition for quality teachers; increase public school autonomy so that principals and teachers can use their knowledge and experience to innovate and create the right learning environment for their students.
If people are really concerned about choice, they should make sure their local public school is doing what their children need in order to thrive. Imagine a public school that has the elite academic prep curriculum of Phillips Exeter Academy for those students who are college bound; the innovation of The Ron Clark Academy for those who are creative or learn differently; the care and nurturing of the Learning Skills Academy for those with learning disabilities; and The Independent Project (https://youtu.be/RElUmGI5gLc) for those who want independence and a nontraditional education. Using these innovative schools as models to transform public schools would meet the needs of every student regardless of race, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status—not just the wealthy and lucky few.
I had the pleasure of talking about my book on the Uncle Phil Show on Friday. It’s a bit long, but a great hour-long discussion with Phil and Marshall. We had some deep conversations about education, bullying and how to help our children in this climate of fear, but mostly, we laughed and bonded over our mutual desire to make the world a better place.
How do we better engender a healthy, happy, and productive school environment where both teachers and students can flourish?
In Martin E.P. Seligman’s Flourish (published April 5, 2011 with Simon and Schuster), he writes about the five elements people need in order to flourish. It goes beyond trying to find happiness: “Flourishing rests on five pillars, each of which we value for its own sake, not merely as a means to some other end.”
So what are the five pillars and how do we create those elements in a school environment?
Here are my thoughts:
In order for our schools to flourish, they need to be a place where positive emotions reside. At the moment, school systems, teachers, and students are surrounded with negative emotions. Most teachers try to create a positive environment for their students, but so much depends on what happens outside of the classroom. If we want to improve that outer atmosphere, we need to make sure teachers are happy and not stressed out over the increased pressures surrounding their profession. If the teacher ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Students engage when they have a sense of wonder and curiosity about the subject matter, which is a direct result of the teacher’s engagement. I engage with my students because I want to hear and read what my students think about what we are learning in the classroom. The more control I have over the content of my classroom, the more engaged I am, which creates that atmosphere for my students. When reform agencies dictate the content of teachers’ classrooms, engagement diminishes significantly.
Even at the college level where I rarely see students for more than a semester, I have developed strong relationships with my students. I also encourage students to form strong bonds with each other because they need to trust each other when they share their thoughts in classroom discussions and essays in writing workshops. If students aren’t talking to and collaborating with each other, they will never build those necessary relationships.
Teachers find meaning in their chosen profession; it’s intrinsic to their job description. However, the current educational trends take away that intrinsic process from students: Students’ choices are being stripped away, with most schools buying into the factory model of producing only college-bound students, instead of creating a place where students can discover their own passions and direction in life.
One of the reasons video games are so popular with children and teens is that they offer a sense of accomplishment as players move through the levels. This element is sorely lacking in today’s school system. In middle school, students can move through the grade levels without passing a single subject. Some parents are demanding that their children are rewarded for little effort. What has hurt teachers in this area is the evaluation system that measures teachers’ accomplishments through a deeply flawed test. No matter what we tell ourselves about the growth we see in our students, if our accomplishments can be stripped away by a flawed test, we will operate from a defeatist position.
As Seligman states, each of these five pillars needs to be present for people to flourish. It only makes sense that they must be present in the school system for teachers and students to flourish as well.
How can we maximize the value of art and music in education and how can it be blended with more traditional subjects (math, science, history, etc.)?
I teach at a community college, and a professor there created an art therapy club for professors, adjunct, and staff. Nine people attended the first session where they colored with pens and painted with watercolors. Future sessions will consist of making jewelry, drawing, and using mixed media—all as therapy to help adults relieve a stressful week. This is brilliant; however, our primary and secondary children are going to school during a time when the arts are slowly being eliminated from their curriculum. I find this dichotomy painfully ridiculous.
Instead of answering the question this month, I’m going to ask a few of my own:
If schools embraced this idea of art therapy, would we have as many children and teens suffering from stress and anxiety?
If students were allowed to embrace their creative sides, would they grow up into adults who needed art therapy?
If art is therapeutic, why do we give it so little importance and relegate it to an elective in secondary schools?
Why do parents and educators allow people who don’t really care about their children to make unhealthy decisions for their children?
Why does the very notion of school imply that everything that is taught there needs to be quantified? Can’t we just enjoy learning without testing or assigning a letter grade to it?
Why are math, science, social studies, and English classes more important in a child’s education, than art, music, dance, and theater?
Why do people think that studying the arts is a waste of time and not preparation for college? Why can’t students who truly love the arts immerse themselves in those areas and continue to do so in college?
Why is our society so bent on educating only half the child? Do people not see the damage being done to our children when we eliminate the things that bring them the greatest joy?
How do we inspire the best and the brightest to become educators?
We have to make the profession a respectable position. Right now, American teachers are scapegoats for everything wrong with our society. This is not true in other countries. How do we bring respect to the profession? This multiple step process must happen simultaneously or at least in rapid succession:
The first step needs to be getting rid of the ridiculous evaluation system based on standardized tests and tied to teacher pay. Master teachers know that their true effectiveness cannot be measured by a test. Recently, a former student teacher of mine wrote 130 letters—one for each of her students—in response to a suicide attempt from one of her students. That kind of passion and dedication to her students cannot be measured by a test. She was the best and brightest in her high school and college, and she was taught by amazing master teachers who did not need standardized tests to prove their worthiness.
Teacher preparation programs must only accept the best and brightest students into their programs. Right now, anyone can become a teacher. Elevating the requirements for teacher candidates will elevate the respect for the profession. The courses in these programs must also be more rigorous and involve more hands-on experiences. If becoming a teacher were more difficult, people who were drawn to the profession would make sure they were the right kind of candidates right out of high school, just like those who want to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Also, the programs that offer quick training for such an important profession must be dissolved.
In conjunction with the improvement to teacher prep programs, teachers must get a competitive salary based on the education requirements for the profession. Teachers need to have a master’s degree and are required to continue their education through professional development courses every year. How many other professionals, requiring that kind of educational commitment, cannot afford to live a comfortable life on their income alone? It should not matter in which community a teacher works: A viable salary commensurate with the education and workload must accompany the profession. Also, in this capitalistic society, money equals respect. When the current response to our profession changes from “I guess you couldn’t make it in any other profession” to “Wow! You were bright enough and dedicated enough to become a teacher!” we will know that our profession finally has the respect it deserves.
There must be a mentoring program for new teachers that pairs them with master teachers so that they can have a solid network to maneuver through the difficulties intrinsic within the profession. Many teachers leave the profession within the first five years because they do not have that support system. They will never become master teachers; they will never know the beauty that blossoms from the struggle. Watching students become successful adults, helping other teachers embrace the profession, growing into a master teacher—these are the rewards that accompany longevity in a profession that builds a community, improves a society, and changes the world for the better.
This is the post I wish I wrote. Melissa Bowers captures the plight of a teacher perfectly. There are many reasons to leave the profession, which many teachers, including me, have done. The only reason to stay is for our students. Remember that when you want to be overly critical of the public school teachers still fighting in the trenches–they stayed for your children.
Joshua Katz describes perfectly the plight of American education, the damage it does to our lower achieving students, and the super villains behind it all.
“We need to pay attention to our students and who they are. . . . How can we help them be better students? . . . How can we help them with these non cognitive factors, like work ethic and character? . . . It’s the public narrative that must be shifted. We must talk about what is happening in the lives of our students–even our honors’ students–because we are simply creating a massive population of future citizens who are afraid to attempt anything challenging, unable to read or think critically, or unable to find a way to earn a meaningful income.”
I can’t say it any better than he did, so take the time to watch this video all the way until the end and pay attention to his solutions.
We can have an educational system that meets the needs of every child. We can change the narrative. We just need more people willing to stand up for our children, stand against the super villains, and demand an educational system that encourages success, not failure.
I miss high school—not my teenage years but the years I spent teaching high school English.
A few weeks ago, I went to the local high school with my son to see his friends play a 10-minute exhibition game as the half-time entertainment for the boys’ basketball game. As soon as I walked into the building, I felt the energy that only exists in a school: An energy fueled by youthful hope and ambition.
We were a little early, so we sat in the bleachers by Ian’s friends. As I looked at the faces on the court, I was disappointed that I didn’t know anyone. Then I immediately chastised myself. How could I know anyone in this building? I don’t teach here. I don’t teach at any high school anymore. My heart began to ache.
Ridiculously, I fought back tears. Why did I leave a place I loved so much? How could I resign from a position that defined my purpose in life? How could I leave the students who needed me?
I looked at the parents, siblings, students, and teachers sitting in the stands. In Colorado I would have had at least one if not five people approach me while I was sitting there—a student just to say hi or a parent thanking me for working with his or her child or an older sibling back from college telling me I made a difference. But here, in this high school, no one knows me: None know that I used to change lives for the better; none know that I would lose sleep worrying about students just like them; none know how much it meant to my students to see me sitting in bleachers just like these.
While Ian watched his friends play, I evaluated what to do with this surprising surge of emotion. Did this mean I should start applying for secondary teaching jobs? Would anyone even hire me after my public resignation letter? If so, could I really work fulltime in a public school again? That thought brought a new surge of pain and questions. How could I go back to a public school, no matter how much I loved it, when the reason I left still exists? How could I be part of a system that aims to replace hope and ambition with standards and test scores? How could I go back to a profession that is being exploited by corporate greed and destroyed by bureaucrats with little concern for our children?
As my mind and heart raced, I thought about my college students. I am still changing lives and losing sleep over them, but I’m not immersed in the community the way I was in high school. As an adjunct, I just show up for class. If a student has questions, I stay on campus a little longer, but I’m free to leave when I’m done. I know I am still making a difference with my college students, but at a community college, I have many nontraditional students who are no longer teenagers in their formative years. Nevertheless, they respond positively to my encouragement, tough love, and passion. Most of my students leave at the end of a semester better prepared for their futures. Some students, however, don’t make it to the end of the semester. They didn’t start this process with the necessary work ethic or resilience to battle through entitlement issues, to embrace the demands of a college class and grow stronger mentally and emotionally because of it—skills I made sure I taught in high school.
I also thought about my financial situation. I’m barely making it right now. I chose to work as an adjunct so that I would have time to write. But a part-time adjunct position has just as much work as a fulltime high school position with a quarter of the pay. So I have less money and still have limited time for writing. If I taught fulltime again, I would at least have money, but I wouldn’t have as much time with my son.
So where does this leave me? How do I get all of my son’s and my needs met without sacrificing my convictions? How can I still be part of a system that encourages and builds up students when they are at their most vulnerable?
This semester, I put a few things in place: I started tutoring a high school student, which has been great. I also am on the subbing list for the middle and high schools in the area. My son will be moving up next year, so I hope to have more jobs in the middle school—that would be the best of both worlds.
Last week, I had my first subbing assignment in the middle school—8th grade English. I felt the energy again as soon as I walked into the building. Being a substitute is definitely different from being the main classroom teacher: Some students tested my teaching abilities immediately. They brought their phones out, walked around the room, sat next to friends, talked while I talked, but they quickly found out I was in charge, but not with an iron fist. I smiled, laughed, and quietly controlled the room. Some students were sweet and wanted to talk to me. I loved it all! I felt like I was home. This was a viable solution for my heartache. Maybe, if I were there enough, students would remember and recognize me. I could be part of this system, encourage teenagers, and make some extra money.
Ironically, while Ian was jumping at Blitz and I was writing this post, a student from the 8th grade class I taught walked past me and stopped: “Hey! You’re the sub from the other day, aren’t you?”
I think this is going to work just fine.
This writing challenge was painful and cathartic. I cried while writing it, which helped me heal, but it also renewed my passion for true educational reformation. After I published this post, I realized I had more to say about education and the teachers leaving the profession, like me, with broken hearts. I turned this challenge into a post that is now on Huffington Post. You can get to that post here.