Those Who Lie to Create Fear vs Those Who Face Even Death to Reveal the Lie.

As the inauguration nears, or as any feared event draws near, what do you do? If you’re a teacher and your students are anxious and fearful, maybe it’s due to a test or a presentation, or a difficult situation in the world, what do you do? Do you go on, and basically ignore the situation, or do you acknowledge and face it? How do you face it? How do you allow yourself to notice and understand what hurts and oppresses you so you can take action to end it?

 

Take a moment. Too often people rush through life and miss the simple things, simple pleasures. Without knowing yourself and the feeling, emotion, the anticipation in your body and mind, all that you do can be compromised. So, begin with the simplest thing. Close your eyes and put attention on your breath. Simply breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. You do it every second of every day. It can be your lifeline, your awakening. Breathe in and be aware of breathing in. Breathe out and be aware of breathing out. Breathe in and notice what you do. Notice the sensations of taking in air, taking in the world. Breathe out and notice letting go, pushing out, settling down, focusing. It’s ok to take a moment for yourself. 

 

Notice any place of discomfort as you breathe in. Just notice its feel and placement. And breathe out and move on. Notice any thoughts or images that arise. Simply notice with your in-breath, and let go with the out-breath.

 

As you breathe in, allow to come to mind a time that you helped another person, or stood up for a principle, stood up for what was right. What images come to mind when you think of helping others or helping one other person? Have you ever witnessed one person helping another, or imagined doing so yourself? What happened or what did you imagine? It doesn’t have to be dramatic, like in the movies. It can be something simple, like sticking up for someone or speaking out—or putting yourself at some risk.

 

If you imagined someone else taking action, what do you think this person felt afterwards? Or if you saw yourself doing such an act, what did it feel like for you to do this? Imagine the feeling, when you’re home, safe, knowing you could do what you did. Would you do it again? Was it the right thing to do? Sit for a moment with the feeling of knowing you could imagine and take action to help others or do the right thing.

 

All through history people have been helping others, facing adversity, taking risks. Study history. You are not alone. This struggle needs to be awakened, refought and refined, improving it, strengthening your self, as it is needed. When have your parents helped others or faced fearsome events? When have you? When were people in the past as afraid for the future as many people are now? When were people of this nation afraid of the government or people in the government?

 

Think of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his version of the Witch-Trials. He “rose suddenly to national fame in February, 1950 when he asserted in a speech that he had a list of ‘members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring’ who were employed in the State Department.” It was a lie. He stoked the fears of communist takeover during the Cold War and went after writers and actors as well as people in the government and gay men and others, accusing them of disloyalty or being communist sympathizers or committing sex crimes, when for most the only crime they committed was being different from or opposing him. He destroyed the lives of many good people all to fuel his own selfish desire for power. Many times in history, the fear of an external threat was distorted into a fear of our own neighbors, all to fuel the hunger for power by a few.

 

McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and the lies of the man who was once popular and feared were revealed. He died a despised man. That can happen again. When did people in the US and other nations fight such oppressive leaders or fight to change the government or social institutions? Think of the Women’s Suffrage movement, for example, or the anti-slavery or Civil Rights movement. Think of people who faced even death to do what was right and awaken the “conscience of a nation,” Martin Luther King Jr., for example.

 

We are here, now, in a new moment. I hope we all learn from history the importance and power of facing fear and injustice.

 

When you’re anxious and afraid, you can feel brittle. You can hold onto the fear as if it was your identity and fear letting it go. But it is fear itself that is brittle. Fear serves a purpose. It is telling you to wake up. Beyond that, it no longer serves you. It is telling you to beware and turn away from some person or event, but it is too easy to interpret it as telling you to turn away from this moment that you feel it. As little children, we learned to turn away from many uncomfortable feelings. But when you notice and simply study it; notice “I know that biting sensation in my stomach, that trembling in my knees.” And you take a deep breath anyway and move on. The fear dissolves. You think more clearly. Your life takes on more meaning. You come back to this very moment, this very breath, now. That’s a powerful place to be.

 

 

 

Happy New Year! And May the New Year Bring A Renewal of Democracy.

I was listening to the Diane Rehms show this morning and once again it inspired me. The show was on whether Liberal Democracy is now a stable form of government, and the movements in Europe and the US that are threats to democracy. I recommend this program and, if you’re a secondary school teacher, suggest you share it with your students. Many people think this threat is exemplified by the election of Donald Trump, and that his election represents a failure of democracy. Certainly, I think it represents a failure of our institutions and parties as they are now constituted, but I don’t think it represents a failure of democracy. I think it represents a failure of people to understand their personal role in a democracy, and a failure to understand just how far some people will go for power.

 

The speakers on the Diane Rehms Show (Moises Naim, Alina Polyakova, Yascha Mounk) discussed how many Americans have begun to take democracy for granted. Yascha Mounk said that, when asked how important it is to live in a democracy, more than two thirds of Americans born in the 1930s said it was of top importance, ten on a one-to-ten scale. Fewer than one third of Millennials (born since 1980), in the US, think it important to live in a democracy. They probably do not understand what most alternatives to democracy might be like— what it would be like to live under a dictatorship or an oligarchy, where the “people,” the majority of citizens of a nation, you and I, have no recognized or institutionalized source of power. They never fought a Fascist government, for example. They do not understand that democracy in a large, diverse nation, means compromise, and are focused only on the negative side of modern US democracy. They do not understand that once the institutions of a democracy are undermined, it is extremely difficult to build them back.

 

What is happening in the US and elsewhere has been building for years. I have written about how corporate interests have been undermining public education, and the whole idea that a public institution can often work more consciously and efficiently for the common good than a private one. Many Republicans have been working for years to undermine the idea of the Commons (resources and institutions reserved for the common good), voting rights, Congress and the value of the Federal government. In the last election, they took it further. They didn’t aim just to win votes. They aimed to end democracy. North Carolina illustrated this just a few days ago as the Republican state legislature passed bills to take away much of the power of the newly elected Democratic governor.

 

Imagine what politicians would do if there were no checks on their power. If the opinions of the mass of people were no longer considered relevant. If political and social freedoms, and human rights, ceased to exist. Many of us thought that was the state of affairs before Trump. Well, I think we have realized we weren’t thinking clearly enough. Trump’s cabinet choices give us a better idea of what the end of American democracy might be like.

 

It is not democracy, not the concept that the people of a nation have to take part in ruling themselves that is not viable. It is that the world is complex and not everyone wants to face that. It is too easy to favor security, favor material stability over the mental, emotional, and spiritual development that a true democracy requires. I know I would sometimes prefer to have nothing much to do other than eat, play, sleep, be with friends and family. But then I wake up and want to act, to notice and create beauty in the world, to do something meaningful for others, or learn something I’ve never known before.

 

To be a citizen in a democracy requires a commitment to taking responsibility for knowing not just who or what to vote for, but when to take more action. It requires knowing and feeling that one’s life and well-being can never be separated from the well-being of other people and the world around us.

 

It requires a commitment to an education that is not only about how to learn and think critically, but how to be informed, engaged citizens. We need schools that engage students in being democratic, not just studying democracy. Only then can we have a democracy.

 

**If you’re a secondary school teacher, this program by Diane Rehms, or segments of the program, can stimulate wonderful discussions in your social studies classes on government, American culture, or an English class on contemporary literature, for example, or a class on how humans relate to each other. So many essential questions wait there for you and your students to uncover. You could ask them to sit, maybe close their eyes, focus on their breath for a second. Then let the word ‘democracy’ come to mind. What thoughts, images come to mind? Or let them free write on the subject. Then share and discuss their responses.

 

**What does ‘democracy’ mean to you? How did the speakers define democracy—and do you agree with their definition? What is a ‘liberal democracy’? Do you think democracy is threatened today? If so, by what? Do you take democracy for granted? Your friends? Why would Millennials possibly value democracy less than those who were born before World War II? What are other forms of government besides democracy? Does our government work well for you? For most Americans? For the rest of the world? What, if anything, is valuable about democracy that should be preserved at all costs? What is needed for democracy to work? Do the speakers imply that there are no forms of government that are possibly better, for the majority of citizens, than democracy? Do you agree?

 

A few good quotes for the New Year:

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
― Elie Wiesel

 

“We did not hesitate to call our movement an army. But it was a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity, no uniform but its determination, no arsenal except its faith, no currency but its conscience.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.Why We Can’t Wait

 

“We’ve got to make change our national pastime and hold protests more regularly than weekend parties.”
― Rivera SunSteam Drills, Treadmills and Shooting Stars – a story of our times –

 

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.

The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Arundhati Roy, War Talk

 

“But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.”
― Howard ZinnMarx in Soho: A Play on History

 

“The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”
― G.K. Chesterton

Michael Moore’s “Where To Invade Next”

I have been watching Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. I watched it after the third debate. I watched it in-between reading news stories of demonstrations on the streets and the police abuses at the North Dakota pipeline. I watched it for relief from post-election news. I realize that the countries Moore talks about as examples of good policies also have awful policies and aren’t utopias. However, there are scenes that stick in my mind and make me ache for what could be:

 

In the movie, the father of a boy killed by a terrorist in Norway insists that it would be a violation of human dignity for his country to kill the crazed man who murdered his son. I can hear the outrage from many of my fellow Americans, but I just marvel at him.

 

Moore shows us wall-less prisons in Norway where murderers and rapists are housed, and are actually reformed, by being treated well, with dignity, and by eliminating personal conflict in their lives. And the result is a greatly reduced recidivism rate, one ridiculously lower than ours. (One fact check shows this policy and reduction in recidivism began in 1995 with a new policy focusing on rehabilitation and in 2007 with the opening of one of the prisons depicted in the film.)

 

Women’s rights are recognized not only in terms of equal treatment in the law, as it is here, but in terms of personal control over one’s own body and health, including abortion—a right most Americans recognize but too many politicians, including our possibly new President, rail against.

 

Police in Portugal advise the US that if we want a more peaceful society, we have to do away with the death penalty, as a start. Drug use (but not sales) was decriminalized leading not to chaos but a decrease in serious drug use and drug-related crime. And in Iceland, the bankers responsible for the severe recession were actually tried and sent to prison.

 

So many of us struggle to earn enough to support our families with comfort and dignity, and work in dreary jobs or dreary factories with no windows, or go to schools that look like factories, while in Germany and much of Europe, it is considered just good economic sense that workers and students should be treated well. This means workers are given health care, made part of the management and design teams, are given enough paid time off each week and each year so they can live good lives and have good relationships outside the workplace. (According to Moore, the average workweek for full time workers in most of Europe is less than in the US. Germany is 26 hours, Sweden 30. See this ABC news report to fact check his figures.) And students go to school for fewer hours, are better educated, are fed better food and not given unreasonable numbers of tests. And in Slovenia, a college education is free.

 

In the US, too many of us get caught up in retribution and revenge, and it’s too easy to lose a sense of mutual respect. We too easily lose awareness of how others are as valuable, as human, as we are. Why is that? Is it because of a Calvinist type of ideology, that if you’re rich, you must be favored by the Divine? So the rich are to be admired, and their privileges protected, even more than the loss of power, freedom, and income of most of us is deplored? Is it from our history of class divide and slavery warring with a dream of equity and democracy?

 

Is it from our country being so rich and powerful that we are too covetous, too afraid of what we might lose so we don’t see what we have already given up? Are we too shackled by the idea of capitalism and competition that we don’t see how such competition can turn everyone not on “our team” into an enemy, and everyone on our team into some thing to be valued only in proportion to what we earn or what we contribute to a “winning” record?

 

How can we understand the film now, after the election? As a wake-up call? As a reminder of what we once thought could be possible so we don’t normalize fear and oppression? Or as propaganda? I am not sure. What I am sure of is that it’s time for a revolution of mutual caring and a deep examination of how what we think we want affects our ability to get what we need.

Grief and Fear Can Motivate Clarity and Action

Like practically everyone I know, I am in shock. I feel afraid. I feel, like commonly happens with grief, that I could have done more. To me, the very roots of society have been shaken.

 

Society is built out of social bonds. Of course, fear can be a bond, but only a tenuous one. When the bond is built on opposition, built on hating, it is very unstable. It lasts only as long as you can maintain an enemy and must be constantly re-created. So not only those outside the wall are rejected, inside the wall is always suspect. Since this President-elect used blatant hate and fear to win office, there is great weakness in his administration and also great danger.

 

When the heart burns with fear and grief, the mind must awaken. It just must. When the earth itself feels like it will break open and weep, stop. Breathe as calmly as possible. What you hear is not the earth speaking. It is the world of your heart in that moment. The earth has a different message, if you can see, hear and feel it. When you feel fear, it could be telling you to turn away. Or it could mean sharpen your observation, get ready to act. That is the message here.

 

Because society is also built from mental bonds, how you interpret your own messages to yourself, your ideas, your stories, your ways of responding to what others do, as well as what you feel, must be studied and understood. On Facebook this morning there were so many people saying we must come together, share hugs, strategize; feel and think together. This is real. This I say yes to. I think we must find ways for such a yes.

 

Maybe I was too complacent. Maybe I held back. All that matters now is that I, we, use such energy to think more deeply, to feel others more deeply, feel our mutual need, and act with clarity, caring and commitment. That is the only way I can think of to face the fear engendered by this election.

 

Thank you for listening.

Go Vote! And Consider What It Means To Be Free

We use the word all the time and often get worked up over it, so what does ‘freedom’ mean to you? The meaning has varied greatly amongst different people and times in history. For the early Romans, ‘freedom’ meant not being a slave, or being ruled by a Roman, not an Etruscan. Later on, it meant they could choose the rich Roman to rule them. At the height of Athenian democracy, it meant you could choose not only the rulers but the rules, and any citizen could be a ruler for a day (or lead the Assembly or Athenian Congress), but women and slaves were excluded from such freedoms.

 

Does freedom only involve political choices? Are you free if you can vote for someone to hopefully represent your interests, but in other areas of your life, choices are greatly limited?

 

Is having a choice the only criteria of freedom? My philosophy professor in college, Frithjof Bergmann, asked: What if you have many choices but none of them are meaningful ones? You can chose from twenty or a hundred cell phones or shirts, but none of them are what you really want or none satisfy the deep hunger in you. Or, is it free if you have ten insurance companies to choose from, but you can’t afford any of them, or can’t afford any that provide reasonable coverage? Or is it free if you have only one choice, but it’s a good one? And what if you have hundreds of choices of what to buy, yet the use of resources to provide such a selection shortens your lifespan or shortens the lifespan of humans on the planet?

 

What if your freedom means another person’s oppression? I frequently hear on the news Trump supporters say “now we will be free.” If they own a store, they will find religious freedom, for example, by not serving a gay person or pay for health insurance for a woman who makes the awful decision or medically needs to have an abortion. I had a discussion with a Donald Trump supporter who said one of the things most dear to him is freedom. He said he valued freedom to chose to have health care or not, or which health care provider. He said it was important to have freedom where to send his children to school. He also claimed that if tax money funded public schools, it should also fund charter and religious ones. But what if such policies meant the loss of a quality education for others, or the destruction of resources needed to provide people with the economic support they need to live? Which “freedom” is primary?

 

For many people, freedom means an absence of constraint. You are not locked up in jail, not forced to work in chains. It means, hopefully, that you are recognized as a fellow human being, with rights equal to all others. That is crucial, but is it enough? Defining ‘freedom’ as “not being in chains” is like defining ‘conscious’ as “awake” (not asleep). This is the beginning, not the end. You need to consider how aware you are when awake. And what if you are locked up for defending your principles? Or you “freely” act in ways that cause you and others suffering—is that freedom? Or you act only with your own interests in mind and, thusly, perpetually put yourself at war with all others. Is that freedom?

 

And what if one person out of ten or a hundred owns most of the wealth? Does that limit your freedom if you’re not one of the top 1%? In the US, approximately 1% of the population owns 60% of the wealth. When that happens, it means the richest people pay a smaller percentage of their wealth in taxes. It certainly means they have a much larger spendable income. Thus, they have more money to influence the political process, and less money is available for the infrastructure, health care, education, environment, emergency services and first responders, etc. that serve all of us. In the 1950s and 60s, the US economy was greatly expanding, but income tax rates for the rich were two – three times higher. As taxes go down on the wealthy, expenses go up for the majority. If you must work two jobs and have little “free” time, or spend most of your income to pay your bills, is that freedom?

 

Figuring out what freedom means is more complex that many realize. It is a great question for a teacher to raise with students, or a parent with children. My high school students loved such discussions. Not only what is freedom, but why is it important? If it is so hard to define, should it always be paired with love or compassion or equity? To me, it means not controlled by someone else’s interests, and not feeling stuck, confused, or lacking, not locked inside yourself so you can’t feel or respond to the suffering of others. To rule yourself, you must know your own mind, and be honest with yourself. As much as you can, you are aware of your own emotions and thoughts. You can’t act freely in the world if you don’t constantly expand your breadth and depth of understanding of it, and can’t feel the humanity of those people around you.

 

One basic freedom we have is to vote and participate in the political process in very basic ways. So, we need to use it, and as wisely as possible, or think about the consequences of losing it.

 

 

*This is a slightly amended version of a blog I posted earlier in the week.

*If you are in Ithaca, NY this weekend, I will be giving a talk on my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, on Saturday, November 12th, at 2:00 pm at Barnes & Noble.

A New Vision of Education?

Is the Democratic Party changing its orientation and recognizing its mistakes in education and other policies? According to Jeff Bryant, in a blog for the Education Opportunity Network, a new “populist wing” of the Democratic Party is beginning to gather momentum. If you can, read the blog. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration helped shift party philosophy and policies to be more “centrist,” more driven by the interests of Wall Street and less by the welfare of organized labor and other members of the “working” versus managing class. However, lately the centrist policies have been exposed as disastrous. More and more people are becoming aware of how standardized testing, rating teachers based on those tests and giving public money to privately owned Charter Schools has undermined public education instead of improving it. Recently, Hillary Clinton spoke out against tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders along with, I think, the opt-out movement against standardized testing, the Black Lives Matter and the earlier Occupy Wall Street movements are also partly responsible for this shift in philosophy. These populist democrats recognize that how you assess students (and teachers) shapes what is taught and how it is taught. That you can’t end inequity by threatening teachers working in disadvantaged schools and neighborhoods to do better, not without improving the overall economic situation of the people in those neighborhoods. You have to commit the resources to actually improve the economic situation. And you can’t improve education by thinking of students as products and education as a profit-making industry.

 

The struggle in the party is a struggle throughout the nation and the world, to develop a deeper vision of humanity, one with heart. It is a struggle between those who see students as future employees and as resources instead of feeling beings living their lives; who see education as a way to make money and “add value” to students as if they, we, didn’t have value otherwise. Children are not in school to learn to meet the needs of employers. They are people with desires and dreams, with social, emotional, as well as intellectual needs of their own. The struggle over the overwhelming power of money to influence policy reaches way beyond electing politicians, and any party that calls itself Democratic must confront this power.

 

What happens when students are treated as products, resources or economic entities? For one thing, I think they leave school with a sense that the core of who they are, of their humanity, has been suppressed or ignored, and remains unknown and untapped. They might feel a sense of isolation, emotional pain and anger. They may have little idea of what it means to be a citizen and neighbor. Do we want people to graduate from high school with a good understanding of computer skills, of STEM subjects, but little understanding of their personal needs, emotional nature and how to relate with compassion to others? Uncovering and understanding their own nature and their needs and dreams is thus a necessary part of education. It cannot be eliminated from schools because testing and “limited resources” leave no time for such “non-essentials.” When you think about education, you need to think about what kind of people you want for neighbors and friends, as well as who you’d want as a co-worker or political leader. With the state of the world today, we need good engineers, technicians, and doctors but we also need well-rounded, clear thinking people who understand how interdependent we all are and have the ability and commitment to grapple with the complexity of being human.

 

*The photo is of a mural created by LACS students of teachers as super-heroes.

News Events and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

How and why do people hurt others? I am a mostly retired secondary school teacher. This question came up frequently in my classrooms in the past, and it has frequently been in my mind lately. Is it in our nature to hurt? Do many of us suffer from an empathy deficit disorder? Or do we hurt others when we are too distracted, lost in an emotion, or educated to ignore the pain of others except those who are close to us? Do we have to be “carefully taught” to turn a blind eye to those in need or those breathing close to us on the street?

 

This is a crucial question, for the living room as well as the classroom. It is the question of “what is human nature?” Or is there a human nature? It is a question about the psychology of violence and ethics. How do you stop violence? Or, what allows us to be violent towards other humans? It happens seemingly too often. How can we not see and feel another breathing, feeling, speaking being as essentially just like us? What goes on in the mind when this inner blindness or distortion or active antipathy occurs? There are so many ways to think about and try to answer the question, yet we have to struggle with it.

 

In Baltimore over 2 weeks ago, an African-American man named Freddie Gray died in the custody of police. Evidence revealed to date indicates he was not involved in any criminal act. Yet, he was arrested and is now dead. How can this happen? Why? There have been partial explanations revealed, charges filed, but still, there is no justifiable reason for this death.

 

When we perceive others, we do so in an environmental, social-historical as well as a personal context. We are always part of a context or situation. We make the situation meaningful by organizing all the sensory and other information we receive into a coherent structure, basically into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. This story helps us remember details of our lives; it is built out of memories. It gives meaning not only to the situation but to ourselves. To create this structure, details must be selected. What supports the structure is perceived; what doesn’t is ignored. Once we have our story, we live an abstraction; we live at a distance. How much and what we feel, think and, thus, do is determined by the story. How we frame reality determines our sense of power, our sense of justice, and compassion.

 

So, what story were the police who arrested Freddie Gray and contributed to his death telling themselves? Did they see him as another person? And the news reporters talking about the demonstrations and violence: what story were they telling themselves, and telling us? Are the people who took to the streets demonstrators for justice? Are they moral citizens or criminals? Is the violence the consequence of people taking to the streets to speak out? Or the inevitable consequence of inequity and racism?  And the police—are they also seen as people? There are stories of great courage in Baltimore as well as ones of people losing control. Clearly, there are volumes of background stories, volumes of past history. Which stories get told? Where you begin your story and how you tell it has consequences. Are the news media considering the consequences of the stories they tell?

 

Dominique Hazzard, a teenager from Baltimore, wrote: “Imagine, for a second, that Maryland governor Larry Hogan called for a state of emergency when Freddie Gray’s spine was broken and his voice box was smashed [when he was] arrested for no reason.” A very different way to think of what happened; a very different story would have been told. Such perspectives need to enter classrooms and living rooms throughout the country.

 

There are many subjects students need to learn in school, how to read, write, be a responsible citizen and question. But one crucial subject is how their own minds work and how other people and social situations influence their viewpoints and values. It’s not just what happens that’s important; its what we tell ourselves about what’s happened. There’s always a difference between an event and the thoughts and memories of it, even when we try to tell the truth. The event is alive, fully now, rich in infinite detail. The memory, story, is, as I said, more selective, abstracted. We all need to learn how we construct the meaning and memory of what happens in our lives. Only if we notice something, whether it’s an injustice in our community or a mental pattern that causes suffering, can we act to stop it.

 

In order to understand how we construct meaning, we need to study the nature of emotion and how it arises in us. One purpose of emotion is to tag stimuli with value. It glues a story together. Daniel Siegel, in The Developing Mind, describes steps in the construction of emotion. The first step is arousing attention, what he calls the initial orienting response. Do we notice, pay attention or ignore a raw stimulus? The second adds memory and thoughts. It involves appraisal, which includes labeling stimuli as good, bad, or neutral, something to approach or avoid. The third step is experiencing the full emotion like sadness, happiness, fear. Without awareness of the initial signals to pay attention and then to approach a task, learning as well as timely action is nearly impossible. Without this awareness, we too easily convert living people into characters in a story.

 

Teachers need to select the stories they tell and the ones they assign not just with the eye of beauty but with the aim of improving social and self understanding, knowledge as well as awareness. They need to tell the story of how to create meaning and live meaningfully. They need to foster inner strength, understanding of how interconnected we all are, and a sense of responsibility for how we act.

Improving the Environment for Teachers

According to an NPR report, 40-50% of new teachers leave within the first 5 years. Every school year 15% of the teaching force leaves or moves. The cost of this to each state is about $2 billion dollars. The situation is worse in high poverty areas.

 

The high turnover rates are listed as due to layoffs, dissatisfaction, inadequate support, isolated working conditions. One recommendation by the Hechinger Report, which reports on innovation and conditions of inequality in education, is mentoring, on the job training and administrative support. Let’s look at what this all means.

 

A public school is a peculiar world. It is filled mostly with young people of the same age group.  Humans evolved to live in mostly smaller, mixed age groups, where each person is well known. Most schools, by contrast, are large institutions where many students and teachers feel isolated and unknown. Most schools are very hierarchical, and the new teacher is near the bottom of the hierarchy. They often feel powerless. A new teacher coming in to any school often gets the teaching assignments other teachers don’t want. Because the students and other teachers don’t know them, they are often severely tested. All this in addition to the stress created by entering any new situation.

 

Some critics of education argue that teacher college standards are too low and admit too many unqualified people.  They propose tougher standardized tests to determine who gets in to an education school and who gets out with a teaching degree. This clearly assists test providers but not necessarily anyone else. Character is greatly important in teaching and no standardized test measures that. Education schools need to prepare teachers to be in a room with a diversity of real people in a rapidly changing social world. Teachers need an education in dealing with emotion as well as rationality, different cultures as well as different texts. (See my blog on suggestions for educating teachers.) They need to understand what understanding means, as well as how to teach it. They don’t need to waste time on taking or learning how to give inferior assessments such as standardized tests.

 

Other people have been calling for more stringent controls on teachers and more accountability. The New York State Board of Regents, for example, developed its own supposedly objective teacher evaluation system. I think such systems are counterproductive. These systems are so “objective” that, just last week, when last year’s results were made public in New York State, the Board of Regents’ own Chancellor questioned the results. Why? Only one percent of teachers were found “ineffective” or deficient. You’d think officials would be happy over the result. Is this a catch-22?  Is a rating system objective only if a higher percentage of teachers are shown to be deficient? Is the system not scary enough, not punitive enough if only one percent is found lacking? What percentage is good enough for these education officials? Is this just another manufactured attack on teachers, as if they are the cause of the problems in education?

 

One of the best proposals to help ameliorate the situation is mentorship and staff support for new teachers. But if a mentorship program is enacted without other substantive changes, the program is just a superficial add-on. Support and mentorship must be part of the overall climate of a school. Everyone, students, administrators, experienced teachers as well as new ones, need to be supported. I think new teachers leave not because they’re not talented enough or not mentored, but because the whole environment is too stressful, unnatural and unsupportive.

 

Everyone, to feel comfortable in a situation and handle stress well needs control, commitment, and to feel creatively challenged. To develop control, teachers need a voice. For schools to educate students in democratic decision-making, schools need to be models of such. Teachers need a voice not only in setting policies and running the school but also in choosing what they teach. Everyone has different interests and skills and the more teachers teach what they love, they will love what they teach, and the more successful they will be.

 

When teachers have a voice in what they teach and how they teach, they can meet the diversity of student needs with creativity. Feeling creative turns a stressful situation into an opportunity. Creativity is, in a sense, its own reward. One of the worst elements of the proposed teacher-evaluation systems, and using standardized testing to rate students and teachers, is that the tests undermine creativity. It makes a teacher fearful of taking chances. Failure can mean loss of job. Such tests are based on punishment and rewards, instead of fostering trust and intrinsic motivation. Students take them not because the tests are interesting and naturally compelling, but because authorities threaten them with poor grades or not graduating. Teachers give the tests largely for the same reasons. Inculcating fear as a mechanism of instruction interferes with learning and undermines the use of empathy. Fear blocks empathy. As I asked in an earlier blog: Is fear what we want students and teachers to associate with learning?

 

Creative challenge and having a voice leads to commitment. The teacher commits to the job and the students because they feel recognized as a person and trusted as a professional. By being recognized, they are more able and ready to recognize who the students are and, thus, more likely to be successful teaching them.

 

I imagine some people might respond to my argument by saying that there’s little chance that teachers will be given substantive power over school policy or that decisions in a school will be made democratically. There is almost as little chance of giving teachers a democratic voice as giving the same to students. And that’s the problem.

There Are Alternatives

I realized recently that there is a great irony in my blogs. For most of my adult life, I opposed what I thought was happening in public schools. Now, I am defending them.

 

In the early 1970s, after teaching for a year in a “normal” or traditional public school context, I taught in a private “free school” until it closed, largely because there wasn’t enough money to keep it going. In 1985, I started working in an alternative public school, which was then called the Alternative Community School. (The name was changed to The Lehman Alternative Community School or LACS after the original principal and founder, Dr. Dave Lehman, retired.) What is meant by a “free” or an alternative school is not always agreed upon or clear. Today, ‘alternative’ is often used to refer to schools for high needs or “underachieving” students. However, it has an older definition, influenced by the progressive movement of the late 19th, early 20th century, as providing something meaningfully different from the predominant model of a public school. I can think of five characteristics of this difference which many of these schools share.

 

First, alternative schools are small. The free school I worked in had 20-30 students. LACS had 185 students when I started teaching there; by the time I retired, it had grown to 310 students, largely due to school district pressures. Traditional public schools are larger, at their worst factory-like institutions where students face great pressure to conform and can easily feel lost. The high school I attended, although at the time was considered a fairly good school (especially for the white middle-class students), had over 6000 students. The alternative is a community of learning, where everyone in the school knows, by face and hopefully by name, everyone else. Teachers and students get to know each other comparatively well, which fosters empathy and support.

 

Secondly, following A. S. Neill, Alfie Kohn, John Holt and others, alternative schools focus more on intrinsic and not extrinsic motivation. People have a natural drive to learn, as learning is necessary for survival. So, alternative schools aim to develop in students this personal and natural motivation. Traditional schools often track students and use grades to rank student learning. By ranking and comparing students they create competition which motivates through fear and hope of reward while undermining or hiding away intrinsic motivation. LACS and other alternative schools do not track students and some replace grades with detailed, narrative evaluations which give students deeper and more personal feedback on their learning. They motivate by documenting growth—and demonstrating that what students do is seen and heard by teachers.

 

Intrinsic motivation is developed by incorporating student interests, concerns, identity, and ways of learning in both the content and methodology of instruction. So, thirdly, the curriculum is tied more to real life concerns and the student’s own authentic and personal questions. I think the label “free schools” was inspired by the “freedom schools” of the 1960s.  As far as I understand it, freedom schools arose as part of the civil rights and voting rights movements. For example, in Mississippi, during the summer of 1964, schools for citizenship were created. In order to change the socio-political system and awaken “the conscience of the nation,” students needed to learn how to think and communicate well. Alternative schools, inspired by this struggle, aim to create a curriculum that has real meaning for students, that teaches critical thinking and talks about issues like justice, rights and power.

 

Fourthly, alternative schools are democratic. Decision making is not limited to administrators but shared with the entire school community. In this way students learn how to speak their minds. They learn that what they do day by day, even outside the formal classroom, is part of the curriculum.

 

There’s a fifth characteristic that is not always stated. Education is not just about preparing for the future and getting and holding a job. It is about learning how to live and learn right now. It is about empathy, compassion and relating not only to others but to our world. There are depths to the human heart and mind that can neither be measured nor ignored and education must be about those depths.

 

So, why have I changed my attitude toward public schools?

 

To begin with, I was upset when I discovered that what I was hearing in the news about the state of public education was often inaccurate or lacking context. Public schools, instead of failing their students, are mostly doing the best job possible considering the economic and other realities they are facing.

 

Also, a democracy requires an educated citizenry. Privately owned schools, because of agendas other than the simple education of their students, cannot do this. Only a public system has a chance at creating a situation where all children have even a relatively equal chance to learn and succeed. It’s very debatable right now that we have either a functioning democracy or an educated citizenry—but without public schools, the situation would only get worse.

 

My last school was and is a public school. And it is only one of many. There are schools and coalitions such as the Coalition For Essential Schools spread through several areas of the nation providing an alternative.  They should be supported against “reforms” that could destroy them. Contrary to what “reformers” are saying about the state of education in the U. S., these schools are doing for children what schools should do for children. Despite frequent cuts in staffing over the years, these schools continue to show the enormous possibilities inherent in a public school. They are giving students what they need to grow up, develop their minds and hearts, and discover their gifts. As one LACS student put it: “The school took me in. I went from a situation where I was led by the hand– or tied by a rope to other students—to one where I could decide where to go and what to do.” By needing to make meaningful choices, he learned the responsibilities of choice. Stimulating classes gave him “enough to think about for the rest of my life.” He learned how to learn (and think and communicate) because the school became the context for his life, not something removed from his life. Learning was not just academics. It was about the reality of living.

 

It is schools such as these that not only should be defended but modeled.

 

*The mural of Rosa Parks was painted by LACS students.