Teaching is Hard Enough Without the Threat of Imminent Death

 

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I am so sick of coming to school and having an impromptu meeting to discuss why my students and I might die today.

 

Really.

 

Every time there’s a major school shooting somewhere in the nation it seems a copycat makes a threat in my own backyard, and we react.

 

The police tell us it’s not a credible threat so school stays open.

 

However, be vigilant.

 

Be aware that our students know about the threat and will be talking about it.

 

We’ll bring in bomb-sniffing dogs…

 

But try to maintain calm and order.

 

There will be a lock down drill in a few days…

 

But try to make the kids feel safe and secure.

 

An older student violently attacked a classmate last week after threatening to go on a spree…

 

But attempt to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning.

 

To which, I say: are you freaking kidding me?

 

I know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

 

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There are certain basic necessities anyone must have in order to become a fully actualized person.

 

After physiological necessities like food and water, safety is absolutely fundamental.

 

Without it, you can’t get people to focus much on anything else.

 

You can’t get children to pay attention to nouns and verbs, for instance, if they’re afraid they’re going to be shot and killed.

 

You can’t get them to care about writing a complete sentence, if they feel like they may have to duck and cover at any moment.

 

You can’t get them to bother with abstract reading comprehension if they’re afraid of imminent death!

 

Oh, and by the way, I’m not exactly at my best either!

 

My lesson plans aren’t going to win any awards when the best solution our legislators can come up with is giving me a loaded pistol to keep in my desk drawer!

 

Well, Yippee Ki Yay! I’m a teacher! Pew! Pew!

 

My 7th grade students are literally frightened that going to school on any given day may lead to the end of their lives.

 

Every couple of weeks on the news it’s another school shooting and another body count, while lawmakers do nothing to ensure it won’t happen again tomorrow.

 

Every few days, it’s a rumor about this or that troubled kid we all know snapping and throwing a gun in his backpack. Or it’s an anonymous threat scrawled on a wall or a social media page.

 

Today it was teaching classes where half the kids were missing because their parents held them out of school afraid a vague rumor of imminent violence was true.

 

And as I tried to assure those who did show up that everything was okay, law enforcement checked the lockers with K-9 police dogs looking for weapons or drugs.

 

What the heck are we coming to?

 

I work in a police state and my students are being asked to learn in a penitentiary.

 

And the teachers should get guns.

 

And the principals should get guns.

 

And the parents should get guns.

 

And the guns should get little tinier guns to protect themselves from even more guns!

 

This is madness.

 

We’re begging for a political solution but our political system is a shambles. Nothing puts that in starker contrast than the gun debate.

 

The overwhelming majority of Americans want sensible gun laws – an assault weapons ban, closing the gun show loophole, mental health screenings, etc.

 

If we lived in an authentic Democratic Republic, we’d have them. But we don’t, because we live in a plutocracy.

 

One industry has enough power and influence that the only solution our policymakers can safely suggest is one that increases that same industry’s bottom line.

 

It’s like Tony the Tiger suggesting the only cure for obesity is to eat more Frosted Flakes! They’re Ggggrrrreeeaaaattt!

 

A teacher’s job is hard enough without society crumbling all around us.

 

But that doesn’t mean the children aren’t learning.

 

They’re watching the world burn with wide eyes. They’re taking in every flame, every bullet hole, every cowardly senator, representative and chief executive.

 

They’re watching and taking names.

 

 

At the end of the year, policymakers will wag their fingers at the nation’s teachers about failing standardized test scores.

 

They’ll bemoan sinking academic standards, powerful labor unions and a lack of moral fiber as the cause of a generation of children who lost out on an education while cowering under bulletproof backpacks.

 

But this generation refuses to be lost.

 

Despite everything, they’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs back to sanity.

 

They are emotionally damaged by a country that no longer functions, but they know the truth.

 

They know who’s responsible. And they know what to do about it.

 

When they reject our society, we’ll know why.

 

Because the next generation will be nothing like us.

 

And on a day like today, that’s the most hopeful thought I can offer.

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When Will It Happen Here?

 

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It could happen at anytime in my classroom.

 

The thing we’ve all been dreading.

 

A hasty announcement of lock down. An unexpected fire alarm. The sounds of shouting, running feet and… gunshots.

 

The lights could go out. The door could burst in.

 

There’s really very little we could do.

 

My room has no windows. No closets. Nowhere to hide.

 

These are the thoughts going through my head as my students sit at their desks during homeroom this morning.

 

Jayden is taking off his hoodie before the principal catches him out of dress code.

 

Alaina is pestering me for a pass to the library.

 

Darnell is surreptitiously munching on a pixie stick stashed in his book bag.

 

It’s all so mundane, so subdued, so quiet.

 

A few kids are on the computers in the back, others at their desks reading books, writing papers, or listening to music on their iPads.

 

But there’s very little conversation.

 

The class of middle schoolers is restrained, thoughtful – which is unusual for children of 12 or 13.

 

I sit slumped at my desk – exhausted though I haven’t even taught my first class yet.

 

The news from last night still plays in my head.

 

Seventeen people killed by an expelled student at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

 

Or was it two killed in Kentucky?

 

How long was it since the last one?

 

And now here we are – back in the line of fire.

 

I can’t help but think about my daughter somewhere across town. She’s probably just entering her third grade classroom maybe munching on the remains of a candy heart from Valentine’s Day. Just like me and my students, she’s in the cross hairs.

 

But what can we do about it?

 

I can’t hold her out of school forever. I can’t quit my job and work from home. Even if I could, there’s absolutely nothing I can do for the twenty children quietly sitting at their desks in the room with me, abiding the rules of a society too broken to protect us.

 

After last night, it feels like things have changed somehow.

 

There have been 18 school shootings so far this year. And it’s only February. Most have resulted in zero injuries.

 

Of those where people were hurt, the person most in danger was the shooter. But I can’t stop thinking about those cases where a hunter came to school to kill children and teachers.

 

As an educator, I’ve been taught how to handle just about every situation.

 

If one of my children acts out, or doesn’t hand in her homework, or even throws up – I know what to do.

 

But none of my training has prepared me to out teach a semiautomatic weapon.

 

I can’t differentiate past a bullet.

 

There is no paperwork that will invalidate the gunpowder or slow the endless rounds through whatever they come into contact.

 

If someone comes to school with a gun and a will to kill, I will be little more than a target.

 

But don’t get me wrong.

 

This doesn’t mean society should gift me a handgun to keep in my desk next to the chalk.

 

I am not a law enforcement officer or an action hero. I’m a teacher.

 

You don’t want me returning fire at every mindless bureaucratic hitch in the schedule. You want me assigning essays and chapter readings. You don’t want me keeping a gun out of reach of curious youngsters always at my desk and in my personal space. You want me safeguarding student assignments and – heck – my cell phone that kids keep trying to snatch and look through my camera roll.

 

What we need is real gun control legislation.

 

We need an assault weapons ban.

 

We need to close the gun show loophole.

 

We need buyback programs to get the mountains of firearms off the streets and out of the arsenals of a handful of paranoid “survivalists”.

 

In short, we need lawmakers willing to make laws.

 

We need legislators who will represent the overwhelming majority of the public and take sensible action to protect the people of this country.

 

What we don’t need are the trolls who hijack every conversation arguing the semantics of the term “assault rifle” or “terrorist.”

 

We don’t need weak politicians cautioning against “politicizing” mass shootings because the violence is too fresh.

 

We don’t need anyone’s thoughts and prayers.

 

We need action.

 

And we need it yesterday.

 

Some people are calling on teachers to take action to force our lawmakers to finally do something.

 

They suggest a national teachers strike on May 1st – May Day – if Congress refuses to act.

 

That sounds like a good idea to me.

 

I’m game.

 

But we need more than that.

 

We need everyone who feels the same way to join in the fight.

 

Parents, children, grandparents, principals, police, firefighters, soldiers and nurses – the multitudinous faces of America must come together to fight this monstrosity as one.

 

I may sit in that classroom.

 

My students and my daughter may be in danger.

 

But America must be the shield.

 

America must rise up and protect our future.

 

WE must take charge.

 

Otherwise, it is not a case of can it happen here.

 

It is a case of when.

White Kids Need Black History, Too

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It’s Black History Month.

 

That means your local public school is pulling out all the stops.

 

We’re making murals of artists from the Harlem Renaissance. We’re jamming to jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop. We’re reading excerpts from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” We’re writing journals about what it means to be the people we are and to come from wherever we come from.

 

In short, we’re having a lot of fun.

 

But each child responds differently to the siren call of Black History – especially when the person making the call is a white teacher, like me.

 

Today I asked my classes of 7th grade students – most of whom are impoverished and/or minorities – “Would you like to talk about some Black History?”

 

And the responses I got were all over the place.

 

Some of the children enthusiastically took to their feet with a robust “Yeah!”

 

Others nodded. Some were merely quiet as if they didn’t think I were asking a real question. And some honestly ventured “No.”

 

In one class, a white student got so upset at the suggestion we spend valuable class time on Black History that he fell to the floor and almost hide under the table.

 

I’ll admit I was somewhat shocked by that.

 

What was he so reticent about? I mean I know the kid. He loves black culture. We all do. What does he have against learning about black people?

 

He’s a big heavy metal fan. What’s heavy metal without Jimi Hendrix?

 

He loves standup comedy. What’s standup comedy without Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy or – heck – even Steve Harvey?

 

And didn’t I see him the other day watching the preview to Marvel’s “Black Panther” with baited breath?

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked him on the floor.

 

“Mr. Singer, I really don’t want to learn about Black History.”

 

And it was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t say it – “Dude, if anyone needs to learn Black History, it’s you.”

 

I patted him on the back and told him he’d survive. But I let him stay on the floor.

 

Then we moved on.

 

We watched the video for the song “Glory” by Common and John Legend just to set the mood.

 

The kids were almost hypnotized. I’m not sure if it was the images from the movie “Selma,” the gorgeous singing and piano playing or the unexpected joy of hearing someone rapping in class.

 

When it was over, most of them couldn’t wait to talk about a few well-chosen people of color.

 

We started with the black power fist from the 1968 Olympics, talked about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, why they did what they did and even how it related to modern day protests like those initiated by Colin Kaepernick.

 

This got kids asking all kinds of questions. We talked about the origin of the slave trade, the science behind melanin and skin color, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and (in one class) we even took a deep dive into the lyrics of the National Anthem to discover why some people find it to be racist.

 

In short, it would be difficult to find a more productive 20-30 minutes. Kids were engaged and thoughtful, many looking up further details on their iPads as the bell rang and they left the room.

 

All except the white child on the floor.

 

He had participated in the discussion – reluctantly. But he hadn’t moved from his cave.

 

“Can I talk to you, Mr. Singer?” he said.

 

I told him, “Sure.” And he went on to tell me the kinds of things his grandparents say about black people.

 

He told me about their virulent opposition to Kaepernick, how they though black people were just whining about nothing and that racism had been over for fifty years.

 

It’s a hard position to be put in by a student.

 

You don’t want to contradict their folks, but you can’t let untruths pass by either.

 

I asked him what he thought about it. He wasn’t so sure.

 

So I told him just to think about what we had said. I asked him to keep an open mind.

 

For instance, I said, if Kaepernick shouldn’t take a knee during the National Anthem, when should he protest?

 

“How about with a sign in the street?” he said.

 

To which I responded that black people have done that and been told that was just as unacceptable.

 

By this time another student came back into the room and walked up to us. She was a white girl who’s usually very quiet.

 

“Mr. Singer, thank you for talking with us about all that stuff today,” she said.

 

I told her she was welcome and asked her what she thought about it.

 

“I just wish all this stuff wasn’t happening,” she said.

 

I asked her to elaborate.

 

“I mean that black power fist thing you showed us, that was like a hundred years ago.”

 

“Fifty years,” I corrected and she repeated me.

 

“And it’s still happening,” she said. “I just don’t understand why. Why can’t we all just live in peace?”

 

I smiled at her and the boy who had been quietly listening.

 

We spoke a bit further and they walked off together in deep conversation.

 

There are many great reasons to talk about Black History.

 

For children of color, it shows them that this nation wasn’t built entirely by white people, that they too are a part of America, that they have much to be proud of and to aspire to.

 

But that’s not the only reason to teach it.

 

Black History is important for white kids, too.

 

It teaches them that the world isn’t just about them, that we’re stronger together, that our differences aren’t something to be ashamed of but something to be celebrated.

 

But especially white children need to learn about their responsibilities as white people.

 

They didn’t start racism. Neither did I. But it has been practiced in our names and we have benefited from it.

 

If we don’t want to be a part of it, we need to recognize that and take a stand against it.

 

I acknowledge that’s an uncomfortable truth for middle school students. And it’s something I can’t simply sit my kids down and discursively tell them.

 

But in generating these conversations between children of different backgrounds, ethnicities and upbringings, I think it provides the chance for them to come to their own conclusions.

 

It’s a dangerous place to be.

 

Allowing kids to think for themselves means allowing them to come to conclusions you might not agree with.

 

The boy from my class might come in next week further convinced of his grandparents’ prejudice. Or he might not. But I suspect he will have thought about it some.

 

That’s all I can do.

 

As a group, white people could use more of that honest reflection. As adults, we become fixed in our thinking and rarely have the bravery of giving something a second thought.

 

But children’s characters are still being formed.

 

Conversations like this one give me hope for the future.

 

Black History is not just about the past. It’s about where we’ll go in the future.

 

Moreover, it’s not just important for black people. White people need exposure to it, too.

 

I know I do.

School Choice Week – Choosing Away Your Choice

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School Choice Week is one of the greatest scams in American history.

 

 

It is a well-funded, thoroughly organized attempt to trick parents into signing away their right to make educational choices about their children.

 

 

Seriously.

 

 

It goes like this:

 

 

Salesman: Would you like a choice?

 

 

Parent: Sure!

 

 

Salesman: Then just agree to never have another choice again.

 

 

That’s it in a nutshell.

 

 

Choose not to choose.

 

 

When you decide to send your child to a so-called choice school – a charter or voucher institution – you lose almost every other choice about what happens at your child’s school.

 

 

Sound impossible?

 

 

Let me count the decisions you lose by signing on the dotted line.

 

 

When you send your child to a school paid for with public money but run by a private organization, you lose:

 

 

AN ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD, so you have no say about what the school does.

 

 

OPEN DOCUMENTS, so you have no right to see budgets, spending agreements, bids, contracts, etc.

 

 

OPEN MEETINGS, so you have no public place to speak up to the people who run your school.

 

 

RIGHT TO SELF-GOVERNMENT, so you have no right to run for a leadership position on the school board. Instead you’re at the mercy of appointed flunkies.

 

 

THE RIGHT OF ENROLLMENT, so school operators get to choose whether your child gets to attend, unlike public schools which have to accept your child no matter what – so long as you live in the district.

 

 

QUALITY SERVICES, so school operators can cut services for your child and pocket the savings as profit or use it to advertise to get more paying butts in seats.

 

 

QUALITY TEACHERS, because most charter and voucher schools aren’t required to hire educators with 4-year degrees, and since they don’t pay as well as public schools and often refuse to let their teachers unionize, they attract less experienced and distinguished educators.

 

 

DIVERSE CLASSMATES, because charter and voucher schools increase segregation. Your children will be educated with more kids that look just like them. That’s healthy!

 

 

And that’s merely at MOST privatized schools. But that’s not all. At some privatized schools you can lose even more! You may also lose:

 

 

COMMON SENSE DISCIPLINE POLICIES, so your children will be held to a zero tolerance discipline policy where they may have to sit quietly, eyes forward, marching in line or else face aggressive public reprimands and harsh punishments.

 

 

AN UNBIASED SECULAR EDUCATION, so your children will be taught religion and politics as if they were fact all funded by public tax dollars! Hear that sound? That’s our Founders crying.

 

 

FREE TIME, so you’ll be required to volunteer at the school regardless of your ability to do so. Gotta’ work? Tough!

 

 

MONEY, so you’ll have to pay tuition, buy expensive uniforms, school supplies or other amenities.

 

 

And if your children are struggling academically, you may also lose:

 

 

ENROLLMENT, so your child is given the boot back to the public school because he or she is having difficulty learning, and thus costs too much to educate.

 

 

You lose all that if you decide to enroll your child in a charter or voucher school!

 

 

But that’s not all!

 

 

If you DON’T decide to send your child to a so-called choice school, you can still lose choice!

 

 

Why? Because of the rubes who were fooled into give up their choice. When they did that, they took some of your choices, too.

 

 

Because of them, you still lose:

 

 

-NECESSARY FUNDING, because your public school has to make up the money it lost to charter and voucher schools somewhere, and that means fewer resources and services for your child.

 

-LOWER CLASS SIZES, because your public school has to fire teachers and increase class size to make up for lost revenue.

 

 

-FAIR ASSESSMENTS, because the state and federal government require your child to take unfair high stakes tests to “prove” your public school is failing and thus justify replacing it with a charter or voucher schoolas if those have ever been proven to be better, but whatever! CA-CHING! CA-CHING!

 

 

This is what you get from School Choice Week.

 

 

It’s a uniquely American experience – selling the loss of choice — as choice.

 

 

And all the while they try to convince you that public schools are the ones that take away your alternatives.

 

 

Yet public schools are where you get all those things you lose at privatized schools.

 

 

You get elected school boards, open documents, open meetings, the right to self-government, the right of enrollment, quality services, quality teachers, diverse classmates, common sense discipline policies, an unbiased secular education, free time and money! That’s right! You actually get all that and more money in your pocket!

 

 

I’m not saying public schools are perfect. There are many ways they need to improve, but it’s difficult to do so when many of the people tasked with improving these schools are more concerned with sabotaging them to make room for privatized systems.

 

 

These are paid employees of the charter and voucher school movement who want to kill public schools – BUT THE KILLER IS ALREADY IN THE HOUSE!

 

 

Imagine if we dedicated ourselves to making our public school system better!

 

 

Imagine if we committed to giving parents and students more choices in the system and not trying to replace that system with one that gives all the benefits and choices away to corporate vultures!

 

 

So, yeah, School Choice Week is a scam.

 

 

But, hey, enjoy those yellow scarfs.

 

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The Further You Get From Public Schools, the Greater the Chance of Child Abuse

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A California home-school where parents shackled, starved and abused their children is a symptom of a larger disease.

 

 

And that disease is privatization.

 

 

David Allen Turpin and his wife, Louise Anna Turpin, were arrested after police found the couple’s 13 children living in deplorable conditions in their Perris, California, home.

 

 

Some of the children were actually young adults but were so malnourished investigators at first mistook them for minors.

 

 

It is a situation that just could not have happened had those children been in the public school system.

 

 

Someone would have seen something and reported it to Child Protective Services. But school privatization shields child predators from the light and enables a system where minors become the means to every adult end imaginable.

 

 

Let me be clear. Privatization is defined as the transfer of a service from public to private ownership and control.

 

 

In education circles, that means home-schools, charter schools and voucher schools – all educational providers that operate without adequate accountability.

 

 

We are taking our most precious population – our children – and allowing them to be educated behind closed doors, out of sight from those tasked with ensuring they are getting the best opportunities to learn and are free from abuse.

 

 

And since home-schooling operates with almost zero oversight, it is the most susceptible to child neglect and mistreatment.

 

 

Children who in traditional public schools would have a whole plethora of people from teachers to counselors to principals to cafeteria workers who can observe the danger signs of abuse are completely removed from the home-school environment.

 

 

Home-schooled children receive their educations almost exclusively from parents.

 

 

While most moms and dads would never dream of abusing their kids, home-schooling provides the perfect cover for abusers like the Turpins to isolate children and mistreat them with impunity.

 

 

It is a situation that at least demands additional oversight. And at most it requires we rethink the entire enterprise as dangerous and wrongheaded.

 

 

Charter and voucher schools at least utilize whole staffs of people to educate children. The chances of something like this happening at these institutions is much smaller. However, both types of school also are much less accountable for their actions than traditional public schools.

 

 

And that is the common factor – responsibility. Who is being held answerable when things go wrong? At traditional public schools, there is a whole chain of adults who are culpable for children. At these other institutions, the number of people in the hot seat shrinks to zero.

 

 

Much of that has to do with the regulations each state puts on privatized schools.

 

 

Just look at the regulations governing home-schooling.

 

 

In 14 states including Delaware, California and Wisconsin, parents don’t have to do anything but let the school district know they’re home-schooling. That’s it! And in 10 states including Texas, Illinois and New Jersey, you don’t even have to do that!

 

 

Kids just disappear without a trace. If no one reports them missing, we assume they’re being home-schooled.

 

 

But even in states that appear to be more exacting on paper, the reality is a virtual free-for-all.

 

 

Take my home state of Pennsylvania. To begin home-schooling, parents must notify the superintendent, have obtained a high school degree themselves, provide at least 180 days of instruction in certain subjects and maintain a portfolio of their child’s test results and academic records.

 

 

That sounds impressive. However, this doesn’t really amount to much in practice because these regulations have few teeth. Hardly anyone ever checks up to make sure these regulations are being met – and they’re only allowed to check up under certain circumstances and only in certain ways and at certain times!

 

 

Even when it comes to charter and voucher schools, most states, including Pennsylvania, go little further than that.  

 

 

Frankly, most of the time we don’t know what happens in charter and voucher schools, because few state governments insist on audits, unscheduled visits or reports.

 

 

For instance, though few charter or voucher schools starve, lock up or torture students, many have zero tolerance discipline policies. Few would claim even these controversial behavior management systems sink to the level of some home-school parents who have allegedly withheld food and bound children’s hands with zip ties. But adolescents being forced to sit silently with their eyes looking forward, hands on the table or else receive loud rebukes – as they are in many charter or voucher schools – may qualify as another kind of abuse.

 

 

Moreover, all privatized schools can withhold providing a proper education. Home-school parents can refuse to teach their children not just truths about science and history but the basics of reading, writing and math. Likewise, charter and voucher schools can cut student services and pocket the savings as profit. And no one is the wiser because the state has abrogated its responsibility to check up on students or even require they be taught much of anything at all.

 

 

Meanwhile, none of this is possible in the traditional public school setting because it must operate in the light of day. It is fully accountable to the public. Its documents are public record. Decisions about how it should be run and how tax dollars are spent are made at open meetings by duly-elected members of the community.

 

 

Some, including myself, would argue that the regulations required of public schools by the state and federal government are sometimes too onerous, unnecessary or even just plain dumb. But that doesn’t change the fact that regulations are necessary. It just leaves open the question of which ones.

 

 

The bottom line is this: Public school is the equivalent of teaching children in an open room with qualified educators that have proven and continue to prove they have no criminal record and are able and ready to educate.

 

 

Privatized schools are the equivalent of teaching children in a closed room with educators who may not deserve the name and may or may not have deplorable criminal pasts.

 

 

Looked at in the abstract, no one in their right mind would conceivably suggest the latter is a better educational environment than the former. However, we have been subjected to an expensive propaganda campaign to make us think otherwise.

 

 

Look. I’m not saying public schools are perfect. Certainly students can be abused there, too. The media salaciously reports every doe-eyed teacher who stupidly has a sexual relationship with a student – whether it be at a public or privatized school. But in comparison with the worst that can and often does happen at privatized schools, these incidents at public schools are extremely rare (1 in 800,000) and of much less severity.

 

 

Though both are bad, there is a world of difference between the infinitesimal chance of being propositioned by your high school teacher and the much more likely outcome of being treated like a prison inmate at 13 by the charter school corporation or being starved, shackled and beaten by your parents!

 

 

Human beings aren’t going to stop being human anytime soon. Wouldn’t it be better to entrust our children to an environment with regulations and accountability than letting them go off in some locked room and just trusting that everything will be alright?

 

 

Our posterity deserves better than privatization.

 

 

They deserve the best we can give them – and that means fully responsible, fully regulated, fully accountable public schools.

Public Schools Best Fulfill Dr. King’s “Purpose of Education”

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What is the purpose of education?

 

Is it to train the next generation of workers?

 

Or is it to empower the next generation of citizens?

 

Is it to give children the skills necessary to meet the needs of business and industry?

 

Or is it to provide them the tools to self-actualize and become the best people they can be?

 

In today’s world, our leaders continue to insist that the answer to the question is the former corporate training model. Knowledge is only valuable if it translates to a job and thus a salary.

 

But we didn’t always think that way.

 

As another Martin Luther King Day is about to dawn this week, I’m reminded of the man behind the myth, a person who clearly would deny this materialistic view of learning.

 

When we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we usually think of the towering figure of the Civil Rights Movement who gave the “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963.

 

However, as a teacher, I find myself turning to something he wrote in 1947 when he was just an 18-year-old student at Morehouse College.

 

While finishing his undergraduate studies in sociology, he published an essay in the student paper called “The Purpose of Education.”

 

Two sections immediately jump off the page. The first is this:

 

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”

 

So for King it wasn’t enough for schools to teach facts. It wasn’t enough to teach skills, math, writing, reading, history and science. The schools are also responsible for teaching children character – how to be good people, how to get along with each other.

 

It’s a worthy goal.

 

But 2018 contains a far different educational landscape than 1947.

 

When King wrote, there were basically two kinds of school – public and private. Today there is a whole spectrum of public and private each with its own degree of self-governance, fiscal accountability and academic freedom.

 

On the one side we have traditional public schools. On the other we have fully private schools. And in the middle we have charter, voucher and home schools.

 

So which schools today are best equipped to meet King’s ideal?

 

Private schools are by their very nature exclusionary. They attract and accept only certain students. These may be those with the highest academics, parental legacies, religious beliefs, or – most often – families that can afford the high tuition. As such, their student bodies are mostly white and affluent.

 

That is not King’s ideal. That is not the best environment to form character, the best environment in which to learn about people who are different than you and to develop mutual understanding.

 

Voucher schools are the same. They are, in fact, nothing but private schools that are subsidized in part by public tax dollars.

 

Charter schools model themselves on private schools so they are likewise discriminatory. The businesses who run these institutions – often for a profit – don’t have to enroll whoever applies. Even though they are fully funded by public tax dollars, they can choose who to let in and who to turn away. Often this is done behind the cloak of a lottery, but with no transparency and no one checking to ensure it is done fairly, there is no reason to believe operators are doing anything but selecting the easiest (read: cheapest) students to educate.

 

Charter schools have been shown to increase segregation having student bodies that are more monochrome than those districts from which they cherry pick students. This is clearly not King’s ideal.

 

Homeschooling is hard to generalize. There is such a wide variety of experiences that can be described under this moniker. However, they often include this feature – children are taught at home by their parent or parents. They may or may not interact with their academic peers and the degree to which they meet and understand different cultures is variable to say the least. They may meet King’s ideal, but frankly the majority of them probably do not.

 

So we’re left with traditional public schools. Do they instill “intelligence plus character”?

 

Answer: it depends.

 

There are many public schools where children of different races, nationalities, religions, and creeds meet, interact and learn together side-by-side.

 

Students wearing hajibs learn next to those wearing yarmulkes. Students with black skin and white skin partner with each other to complete class projects. Students with parents who emigrated to this country as refugees become friends with those whose parents can trace their ancestors back to the Revolutionary War.

 

These schools are true melting pots where children learn to become adults who value each other because of their differences not fear each other due to them. These are children who not only learn their academics as well – if not often better – than those at competing kinds of schools, but they also learn the true face of America and they learn to cherish it.

 

This is the true purpose of education. This is the realization of King’s academic ideal and his civil rights dream.

 

However, this is not the case at every public school.

 

While there are many like this, there are too many that are increasingly segregated. In fact, in some areas our schools today are more segregated than they were at the time of Dr. King’s assassination.

 

These are schools that get the lion’s share of resources, that have the newest facilities, the widest curriculum, the most affluent clientele.

 

So, no, not even all public schools meet this ideal. But those that don’t at least contain the possibility of change.

 

We could integrate all public schools. We could never integrate our charter, voucher and private schools. That goes against their essential mission. They are schools made to discriminate. Public schools are meant to be all inclusive. Every one could meet King’s ideal, if we only cared enough to do it.

 

Which brings me to the second section of King’s early essay that pops off the page:

 

“The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

 

Seventy one years ago, King was warning us about the situation we suffer today.

 

When we allow academics to be distinct from character and understanding, we put ourselves at the mercy of leaders with “reason, but with no morals.”

 

We put ourselves and our posterity in the hands of those like President Donald Trump, the fruit of a fully private education.

 

Racism and privilege become the defining characteristics of a class without character, in King’s sense.

 

If we want to reclaim what it means to be an American, if we want to redefine ourselves as those who celebrate difference and defend civil rights, that begins with understanding the purpose of education.

 

It demands we defend public schools against privatization. And it demands that we transform our public schools into the integrated, equitable institutions we dreamed they could all be.

When You Mistreat Teachers, Beware the Unintended Lessons for Students

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We’ve all seen the shocking video from Vermillion Parish in Louisiana this week where a teacher is tackled to the ground and arrested because she asked a question to the school board.

 

 

 

It’s a gross abuse of power that brings up many issues:

 

  • Public servants responding to the public with violence.

 

  • Elected representatives refusing to hear from their constituents and – in fact – taking action to silence them.

 

  • Leaders who are supposed to oversee children’s educations unconcerned with the lesson local kids will be taking home from the actions of adults who are supposed to set a better example.

 

The case is simple.

 

The eight-member board had been deadlocked 4-4 on whether or not to give Superintendent Jerome Puyau a raise. Then one of the members died. Instead of his wife filling in until a new election could be held, board president Anthony Fontana , who was in favor of the raise, appointed a like-minded replacement and tried to force a vote.

 

So Deyshia Hargrave, a district teacher and parent, asked why the superintendent should get a raise while the teachers haven’t had one in several years.

 

It was a reasonable question, asked at the proper time, in a respectful tone, when comments were directed specifically at her.

 

However, Reggie Hilts, the Abbeville city marshal who also serves as a school resource officer, told her she was being disruptive and asked her to leave – which she did. When she got out in the hall, he forced her to the ground, put her in handcuffs and pushed her out of the building.

 

It was completely unjustified, a horrific violation of Hargrave’s rights and goes counter to the very purpose of public school.

 

Local control is the great strength of our education system.

 

It is the idea that district wide decisions about our children’s learning should be made by duly-elected members of the community in the full light of day. Except where doing so would violate an individual’s personal rights, all school documents are public. They are voted on in public. And they are subject to question and comment by the public.

 

If the taxpayers – the people who foot the bill for the majority of the district costs – don’t approve of what their representatives are doing, they can take steps to replace them.

 

These are the very foundation of public schooling and one of the major reasons the public school system is superior to charter or voucher schools, which typically do not have them. Even when privatized systems retain the vestiges of democratic rule, they are optional and can be stripped away at the whim of the businesses and/or corporations that run them.

 

Vermillion Parish School Board would do well to remember this.

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The actions taken by City Marshall Hilts were either done at the behest of the board or certainly without any public dissent among the members.

 

They stomped on Hargrave’s First Amendment rights and ignored their responsibility to the community they serve.

 

If my description of how a public school is supposed to work sounds like a lecture, that’s intentional. These representatives could do with a lesson in how democracy works.

 

Our actions have consequences and those consequences only become more consequential when we become public servants. The board, the superintendent and certainly Hilts may very well have opened themselves up to legal action.

 

But beyond putting themselves in danger from having to pay punitive damages to Hargrave – that I hope they pay out of the superintendent’s bloated salary – they have betrayed a dangerous attitude toward the very concept of self-rule.

 

Whether they meant to or not, they have given the children of Vermillion Parish a lesson in government and community values.

 

Make no mistake. The children are watching. They get the TV news and status updates on Facebook and Twitter. They have access to YouTube. Doubtless, they have seen this video countless times. They have probably played it over and over again.

 

They saw their teacher brutally manhandled by a supposed law enforcement officer. And they heard the deafening silence from the school board about it.

 

They know now that this kind of behavior is deemed acceptable in Vermillion Parish. Beware the kind of behavior adults can expect from children who are given such a disgraceful example!

 

Moreover, these children are well aware of the matter in dispute.

 

The board is fighting to give the superintendent a $38,000 raise. Yet they refuse to give another penny to teachers – all while class sizes have jumped from 21 to 29 students, according to Hargrave.

 

That is not what leaders do who care about the well-being of students. It is a result of backroom deals and the good ol’ boys network.

 

 

The lesson is that hard work doesn’t matter. The only thing you should worry about is making a deal no matter whom it hurts. Just look out for numero uno.

 

After all, the board could give the teachers something – some token of appreciation to show that they value their continued commitment to the children of the community. But they don’t. Yet they fight tooth and nail to do so for one individual who has in no way proven himself indispensable.

 

It is the teachers who come in every day and give their all to help students learn. Not a superintendent who demands they jump through an increasingly complex set of irrelevant hoops.

 

But there’s always money for the person at the top. Never anything for the people who do the real work.

 

Critics complain that teachers don’t deserve a raise because they already earn more money than the majority of the people who live in the community. (An argument which – by the way – would also apply to the superintendent.)

 

But even beyond basic logic, it’s a bogus line of reasoning!

 

Doctors attend patients in poor communities. They still earn high salaries – maybe not as high as they would serving the wealthy, but they have to be able to survive, to pay back the loans they took out to go through medical school, etc. So do lawyers, accountants and specialists of all kinds. That’s just capitalism. If you want someone to provide a good or service, you have to pay them a competitive wage. Otherwise, they’ll move on to greener pastures.

 

The kids see you pinching pennies. They know what that means – you don’t think they’re worth the investment.

 

The lessons of Vermillion Parish go far beyond Louisiana.

 

Anytime people mistreat teachers, they’re really mistreating the children those educators serve.

 

An attack on teachers is an attack on students.

 

When Hilt wrestled a woman half his size to the ground and placed her under arrest for the crime of exercising her rights, he put the entire community in jail.

 

When the board directed him to act – or at very least neglected to stop him – they made themselves culpable in the crime.

 

It is something we have been guilty of in nearly every state of the union. We have neglected our children, abused our teachers and injured the democratic principles on which our country was founded.

 

Class dismissed.

 

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