Tag Archives: education

No time limit on conciliation?

I married into a family that owned liquor stores, worked in them while dating my wife, and observed first hand how angry words and an inability to be conciliatory broke apart a successful family business. By the time my wife and I married, my father-in-law and his brother were deeply suspicious of each other. The older brother that could bring together disparate opinions and jealousies of his pugnacious younger brothers perished in a plane crash years before. Absent his presence, the dueling brothers saw no common ground. The antipathy grew, despite the obvious negative impact it had on the business. In due time, the business collapsed, the bank took over the name of the chain, which exists today without any family involvement in them (indeed, one store stands near my home, and drive by it with my wife’s maiden name on it every day with,as you can imagine, ironicfeelings). Such irony was italicized years later when, at my father-in-law’s wake, his brother arrives to weep over the casket. And the emotions of those around were perhaps the same: Now? Now you come to seek conciliation?

The memory came to me while reading reports of a different tone taken in the board meetings on proposed school closings in which a tone of conciliation was noted. Can we not work together to form a better solution than the one proffered, it intimates.


Can we not work together?  Now—a thought from my past echoed? Now, after posture and ridicule and outrageous charge and point accumulation on both sides of this polemic have been raised, shouted, finger-pointed and simpered, this emotion surfaces? When hectoring and speech-impediment deriding and four-letter ranting have punctuated discussion; when the push-me/pull-you  of this past year has left a list of bruised I’ll-never-forget-that moments, can sides  truly come together?


Perhaps, finally, the true impact has surfaced. Schools will be closed and students will be in schools new to them. Not new schools, but schools where the path seems funny and the rooms smell different and the faces of peer and adult that greet and interact with them will differ. Everyone will have a stake in how successful or challenging the transition will be. If these closings cannot be forestalled, can these sides come together, finally, on behalf of Chicago’s children?   



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“We must try to contribute joy to the world.”

Roger Ebert’s statements from his memoir have been reverberating in my mind this week. It is on this measure of joy that so many of us fail, fail miserably in fact. His illness sharpened his perspective past accomplishment and ambition to this single tenet “(t)hat is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

In the teacher’s world of the classroom, one hopes to engender joy. We can all recall when it has surfaced, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes miraculously.

These times make it hard for joy to surface. I sought it in the classrooms I visited this year and hardly found it. I found dogged determinism, I found the usual adolescent antic, I found bitterness in the teacher’s lounge, I found suspicion in the principal’s offices.

But joy seems hard to come by.

There is no joy to be found in school board meetings, or any of the meetings upon meetings this town has held. Anguish and outrage in plentitude can be found, so can the wearied expression of the besieged and the forced placid demeanor of the decided. But joy, like this spring, has been slow to surface with consistency.

Bill Ayers wrote to me recently, currently enjoying new grandparenthood in Berkeley while his son and daughter-in-law resume teaching. There he expresses the tired joy of being in the company of new life, a feeling that transcends accomplishment and ambition.

Still, he shared with me a bit of his thoughts on the testing juggernaut wrenching the joy out of the student and teacher experience. In commenting on the aftermath of the test cheating scandal in Atlanta, which he claims can be laid at the feet of the focus on testing launched by the Bush and continued in the Obama Administrations, he wrote:

“The deeper problem is reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.

I recently interviewed leaders at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools—the school Arne Duncan attended for 12 years and the school where the Obamas, the Duncans, and the Emanuels sent their children—and asked what role test scores played in teacher evaluations there. The answer was none. I pressed the point and was told that in their view test scores have no value in helping to understand or identify good teaching. None.”

And so the toll knells, and while the press conferences and releases and policy statements move circumstance and emotion, a movie man at the end of his life writes “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crimes start.”


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“Pressure drop, oh pressure, yea, pressure drop-a right on you…”

(Today’s kudo for anyone who recognizes the singer of that line, and another hit from that singer….)

If you hadn’t the indication that the teaching profession has become increasingly stressful, the good people of MetLife, who annually survey American teachers on a host of topics, serve as the proverbial coal mine canary. They report this year that job satisfaction amongst teachers has hit its lowest point in a quarter-century. While 62% of teachers described themselves as very satisfied with their jobs as recently as 2008, that number plummeted this year to 39%–5% lower than just last year.

The reasons are clear. MetLife reports that “factors contributing to lower job satisfaction include working in schools where the budgets, opportunities for professional development, and time for collaboration with colleagues have all been sent to the chopping block.”

Let’s add to that the lingering stress impact test-mania has had on our colleagues, and we have the elements of job conditions that make the profession seem so much less enticing than it was when I entered.

Principals are also a downtrodden lot as well, with 75% of those surveyed by MetLife claiming the job has become too complex. I’ll say! Part business manager, part test preparation foist-er, part confessor if imbued with a heart and soul and part pariah if a micromanaging megalomaniac, with constant pressure to improve test performance by the outside forces and part public relations (read: crisis) manager—who has the time to be an actual instructional leader.

So the challenge remains to bring high quality teachers into less well performing, higher-poverty schools. To do that you need enlightened leadership able to balance the outcry from the test data horde and serve as a heat shield for trusted teachers to do the job, not cut corners and deliver quality experiences for these deserving children. Oh, and ignore that seeping boiler of constant pressure just outside the school doorway.

Anybody game out there? Hope so!


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