Tag Archives: teachers

“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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Long past the Dairy Bar

In my high school years conflict was resolved at the Dairy Bar, an ineptly and not very masculine-sounding name where Catholic boys worked out their issues in fisticuff fashion behind a place that sold milk and ice cream. “You meet me behind the Dairy Bar” was the code of aggression, a declaration an opening salvo, a cousin of the glove slapped across the face and a date set for the following dawn. Well in 1960’s Chicago it was set at 3:30pm, and word would race around school and the crowd would gather as we thick heads in our white shirts and dark blue ties would circle, feint, throw a few blows to testosterone-fueled cheering. Once the good Brothers got wind of our practice they tried to control it further by supplying boxing gloves and the gym floor for such conflict resolution. The good Christian Brothers were not above seeing a goodly display of leather flung in a teenager’s face, just wanting a more controlled atmosphere and less of a blight on the high school reputation amongst the neighboring establishments.

Looking back at those days now is comic. It is a time that could not be reproduced today. In four years of almost bi-monthly fisticuffs (full disclosure: one involving me in a kamikaze mission going after a senior football player when a freshman, but hey, honor was involved, so it must have been important, whatever it was) I never saw one weapon produced. No one was strapped, no lives were in jeopardy. We knew whoever won and whoever lost would return to class the next day, the issue uneasily settled.

Today, one would not know who was armed and who with the slightest provocation would respond not with a shove or a demand to be met behind an ice cream parlor, but would instead start shooting or slicing. Now teenage perceptions of honor, disrespect and machismo can have as instant gratification for their slights through weapons that they have with their mobile devices.

Enter the current gun debate. Defenders of the Second Amendment with their fervor rhetoric counterbalance the families of child victims with their fervor grief. How many children must die before this gets addressed? It seems to me some gun advocates would say an endless number, because freedom to possess and perceived freedom from governmental tyranny trumps any dozen of innocents. Fifteen-year old girls, ten-year old marshal arts students, nineteen-year old gang wannabes, there seems to be no combination nor number that would finally turn a majority to say this country is either just too gun-crazy or just too crazy to have guns so proliferate.

It used to be teachers would have to worry about how to keep order when a wasp found its way into the classroom, or if one jealous guy or girl approaches another with menace. Now you can hear suggestions that teachers should be armed, or should acquire FBI-level negotiation skill. Reflection on will you defend your teaching practice against attack now becomes reflection on will you put your body in harm’s way when this American madness enters your classroom.

Teaching was such an automatic no other thing decision for me as a high school senior in 1972. Forty-plus years later, with all this violence going on, I wonder if I’d respond so fervently. Would you?

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