Thursday, December 15, 2016

Ten-year-olds tackle ‘The Lie’ of demeaning stereotypes in video

Video source:  Washington Post

Albert Schweitzer (I believe it was in the "Teaching of Reverence for Life") wrote that we do harm to children -- and to our world -- when we encourage them to "grow out of" their natural early idealism.  When I circulated this video made by children speaking up against hate, Pansy Gee, recently retired teacher of 10-year-olds, sent this spontaneously eloquent and hopeful response:

I am pleasantly not surprised by the kids' reactions.  For the most part, kids are open- minded, blind to skin color, tolerant, and much more loving of their fellow man than adults.     The indignant reactions of children, when confronted with issues of prejudice or stereotypes is the one of the truest forms of social justice and  hope for the future.  It is when the adults in their lives deem that children are "old enough" to be "taught" about the "real world" that they begin to conform to their parents' world.  It is why I chose most of the books I did.  I wanted to open those lines of communication.  Sometimes I was not well liked by the parents. 

Reading those books about the prejudices of post-civil war times in Mildred Taylor's Friendship, the way the Okies were treated in California as depicted in the Cobblestone Magazine, or issues of personal freedom in The Giver and the discussions that ensued are what I miss about the classroom.  I am not just another adult voice that perhaps the kids would listen to.  I hope I am encouraging open minds, blindness to skin color, tolerance and love (or at least respect) for all. If children learned to read, write and talk skillfully and understand that we don't all have to agree on everything, their community, our world would be a bit more sane.  I hope teachers see the importance of reading REAL texts about REAL issues and give the boys and girls the opportunity to not just know the material, but to wrestle with it.  It's good to let them think through and struggle with the problems of their world. Teachers should give them chances to form opinions and to stand on the knowledge they're learning as support. Every teacher should have a classroom community where ideas are encouraged and can be exchanged safely, where minds can change more than once and no matter what-- as a class we care about each other! 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Or, A Lesson My Teacher Taught Me  

When President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education as a cabinet department in 1979, educators across the country were thrilled.  In the post-US/Vietnam war era, the education of America’s children would have the same official standing as the US treasury, the military (“defense”), agriculture, and foreign affairs. No longer sandwiched in between “Health” and “Welfare,” Education would leave the old HEW department and be an official national priority:  a Cabinet department.  Surely this independent standing would create leverage for research funding, for special programs, for innovation and, most important, for implementing and monitoring and enforcing equity – the rights of all children to an equitable education.   Teachers, parents, and educators at all levels celebrated this affirmation of their work and of the children.

By Spencer Rich Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Sep 28, 1979;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. A1

But I heard a word of caution.  John Palmer, my doctoral dissertation advisor and Dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Education, is a historian and an astute observer of the uses of power.  He saw the new Cabinet department through a different lens.  I recall his very quiet words of wisdom:  “You know, when you create a new program or a new structure, you have to think very carefully about whether this is what you would want to have in place if the other party were in power.  What might this new department mean if the other party were in control of it?”

For some reason, those words stuck in my mind. Perhaps because John Palmer is one of the wisest people I know and, yes, though I was officially his student all those years ago, he continues to be my teacher.  At the time, I think we thought the worst that could happen would be reduced funding for education research and for attention to such critical issues as special education, bilingual education, and the advocacy and enforcement of equity provisions not always reliably maintained by some of the states.

Never did we (or, at least, I) envision that having “the other party in power” would mean a threat to the very existence of the nation’s public schools.  The public’s schools.  Yet that’s where we are:  a person whose stated goal is to destroy the public’s schools has been appointed to be the United States Secretary of Education.  A person who has given hundreds of millions of dollars to elect politicians willing to de-fund the public’s schools and shift the public’s tax dollars to corporate charter chains: to private companies that will get rich at public expense using our children as the raw materials in their money machines.

Our schools – and our teachers – have survived four recent Secretaries of Education of questionable qualifications, often open antipathy toward teachers, and a deficit view of children and their families.

I personally heard Rod Paige, when he was superintendent of Houston’s public schools, describe Mexican American parents who called his office concerned that in late October their high school-age children still did not have textbooks as “interfering with my [his!] schools.”  Margaret Spellings seemed chosen just to keep the Texas-style accountability system in place under George W. Bush.  Arne Duncan famously bragged about closing schools in Chicago, a red flag that should have been an immediate disqualification, especially when President Obama had other, stellar, choices among talented and dedicated educators to choose from.  Duncan and Obama doubled down on the Bush policies of punishing under-funded schools rather than investing in them and their children, giving the corporatizers (Democrats as well as Republicans) the excuse they needed to justify closing schools in minority neighborhoods, shifting our tax dollars to wealthy charter chains and their money managers, and generally promulgating a rhetoric of “failing schools.” (And of John King, the less said the better.)

So in walks Betsy DeVos.   It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump knows nothing about public education, its central role in our democracy, its anchoring of our communities and their local economies and civic life.  If he knew that the public’s schools are pillars of our democracy, are a true public good, he wouldn’t agree or even be interested.  But he didn’t have to know. We  learn now that Betsy DeVos has been pursuing a “long game,” for years funding politicians to do her bidding to destroy the public’s schools, to weaken the teaching profession for its voice in education policy and its previous fairly reliable votes for Democrats and their pro-public education policies.  Her “long game” is to divorce the education of children from the control of their parents and the people their parents elect.

So now we look at all those functions (and budgets) under the centralized control of a Secretary of Education and recall those cautionary words of my great teacher, John Palmer: is this the structure you’d want to have in place if the other party were in power?

Professor Palmer’s close colleague and another professor of mine, Herb Kliebard, expressed the caution differently.  He always told us that as chaotic as the American system of public education is, with so many local, county, state and federal jurisdictions overlapping and often contradicting each other, that chaos was in fact the strength of the system: federal policies mitigated the racist exclusions in George Wallace’s Alabama, federal and state funding brought special education to poor or reluctant school districts, and local school boards had to answer to parents.   The potential for crazy still lurked at all levels, but all these intersecting policy venues assured that no one bad policy was controlling the whole system.

The chaos a Betsy DeVos will wreak is not what Herb Kliebard had in mind.  He saw openings for dialogue, for invention, for questioning, for local quirkiness, for experiment on the one hand and for holding on to good traditions on the other.     Conservatives need to remember their mantra against “big government.”  Progressives need not to feel we have to apologize for invoking democracy. We will have to build new coalitions of resistance to fight privatization of education, to protect our treasured public good, and to assert positive solutions at every jurisdictional level, leveraging the chaos where we find it.

Our children deserve no less. Our democracy depends on the education of its people.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Re-posted from Diane Ravitch's blog

Parents, Educators, Advocates Demand Federal Protection of Student Privacy

Diane writes:  A coalition of parents, educators, and privacy advocates issued a statement in defense of student privacy, which is threatened by efforts to create a massive federal data base containing personally identifiable data.

Friday, November 18, 2016

See What Organizing Can Do!

Image source:

History was made today! The State Board of Education of Texas rose above its almost caricatured record of questioning whether Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and civil rights labor leader Cesar Chavez are worthy role models for our children by voting unanimously to reject – to not approve – the racist, erroneous Mexican American Heritage "textbook."

While we applaud the good sense of the members of the state board of education, real credit goes to the parents, educators, scholars and friends of Texas children who showed what democracy can do:  they organized, they publicized, they studied, they brought their deepest concerns and their scholarly expertise and their families’ stories into the debate.  They built a coalition to reject racism. They also built that coalition to affirm what is just and inclusive and historically authentic.

I applaud historian Emilio Zamora and his Nuestro Grupo colleagues for doing the  tedious work of a fine-grained review of this proposed book. And I applaud the thousands who became informed, signed the petition opposing this book, and made their opposition known through calls, letters, emails and testimony.

This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy can do!

Image source:
Here is the board’s decision.  Also check out Professor Angela Valenzuela’s testimony at the hearing, and the testimony of historian Emilio Zamora

Our work isn’t finished.   Bills are already being drafted to shift our tax dollars from the public’s schools to the corporate charter chains as soon as the legislative session opens in January.    Our kids deserve strong public schools.  We can stop the charter movement.  

We’ve seen what organizing can do!

To comment on this post click on the word "comment" below

Monday, November 7, 2016

Re-posted from Angela Valenzuela's Blog, Educational Equity, Politics & Policy in Texas: Update on the Responsible Ethnic Studies Textbook

Not this time! #Reject the Text!

My last post told you about a Spanish I textbook, used throughout most Texas districts, that talked about "people who speak Spanish" as an exotic other:  "they" eat tortillas, "they" depend on corn as a staple in their diet, essentially "they" are not who we (the Anglos who choose the textbooks and and who refuse to acknowledge -- or maybe are afraid to acknowledge -- the emerging majority of Latino youth in our schools) -- "they" are not who "we" are.  That demeaning textbook was used year after year with, so far as I know, no outcry from students, their parents, or -- and this is very sad -- their teachers.

No such silence has greeted an openly racist, erroneous text being proposed to teach "Mexican American Heritage" in Texas schools.  The Texas State Board of Education will meet next week to vote on state approval of this book. The book has inspired a movement: historians, parents, teachers, community activists, even some elected officials have spoken out against it. This book is a blatant attempt to colonize children of Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Cuban -- indeed Mexican-American -- heritage.  In adopting this book, the state would be officially sanctioning a definition of these children and their families as "lazy" -- and worse.   

Let  the State Board of Education know you refuse to let your tax dollars pay for racist textbooks.  Sign the petition to  Reject the Text, then share the petition with your friends.  Write or call your SBOE member -- or all of them.  Sign up to speak at the hearing.    

We can't let cynical, racist, opportunist publishers work against our goals of equitable, culturally rich, educationally authentic learning for all our children.    We can't let the state board members think silence means we think this book and its message are ok.  

I'm including the link to Angela Valenzuela's post so you can learn more about why this is the wrong book for Mexican American Studies -- or for any of our kids -- and how you can take action against it.  Read what she has to say, sign the petition, choose a path of action, then link on "comments" to let me know what you think.

Educational Equity, Politics & Policy in Texas: Update on the Responsible Ethnic Studies Textbook ...: Today is Día de los Muertos, a holiday observed on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to remember loved ones lost, and it is part of ... 

Friday, November 4, 2016

What my students saw in a Spanish class

Tejano Monument, Austin, TX
Image source:
Two students burst into my course on the American High School, angry to the point of tears, theirs the anger of righteous indignation.   Forget the syllabus and the assigned lesson: we had to hear their story.

These two Rice students had observed earlier that day in classrooms at one of the city’s predominantly Latino high schools:  95% Latino, some recently immigrated, most long-time Texans.   The subject of their fury:  a Spanish I textbook.  The kind that goes chapter by chapter introducing grammar rules, verb conjugations, and vocabulary. The interesting stuff is found in those sidebars,-- you know the ones that are in color and talk about the countries and cultures where this new language is spoken. 

My students were almost shouting, “It keeps saying ‘they’!”  “’They’ eat this, ‘they’ wear that….it keeps saying ‘they’!”

Seated in a Spanish class among Mexican American students, my Anglo students were shocked to find that these “cultural” sidebars described Spanish-speakers as an exotic “other.”  The “they” were all native speakers of Spanish wearing rebozos and singing Mariachi; “they all” eat tacos and enchiladas, with corn as the staple in their diet.

The “they” assumed the book – and the class – would be exclusively for non-Spanish speakers.

The problem of “othering” non-Anglo students is larger than the book: the district had vetoed several principals’ attempts to add Spanish-for-Spanish-speakers to their course offerings. Those courses in Spanish and Latin American literature, in advanced composition and conversation, were seen as electives “we can’t afford”  despite a Latino majority in the district’s student population. Thus students who were fluent in Spanish were having to sit through Spanish 1 and 2 to get “foreign language” credits on their transcript.

My students were very upset at what they came to see a form of cultural colonizing in the selection of the book. Even more upsetting was the silence about those “cultural” sidebars: the teacher did not mention them, nor did the students speak up against  this objectification of themselves and their families and their language.   Angela Valenzuela’s path-breaking book Subtractive Schooling:  US-Mexican Youth would suggest that by high school these students had probably absorbed this colonizing, this culturally subtractive curriculum, as normal, as the way we do school.  My students, preparing to be teachers, wanted assurance that this othering is not normal, will not be inevitable. They wanted to learn ways to teach respectfully, drawing on what students bring to class. They aspired to amass culturally rich and authentic instructional materials and, most important, they wanted to not hurt their students. And they wanted to work in schools that supported that vision and made it, not subtractive schooling, the norm.

That old textbook is not likely to still be bouncing around in our city’s high schools. But the colonizing continues and in very dangerous ways.

The newest instrument of colonizing is a proposed textbook that is as startling in the audacity of its racism as in the utter falseness of its content.  Whether as a cynical backlash against the hard-fought victory for Mexican American Studies courses to be approved by the State Board of Education in Texas or as a brash and opportunistic commercial venture, “Mexican American Heritage” produced by uninformed Anglo writers and a conservative former member of the state board of education – does far more damage than those references to a “they,” to the “them” in those Spanish I textbooks that so upset my students.  The "Mexican American Heritage" book didn't sit well with the State Board of Education committee that reviewed it, either:

"Jamie Riddle and Valarie Angle failed to meet the professional standards and guiding principles for the preparation of a textbook worthy of our teachers and youth in Texas classrooms. They failed to engage in critical dialogue with current scholarship and, as a consequence, presented a prolific misrepresentation of facts. This means that the proposed textbook is really a polemic attempting to masquerade as a textbook."

You can learn more about this book here.  Its errors and racist messages are documented by scholars and activists, as well as journalists. It does not take historians to know that a book that calls Mexicans “lazy” is toxic, racist, and frankly ridiculous.

But this racist text is not being met with silence.   Critiques have emerged from historians, activists, community groups, and most important from the state’s Mexican American community – the “we” of this story.

And this book can be stopped.  In fact, the book has catalyzed a movement.  When the State Board of Education meets later this month to vote on this book, the opposition will be organized, vocal and most of all, present.  Add your voice to opposition to having this fake history book in our schools.  See my next post for ways you can speak up against colonizing the Mexican American children of Texas. 

To register your thoughts on this book or share experiences with other ways our schools and our instructional materials may be colonizing our kids, click on the word “comments” below.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

This is what we need to be thinking about

This is what's happening to our kids. 

Especially tragic is that 1/3 of the previously low-poverty-rate census tracts are now high-poverty....very concrete evidence of the pathologies of being a billionaire's city!

Houston’s high poverty areas have quadrupled since 1980

Read this new research and send me your comments.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Not Me, Coach!

Mary Rubel, petite, white-haired, and full of energy taught our 5th grade class with her contagious passion for learning new things.  I had just arrived at Henry Barnard Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma from the dusty classrooms of isolated schools in the oil patch of West Texas where my father was an engineer.  Scuffing to school through real autumn leaves (just like in the story books!) was a revelation.  Mary Rubel seemed straight out of fiction as well:  lively, smart, unfailingly cheerful and sure we could learn anything.   The next year we had Mrs. Benninghoff, tall, elegant, well-read, intellectual though we didn’t know to call it that.    Her love of poetry made the weekly assignment to memorize a poem seem more like initiation into word magic  than a dreaded chore.

Wilson Junior High was certainly nothing special to look at – none of Barnard's beautiful red brick or decorative tiles, but several of my teachers more than made up for the drab setting. Naomi Barnes made stories come alive and broadened our vocabulary without our really feeling we were mastering word lists.  (I do have a funny memory from that time of a friend who, for the assignment to use each new word in a sentence, wrote “I have a [insert vocabulary word] in my notebook” for all 20 of that lesson’s words!)  Mr. Beshara was an extraordinary math teacher – even for students who weren’t excited about math, and he went on to be a leader in math education.   

At Central High (scorned by the richer kids at the suburban high schools) Rex Teague led the choral music program as a welcoming and inclusive place (he even let me into choir – very egalitarian!) for all students of all races, academic tracks, and range of musical ability.  He preferred 100-voice choirs to the more select 20-voice choirs from the suburbs that his choirs would be competing against; to cut out 80 students interested in singing would to him be a loss, not a win. 

And Mary Ellen Bridges – our inimitable English teacher!  We called her “Be Specific Bridges” because her comments on our papers always pushed us to think more, dig into the text more, and explain our ideas more clearly. 

Each of these teachers was a gift to me, important to my learning and important as people to look up to then and to emulate as I became a teacher. I’m not sure any of them could be hired today.   The computerized check lists for teacher hiring are silent on the attributes that made these teachers so effective and so memorable.

And if they could get hired, I’m not sure they would be allowed to be those creative, student-centered intellectual teachers we admired – at least not in the Tulsa schools.

For reasons that hopefully someone will investigate, the Tulsa schools have bought into the de-skilled,factory-model of “teaching” as managed labor.   They're paying a management vendor CT3 that claims it can “improve teaching” with “real time coaching.”  A “coach” watches the teacher and in “real time” (should we say “unreal time”) tells the teacher what to do and when – through an ear piece the teacher wears while teaching!    Imagining Mr. Beshara get teaching pointers from an amateur with a microphone, or Miss Bridges being "coached" on ways to answer a student's question, or on how much time to take in discussing Antigone's agonizing dilemma is truly un-imaginable.  (Nor can I imagine that anyone who had read Antigone would take the job of talking into the ear of a literature teacher.)  

But here are the company’s claims:

Cutting-edge coaching that changes teacher practice through immediate, non-disruptive feedback and guidance from coaches during classroom instruction.

And here is a link to a teacher in another state who had to be“coached” from the “sidelines.”

How do we get the teachers we need? Not by screening applicants with checklists of generic behaviors, not with working conditions that script their teaching, and not with “coaches” who do not know the children, their families, the subject matter content, the teacher’s repertoire of curricular resources or instructional methods.  A coach who by having taken the job reveals tragic ignorance of the relational and creative dimensions of teaching that awaken in children the awareness that they are learners -- in the fullest sense of that experience.

I hope someone does an analysis of what the budget for this silly coaching system contract could have paid for that the teachers and children of the Tulsa schools actually need.  And I hope tax payers and voters figure out which school board members and which administrators thought this system would "work."  Maybe it's the people who approved the contract who need someone to whisper caution in their ears the next time a vendor full of ridiculous -- but expensive -- promises looks to solve a problem that only professional teachers, working with educated principals and engaged parents, can solve.  And that's what they'll need to do when this "coaching" thing gets sent back to the locker room.

To share your thoughts, click on the word “comments” below.

Monday, October 17, 2016

THE TEACHERS WE NEED, Part 2                                
But we won’t find them this way

I admit to a strong bias on behalf of teachers. It was from teachers that I learned the harm standardized accountability wreaked on the content of their teaching, how and whether their students connected with the lessons, and how and whether they themselves stayed in teaching.  It is not an exaggeration to say that almost all my research findings, even those – maybe especially those – that contradicted my initial hypotheses, were informed by teachers, teachers who welcomed me into their classrooms, who took time to explain how policies constrained or supported their practice, who alerted me to questions I hadn’t known to ask.

So of course I have a special fondness for my students who after years of study and long hours of student teaching are now ready to step into their own classroom, meet their own students.  As I discussed in my previous blog post, I feel a great responsibility to match my recommendation to their exceptional commitment and depth of professional preparation.

That’s getting to be harder and harder to do!

This summer a former student asked me to serve as a reference as he applied for teaching positions in math.  A native speaker of Spanish who has taught in an under-funded, high-poverty school, studied in Central America, worked in state-level policy offices, and completed a master’s degree at one of our finest graduate schools of education, he was weighing options in two different cities that would enable him to continue his commitment to historically underserved youth, and in a subject area of critical importance to the children’s educational futures.

I had already written rec letters for him for graduate school and for numerous jobs and enrichment programs – all of them successful because of his many talents and accomplishments and the very visibility of his dedication.  The only challenge would be keeping this new letter concise.

The school district sent the link to “recommender.”  But nothing about the recommendation form asked me to recommend this strong candidate for teaching.  Nothing asked me to recommend him to teach math, to use his Spanish with the district’s dominant student population.

My students think we spend far too long studying the factory model school of the early 20th century; I assure them it is not a history lesson – this is current events! They are skeptical as I describe the de-skillng of teachers then and now.  Factory efficiency experts who brought their stop watches and task-analysis check lists to the industrial plant,  took those same “scientific” measurements into classrooms, timing the micro-components of lessons to reduce wasted “seat time,” and to determine which teachers and school subjects – and which children – were worth the investment of tax dollars.

The clipboards are now digital, but the check lists are no less divorced from course content, teachers’ expertise, children’s curiosity, or, in fact, the particular subject at hand.  “Generic” rules.

The factory model school lives in the questions I was asked about my extraordinary student.   As you can see, the questions depict the teacher not as a subject matter professional but as a low-level worker in need of close supervision.   I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read “How well would you say this person responds to supervision?”  I wanted to answer “thoughtfully, as a knowledgeable colleague and member of a faculty community.”  That was not one of my choices!  The 3 choices wanted to know “extremely well,” “adequately,” or “not well.”

The next questions came straight out of the factory model list of desirable worker skills:  “How would you rate this person’s attendance?”  “….dependability?”  “…..willingness to assume responsibilitiy?” And I’m not making this up:  “…ability to follow instructions?” The next two questions made no sense at all:  “quality of work” and “quantity of work.” Two small boxes left room for comments on “strong points” and “weak points.”  Even though the answer choices were meaningless and not always grammatically appropriate to the syntax of the question, I had to choose the most positive choice because I assumed the form would be computer scored.  

My first reaction was that this generic form had nothing to do with teaching and would have been more appropriate for hires in the district accounting office or food service.  Not really. I’d want to know more about people applying for those positions as well – more information and of a different kind: how does this person approach problems? What expertise does he or she bring to this position? 

This district’s form asks nothing about the applicant’s knowledge of children, children’s learning, curriculum development, instructional practice, assessment models, the workings of a school, the policy context of the school. Nothing about the knowledge base of the teacher in what Shulman termed “subject matter knowledge” and “pedagogical knowledge”.  Certainly no question asking if this teacher understood the importance of knowing the child’s family and culture to avoid teaching “subtractively,” or knowing how to create a caring environment in support of social and emotional development.

There is no reason to expect any knowledge of or attention to the complexities of teaching.  The heading is the name of the school district, but the copyright on the rec form is another one of those industrial vendors that are capturing our education dollars to the detriment of our educational purposes.  Here is the link:

I was right that the rec form is “read” and “analyzed” first by computer. But there is more: this company is complicit in “analytics,” in this case crunching data to predict a teachers' measurable impact on their students' learning.  

The fast-growing talent management software company offers unique solutions, data and analytics to help schools and districts predict best teacher candidates, acquire and develop them.

These people, this organization, these computer programs and statistical gymnastics have no business in the selection of teachers for our children’s classrooms. Their models in no way capture (or even mention) what is essential in teaching.  (As a result, of course, their predictive models are even more useless.)

It would be almost a relief to learn that this vendor – and others like them – are awarded contracts through shady deals with kick-backs to school board members or “consulting fees” to district bureaucrats who sign the big checks to these groups.  That kind of corruption can eventually be investigated, brought to light, and perhaps even prosecuted. 

But when these outsourced vendors become entrenched in the system, when the systems themselves voluntarily “de-skill” by outsourcing their most important decisions to “analytics” based on empty and misleading “data,” they are tougher to dislodge.  Teachers seeking jobs are not in a position to critique the on-line forms lest they be seen not having “the ability to follow directions.”  A recommender doesn’t dare risk challenging the recommendation system while our students or former students have active applications in process.    And it is unlikely that parents have any idea that a “teacher match” system chose the list to be considered or, worse, eliminated promising teachers whose gifts and imagination and dedication do not fit the indicators, do not work in ways that can be quantified.

To share your thoughts, click on the word “comments” below.

Friday, October 14, 2016

One Exceptional Teacher, 500 Characters

A sacred – if daunting – responsibility for any professor is writing those letters of recommendation that send our students on their way to new ventures.  For my students applying for teaching positions, I try to paint a portrait, tell a story – include that detail that will make a hiring principal or department chair ask “where’s the file on that Rice student, you know the one who….”  created history lessons based on the artifacts she worked with in the slavery museum, or had his ecology students paint a “habitat” wall from sub-terranean and littoral margins to lofty tree canopy to help younger students visualize the interdependence of species, who wrote a short story featuring a hearing-impaired girl after finding so little fiction for adolescents features hearing-impaired kids as central characters, not just “best friend.”   That Rice teacher.

I’ve long ago given up on trying to “out adjective” the competition of superlatives, thus my tradition of writing a strong letter, the opening paragraph emphasizing the student’s solid grounding in his or her subject matter field, then describing our program of courses on theories of learning, education history and policy, pedagogy, curriculum development, and intensive field experiences in our city’s culturally rich and complex urban schools.  The second paragraph tells the story about this particular new teacher:  concrete detail of compelling papers written, inventive strategies developed for engaging reluctant learners, an especially creative and scholarly analytical paper. The letter concludes with my statement of why this young teacher is just right for your particular school, its programs, its relationship to its community, its students.  And of course for years that letter would be printed on Rice letterhead, good quality bond carrying the university’s seal, an endorsement both symbolic and literal:  we claim this student, this graduate, as ours.  Treat with respect.

Such a letter assumes school district officials want teachers who have a deep knowledge of their subject field.  It assumes a principal is actively seeking that math teacher experienced in designing lessons for kids who “hate math,” that English teacher who is attuned to kids’ reading interests and whose first question will be what the budget is for classroom collections of print and digital books.  It assumes someone reading the letter will want to know if this teacher knows multiple approaches to teaching and has a deep and broad repertoire of ways of assessing children’s learning.  Such a letter assumes someone thinks of teachers as intellectual resources, as role models of learning, as guides to students’ development.  

It assumes someone in the teacher recruitment office reads.   As you can guess by now, I seem to keep making these naïve assumptions --- even after all these years!

Recommendation forms went digital quite a few years ago, with boxes to check, ratings to fill in on a three- or five-point scale, with a box for “additional comments” that permitted uploading an actual letter of recommendation. No good letterhead bond, but a chance to tell this teacher’s story, include that distinctive detail.

The “all my assumptions are wrong” shock came this past spring when a former student who had recently moved back to the States from abroad asked me to recommend her for teaching positions in another part of the state.  What an easy letter to write!  She had taught in Europe and in North Africa, had founded a tri-lingual school where she taught math and history.   Her experience as teacher, school leader, and tri-lingual curriculum developer would make her the dream candidate for any urban district in Texas. The letter essentially wrote itself.

I opened the link to the rec form of the school district she was applying to, then clicked through the quick-answer questions.  Yes, yes, and yes.  Then to upload the letter:  No!  A pop-up warning said the “comments” could be only 1000 characters.  I first read that as “1000 words” and knew I was way under that limit.  Then I realized “characters” and saw the added “including spaces.”  What?  I cut, counted words, cut again, re-counted.  The resulting  listing of basic facts did not hang together as a narrative – more like incomprehensible fragments:  French? School founder? Math? Arabic? Is this all one person?  The 999 "characters" did not represent this extraordinary teacher’s accomplishments nor the strength of my endorsement.

Surely the next district’s form would allow me to be more informative. Not so:  the usual irritating check list, then that “comments” box, which I approached with trepidation – could I upload my entire letter?  “Comments limited to 500 characters, including spaces.”   The message might as well have said, “This is all a formality, but you are free to add some sound bites if it will make you feel better.  No one will read them.”  

Our teachers get blamed for everything that’s wrong with education, with “kids these days,” with poor test scores and low school ratings.    And lots of people have an interest in amplifying that blame:  the charter chains eager to pounce on any weakness in the public’s schools, vendors of “teacher-proof” curriculum software, superintendents needing scapegoats for low scores or the slow pace of their latest “reform” efforts.   The politicians wanting to break teacher unions, the chief financial officers whose short-term accounting justifies replacing experienced teachers with new, cheaper ones who won’t stay long, school board members who think of teachers as “labor costs” rather than children’s guides to learning.

Image source:
But has anyone looked at the hiring process itself?  Are districts deliberately, or thoughtlessly, screening out strong teacher applicants or perhaps filling slots with teachers whose attributes fulfill a check list of minimum qualifications as though they were workers on the assembly line? 

Does the screening and hiring process itself discourage – or fail to encompass – the teacher who is educated across multiple disciplines, whose professional preparation built on what we know about the ways children learn, who knows and advocate for authentic assessments and close connections to the children’s families and communities?

Schools that hire on the basis of check lists of minimal credentials, with no curiosity about the candidate’s story, are unlikely to seek out and value that teacher who brings to her teaching a desire to know and connect with the stories of the children.

I hate being complicit in this system, in this systemic degrading of teachers, teaching and teacher recruitment.  But I haven’t yet found an effective way to resist or protest or circumvent this 500-character “border” wall.    The rec forms provide no address or person’s name or office for sending a recommendation letter by mail or electronic means. Nor would it be likely to be incorporated into the applicant’s file.    If you have a better idea for how we can advocate for teachers who are knowledgeable, deeply committed to children, even exceptional in their talents and their desire to grow as professionals and as assets to their schools, I invite your advice.  

And limits to the number of words, characters or “spaces” do not apply.

To see exactly what kinds of questions those “check lists” ask about people applying to teach in our children’s schools, see my next post!  (Bring a tissue – you may want to cry.)

To share your thoughts, click on the word “comments” below.