Things I Know 187 of 365: Be nice and we’ll work hard

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up.

– Jesse Jackson

A friend recently planted himself firmly behind the idea that effective teachers are the most important factors in student success. In the same breath he said he wasn’t one of those guys to praise teachers and call them the salt of the earth. He works to support kids, he said, not teachers.

It doesn’t work like that.

The two aren’t separate.

If we want healthy schools, places of learning enlivened by vibrant and curious people dedicated to being the best versions of themselves, the systems must support and value all members of those systems.

My morning cup of coffee is better when my barista and the coffee bean farmers in the fields are treated with decency and respect.

I cannot be surprised by a reticence to praise and support teachers when the rhetoric of education paints them so largely as deficient, lazy, undereducated hacks.

Who would dare praise teachers?

Sure, you praise the teacher you know, the cousin or friend of the family who is going into the classroom. They are great. But teachers, in the general sense? No thank you.

Tell teachers the majority are performing poorly and you can’t be surprised when students are performing poorly. I wonder sometimes how many teachers are doing worse right now because they’ve read or heard the rhetoric of education leaders bemoaning the poor quality of teachers.

My friend told me he’d visited a number of classrooms on a single day, to check up on good teaching. Of the 50+ classrooms he visited, not a one held good teaching. Not a one held a teacher at the time. His evaluation was based on whether standards were posted and other measures of the classroom walkthrough. Choosing not to challenge the evaluation, I asked a question I’ve asked here before.

“So, you can name at least 50 bad teachers. Can you name 20 good ones?”

He liked the question and thought I was making his point for him.

I was not.

My point was something else. Too many people are doing well for there to be fewer than 20 effective teachers for every 50 or 60 ineffective teachers.

“All students can learn,” is a popular bumper sticker of regressive education reformers. Pronounced as though a new idea that, once realized, solves so much.

I don’t disagree with it. I question the next ten words.

So long as we’re putting out truisms and bumper stickers to rally behind, let me try one. Let me try one that, coupled with the idea that all students can learn, would mean a sadly revolutionary way of thinking in education.

All teachers can teach.

And, yes, I’ve got my next ten words.

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Things I Know 9 of 365: Words have power

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can kill my soul.

Leaving the locker room after P.E. in the ninth grade, Brian and Travis would call me faggot under their breaths.  I wasn’t sure how they could tell, but I learned to be ashamed of what they saw. Though I made sure to avoid P.E. for the rest of high school, I carried remnants of their words and the shame it caused for many years.

When my sister Rachel was in middle school, she came home in tears one day because her teacher refused to acknowledge that I was Rachel’s brother. “Half-brother,” the teacher insisted to my sister who could not understand why this woman would be so cruel.

December 18, the United States Senate debated the DREAM Act. Those opposed to its passage spoke in angry and fearful voices of the threat those affected would pose to our country. Casting about blanket statements, they maligned my friends and my students. They put politics ahead of the future of children.

In 1884 Mark Twain published a book. Originally intended as a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, this new book changed course around “Chapter 7” and became an imperfect navigation of Twain’s attempt to reconcile the slavery he witnessed as a child and the abolitionist views of his childhood.

As it is as imperfect as anything a person can create, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been the cause of much controversy as of late because it also carries within it one of the great imperfections of America’s past. Some would remove the remembrance of that past rather than see it as a signpost denoting the road ahead.

That road was lit by the terrible light of tragedy Saturday as a gunman opened fire at a Tucson supermarket causing a grief the extent of which we will not know for some time.

If reports are to be believed, the gunman was heeding the words of those seeking power. And, while I need to believe their intent was not to incite violence, I cannot yet forgive their ignorance that their words carried power.

It was the terrible power with which Brian and Travis were experimenting in ninth grade.

It was the extraordinary power my sister’s teacher unknowingly wielded in her determination to be right.

It was the backwardly fearful power with which the Senate cut short the dreams of those striving to make a life in a country of their fate if not their choice.

It was the hateful power Twain chronicled when he invoked one of America’s most poisonous words.

This was the violent power wielded by those who would have power without recognizing the catastrophic effect potential in that which they already command.

In the intervening hours, much has been written about the harmful political rhetoric. We are fooling ourselves if we do not concede government’s representation of its citizens ends with the casting of votes. This rhetoric lives in our schools, our businesses, our friendships and anywhere else words hold sway.

Tomorrow, I will return to my classroom and attempt to further fortify a green zone of words with hopes that I am preparing those in my care to act as ambassadors of speech, using words to build while ever-mindful of their ability to destroy.