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.

Discussing Terrorism With Students

How do you talk with students about Paris, Beirut, Mali or any acts of terror and violence, or whenever something dreadful happens and you feel frightened or pissed off?  You might feel numb, scared, mute. You might want to cry out for revenge, or cry out to stop the killing. All understandable. All emotion is understandable. But what do you do with it? And how do you teach your children or students about it?


This is a complex question and, unfortunately, answering this question needs to be part of the curriculum, especially of secondary schools. There are at least two directions this can take. One is teaching students how to face emergencies. The other dimension is helping students learn about the attacks, what led to them and what might be done to prevent further violence.


First, I suggest starting by feeling and hearing what is going on in yourself. You have to be honest and willing to face uncomfortable feelings and look deeply into your own ways of thinking. Then you need to hear from students. “What do you feel? What responses to the violence have you heard or seen?” By listening, you say to yourself and your students, “you are strong enough to face this and I care enough to listen.” You teach empathy and emotional awareness.


In the face of violence, when emotions are lighting up like the explosions they witness, it is difficult to be strong and clear headed unless you prepare for it. How do you do that? What is needed to face such violence? I have never been in such a situation, so I can only try to feel and think my way to an answer. People who have faced such situations need to be brought into the conversation. My Karate teacher, Hidy Ochiai, has often talked about the need for inner as well as outer strength, for both mental and physical development. He talks about the importance of meditation as well as Karate, a calm mind as well as a well-conditioned and trained body.


Do not mistake inner strength for what some educators call “grit.”  “Grit” can be another way to put students in a box; instead of labeling the student according to intelligence, he or she is labeled according to grit.  As Alfie Kohn stated in a critique of grit, it is a rehashing of the ethic of hard work merely for the sake of working hard, with no social or ethical critique, no vision of what work is worth doing. Instead, you need to be mindful of what you feel so you can focus and act appropriately. You need to trust your skills and know your limitations. You need a mind trained to go quiet and accurately perceive what is going on. It might be counter-intuitive, but it is compassion that develops this inner strength and readiness to act. Hate makes you weak and ready to over-react. To prepare yourself for whatever it is that might happen in your life, study compassion; not just study the meaning and neuroscience, but study the actual mental and emotional state of compassion.


Compassion includes the ability to read what others might be feeling along with the ability to empathetically feel what others feel, and care about their welfare.  But it adds one more element, a drive to act to end any suffering you witness. People have said to me, “Don’t talk to me about compassion…” Or “Compassion just sets you up to be attacked.” These remarks are filled with anger and fear. They are not statements about compassion but more about the speaker’s state of heart.


But this isn’t enough. Students need to understand the context and conditions that have led to incidents of terrorism and violence. All events arise from a context, cultural, historical, psychological, spiritual, etc.. The context is always multi-faceted. Context doesn’t excuse violence. It doesn’t excuse violence to know that people in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere have, for too many years, faced horrendous conditions. It just helps you understand it better, and understand ways to process and work to end such conditions and prevent such acts in the future.


Teach about the destructiveness of hate and the psychology of fear. It is the religion of hate that often causes terrorism, as seen in the U. S. on 9/11 but also Oklahoma City, the KKK, and the Army of God attacks on abortion clinics, etc. When students are afraid, understanding more about the causes and perpetrators of violence can help diminish fear. Being able to voice fear in an open way diminishes fear. Being asked to take positive action diminishes fear. You need to know that when you react with hate and fear, as when you call for revenge and verbally attack others, you actually spread fear and anger.  You spread the attacks and serve the interests of the attackers.


In many societies today, social conditioning masks compassion and creates a sense of separation from others. When you feel isolated and in pain, you might even imagine you feel good in witnessing the suffering of others. You might feel that witnessing others in pain lessens your own. It doesn’t. Compassion decreases the pain because it decreases isolation. It changes your sense of who you are. You feel better about life, yourself. By feeling that the welfare of others is important to you, by valuing others, you feel valued. When you let an other person rest in your mind and you allow yourself to feel what she or he might feel, see what she or he might see, something extraordinary can happen. Loosening of your ties to what is normal for you can be a relief. Once you do it, your own perspective expands. You can then respond more clearly to the person you envisioned because, in some sense, you allowed yourself to be the other person. It is worth every second you practice it. And you can teach this to your children.

Stopping Terror

I had planned to write about something positive in education and to share a blog I read about a new “populism” in the democratic party, when I heard on Friday about the killings in Paris. That stopped me. My first response, like so many I heard on the news, was “no.” How can this be happening again? The pain this is causing—I felt fear and then anger and tried to imagine being in Paris or Syria. The situation is both simple and more complex than I can understand. Simple because people were murdered and others are in pain and this is just wrong. It is horrific. It is also complex; there is no easy answer to the situation in Paris today and in Syria and other places in the world, no matter how much I and others want there to be one.


Acts of terror are carried out to spread fear though a populace and lead a country, especially a country claiming to be democratic, into a frightening double-bind. Anger and fear can convince people to call for measures of revenge and protection: violent revenge not only against the people who carried out the attack but the belief system and political situation that gave it life. Protection can include all kinds of measures to defend against further attacks. But as we learned from Edward Snowden and subsequent revelations, protection and revenge can lead to over-reaction and the destruction of the rights and liberties necessary to keep democracy alive. To protect democracy, we end it. That is terrorism’s goal. As many people have said, all of us who abhor terror must fight not only against murder and destruction but for democracy, for the rights, equity, humanity that should characterize a government and are our best weapons against terrorist ideology.


Society is held together by the most precarious of ties. It is not just buildings and institutions, but relationships, ideas, empathy and dreams. Spread enough fear and you can break the ties that bind us together. Instead, we need to do the opposite. But how do you do that? All I know is that a commitment must be made to not create more harm through the actions taken to make us safer and the world less violent. To eliminate the inhumanity that is ISIL requires studying and untangling the massively tangled web of beliefs, suffering and oppression that gave birth to it. One aspect of ISIL is the absolute belief in the rightness of its ideas as well as its mission to destroy anyone that gets in its way or has different ideas. Fighting them requires not becoming them. It means recognizing that the ideas we hold dear need to be held with some humility and with an awareness of the limits of our powers to understand the world. For the U. S. it means, for one thing, to call for actions that support the French and undermine ISIL but not ones taken only to serve immediate political expediency and influence an election. It means improving the way we care for and support each other, instead of letting fear drive us further apart. (Check out this link.)


A report on Al Jazeera said that, instead of hiding, the people of France were out on the streets, in cafes, taking comfort in resisting fear together.  I hope that all of us, in France, the US and other countries will learn how to face evil without becoming evil, to strengthen democracy instead of undermining it.

To Be A Teacher, Be A Student. To Be A Student, Teach.

To be a teacher, you have to understand what being a student means, which means understanding learning. You have to understand your particular students, what interests them and how they learn. You have to study your own mind. But being a student also means being a teacher. For students to learn, they must be given the opportunity and responsibility to teach their peers as well as teach themselves. Education works best when teacher and student work together, are partners in solving problems and answering questions. To teach, be a student. To be a student, teach.


What do you do when you think students aren’t learning what you think they should? Or they aren’t behaving appropriately? These situations arise frequently and often overlap. If a student is frustrated with instruction or doesn’t feel personally respected or feels that the material is not meaningful, he or she will let you know it one way or another. Everything that happens in the classroom is a “teachable moment.” Education is primarily about learning how to learn. It is or should be primarily about how you approach each moment of your life and uncover meaning in it.


And everything that happens in a classroom arises out of the relationships established in and around it; with the larger school community, the teacher with students, students with each other, etc. These relationships must be respectful, engaging, and caring, for both student and teacher.  To feel cared for begins with caring. Everything depends on the awareness and feeling you bring to the moment-by-moment living of your life.


Especially considering the very stressful situation most teachers find themselves in today, it is so easy for a teacher to berate him or herself, or to attack students for being this or that. When you attack yourself, you become more rigid, less adaptive and perceptive. When you attack or distance yourself from students, your relationship is distorted. You can’t teach a subject or person you reject and won’t look at. If you want to teach about racism, you must first know how it works and look at it directly, in yourself, in the society around you. If you want to fight hate, you must first locate it in yourself and study how it works. Only by looking at it can you see it and bring it to an end. You can’t teach a student if you blame her for not learning from you. You can’t teach a student if you blame yourself for his not-learning. Blame is separation. It is closing the door


To teach how to learn, model how to treat life as an opportunity to learn.  When something comes up in the classroom, notice, breathe, consider (nbc); notice what you’re feeling, take a few breaths, and then consider what the student’s actions are saying and what would be an appropriate response. You must first hold the person and your image of him or her carefully in your heart and mind in order to feel out where you can meet. By holding, you care; you are open. This is the first step.  You might go home and, in a quiet moment, close your eyes and allow thoughts and images of the student to come up for you. Ask yourself: what exactly did she or he say? How was she standing or sitting? What might he be feeling or thinking? What was behind the behavior? Let go of sitting in judgment; instead, just sit with the student in mind. Then study how the student learns or approaches learning in your classroom and create the best lesson you can within the limits of your teaching situation.


And you don’t do this one or ten times. All of us have been “carefully taught” to objectify and blame. Learning to stop the blame game and be empathetic, to hear and feel what you and your students say and experience, being kind to yourself and your students, requires constant care. When you hear or feel the blame arising within you, this isn’t a message telling you how to act; it is a message telling you to open up more deeply. When you hear yourself saying, “such behavior should not occur in a classroom,” this is the moment you recognize what is going on so you can stop it. You can find the best way you can in that moment to learn from it and respond appropriately.


In a classroom discussion, I remember one student saying that he couldn’t be open to whatever came up in his mind. “What if I was facing evil? How could I be open to evil? I want to fight evil, not feel it.” But to identify as a fighter of evil, you need to keep evil alive.  It is difficult to face what hurts. But it’s even more difficult to let go of what is unseen.


Teaching is most satisfying for me when I am not fighting myself and am able to think of whatever occurs as simply my life, teaching as one aspect of living. Writing blogs analyzing attacks on education or how to improve my teaching is not interfering with my life; it is living my life. Responding to a student in pain can be painful, but it is why I became a teacher. It is an opportunity not only to help others and do something constructive, but to strengthen myself, to strengthen my ability to live fully and with feeling. And that is truly gratifying.

Undermining Teachers

Teachers can make a wonderful and meaningful contribution to the lives of their students. Yet two institutions that support the ability of teachers to do their best in their profession, namely tenure and teacher’s unions, are being directly and sometimes deviously attacked.


Teaching is a wonderful and a very stressful and difficult job. To face the stress productively, you need commitment, creativity and control. To commit yourself to put in the long hours, and not short-change yourself and your students, you need to feel valued. You need a sense of responsibility and relationship with the students. To meet the educational and social-emotional needs of a diverse population of students, you need to be creative. You need to create lessons designed or at least adapted to the specific people you teach. Feeling creative turns a stressful situation into an opportunity. Feeling creative also motivates commitment—the two work together. But without some control over the curriculum and how it is taught, commitment and creativity are impossible. You need a sense of control in order to teach self-control and discipline to students. A teacher who feels powerless cannot empower students.


Yet, this is exactly what is being asked of teachers. I was appalled recently when someone I respected said teacher tenure undermines education. This person was repeating back to me opinions and evidence manufactured specifically to undermine teacher power. Lawsuits in New York and other states are being adjudicated and hyped in the media claiming that tenure undermines a school’s ability to provide the sound basic education guaranteed by the state constitution. They say that teachers have a greater impact on student learning than “any other factor a school can control.” The claim is clothed in terms of social justice and equity, that students in poorer neighborhoods are most likely to bear the burden of bad teachers.


Why talk about “factors a school can control”? Is that one way to eliminate discussion of inequitable systems of school funding or systemic racism or sexism? Because if the concern is with social justice or helping people escape poverty, why sue the state over tenure? Why not sue the state for it’s inequitable school funding?


The reason is that the attacks on tenure are really attacks on teacher unions. Diane Ravitch has written about how former members of the Obama administration are working together to undermine the power of unions. Teacher unions are one of the few big unions left in the US. They give teachers some power over working conditions and how they are compensated. Without unions, workers would be at the mercy of their employers and tenure for teachers would never have been established. Tenure gives teachers more security in their jobs and thus be better able to focus on meeting student needs and thinking independently.


One factor a school could manage, if the state allowed it, is creating a supportive learning community that fosters teacher creativity, control and, thus, commitment. Instead of taking away teacher power, you need to give teachers more of it. You can’t punish or threaten teachers, or anyone, into being creative and powerful. You have to develop a supportive atmosphere where teachers are given power and mentored into understanding how to use it. If you want to sue the state for depriving students of a sound education, sue the state for militating against teacher commitment and creativity.


If you worry that giving teachers more power would enable them to not do their jobs responsibly, then give the students more power, too. Make the school more democratic. When teachers have a meaningful relationship with students, they are better equipped and motivated to do their jobs well. If you worry that teachers are not trained enough, then increase time for teacher development and mentoring.


The powerlessness that teachers feel is made worse by the new teacher evaluation systems that are being initiated in New York and other states, which are based 50% on standardized test scores. The system is fear based. It is not only conceptualized as a way to force teacher compliance with fear of losing one’s job, but is based on a faulty system of assessment. Standardized testing is destructive and inequitable; more and more parents are choosing to opt-out of testing and the Obama administration claims it will find ways to reduce it. How can you talk about increasing equity by measuring it with inequitable methods?


You can’t improve education by scaring teachers into feeling powerless. It is not only teachers who will suffer but all of our children and eventually all of us. Parents and teachers are already reporting increasing levels of anxiety in (themselves and) their children. You can’t educate children to be clear thinking, independently minded, responsible citizens by undermining a teacher’s sense of creativity, independence and security.