Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Teacher Man

Since his death last week, the ed blogs have been posting a lot about Frank McCourt and his musings on teaching. This is the piece I love the most. My thanks goes to Norm.

Stop Hijacking the Education with Hijinks

by Frank McCourt, January 14th, 2008

At what point in American history did politicians hijack public education? They think nothing of barging into classrooms across the country, shunting teachers aside and reading to children who wonder who they are in the first place, wonder who is this person boring us to death with his prose drone?

We all remember former Vice President Dan Quayle’s foray into spelling when, campaigning for a second term, he told a class of elementary school kids that potato was spelled potatoe. We remember how President George W. Bush read a story about a goat to children in
Florida while the World Trade Center burned. Imagine a politician daring to enter the professional space of doctors, lawyers, engineers, dentists, interior decorators. Imagine.

The kids are primed well in advance, told this person coming here tomorrow is very, very important, that they better behave themselves and show respect to this very important person who will be reading to them, this person taking time out from a hectic schedule to show his/her interest in education.

But teachers are fair game. Here come the press people, the camera operators, the advance men or women and, hold it right there outside the classroom for the big smile and the apt comment on the state of the schools, the solon himself, today’s captivating reader, the one who will show the teacher how it’s done.

Politician enters room, acknowledges existence of teacher, limp handshake, faint smile, head nod.

Some teachers are flattered, of course. They’ll be right up there on TV tonight, and tomorrow the kids will rush in all excited after seeing themselves and their teacher on the news.

Oh, wow!

There’s Joey. There’s Sandra. Yeah, and there’s a glimpse of teacher being recognized by politician. (Teacher has the sickly smile of one aware she is being used. But don’t be like that, Teacher Lady. After all, you were singled out, checked out, background looked into, political affiliation determined before this politician was invited to invade your domain. You are going to be on TV, recognized, however briefly, before politician sits warily on three-legged stool to bore your kids to death with a story he never heard of before today.)

So, there’s the teacher, there’s the politician, there are the children. And we know where the power is. We know that whatever happens in the classroom, however effective the teacher, however accomplished or failing the kids are, it is the politician who controls the purse strings of education. We know when you sit on the pot of gold you can dictate what should be taught, how it should be taught, and who should teach it.

We are talking, of course, about the
United States of America. It may be different in other countries where there is respect for teachers, where, in the matter of teaching and learning, they are heeded.

What do we hear in public education about the pursuit of wisdom? Nothing. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have decided the way to improve the schools is through testing, testing, testing. Unless they test well we don’t like our children. We brag to neighbors and other parents that our Jonathan scored way up there on that No Child Left Behind test and if all the children scored way up there we’d get more money from
Washington. And what right-minded citizen wouldn’t want that? Politicians from different states and localities are over the moon when “their” kids score high on this test and that test.

Then there are the teachers. Oh, well. Those silly people in public schools went into the profession thinking they’d teach, you know, excite the kids. Forget the test, the quiz, the exam.

Politicians bark: Hold it right there, Teacher Lady. We don’t care what you do in the classroom as long as it can be measured and tested. We want results. Understand? Results. I mean, you’re not Socrates blathering away under a tree. If we’re doling out funds, we wanna know what you people are up to in the classroom.

So … back to the drawing board, teacher. Think results. Teach to the test because if you don’t, your representatives downtown, upstate and in D.C. will sit on the pot of gold ’til you come to your senses. Principals and bureaucrats in general will question your professionalism and you know what that means, teacher. To have your professionalism questioned by people who long ago fled the classroom is a serious matter. You might lose your good job, teacher. What would happen to the children?

Oh, the children. Don’t worry about them. Teachers will soon be replaced with robots capable of administering tests. Everything will be multiple choice and robots certainly know how to handle that. Curiosity will be discouraged and there will be no departure from the test-driven curriculum.

And you, teacher? What will you do with yourself?

Try politics. That way you can re-enter the classroom and, get this: you’ll be respected. You can read to the kids a story about a woman who wanted to be a teacher but was replaced by a robot because politicians wanted results and the politicians got their way because they know more about education than the teacher in the classroom, don’t they?

Frank McCourt (1930 - 2009) won the Pulitzer Prize for "Angela’s Ashes." "Teacher Man: A Memoir" is an account of his experiences as a New York City teacher.

PS: Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and all the others put together, don't come close to approaching McCourt's brilliance of mind and understanding of humanity.


Ted said...

McCourt wasn't one for educational orthodoxy. "Teacher Man" is a great teaching text.

nikto said...

This War:,0,6767455.story

If you want to read and/or join in the reaction/discussion, go here:

In America, Education is now run by the businessman.

Without pushback...

End of story.

nikto said...

Sorry for the "Tarzan-Talk" in my opening sentence fragment, which should have correctly appeared as:

This is war.

PaulMoore said...

PP, had an exchange with the Washington Post's Jay Mathews that might interest you and your readers. Mathews comes up wanting in a comparison to Frank McCourt.

First Mathews published this story titled, "Do You Know a High-Achieving Student Kept From College Over Money?"

Then Paul Moore commented:

Despite 27 years of ducking into urban high schools for a moment to give credence to your reporting, you haven't got a clue about what goes on there or who those children you take a glance at really are. If you did, you'd be the rival of Jonathan Kozol in making comments on urban education or you would be considered in the same breath by people as the late Frank McCourt.

Are you serious man? Are you really so lost as to believe that you can walk into an urban school and one of those children of color is going to open up to the strange white observer-for-a-day. You know nothing about those children and young people and you never will because in your heart of hearts you think you are superior to them. You think they should strive in school to be just like you.

Coincidentally, I have spent 27 years as a white teacher in an urban high school. I have found that I can go into the classroom every day for the 180-day school year and still not bridge the divide that has been forged in this country between the races and know my students completely. I fiercely struggle to achieve it and don't always succeed and I'm not even crippled with your haughty self-assuredness and complete confidence that you have all the answers.

Then Jay Mathews replied:

These weren't observer for the day visits. In five or six cases over that time I have spent a year in each school (five years in the case of one of them, the most disadvantaged of the lot). I visited regularly to watch classes, interview teachers, students and parents. Over time most people knew I was there, and many came up to share their thoughts. I was in regular touch with counselors who knew best which kids were in the gifted and motivated category, and would have been quick to tell me if any of them weren't getting into college. Out of those long stays at those schools, I wrote three books, plus several long articles and series.

PaulMoore said...

Then Paul Moore replied:

I'm sure you know of the Kerner Commission and its famous 1968 assessment of the US as "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—-separate and unequal." The apostle of integration and non-violence, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated that same year. The influence of Dr. King and the effect of the work of other freedom fighters in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements had a forward momentum that lasted a few more years but with the election of Ronald Reagan the climb toward one United States of America was halted then reversed.

To the point that in 2005 Jonathan Kozol would write, "Many Americans who live far from our major cities and who have no firsthand knowledge of the realities to be found in urban public schools seem to have the rather vague and general impression that the great extremes of racial isolation that were matters of grave national significance some thirty-five or forty years ago have gradually but steadily diminished in more recent years. The truth, unhappily, is that the trend, for well over a decade now, has been precisely the reverse. Schools that were already deeply segregated twenty-five or thirty years ago are no less segregated now, while thousands of other schools around the country that had been integrated either voluntarily or by the force of law have since been rapidly resegregating."

So if you are going to write effectively about urban education, you must start with the realization you are standing in one world, the one you live in, and looking over a wall into another world, the one that students of color live in. You can "visit" that other world, even on a regular basis for 5 years and talk to teachers and counselors and parents, and still not fathom it. If 27 years of teaching in an urban high school has taught me anything, it's that my students live in a different world than I, not a better world or a lesser world, a different world, and I will never reach them in their world except on the basis of mutual respect.

You become grossly counterproductive when you start from the viewpoint that your world is superior. And you clearly do that in your writing as you shill for the masters of the global economy! You make it worse when your bottom line demand is that the children of the other world be made over in your image and likeness before they are deemed successful.

Admit it Jay, you want them to turn off "106 and Park" and watch "The Closer" like you.