What is Wrong With Public Education in America – Part II

I wrote my last blog about ideology and misconception and aimed my sites at the general public that is dramatically uninformed and ignorant about actual issues that our grossly underpaid and underappreciated professional educators face. I guess it is good that I buttered them up because for this blog, it is with some trepidation that I am going to turn the table and point the finger at the teachers themselves.

I previously wrote a blog criticizing the medical community for taking pretty much zero responsibility for their own societal wellness failures. I pointed out that in my field of electrical engineering I really don’t get the option of throwing my hands in the air and saying, “sure, that airplane system doesn’t work, but I tried. The task was just too hard and your airplane wiring was pretty screwed up to start with.” I actually think I tried that one a time or two and you can imagine about how well that went over with my customer. As laughable as that sounds coming from an avionics electrical engineer, that is pretty much the exact thing I see and hear from multitudes of teachers and professional educators all over social media and on the conference calls with schools that I find myself one desk over from while my wife coaches and patiently teaches.

I recently read a published letter entitled “Teachers aren’t the school problem.” It is written by a graduating high school senior that has a pretty strong but obviously fixed belief system and he describes why he would not go into the field of education. He goes on to state:

“I feel if a teacher presents the information in an effective way and thoroughly explains the information, they have done their jobs. It is now the student’s responsibility to receive the information. If a student still does not understand a concept, it is the student’s responsibility to set up an arrangement for further explanation. What is school without work? There should be an equal amount of effort.”

I guess I am not surprised to see that a teenager has such an ideological and simplistic view about the role of educators, but what surprised me is the amount of attention and accolades that this article has gotten from the teaching community. If you are a teacher and you believe that whether or not a student “receives the information” is completely outside of your job description, then you are certainly in the wrong field. I think we already have enough D’Marqus Jamal Forbes’s in education and enough limiting beliefs. I personally am pretty comfortable that young Mr. Forbes has chosen another line of work. It takes a lot more to be a successful teacher than a strong interest in the subject matter and a desire to help kids. You need to actually like kids too.

I can just imagine if I took that approach with my dogs. Hey, I delivered all of the information, but ultimately my dog just didn’t choose to receive the information. Not my fault, and after all, I really don’t like dogs that much anyway. Good thing there is a shelter nearby that will take him so that I can buy another dog and try again.

No one is successful 100% of the time at anything, but you will not be successful even 1% of the time if you start with an expectation of failure or apathy. This is just one of those great little nuances that make the journey of life interesting and difficult. If only we spent a little more time hammering this fundamental principle home to our kids instead of hammering home the ability to do long division by hand then I think we would have a very different crop of graduating students each year, and a different world in general.  Unfortunately, limiting beliefs with an expectation of failure and blame of others is a rampant problem in education and the world. Regrettably, I also find myself in this trap far too often.

How do we stay focused on what is best for the kids? If there is one term/question that has been drilled into my brain from listening to my wife work over the years this would be it.  I have said before that my wife is the best educator I have ever known or seen in action and I believe that her fundamental core belief system is what sets her apart. She is not the most polished public speaker, and she is not the most well read or highly educated University fact-filled, elitist. She is also not the most entertaining carnival act although I have heard her use her love of puns to regale more than a few stuffy rooms full of high school math and science teachers.

What my wife does have more naturally than anyone I have known, is an unwavering belief in the inherent potential of every single person that she has ever worked with from the neediest kindergartener to the crustiest, old school superintendent.  She has never met a bad kid, and never encountered a single child (or person for that matter) that isn’t worthy of at least her belief that they can change and learn. This is as solidly a part of her belief system as her belief that gravity will hold her to the earth when she steps out of bed and it is definitely no act she is putting on.  I know this feeling well because it is exactly the same feeling I have about every dog I have ever met or worked with in my life. Sorry humans, I am still trying to catch up to my wife’s level of enlightenment, but I am just not there yet. I have seen her put on an act to satisfy a job requirement and I have seen her teach/coach. The difference is strikingly obvious just like when I try to pull that dog and pony show stuff while training my dog Rufus.

However, if that student/client shows my wife even a glimmer of a belief that they might also share her opinion about their own potential ability to learn and change, then they are off on a journey with her that seems a lot more like what I think teaching should be than the fixed instruction that I received for most of my educational career.  If however, she enters a room and finds “limiting beliefs” lingering like a cloud of smoke over all, then she instinctively locks on to that sense of pessimism like a cheetah locking on to the jugular of a gazelle. Usually, good things happen educationally as a result, regardless of what is being taught or my wife’s own personal expertise in the subject matter. I think the difference between an educator/coach and a subject matter expert is a distinction that not too many people in our country realize although I sure wish they could. It is kind of like the difference between a wellness coach and a medical doctor. We need them both, but they are just not the same job, regardless how many people believe they are, or how many people believe that one has extreme value over the other. In my opinion, human medical doctors and educational subject matter experts are sort of a dying breed with a limited future in our society. At least that is with respect to dealing with patients/kids.

With advancements in technology including things like Webmd and the unthinkable amount of “subject matter” that is at the fingertips of pretty much everyone today and everywhere we go, why do you really need to drive in a car, sit in a room and wait for someone to tell you what the bump on your leg is when you can probably just figure out what it is and what to do about by using the internet.  Sure today, there is some risk involved, but I have news for you, there is also some risk associated with believing your human doctor’s assessment and treatment plan. And besides, just because there is risk associated with that type of self-diagnosis today, I bet there won’t be in the future. A simple scanner will tell you exactly what that bump is with a great degree of accuracy right in your own home. Doctors can go where they belong, behind a door and working on science and making money, not trying to connect with an actual human being. Similarly, I am not sure I see the value of driving a bunch of kids to a building every day so that someone can tell them that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. By the way, I should probably have known that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States by memory, right? I am sure I have been thoroughly educated and tested on this subject matter during my primary educational career, correct? Well, guess what, I didn’t remember, but it took me about 2.5 seconds to figure it out using only one of the three computers sitting in front of me right now.

If you are laughing at the number of spelling errors or grammar errors in my blogs, well you have absolutely no idea what my blog looks like before I run the computer spell check. You would probably think I was a third grader although I was pretty much a straight A student in Spelling and Grammar in school. At this point I am just waiting for spell check to get better, and to be honest, sometimes I am just lazy. Go ahead and give me bad grade and smirk.

How about the four semesters of Calculus I endured as the building block of my electrical engineering career? Today, I could not pass a single calculus test that I have ever taken including a high school calculus test. Maybe other engineers have very different jobs than I do but I sure don’t see how studying that subject to that degree was necessarily critical for the vast majority of us engineering undergrads. For whatever reason, education seems stuck in a world that does not have computers and technology. Instead we say that spending hours and hours learning mathematical computation is teaching fundamentals. To some extent I see the value but the balance between theoretical and practical is way off in all levels of our education system and I believe this is a huge setback to the advancement of civilization. What we have is a population of students that know very well that Albert Einstein was a physicist who was responsible for the theory of relativity. They can also complete a few simple math computations using E=mc2. But unfortunately, at the end of the day, neither the student or even the teacher in a lot of cases have much of an actual concept about what the theory of relativity really is, or how it affects our entire perspective of reality, let alone the mathematics behind it.

What we need to be doing instead is specializing more based on interests and talents instead of using a generic education system to figure out who is mentally strong enough to store the most amount of information that they have no interest in pursuing other than because they were told they have to get a good job. Enough of my rant about school curriculum that probably should have been a separate blog, back to the point of this blog.

Coaching, on the other hand, is teaching a person how to unlock their own internal, self-guided, interest-driven potential, and the unbelievable power associated with belief in oneself and belief in one another. Unfortunately, we haven’t even scratched the surface of what could be achieved through the relatively new field of educational coaching or the power of positive thinking. If we could combine that with mindfulness training and teaching kids how to first and foremost learn to approach life with a calm, confident and stable mind there would be no limit to what these kids could achieve. Although coaching as a field or segment of education is relatively new, plenty of teachers like my wife have been using these techniques for decades.  Only back then it was just called being a good teacher. An awful lot of teachers now seem to take a far simpler view of their job by believing that whether or not a student decides to come to class or decides to apply themselves is not a part of their job or a reflection of their skills as a teacher. Maybe it’s not, but it sure should be.

Some would say that what I am talking about is the difference between an elementary educator and a high school or college educator. I disagree. Just the techniques differ. When I was in college, I had two types of professor. Professor A had absolutely no attendance policy and his lectures were packed every day. Professor B had a big policy requiring attendance and that was outlined in the class syllabus and strenuously highlighted on the day one introductions. I could tell within the first half hour of professor B’s first lecture why there was an attendance policy that was attached to my grade. I usually then spent the second half hour calculating exactly how many of professor B’s classes I could skip before dropping a letter grade.  Then I would get a head start on tackling the intriguing assignment that I just got from Professor A’s class even though it was not due for a week.

We can have debates about teaching techniques all day. I can see and understand legitimate arguments for tough love, and increasing standards and I can also see argument for my wife’s preferred method of coaching and making connections and gaining trust and trying to light a spark of interest from within. I think it depends on the student and teacher more than anything and adopting a one size fits all approach is a mistake, just like with dogs. Regardless, kids are a lot like dogs.  If you know me, you know I actually believe this is a compliment.

With dogs, one of the training challenges but one of their crucial instinctual developments and useful skills in working situations is that they don’t respond well to acting. You can do every single action, command, and training technique by the book but you will NEVER be successful until you, yourself become an unwavering believer in your dog’s ability to carry out your expectations. I believe I can speak for my wife by saying that kids and adults that you are teaching/coaching are no different.

Our fundamental belief is far more powerful than the actions of any individual or information they know. There have been many books written about this fairly well proven phenomenon, the Bible being the one that comes to mind first from someone of my background. A good number of people sure do interpret this book’s message differently than I do. Not the first or last thing in life like that for me.

My wife and I both cringe every time one of our educator friends posts a “look what my dumbass student said or did” status update on social media. I have even seen photos of dumb test answers complete with belittling comments written in red ink along with a poor circled letter grade for both the student and all of their hundreds of friends to see, laugh at, and comment on. But it is certainly not the teachers fault right? A teacher can’t make someone want to learn, can they? The truth is the good ones do every day. It is as if a lot of teachers actually like to brag on social media about how bad they are at their job and how funny it is that their students don’t respect them. Is that something to brag or laugh about if your actual job is the exact opposite? They then usually follow this up with a rant about how screwed up the system is because it is going to force them to pass this dumb kid on to the next grade even though they didn’t manage to teach them a thing or motivate them at all in the past year.

I think I would drop dead if I ever saw or heard my wife say that it is not her job to  try to convince a kid to turn her homework in on time or achieve according to his potential. Likewise, I am pretty sure my wife would drop dead if she ever found me posting a “look at what a crazy, dumbass my dog is” status update photo. It won’t happen because that is not part of our belief system and also because we realize that what we are experiencing is much more a reflection of us than our own dogs or students.  Not because our dogs don’t do some crazy dumb stuff and not because my wife has never had a completely ridiculous kid or teacher to deal with.  It is just that we both happen to have enough experience to know what works and what is a complete setback and obstacle in a world that is going to provide enough obstacles to last a lifetime without the teacher piling on.

I admit, I have a hard time criticizing the public school teachers of America even though they do at times make it hard not to. This is primarily because they have the very easy argument of saying “oh yeah? well, I would like to see you do my job.” I guess to that I would say, I am already aware that I am not near bright enough, talented enough, compassionate enough, or dedicated enough to tackle that job and that is why I went into electrical engineering. I am afraid there are probably a few too many teachers that, like me, aren’t really cut out for the job either. A lot of people think that you deal with this problem by busting unions and firing teachers that don’t stack up and by pushing kids toward private school options.  I would argue that there are a few logistical and equitability problems with this approach and I think I covered that pretty well in my last blog.

Although I fully admit that I don’t have what it takes to be a teacher, I certainly wish I did. My Mom is another lifelong educator that is talented, dedicated, and patient beyond anything that I can comprehend in my life so far.  Although she is not a University degreed teacher, she has worked in schools and with kids for decades as a multi-handicap aide, a teacher’s aide and as an elementary librarian. I have watched her my entire life as she makes friends with and ultimately positively influences the lives of a multitude of kids with all sorts of challenging backgrounds. Like with my wife, I have never once heard an inherently negative comment from her about one of her student friends. I simply cannot imagine her saying, “hey, I read that book perfectly to those kids. It’s not my fault that their parents let them watch TV so much that they can’t sit still or focus on reading.” She could have made more money doing something else or by getting a degree, but true to her fundamental belief, she has preferred to stay focused on the kids, and her family, and on enjoying her work instead of chasing dollar signs and then resenting it. Although I have witnessed it my entire life, these are virtues I have yet to achieve. Her talents and ability to connect with and make a difference in a child’s life make me feel very proud even though she is far too humble to toot her own horn or publicize her success. Her lifetime work and even the subtle impact that she makes every day is a far greater accomplishment than any degree, job title, or paycheck that I have ever received, thats’ for sure.

I can only imagine how it must feel to get the kinds of letters and feedback that my wife and mom get from now adults that credit them for forever changing the course of their lives by doing nothing else but believing in them, and listening to them, and by being their genuine friend and mentor, even when no one else would. They don’t write letters thanking them for teaching fractions or the Dewey decimal system, although no doubt they did that too. Unfortunately these types of rewards and accolades don’t come along with engineering jobs very often. Or, in my experience, at all. The fact that I yearn for these rewards is probably the exact reason they are so elusive to me. It is not really about that for my wife and mom.

As professional educators continue to be marginalized by the community and media and as teachers get further and further fed up with the bureaucracy that surrounds them,  I would bet that fewer and fewer of these types of letters are getting written every year. That is a shame for sure. What you are left with is class full of students staring at a clock and wishing they were just about anywhere else but in that classroom and a teacher that feels just about the same. I use to get that feeling in my gut quite a bit during my educational career. Just writing this will probably cause me to have one of those; I skipped a class and missed a final types of dreams. I just hope I am not in my underwear. Regardless, I can tell you first hand that not a lot of learning goes on in this environment of mutual misery and general disinterest between student and teacher.

Teachers of America, I realize your job sucks and that you are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated, but really, the next time you have had it with your job, your boss, the board, smartass disrespectful arrogant kids or other challenges, try spending just a minute refocusing on “What is best for the kids”. Isn’t that why you got into teaching? I know you didn’t think you were going to get rich. While you are thinking, maybe also consider what an unbelievable opportunity you have to make a positive difference in the course of another human being’s life. Maybe also think about how you can be a coach and friend instead of just a subject matter expert and drill sergeant. Trust me, opportunities like that don’t come along for most of us very often as we sit inside of grey cubicles, staring at computers screens, filling out TPS reports and pondering the possibility that this is all there really is to life. If you can’t make a difference within the school or administration you are in, find one where you can, or start your own revolution of change. Or, you can just do like I did and take the lazy road of being a corporate slug and griping about what is wrong with the world in a blog. It is really your choice but the future of the entire world is in your hands and the pliable targets of opportunity are all around you. Just don’t act or go through the motions. That is a waste of everyone’s precious and all too short time.

The Times (And Minds) They are A-Changin’

A Facebook friend of mine suggested that I expand upon why my political views have changed over the years so I have decided to take her up on her suggestion. My former blog explained how I thought 12 years ago compared to how I think today as it relates to what political candidate for president I support. I guess for this blog, I am going to do my best to explain the yada, yada in between that led to the change.

First of all, I have never been associated or registered with either political party and my vow has always been to vote based on my own beliefs and values and not a Party line. In that regard, I guess I haven’t really changed at all. Secondly, in addition to my shift of views, I think it is also fair to point out the shift in the Republican Party in recent years. The emergence of the Tea Party has completely overhauled the landscape of this group including its core values and fundamental agenda. Being a science minded educated person almost creates a conflict automatically. It is nearly impossible to support a Republican candidate in this country unless you have some VERY extreme views about climate change, taxation, labor rights, education funding, women’s rights, humanitarian issues, immigration issues, and especially Christianity’s place in government. The fact that an entire political party is so closely aligned with a very fundamentalist sect of Christian beliefs should be a concern to more moderate voters than it seems to be. Way, way too much actual political policy and law is currently being advanced based strictly on a very narrow, literal, and often logic-less interpretation of Judeo-Christian Biblical scripture. Everything from the climate of the planet to the basic rights of citizens to the use of military force is being dictated by a set of unchangeable beliefs that this group believes they were given at birth. All you have to say is “I believe the word of God”, and that can be the end of your justification if you’re a Republican congressman or state elected official in a great number of regions in this country. And for whatever reason, the moderates in the Party refuse to challenge them. I simply do not recall this fundamentalist Christian agenda being anywhere near as prevalent or as closely and actively associated with just one of the two political parties. I know of so many people that do not have these types of extreme religious views (including many Christians) but they somehow still justify their support of this type of governing and the Republican Party. When I step into a voting booth, I simply refuse to cast a vote for a bigot or someone who openly rejects proven scientific fact based on their unchallengeable, fixed belief system.

Ok, so I have touched on the shift in the Republican Party so now I will try to go into how and why my thinking has also changed over the last 10 or 12 years. It did strike me that my friend that also knew me in high school was so surprised to hear about my change of views. I wonder, have I really changed that much? Doesn’t everybody change their views as they learn and experience new things in life? I guess it would seem to me that having different political views than you did when you were a child would be more common than it probably is in reality. Maybe the fact that the last political discussion that I had with her was a school mock election in 1992, might also explain why my change of thinking seems more dramatic than it probably actually was.

Much of the change can probably be attributed to a subject that I have touched on in the past. This is the unbelievably powerful influence of the people around you and that you interact with on a day to day basis. When you grow up in an all-white, Christian-conservative, suburban, middle class neighborhood you tend to adopt the views of those you know. When you move from the suburbs and live in a neighborhood that has a large variety of ethnicities, income levels, and religious views, your perspective naturally become wider and more varied as a result. It is human nature. I spent my youth in middle class suburbs and I have spent the majority of my adult life living in more diverse larger cities. Had I stayed in my home town or made a parallel move, there is a good chance you would not be reading this. I don’t want to suggest that you can’t be socially open-minded to other people if you live in a small all-white town. I also lived in Aspen, Colorado for a time, but as liberal as that place is, it is not exactly what you would call a melting pot and acceptance of diversity is not a community wide priority. I am also sure that there are plenty of people that live their entire life in white suburbs, but manage to stay open minded. Clearly far too many do not. As much as I love my secluded mountain cabin, and my small hometown and family, I have found that I feel more truly at home amongst the complete diversity found in slightly larger metropolitan areas. I absolutely never would have guessed this to be the case when I was younger.  It feels strange now to be only around people that share my ethnicity, and likewise, it would feel very strange to vote for a candidate that has ONLY supporters from one ethnicity. Obama and Clinton have both recently campaigned right in the diverse Denver neighborhood I call home, and the gathering crowds look like the people I see and interact with every day. Romney, to my knowledge, has not stepped foot inside the city limits to campaign in Denver, and the faces at his rallies look more like an angry clan mob than a presidential rally of all people I know.  So even if I still did approach voting from a strictly selfish standpoint, the candidate that is interested in representing me and diverse group of people where I live is clear.

I have heard a number of people say that they are voting for Romney because Obama has failed to unite the country. This is an interesting thought considering Romney is polling at virtually zero percent among blacks on only slightly better among most minorities. So when a Romney supporter says they are voting for him because he will bring people together, they clearly have a very specific idea of what they believe togetherness should look like racially.

The next contributing factor is examining evidence retrospectively and the role that the internet and reading has played in my adult life. Having the ability to pursue answers at my own direction is something that was not as present in my life years ago when I was on a guided tour, courtesy of right wing talk radio. Yes, I subscribed to a certain ideology when I was younger, but after years of evidence and some research, it was pretty clear that the results were not always as I had anticipated or as I was told. The drug war is a perfect example of this change for me. Obviously we have a drug problem in this country. Far too many have serious addictions to some serious drugs. We absolutely have to get a handle on this societally. When you factor in the unspoken war with the Mexican drug cartels as well as the millions of dollars from our country that pour out of our borders to fuel them, this absolutely has to be a national priority. Disappointingly, this subject has not been touched on a national level during this election cycle. When you are in school learning about how things work in life, bad behavior gets you detention or suspension. When someone takes drugs, which we know is bad; they should be punished by going to adult detention or jail. Then they will stop doing the drugs so that they don’t have to get suspended or go to prison. Unfortunately, unlike a child pulling hair, drug addiction is a slightly more complicated behavioral compulsion to correct and the overwhelming evidence and undeniable result of our country’s drug war is readily available and hard to ignore. I realize now that the drug war has been failing miserably from well before I originally established my beliefs in high school, but please forgive that it took me a while to figure this one out on my own. Still, isn’t it about time the rest of the country joins me in at least recognizing the utter failure of the basic plan? It is one thing to subscribe to a theory; it is another to hang on to it regardless of years of evidence that says you are completely wrong. The same type of critical thinking can be applied to past votes. When I do that, casting a vote for another Republican candidate seems like a very bad idea.

I would be a fool to not also recognize my wife’s influence in my expanded frame of thinking. We have been married for 11 years and together for 13. I don’t know how many others out there can relate, but I married my polar opposite. I am an introvert, she is an extrovert. I am glass half empty, she is half full. She likes to dance and laugh and I like to golf and smirk. In about any personality or right-brain/left-brain comparison you come up with, we are opposite and even today we rarely see any issue exactly the same. To be honest, I can’t imagine life with a partner that does not challenge my way of thinking every day. I undoubtedly do the same for her and somehow the combination works very well for us. I believe we both benefit from truly being able to see a very different way of thinking from another human being that we deeply admire, respect, and love.

More than any other way, my wife has challenged my thinking on money. She absolutely does not make big life decisions based largely on monetary influence and she never has since the day I met her. At first this presented budgetary challenges, but once we got that ironed out, I really started to see why the pursuit of money can have a blinding influence on a person’s life. Unfortunately, I was definitely heading down that path when we met. How much can I make? How much can I save? How many square feet can we buy? What job has the highest starting salary? The government is stealing my money and giving it to people that didn’t earn it! Mine, mine, mine, me, me, me! I had an uncontrollable need to strive toward ever growing and lofty financial goals which I believed would ensure my future happiness. Not that you do not have to be mindful of financial matters. Obviously, I believe this is important. But, when money (especially future money) becomes a fixation in your life, where stock tickers are watched hourly and gas prices fluctuations cause you to have to take medication, you may need to reassess things in life. Clearly this is the way the Romney camp approaches almost every single issue as do a great number of their supporters. Ironically, people like my wife that do not approach everything based primarily on money tend to have fewer problems making enough to be happy. Those that place extraordinary value in this singular and insatiable pursuit seem to never have enough.

Finally, I am sure the shift toward selflessness is apparent in my previous blog. This is primarily a result of the impact that meditation has had on my life. Learning to quiet the mind and live in the present moment has helped to reveal some of the flaws in my previous thinking and the illusions inherent in my own concept of self. I am not sure a blog about meditation or selflessness is something I want to get too far into at this point but if anyone out there is interested in learning some of the basics I strongly recommend the book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham. The book and my subsequent practice have changed my life in ways I am only beginning to understand. For a lot of others out there who’s mind tortures them with endless worry and chatter, I believe that the concepts introduced in this book are worthy of at least some exploration.

In the end who knows why my thinking changed the way that it has. Maybe, the Bob Dylan in my headphones won out over the right-wing sports talk on my radio. All I know is that today’s way of thinking feels more peaceful and complete, for me than the way I thought 12 years ago. I would be a fool to promise that this won’t change, and in fact, a far safer bet would be that it will. Far too many in this country seem content to shut the door to new ideas and information once they get to a certain age or once the message of fear penetrates too deep. My one and only goal is to not go down that road sooner than my aging brain forces me to.

Learning, growing, and changing should not stop when we complete our formal education. That is when it should just begin.