Experience Matters for Educators, too!

Tell your neighbors to do the “write” thing

It has been suggested that, shortly after its inception, the Académie Française engaged in social engineering as it codified the rules of French grammar.

Some contend that the institution of complicated agreement patterns constituted a concerted effort by elitists to insure that members of the lower classes would never master the subtleties of the written language thereby denying the poor an opportunity to improve their station and securing privileges for the rich and powerful who, coincidentally, had a nearly monopolistic hold on access to schooling.

Centuries ago arcane grammatical inventions served to stratify society and maintain the economic status quo. Today, similar ends are achieved by inequitable school funding that assures the perpetuation of a privileged class maintained by educational advantages over the competition.

The strategy has evolved in the 21st Century. Remember “The Golden Rule”?  Those with the gold always make rules that favor those with the gold.

No school system willingly increases class size or pretends that it is beneficial to children. Overcrowding is reserved for jurisdictions that are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to foot the bill for educating all children. Children suffer the consequences of such parsimony as they depart school ill prepared to compete at the next level.

In very general terms my students, even those who could read fairly well, exhibited deplorable writing skills. Penmanship seemed a forgotten art and legibility remained an elusive goal for too many. Mastery of capitalization, punctuation and accurate spelling eluded an absolutely horrifying percentage of my students. The “fine” points of thesis statement, topic sentences and writing objectively in the third-person baffled all save a few of the strongest.

What was a high school foreign language teacher to do when, in a class of thirty students, not one child could name the parts-of-speech or the parts-of-a-sentence? How are students to comprehend the complexities of grammar in a second language if they do not grasp even the rudiments of the ambient tongue? The committed educator is, therefore, obliged to remediate students and often at the expense of what might be deemed the “essential” curriculum of the target language. Consequently, these students still end up in arrears academically despite having advanced somewhat on the road to competence.

When will our community demonstrate the will to confront this crisis and deal with it in a meaningful way? What can be done to prevent our children from joining the half of the freshman class that drops out in the first year of college? Why do our students, many of whom exhibit high intelligence and academic potential, lack foundational skills to such a degree that future collegiate success is already in jeopardy?

How has it come to this? Blame it on what you will…

Blame it on insufficient intellectual stimulation during early childhood. Blame it on the conditions that prevail in classrooms dominated by the economically disadvantaged. Blame it on bland basal readers and a dearth of materials to enrich the curriculum during the elementary school years. Blame it on spending an entire academic career in overcrowded classrooms staffed by a largely itinerant workforce.

Blame this culturally induced dysgrafia on what you will. Casting blame is easy; funding the solutions is the hard part.

Why do our students write so poorly? That is addressed by a simple axiom: As the number of students in a class approaches infinity, so the number of writing assignments approaches zero.

The addition of merely a few students to each class adds exponentially to the time spent correcting papers. The grading of sixty – or more – daily quizzes represents easily a total of three hours of grading, logging and data entry each and every day. That, however, is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Because writing is a “process” and not an “event“, teaching students to write well is time consuming.

First, students produce a draft. Then, teachers read the assignment and offer suggestions for improvement. Next, students revise and resubmit the document for re-evaluation.

Ideally, the teacher and the student should repeat this procedure really until both agree on the “final” product (although few writings can ever be considered edit neutral). Consequently, appropriate, meaningful and timely feedback on longer essays often demands hours for each assignment.

Excellent writers are notorious for obsessive revisions to text. In the notebooks of Gustave Flaubert, there are over 300 versions of one sentence from the scene at the ball in Madame Bovary. As soon as Montaigne received new editions of his Essais, he would begin adding revisions in the margins for the next edition leading one of his biographers to the title “Words in the Corner” for the book describing his process. 

What do you think really happens when teachers have a caseload of 180-220 students?

Regrettably, the amount of individualized attention that a child receives from a caring teacher remains directly proportional to the mean wealth of all the families that attend a particular school. Schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students typically have the most overcrowded classes and the most overworked teachers. Therefore, the teaching of writing likely suffers more than any other discipline in such schools.

Teachers do not love multiple-choice assessments; most would prefer to assess student learning through writing. The logistics, however, render that impossible. Bubble sheets simply allow a teacher to grade 180 papers, compute grades and turn in results within a stipulated 48 hours.

Unfortunately, college professors and future employers will no longer evaluate students by their ability to identify the correct answer from a list of four possibilities. They will pose pointed questions and anticipate cogent and expansive answers that demonstrate precision of expression and clarity of thought. No pity for the unprepared will be forthcoming.

So, when neighbors ask why they should invest more money in our schools to lower class size, tell them the truth. It is simply the “write” thing to do.


[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on January 17, 2003. ]

A Teacher’s Bowl Runneth Over

Some years ago, a brilliant television advertisement for a well-known breakfast food featured two older siblings – both dubious about their mother’s choice of cereal – attempting to foist her latest selection upon their little brother saying “Give it to Mikey! He’ll eat anything!”

While the advertisement was clever and memorable as a marketing ploy, the strategy seems to have been adopted nationwide in formulating job descriptions for educators.

For all professional educators, the phrase “other duties as assigned” has evolved into the bane of their professional lives. No task is too intrusive on the contractual day, too mind-numbingly menial, or too irrelevant to instructional priorities, to prevent its inclusion on the long list of mandatory duties that have nothing to do with improving the cognition of students.

Give to the teachers; they’ll do anything.

The acquisition of a teaching credential does not require a three-credit course in “bus counting” prior to certification. Yet, each morning and afternoon, a teacher is likely to be found in front of the school building, clipboard in hand, charting the arrival of those yellow behemoths. 

Nothing in teacher formation programs prepares teachers for their future in lunchroom crowd-control or supervision of the hallways. Ninety minutes of delivering instruction for a large class and, without a break, supervise the 300 youngsters in the hall. 

At least those duties do not directly interfere with instructional time.

However, for eight weeks during the school year, the added task of proctoring standardized tests (Benchmarks, PSAT’s, HSA’s, PARCC, etc.) curtails the ability of teachers to deliver coherent instruction.

For those not directly involved in proctoring, the challenge becomes keeping entire classes “on standard” when a different 30-40% of the class is pulled out for testing for 45 days during the year. Teach an elective where multiple grade levels attend each class and it becomes impossible to “advance the class” as a unit through the curriculum for multiple weeks at a time. 


Furthermore, teachers spend weeks reteaching concepts to children returning from the testing hiatus. No matter how you cut it, the current protocols for standardized testing disrupt instructional programs for everyone despite the errant claims otherwise by bureaucrats. 

The workday for teachers should be mostly, dare one suggest “entirely”, devoted to diagnosing the needs of students, organizing lessons, delivering instruction and evaluating formative assessments. The inevitable collision with “other duties” too frequently results in a profound misuse of teacher expertise and, hence, the taxpayers’ dollars.

We can ill afford to fill the teacher’s contractual day with extraneous, non-instructional tasks while pushing to the periphery all the essential tasks required to improve academic outcomes.


[The original version of this  Commentary appeared originally in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on November 20, 2014. It has been revised for readability. ] 

Expectations of heroic proportions are killing the teaching profession

In most instances, heroism should be reflected by isolated events and not the requirements of a job description.

Most acts of heroism occur in extraordinary circumstances when an individual overcomes normal fears and acts, usually involving considerable risk to self, to extract another soul from imminent peril.

Jumping into frigid waters to save someone from drowning, pulling someone from a vehicle fully engulfed in flames, falling on a grenade to save the rest of the unit from certain extinction, these are all most certainly heroic acts. In recent years, too many teachers have furnished that “last full measure of devotion” while saving children from demented gunmen or crumbling walls during a tornado. Each of these isolated instances reflects human pathos, not “other duties as assigned“.

Herein resides the dilemma for educators in the Age of Accountability. The only path to excellence and professional acclaim is tied, apparently irrevocably, to what has become known as the “Heroic Model” which demands total devotion of self to the profession. Selflessness has become the standard for assessing teacher effectiveness, and anything less has nearly become cause for disciplinary action. The altruism reflected in the résumés of most Teachers of the Year usually represents an unsustainable comittment across the span of a career.

Almost invariably, educators enter the profession expressing the idealistic ambition of influencing, in a positive way, the lives of children. The community’s failure to furnish sufficient human and material resources has, however, a deadly  effect on those generous tendencies. Entry level educators saddled by student loan debt, and at a time when they should be devoting all their efforts to the perfection of their craft and addressing the needs of children, find themselves instead taking on a second job out of dire necessity.

Disillusion sets in quickly, and that can be measured by the nearly six out of 10 that decline to endure a sixth year in the classroom.

When a relatively inexperienced teacher recently complained to a colleague about feeling burned out, a colleague replied, “You haven’t been around long enough to be burned out, dear, you are just tired.” Perception, however, is often reality.

To the degree that the effort required to teach effectively is associated with feelings of exhaustion and despair, the children of any community will be disadvantaged. Demanding decades of heroic, superhuman effort, and adding ever more responsibilities to the job description for educators,  are no longer sustainable practices for the public schools.

Further Reading: Those Weren’t the Days, My Friend

[This is an expanded version of a  Commentary that originally appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on October 24, 2013.]

More tasks, little time for teachers…

It is all about “time”.

For educators surviving the pseudo-accountability of the post-No-Child-Left-Behind world, “time” has devolved into just another four-letter word.

Former Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) President, Jane Stern, has inserted as her electronic tagline, “Every task takes time.” 

For as long as any perennially overworked educator can remember, all proposed methods for improving schools are remarkably consistent in their approach: Assign More Tasks to Teachers. Of late, policymakers might as well add, “…Without Regard to the Limits of Human Endurance.”

Bureaucrats labor mistakenly under the misconception that only time spent “on stage” with an audience constitutes “teaching” even though two of the four Domains in Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching are described as “off stage“, half of the teaching effort occurs when children are not in the room.  Still, most of the contractual day is devoted to the direct supervision of children. This is how all the “other-duties-as-assigned” systematize the inevitable intrusion of our chosen vocation into our personal time. When did sleep and leisure become optional? How did 12 hours of work for 7 1/2 hours of pay become a reasonable expectation?

Once upon a time, that intrusion was merely “inconvenient“; today, the encroachment on personal time is closing in on “intolerable“.

Why do more than half of all teachers leave the profession in five years? Could it be the desire for “family life” to evoke more than “Mommy’s grading papers.”? Eventually, a priority other than work arises that should not receive short shrift, a health concern for self, spouse, or parents, for example, and the workplace must become a secondary consideration. Disillusion sets in in direct proportion to the duration or frequency of such events and the propensity of supervisors to roll their eyes at any request for consideration of the circumstances.

Our communities provide some of the material resources needed for instruction, but it is left to teachers to find the time to plan lessons and correct assessments of learning because little-to-none will be forthcoming in their place of employment.

For newcomers to the profession, the time required simply to plan a lesson may exceed the time it actually takes to deliver it to students. Several well-organized lessons a day is a killing pace for even the most gifted educator.

Even experienced educators must continue to revise and update their lessons daily to remain current.

The minuscule amount of time allotted from the contractual day for actual lesson-planning is all too often usurped by the non-instructional vagaries of the school day. Filling in for a colleague; contacting a parent; a call to an unscheduled meeting ; workarounds for the broken down photocopier; data entry; an urgent letter of recommendation; any one of these events will far too regularly consume, in entirety, the so-called “planning period.”

The number of tasks assigned to teachers have increased relentlessly in recent years while untold instructional hours are lost to test prep and test proctoring. Teach more effectively and accomplish more with children in fewer instructional hours? Does that really sound possible to you? It is well past time to return to the old labor motto: “Eight hours for work; eight hours for sleep; eight hours for what you will!”

Our popular folk wisdom suggests that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.  The endless hours contributed by this nation’s educators are probably not the sole cause of dull instruction; however, we know that excessive workload creates far too many “former educators”.

Further Reading: The Prince George’s Sentinel

[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on September 18, 2014. Photo found at:  May Day]

Beware the Potholes on the Road to Educational Reform

ford-model-t-pics-17837Some years agos, a story appeared about the efforts undertaken by a certain midwesterner to keep his antique Model T running. The tires were increasingly difficult to find. He lamented that, even in junkyards, it was nearly impossible to locate spare parts. More than once he had been obliged to improvise temporary repairs. The gentleman so loved his old car that he would take broken or worn parts to a local machinist and have them rebuilt from scratch for what might be considered extravagant prices.

He was frustrated that he could only take his car out late at night or early Sunday mornings because it could no longer compete with the faster automobiles of today and their increasingly impatient drivers. Even tractors had more acceleration than his carefully maintained relic.

He confessed an irrational inability to let go of reminders of the halycon days of his youth.

His situation is an apt metaphor for the perils of Public Education in our time.

In my father’s days as a student, and to some degree even my own, the goal of Public Education was to supply an adequate education for all students possessing the will to avail themselves of the opportunity. A high school drop out rate of twenty-five percent was acceptable. Another twenty-five percent placed in college was a laudable goal. Fifty percent of students went out into the world with no more than a high school diploma.

Generally speaking, dropouts were consigned to menial or manual labor a century ago. If students left school able to read well enough to follow instructions and if they knew enough math to balance their checkbooks, then they could find a job in the industrial manufacturing base where the wages, if not conducive to comfort, were at least livable. Those who furthered their education found positions in leadership and management.

It may not have been the best possible system in educational achievement. However, the need for unskilled labor was great, so it was deemed generally utilitarian.

Recently, however, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of industrial manufacturing jobs. In the never-ending quest for profits, Capital is taking advantage of an increased reliance on robotics here at home or cheap labor overseas. Hence, the set of skills required by our young people to compete in the post-industrial society has changed irrevocably.

More importantly, the compendium of human knowledge has doubled in size every seven years during the same period.

Children entering school today will have to know more upon receipt of their high school diploma than college students needed to know upon graduation a couple generations ago.   Furthermore, the base of children who will have to meet such standards in order to be considered “educated” has widened to exceed 90%. Today, the goal is to educate very nearly every student (even those unmotivated to learn!).

The goals of Public Education have changed immeasurably in the last fifty years. Our schools are beset by ever increasing responsibilities and expectations. Unfortunately, the models of the school day and school year have changed negligibly. The allocation of resources as a percentage of the Gross National Product remains stagnant.

This nation still employs the 42-week agrarian calendar although our children-of-the-cornucopia no longer typically spend their summer in the fields.   We still place too many children in front of too few teachers for too many minutes of the teacher’s workday with minimal resources at hand. Working conditions for our educators are scarcely adequate to execute appropriate custodial care, much less so when it comes to setting rigorous and meaningful academic standards.

There will never be an educational model that solves this nation’s academic woes if it does not address the following:

  • more reasonable caseloads.
  • fewer minutes of direct teacher/student interface time for teachers.
  • more time-on-task for students across the calendar year.
  • compensation & benefits packages that will attract more of our best minds to the teaching profession (and, hopefully, keep them there!).

Any proposals that do not address these four fundamental issues are akin to tinkering with a model that has moved beyond obsolescence toward the status of an antiquity.   Educators continue to point to the absurdity of it all, but few policymakers elect to process the message.

Bureaucrats and policymakers pretend that holding teachers and/or students “accountable” will improve performance. In the meantime, our schools are on the verge of becoming little more than Standardized Test Administration Centers.

If tests improved education, teachers would give a test every day. Meanwhile, psychometricians are driving educational policy while teachers watch still more instructional days disappear from the calendar. What is achieved via testing? An old Model T on a modern dynamometer is still going to exhibit the emissions of an old Model T, isn’t it? Only so much improvement can be coaxed out of an archaic technology.

  • Boost the octane to improve engine performance? The engine breaks down.
  • Replace the engine with a more modern one? The transmission fails.
  • Load it with too many occupants? The suspension collapses.
  • Enter it in the Indy 500? It will finish dead last.
  • Blame the driver? A résumé will go out in the morning.

This is what it is like to teach in the Public Schools today. Teachers endure every day the unbearable prospect of being expected to accomplish the improbable with the often unwilling while supplied next to nothing to perform the task, and all the while being publicly ridiculed by certain conservative radio talk-show hosts for “failures” that are due to circumstances entirely beyond their control. Do you really wonder why half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years?

How long would you drive a Model T before you decided it was time to try another mode of transportation?

The former president of the National Education Association, Bob Chase, beseeched our membership not only to teach students the Pledge of Allegiance, but also to teach America to pledge allegiance to her children. It is clear to many educators, however, that too many citizens prefer to drive the Model T instead and just complain about the lack of performance. Let’s cover it up, put it in the museum where it belongs, and figure out how to finance a better performing model.

[The original version of this commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette circa 2014. It has been slightly revised.]

The ABC’s of Teacher Turnover

Walking a mile in the shoes of a rank-and-file public school teacher is not generally an option for the public, but understanding the challenges confronted by professional educators might serve to elevate the public discourse on the topic of improving our schools. Grasping the complexity and intensity of the teaching experience is critical to moving the debate about allocating appropriate human and material resources to the education of all children.

      Imagine yourself as a teacher. You enter your classroom to look out on a sea of more than thirty faces. A few smiles;  a few frowns;  too few students seem actively engaged in your agenda as heads are already pressed down on the desk before instruction even begins. None seem particularly enthused about the task at hand as you walk them through the warm-up. One student sighs when you begin to give the directions. A few classmates perform compliance rituals but intellectual focus is not observable. The ten minute homework assignment, if completed, is partial and poorly written. Your students recall little from yesterday’s lesson. You help the three who were absent to catch up. Three more are absent today.

     For the next fifty minutes you aspire to fulfill your role as a purveyor of knowledge, as a shaper of young minds, as an architect of America’s future. But, instead of conveying knowledge you must spend ten to fifteen minutes addressing classroom management issues (i.e. student disputes, off-task behavior, outright misbehavior, passes, transitions, etc). You are interrupted a handful of times : knocks at the door, the public address system, boisterous hall walkers.  Ironically, you think to yourself, “Today’s lesson is going fairly well…”

Now imagine that for a few minutes you are telepathic and can divine the mostly-unspoken inner secrets of your students. Nothing can really prepare the casual observer for the sheer tally of emotional baggage that arrives in any given classroom room each and every day …

(Each of these caricatures is based on an actual student. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

  • Allen is a teenage alcoholic.
  • Betty is regularly beaten.
  • Christine is a “cutter” and cannot be trusted with sharps.
  • Diane has dyslexia.
  • Elaine is an emancipated adult.
  • Frank carries a firearm.
  • Greg & Gina are bullied for being openly gay .
  • Harry is HIV positive; Harriet is homeless.
  • Irene is an illegal alien (and evading the INS!)
  • Jay was released from jail in June.
  • Kevin’s brother  was killed in a drive-by.
  • Larry has been a  latch-key child since the second grade.
  • Mary was molested by her stepfather.
  • Nadine appears narcoleptic.
  • Oscar is an orphan in foster care.
  • Pam is pregnant (again!)
  • Quinton is quitting school.
  • Rachel has been raped.
  • Steve is suicidal; Sylvia is into substance abuse.
  • Thomas is twenty and still in high school. 
  • Ursula is unruly.
  • Vickie lost her virginity at eleven.
  • Warren works full-time to help the family.
  • Xavier is uninsured, but needs x-rays.
  • Yvette cares for her five younger siblings.
  • …and Zoe has a 0.0 GPA.

-Thirty children.

-Thirty challenges.

-This is your smallest class.

A feeling of dread mounts as you entertain the thought that you have six such classes on your caseload, and realize that you will never know all the baggage that your students transport to class. You may find yourself experiencing a twinge of guilt for no longer wanting to know. With caseloads approaching 500 students, how much support will the guidance counselors and administration provide?

     Few professions can claim to have a more altruistic labor base than teaching. Teachers want to teach. Teachers dream of planning and presenting perfect lessons. They seek to motivate learners. They aspire to hold learners accountable for their learning and relish the reward of student work demonstrating growth over time. 

 Go to your child’s school and spend an entire school day. Be sure to arrive at 6 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m. You will find teachers and administrators who arrive hours early and depart hours late. Teachers sponsor clubs; coach sports; offer tutoring; correct never-ending stacks of papers late into the night; prepare lesson plans outside the contract day; inform parents of their child’s progress; coax, cajole, inspire, beg and plead in the hope of getting students to learn. Then, they attempt to comply with the directives to personalize all their lesson plans to address the needs of each individual student. If they are fortunate,  they will accomplish some small portion of the task in their “copious” planning time of a so-called 50 uninterrupted minutes. More likely, however, they will polish a lesson plan, correct one class set of papers, call parents,  confer with colleagues, update records, write disciplinary referrals and, hopefully, find time to address biological needs.

And, all this educators do for a yearly salary that would not inspire loyalty in a good car mechanic. 

The realization soon sets in: This work is never finished! Even if a teacher were able to devote 24/7 to the profession, the “to do” list would never grow shorter. The question then becomes: What portion of your personal life do you sacrifice for the greater good?  Unfortunately, it will NOT be the part time job you took to make ends meet. Nor will it be the coursework for your Master’s that you must complete (and fund!) to maintain your teaching license.

In the 1980’s John I. Goodlad reported in  A Place Called School  that the top 50% of teaching candidates -as measured by class-rank and GPA –  leave the profession within seven years.  How can this be?  When did teaching become an avocation instead of a vocation?

The reasons are many.  But according to Goodlad, while money was not even listed as a priority for choosing the profession, it rose to second place on the list as a reason for abandoning it. Working conditions were first. Teaching is now considered a stepping stone on the career track; time in the classroom has evolved into little more than a résumé enhancer.

The first round of departures are generally the “pie-in-sky” idealists. They are usually novices. They are often under the impression that teaching will be fun.  It is not too long before all those holidays are simply time to catch up.  Sometimes it can be something simple that sends them packing… Perhaps a student requests they perform an anatomically impossible act…  Perhaps an entire class refuses to complete assignments…  Perhaps it will be a student load that approaches 200 and a belief that they must correct every student paper… 

In a macabre ritual reminiscent of the first-night in The Shawshank Redemption, senior teachers have been known to run winner-take-all “pools” based on the date and/or person to first resign. There is quite often a winner in the first weeks of the school year.  One year, the first resignation occurred before the pool could be formed; another year, a prospective teacher signed a contract, then investigated the reputation of the school in question, and failed to report for duty.  Seldom does a year go by that some novice educator fails to wave the white flag before the first holiday break. How can a someone spend four years or more preparing for a career and still not be aware of what they will encounter?

The novices are followed closely by the mercenaries. The mercenaries quickly calculate the grossly inadequate economic return for the energy expended in challenging educational scenarios. These teacher candidates sometimes find another school system with higher pay scales. Often, super-qualified and highly sought after,  someone in private industry makes an offer that doubles and sometimes triples their current salary.  Au revoir les enfants! Greener pastures beckon!  Who can blame them? It is no small challenge to raise a family on the wages offered beginning teachers. 

In the range of two-to-six years come the first wave of premature burnout victims.  This last stage of early departures is usually the direct result of other life priorities. Usually, these individuals have been committing the time it takes to perform the job of educating their students. The seventy-hour work week of the first-year teacher has dwindled down to the fifty-five hour week of the more experienced crew, but there is little room for improvement beyond that.  Suddenly, they find themselves no longer able to do the job.   Marriage is proposed; a child is born; a parent becomes ill; the job of teaching well becomes an untenable burden instead of a joy. Teaching is a joy until life happens.

Who decides to stay for the long run?  Altruists for whom money is not of primary importance and who understand the importance of education to the next generation. Specialists for whom the passion for  an intellectual discipline affords fewer opportunities in the private sector.  Pragmatists who, if not entirely accepting of what they can not change, are at least able to discover ways to work around the barriers. 

Even the best of these will get worn down eventually. No matter how committed, no matter how much you love the job,  weariness is inevitable.  Thus begins the quest for short-cuts where,  at least occasionally,  one succumbs to the temptation is to teach to the lowest-common-denominator.

Our society pays much lip-service to the importance of education in our democratic society.  To date we have only talked the talk; we have yet to demonstrate a collective willingness to walk the walk.  Never forget that the intellect of a child is a fragile seed hoping to land on fertile soil.  We can no longer afford to lose half to barren ground.  It is up to all of us to turn and amend that soil to give the seeds of intellect a chance to grow.  Teachers want only the tools and sufficient time to turn that soil, because teachers really are the gardeners of humankind. We must commit the resources necessary for the education of all children. To quote Mikhail Gorbachev, “God will not forgive us if we fail.”

[This is a much revised version of my first commentary in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal. The original version, much longer, appeared circa 1998.]

Letters from the front

Dear Parents,

On the grandest of scales, everything I ever needed to know about Public Education, I learned watching a situation comedy that frequently explored the angst of our human condition.

“M*A*S*H” introduced me to the concept of triage in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Derived from the French verb trier (to sort), triage is a medical protocol designed to cope with the prospect of too few doctors caring for too many casualties on the battlefield. Different from what we currently experience as triage in a modern Emergency Room, trained army medics make life-or-death decisions about which patients might be saved with the resources at hand. Occasionally, the most severely injured are left to die if the heroic measures required to save them might ultimately cost more lives among the less-seriously-injured casualties forced to wait too long for their care. Multiple acute arterial bleeds from numerous shrapnel wounds to internal organs? Sorry, soldier…even attempting to save you will cost the lives of these three less-severe trauma cases over here.

Welcome to life reduced to the existential absurdity of intolerable working conditions adversely affecting the desirable outcome of a maximal effort to save every wounded soldier. Imagine yourself simply administering analgesics and condemning one broken body to death in order to facilitate saving others. How can medical professionals function under such conditions and maintain their sanity? Regrettably, however, this heart-wrenching process has become a metaphor for the modern system of public education.

Today, if teachers are to survive a career in the classroom they must become adept at Educational Triage. Never furnished adequate resources, time or circumstances to reach every student, teachers must all too often cut their losses by occasionally giving up, albeit reluctantly, on students who do not exhibit sufficient resilience to thrive in the classroom. Not enough of a self-starter to crack your book and get your assignments done? Sorry, student, the hours spent arriving at minimal participation will negatively impact the many classmates ready and willing to perform.

Much like the doctor in a battlefield hospital, teachers confront a long roster of  students that is, at best, daunting. Not only is the caseload overwhelming, but far too many of the students on their rolls present perhaps insurmountable challenges. Hence, teachers are frequently forced to choose the interests of the many over the interest of the one. These decisions are not the result of malice, sloth or incompetence. They derive from judicial duress. In the state of Maryland, a judge ruled -and was upheld- that class size “is not a working condition” and therefore “non-negotiable” in the collective bargaining process. Specious legal reasoning may stand up as a narrow interpretation of the law, but it certainly withers under the scrutiny of reason and experience for classroom practitioners.

But surely,” you might exclaim, “our children are far better off than someone lying wounded in a field hospital!”

Truthfully, too many of our children can be tallied among the walking wounded, because the community to which they belong does not currently exhibit the will to lift them from their circumstance and prepare them adequately for the information age.

Neither the county nor the state has demonstrated sufficient resolve to furnish the resources that might transform schools into the one safe place where at-risk children can feel connected in this age of rampant alienation and dissociation. Children are the disenfranchised victims of societal indifference to their plight.

Were your child in legal trouble, would you hire a law clerk who had yet to pass the bar exam? Were your child ill, would you even consider a visit to an unlicensed practitioner? No, you would be looking for the most qualified professional you could find. How has it become acceptable anywhere in America that children can spend more than 1,100 hours each year with inexperienced or marginally-qualified educators?

The demographics suggest that it has become tolerable because it is most consistently the problem of poor children of color and poor children of recent immigrants. We see schools with 100 percent participation in the free/reduced lunch program; coincidentally, those schools also have higher percentages of inexperienced educators. For some reason we have not sufficiently pressured our political leaders to institute the changes necessary to achieve real equity in those schools.

Like it or not, the issue is funding. Affluent jurisdictions almost always manage to fund their schools; they grease the political wheels; they buy influence. Jurisdictions with soci0-economic challenges are seldom able to accomplish that feat.

If a community aspires to no more than the educational equivalent of meatball surgery, then our mission has been nearly accomplished. However, if teachers are to do more than sort those who choose to learn from those who appear unwilling, then we must find an effective and equitable manner by which to fund completely our most challenged schools.

Perhaps you’ve heard the old inspirational saw often trotted out to encourage educators. Two children are walking on the beach. They find hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore. The first child throws one back in the ocean. His companion wonders what possible difference saving one starfish could make. The erstwhile triage specialist responds, “It made a difference to that one.”

A poignant parable… unless your child is among those left as detritus on the beach.


A beleaguered teacher


[Updated from an early Commentary 5/6/99 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal. Despite enacting the Bridge to Excellence Act in Maryland inspired by the Thornton Commission’s findings, staffing ratios remain approximately 20% lower than our neighbors.]

Hopelessness Makes Political Refugees of Educators

A colleague once shared that she was about to leave the teaching profession.  She was a mid-career teacher who just could not take it any longer.  Too much work-centered heartache had taken its toll.  At the point in her career where she should have been hitting her stride as a teacher, she said, “This teaching gig is for the birds.”

“Teaching is not for the birds,” I quipped. “Birds don’t get up early enough!”

It was nice to share a knowing chuckle.  Both of us were early risers who accomplished our best work done in the hours prior to sunrise.  It was during her quiet time before her children awakened where she organized lesson plans.  My papers were corrected over coffee prior to the arrival of the morning newspaper.

Permit me to ask an indiscreet question.  How long it would be before you grew weary of being compensated for only seventy percent of the hours you worked?

What will persuade you, my compatriots?  What will convince you that this society dedicates insufficient resources to the education of children?  What tales of trial and tribulation will reach into your heart and outrage you enough to compel you to immediate political action?

Nationally, over 50% of teachers surrender by year six. Locally, between 10% and 12% of our teachers have been leaving annually for years now.  Some leave to teach elsewhere.  Some leave for other professions.  Changing jobs is not something employees do for amusement or vengeance: Changing employers is listed among the top five sources of stress in the modern world.  So, what has driven educators to become a new class of migrant worker?  The reason for these departures can be summed up in two words: job dissatisfaction.

Compensation is not the sole driver of teacher turnover, although competitive salaries might help retain some in the profession. Working conditions can drive teachers to curse the day they chose their career.

Teacher flight is about

-class sizes that border on the absurd, and being told that class size is NOT a working condition.

-numerous non-instructional duties that steal from time for planning instruction and assessing learning.

-swallowing a sandwich whole at lunch so that you can administer a make-up assessment while simultaneously calling a parent during your so-called half-hour “duty-free lunch”.

-obsolete materials in the library or book room, and stone-age audio/visual devices in the age of laserdiscs and multi-media presentation.

-changing instruction to use the overhead projector in order to save paper only to be told that there is not enough money for the 600 watt lamps required to run the projectors.

-out-of-pocket expenses for classroom decorations and supplies.

-the absence of support personnel.   

-discovering that “wish-lists” are all too appropriately named. 

-watching children sit in undersized and broken furniture.

-a roof that leaks water and windows that let in the cold compelling gear for inclement weather while indoors.

-trying to talk louder than the four fans you had to purchase in order to push hot air around a 100+ degree classroom in May, June or September.

-no paper, soap or hot-water in the restrooms.

-wondering when, if ever, you might find time to use that restroom.

-being without a classroom for four years because you teach from a cart.

-not having access to your classroom during your planning period for four years because an itinerant cart-based teacher is there.

-losing precious planning periods to substitute for colleagues because absolutely nobody wants to be a substitute.

-utility rooms reincarnated as classrooms.

-students late to class because of  transportation problems while teachers are directed to stress the importance of punctuality as a life skill.

-bureaucrats and business folk who suggest that teachers need more tasks to accomplish.

losing weeks, perhaps months, of instructional time each year to bureaucrat-mandated, irrelevant testing designed to hold the education community’s collective feet to the fire for socio-economic circumstances totally beyond its control. 

et cetera… et cetera… et cetera.

And lest it be omitted, you really have not lived until you have performed the juggling act of teaching two grade levels in the same classroom at the same time, or two different courses in the same room at the same time.  Yes, this may help with staffing & space concerns, but it’s a safe bet that the originator of this “strategy” was not a classroom-based educator attempting to convey knowledge to the next generation.

The sum of such annoyances leads teachers to abandon the classroom. Individually, any of these conditions might be tolerable.  Considered collectively, they breed hopelessness which incites despair. Coping with despair ignites the instinct for self-preservation, both personal and professional. The two options are fight or flight, and flight is frequently the easier alternative.

Fortunately, interventions are within our reach. Most can be resolved by adequate funding for our schools and equitable distribution of resources.

 For every teacher that resigns outright, how many more will lack the skills to cope with challenging circumstances? How many more will eventually take those first small, unwilling steps toward diminished expectations? Who will replace the teachers that leave and what will be their qualifications and experience?   These invisible, unknowable statistics should terrify each of us.

Teachers want to teach.  At least initially, all teachers believe in the possibility of entering a room full of young people and inspiring them to learn.  What intrepid souls!  What unfettered idealists!  Yet, here in the wealthiest nation on the planet, less than one-third of a career suffices to grind unbridled optimism into dust.

[Adapted from an editorial page Commentary in May, 2000 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in May, 2000]