On Education

On Education

an essay by a teacher, for a teacher

by D.F. Wharton

a brief introduction

I have written this essay not only for myself, but for other teachers and educators that work in the classroom, during classroom instruction, and share in the responsibility for student “performance” as has been defined by standardized test scores and the plethora of elements in the four domains of the Charlotte Danielson rubric. While it is for all teachers, it is specifically for the teachers that work with juvenile delinquents in detention centers. It is meant to be an encouragement and also a push to empower them to go ahead and do what they feel and believe to be the right thing in the classroom, regardless of administrative expectations. While I encourage the use of tact and professionalism at all times, I also encourage teachers to be confident in their judgments and evaluations of themselves and to lay aside the weighty expectations of those outside the classroom unwilling to carry a fair share of the burden. In essence, I want to encourage teachers to stand up for themselves. I am a teacher in such a location. These are perspectives and ways of thinking that I have developed along the way to help me have peace and repose even on the job and under constant threat of “observations.” They have worked so well for me that I want to share a taste with others.

I hope you enjoy.

on to the essay…

Another teacher and I were talking and had an idea: we would get our teaching certifications and shrink them to photo ID size, have them laminated, and carry them around on the job. When an administrator “pulled us over,” so to speak, instead of haggling over the amount of “rigor” in the lesson, the “clarity” of the objective, how many “anchor charts” were on the walls of the classroom, or the wording of our lesson plan—we’d just hand over the certification and tell them to take it up with the state, who gave us the license. Maybe we should even carry our MS diploma with us to show them, in order to let them know that we are qualified to make our own decisions, and our education is its own authority and we don’t need to spend time justifying ourselves to people who never taught our students nor have experience teaching our subject.

But let me say right now that I don’t blame the administrators. I understand that it’s part of the job, and there is somebody above them that put insane expectations on their head, and it’s their job to pass it along. Shit rolls downhill [author unknown], and everybody had a boss. Administrators were teachers that got fed up with getting shot up on the classroom battlefield and got out of the line of fire to join the firing squad. There is a kind of kill or be killed environment, a fog really, that permeates the system, and rare is the administrator that can see through the mist. I know some and am genuinely thankful for them, for they are rare.

But tenured teachers can’t get fired, people will say. That’s not altogether true, but anyway, I’m not talking about that kind of firing squad. I’m talking about a type of professional credibility assassination where administration holds teachers professionally liable for the behavior and academic achievement of students who come with a storm that consumes all teaching attempts, storms that can tear apart the most idealistic of classrooms. All its height and grandeur and pictorial organization obliterated in storm [Wallace Stegner]. I find the scenario in schools where the learning is forced on an unwilling student, who doesn’t want to be there in the first place, darkly comical. But good attitudes are not taught, they are caught, people will say, implying that if a student has a bad attitude the fault is on the teacher for not pitching him a good one. Ok, but the student has a role in that transaction, an essential one—he has to catch it. And if we’re going to use that analogy, let us take it further along the path. In sports, some students catch better than others, some are not willing to catch at all, and some are playing a different game altogether.

One can easily be hoodwinked with those simple analogies. Educational leaders/reformers—a kind of evangelist—use a quality of elegance and ease and talk you into believing that a good teacher is some kind of miracle worker for students with social-emotional problems (social-emotional problems being code for kids with horrible behavior, specifically in the classroom). They preach their mission statement, philosophy, high standards, and high testing scores and persuade the hearers with a finesse of perception and nimbleness of mind that could only be learned lightyears away from the classrooms in juvenile detention centers.

Teachers cannot ignore it for the nonsense cooked up in those sheltered environments of higher education, we have learned, rolls downhill. What does proper classroom management look like, they say, and go from there, defining teacher expectations which end up, mainly, in the teacher having to make manifest their idealistic dream of a classroom with walls covered in anchor charts, classroom expectations, student work, and word walls that surround students artfully grouped, teaching and learning from each other, using accountable talk, engaged in a rigorous task. We seek only to save appearances, and meanwhile betray and disavow our true intentions [Montaigne].

It’s all bananas if you ask me, but nobody is asking. We’re on different paths that have no point of intersection. The road of those who aim at honor is very different from the one followed by those whose goal is order and reason [Montaigne]. I seek no recognition. I’ll take order and reason any day of the week. I don’t need to be the big cheese, nor do I want it. I don’t need other people to know how smart or how great a teacher I am, mainly, because I’m not that smart, nor am I that great a teacher. I happened to believe “intelligent” and “great teacher” to be relative and subjective ideas. What’s needed in the classroom always depends on the context; something those outside the classroom are not willing to learn.

You’ll see a good deal of leadership positions in government filled with glory seekers who think they are going to change the world with their laws. A new chancellor or superintendent comes in with his new policy and is invariably ready to prove his willingness to lay down the law with negative observations and letters in the file, pushing this destructive way of operating on the principals, and it never helps the students, the ones they say it’s all for. For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did [Hebrews]. The hope they speak of is gas. They might talk of hope, but they demand rigor, which, in spite of all the mileage educators today give the word, is nonsense. For among other things he had been advised to teach me to enjoy knowledge and duty by my own free will and desire, and to educate my mind in all gentleness and freedom, without rigor and constraint [Montaigne].

I cut their expectations off before they have a chance to start in my actions. Once you begin to carry out your teaching in a way to please educational reformers and tyrants, it only gets worse. We guide affairs at their beginnings and hold them at our mercy; but afterward, when they are underway, it is they that guide us and carry us away, and we have to follow them [Montaigne]. Their directives reach my ears but never get to my heart. Not anymore, anyway, for I’ve learned my lesson. I carry out my teaching as I feel I ought and let the chips fall where they may. If I feel it’s best to step back and disengage from students, I do so and don’t worry myself over what it looks like to anybody playing the evaluator or judge. Stress and pressure are not good ingredients with volatile students, and if I am to be accused of not doing my job according to another’s opinion, so be it. You must not consider whether your action or your word may have another interpretation; it is your true and sincere interpretation that you must henceforth maintain, whatever it costs you. [Montaigne].    

Agitated by my stubbornness and resolve not to apply the next new thing to my teaching, sometimes educators resort to talking about a student’s rights to move me. Americans and their talk of rights is a drum that’s been pounded to death. The students have the right to be learning during class, they say, and if a teacher is not making the expected splash and show, delivering instruction, then the student is somehow being neglected, abused, or deprived of his rights. This is foolish talk. It would do well for educators to step outside the educational reform propaganda circles, a cluster of professionals who read and reference and congratulate each other in a gated community, like ASCD. For it is not only generous, but sometimes even profitable, to come down a little from our rights [Cicero, quoted by Montaigne]. While playing the liberator, they have made their own Miranda.

But I do not allow myself to become truly agitated. A hero is only as strong as the villain in the land of story, and in life, story is a necessity. He lay and whined until she diverted him with a story [Wallace Stegner]. Besides, the root of our irritations is usually foolish. Our greatest agitations have ridiculous springs and causes [Montaigne]. Believing that we can solve the problems of the world through education is enticing, but foolishness, because education without morals can fly off in any direction. Even scripture recognizes the hopelessness of salvation resting on mans’ teaching without divine intervention: I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts… and they shall not teach every man his neighbor and every man his brother… for all shall know… [Hebrews].  

There is a sentiment among government leadership of religious proportions when it comes to education back to the founding fathers of the United States. When the first school bill passed in the 1800’s in Ohio, Ephraim Cutler said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” wrote David McCullough. As if Cutler was Simeon and public education was the born Christ. There’s a fine interpretation. Here is a man that is part of a movement that routed, relocated, and killed the natives, believing he was a “Christian” bringing in “the kingdom.” Cutler said, according to David McCullough, “if ignorance could be banished from our land, a real millennium would commence.” What a fool. Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? [Psalms].

If ignorance could be banished… Nothing like utopia. Bringing on the “millennium” without God seems to be the principal aim of man in government, judging by his actions. With words, they wax religious. Banish ignorance? Who is ignorance? And if you could banish him, where would you send him? Cormac McCarthy had more wisdom. He wrote, “Who is Mammon?” and said about him, “He’s out there. I wish he wasn’t. But he is.” While government leaders swear into office on a Bible and thank God with their lips, they continue to serve mammon. This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me [Matthew]. If they read and paid attention to the book they swear-in on they would know: Ye cannot serve God and mammon [Matthew]. Of course, they would interpret it in a way convenient for them, so let me leave it alone.

Good teaching has become equated with being a busybody—bad teaching with relaxing. A good teacher would never be sitting down in class, foot up on a desk, reading a paper. A good teacher would be continually harassing her students scurrying around the classroom and demonstrating Doug Lemov’s so-called Champion Teaching Techniques. I’d rather have my daughter in the class with the bad teacher. I’d rather my child get the idea to read a newspaper every day over performing monkey tricks for a teacher so the teacher can be rated “highly effective” on a Charlotte Danielson rubric any day of the school year. Abstention from doing is often as noble as doing, but it is less open to the light; and the little that I am worth is almost all on the side [Montaigne].

But this is far too quiet for the average educational leader: They think that good rules can only be heard to the sound of trumpets [Montaigne]. But you can’t have your feet up on the desk if you don’t know what you’re doing. You need to understand yourself, know yourself, and have the ability to justify your actions not to somebody else, but to yourself. If you have confidence in yourself and in what you are doing, you will be able to relax. There is no such thing as standardized “great teaching” to all because what works for one student will not work for another. Just know your capabilities and stick to what you know works for you and let that roll off nice and easy.

What we are being told to do in professional development training is mostly nonsense, and the only way I know how to fix the problem is to ignore it. Every session continually brings forth more dump-trucks of data to drop on our heads before we could taste the last load. We can hardly stand our ground for being overrun. These are the facts, they say. This is what the data says! I see ordinarily that men, when facts are put before them, are more ready to amuse themselves by inquiring into their reasons than by inquiring into their truth [Montaigne]. I want to call them out for their games, for wasting our time with this and that professional development, but I find the current too strong to swim against. I find that in almost every case we ought to say: That is not so at all. And I would often use that reply, but I dare not, for they cry out that it is an evasion produced by feeblemindedness and ignorance. And I am ordinarily obliged to play the fool for company’s sake and discuss frivolous subjects and stories which I entirely disbelieve, because they are always ready to cite witnesses whose authority stops us from contradicting [Montaigne].

In the current politicized environment of education, I suppose my thought patterns seem treasonous. What can I do? I find myself opposed to all reforms and forms of rigor and all sorts of standardized testing. The driven by data push I believe to be foolish prattle but also crafty manipulation fathered by businessmen that see dollar signs more clearly than others. Hey, I don’t want to be a hater—get your money, big time. But don’t expect me to drink the kool-aid. In the light of such cogitations, I find it surprising that I get by as well and unnoticed as I do, and that’s the point. You don’t need to reform and battle the upper echelons of educational administrations—ignore it. Throw them the bone they want and nine times out of ten they go away. I can quiet myself and be cool and let the glory seekers shine; that frees me up to teach how I will. Men of our time are so formed for agitation and ostentation that goodness, moderation, equability, constancy, and such quiet and obscure qualities are no longer felt. Rough bodies are felt, smooth ones are handled imperceptibly [Montaigne].

I have bills to pay like any other working stiff, so I figure how best to get along. I had nothing to do but conserve and endure, which are noiseless and imperceptible acts [Montaigne]. I don’t worry about writing these things because the best place to hide something from many of these top “educators” is to put it in a book. They’re not much for reading anything not sanctioned by their club. Anything outside their circle stays outside their circle. It’s the ones who try to get in the loop and shake things up that catch the wrath. I go to the job and do my thing and save my opinions for myself. If I feel I have to say something, I use my pen to write or my fingers to type and stay cool. Just be yourself… Don’t let all the grandeur buffalo you [Wallace Stegner], and communicate with the people that are simply into education and learning for the sake of itself—not social status. If there is status, let it happen on its own.

The words of these educational reformers echo loudest in those with empty and hollow souls. Those of us that fill our own cup already have things to say and find more difficulty in holding back than bring something forward. They can have their curriculums and pacing calendars—I don’t need them. I don’t come to the classroom looking for somebody else to tell me what to do, myself being undecided, not knowing. You have to decide what you want, else you just keep spinning around, circling the drain [James Sallis]. Educational leaders hold meetings and committees, but to me, these are for busybodies. I already have my agenda: We ponder and weigh and debate. While in silence, somewhere back in the darkness behind words, our decisions are made [James Sallis].

Educational leaders call it “accepted scholarship” and use that label to justify pushing teachers to teach how and what they want and use the materials they say to use. It is unfortunate to be in such a pass that the best touchstone of truth is the multitude of believers, in a crowd in which the fools so far surpass the wise in number [Montaigne]. Those of us who like to think on our own and make judgment calls based on the student we have in front of us must swim far below the surface, undetected. It can be done, but it gets tiresome. Howard Gardner, who is accepted with lips and words but ultimately rejected in action and truth, introduced MI (Multiple Intelligences) in the early 1980s, yet the public schools of New York City are still one-dimensional and seek to enforce uniform schools: one-dimensional in that standardized tests supposedly yield reliable rankings of people [Howard Gardner], uniform in that the school features a core curriculum—a set of facts that everyone should know—and very few electives [Howard Gardner]. These ideas might look good on the surface, and face value, but some years ago it occurred to me that this supposed rational was completely unfair. The uniform school picks out and is addressed to a certain kind of mind [Howard Gardner].

If Howard Gardner knows what he is talking about, we have proof positive that educational leadership is here to serve the state and not the student. The administrations I have worked under have always labored to equate student success with standardized testing success. The more your mind resembles that of a law professor… the better you will do in school and the more readily you will handle IQ-SAT type measures. But to the extent that your mind works differently… school is certainly not fair to you [Howard Gardner]. It is rare to see an educational leader in New York City public education that is not utterly subservient to enforcing core curriculums and raising standardized test scores.

So why do educators say they are here “for the kids” or “for the students” when they are clearly here for the state? Why do they profess to be educating when in truth they are working to validate a standardized assessment whose makers have said yield a reliable ranking of people; the best and the brightest get into better colleges, and… get better rankings in life [Howard Gardner]. It reminds me wearily of David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest. It’s a book about politics and the Vietnam War. This kind of elitism has deadly consequences, and we know this, yet it goes on unchecked. For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise [2nd Corinthians].

If it don’t make sense, there’s a buck in it [author unknown]. Is it that people have to make money, feel like they’re winning, or are merely ignorant and blindly accepting whatever the educational establishment tells them? It can become too much to think about. We turn to distractions: bars, gyms, Netflix, home life… anything. One key to keeping a pleasant disposition is not to think about it too deeply because it’s disturbing. We know what our job is, and we do it and stay quiet, saying the things that we’re supposed to say. “I used this or that best practice strategy. Thank you for your wisdom, wonderful professional development team.”

Even though I write about it, I am only skimming the surface. My head is above the water, and I can swim just fine, the water nice and relaxing. I enjoy thinking and writing in and of itself, so I don’t mind taking some time to write about this stuff, even though the job of teaching can at times be vexing. Writing?… Writing is fun. Most of the words and thoughts I use I have eaten off other authors’ plates, but I don’t use them until I’ve digested them for myself. I don’t serve up a dish without adding my own touch, just enough to make it mine. I’m no activist or reformer, and if educators had to be fired to fix the system, I’d deserve the boot as much as anybody else. I’m for everybody learning, keeping their jobs, moving forward under no threat. We’ve had enough aggressive administrative tactics used on us to know they don’t work in education. The wise in heart shall be called prudent: and the sweetness of the lips increaseth learning [Proverbs].

I am fully aware that my style in these essays and stories that I write is not for mainstream scholarship, and if you are reading and considering the words and logic that I am passing along you are one of the few. The notes from the underground movement, the wisdom that cries in the streets, are just as real and alive today as when Dostoevsky was around. The leadership of man’s government is not the real leadership—we are, you are. I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all [Ecclesiastes]. Our problem is that we suffer from a distorted imagination. The answer is not in reformation. Man’s desire to reform shows his vanity. Why seek the spotlight, why seek glory, when you could be wise and let the light and glory come to you? Why force it to happen when you could step back and let it happen? Let the glory seekers have the surface leadership, I say. It’s better underground, dead to the world. This essay is to pass along that logic, that reasoning, to anybody who can use it. There are no ulterior motives. It’s just writing, putting down one word at a time. That’s what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head [Elmore Leonard].    

And that’s my approach to not only writing but teaching, which is a sin as far as administrators and other educational leaders are concerned. The Charlotte Danielson evaluation rubric they use to evaluate teachers is pretty much a list of everything I don’t have. Yet I still manage just fine. Imagine that. But when they do come around I try to throw them a bone, give them something that will make them feel comfortable, seeing how phobic about appearance they are. Appearance is reality [a DOE school principal].

I have to explain to my students how some administrators need to see a certain kind of show in order to feel like learning is happening—think-pair-share, questions, exit tickets, etc. It’s like a little circus you have to conduct. It gets ridiculous. Teachers have to spend as much time preparing students to perform in the circus (for observations) as we do on anything genuine. And without question, administrators will think the best teachers are the ones who can make the circus happen. In a school, in my experience, administrators are usually the most neurotic people in the building, in a constant kind of panic, and the panic can be contagious—the teachers catch it, then students. They wear plastic smiles and a happy-positive disposition that is forced and, man, it’s weird. Some of them want the teachers to know they have the power to rate us ineffective. Show us the circus or else! But if there is one thing I would like to help teachers realize, it is that they don’t. You are the only one that can determine your value. You are the one who knows yourself—which is to say; you know how much you are worth in your own estimation… God has not merely given us strength to tolerate troubles without being humiliated or undone, but, as befitted a king and true father, he has given them to us free from constraint, compulsion and impediment. He has put the whole matter in our control, not even reserving to himself any power to hinder us or stand in our way. And even though you have these powers free and entirely you own, you don’t use them, because you still don’t realize what you have or where it came from [Epictetus].

When teachers can’t make the circus happen, they know it, and then start to fear the observation from the administrator. A teacher must learn to fight this impulse. You are a human being and a power unto yourself. Your judgment of yourself is the only one that truly matters, and you would be foolish to order your teaching to please another, any other, and give that other person the power to determine your value and worth, whoever it might be. Sometimes the circus is simply not going to happen, and that’s just what it is, and you can’t let these expectations cause you to fight with students.

“I will put a disciplinary letter in your file,” says the administrator.

“You do not have access to my files,” I reply. “My files are at home. Those files you speak of are your files. Writing my name on your files does not make them mine.”

“I will rate you ineffective,” says the administrator.

“That rating will be yours. It will only say what you have written, not I. It is your right and your opinion,” I say. “I respect it as yours. It is not mine. It does not cause me to fear, be uneasy, or change. My judgment of myself still stands.”

“I will get you fired,” says the administrator.

“Very well,” I say. “This job did not bring me into this world, and it will not take me out. I will not be the first or last to get fired from a job. God must have something better for me ahead.”

“You will lose your paycheck, benefits, retirement,” said the administrator. “Will you not fear me?”

“I will not,” I say. “I must look to God for freedom, for vain is the help of men.”

I am extreme in this example of dialogue, but teachers must consider it and think it over. The ability to diminish your stress comes with a price: you must alter your perspective and face your insecurities, self-doubts, ignorance, and fears. You must stop seeking approval from outside yourself. It is one thing to be empowered in word, but entirely another to be empowered in faith, action, and deed. The first must say it while the latter need not say anything, for it is apparent. Many abuses are engendered in the world, or, to put it more boldly, all the abuses in the world are engendered, by our being taught to be afraid of professing our ignorance and our being bound to accept everything that we cannot refute [Montaigne].

Come at me with all the colorful pie charts, bar graphs, data, PowerPoints, and research you can summon, I say. He who imposes his argument by bravado and command shows that it is weak in reason [Montaigne]. I have my style, and that’s what it is. Once an administrator told me that what I had given my students to do was not “intellectually challenging.” As if we have any sure footing on what intellect even is! An intelligence must also be susceptible to encoding in a symbol system—a culturally contrived system of meaning that captures and conveys important forms of information [Howard Gardner]. What kind of symbol system? What culture? Who gets to determine which culture is important? Language may manifest itself particularly as writing in one culture, as oratory in another culture, and as the secret language composed of anagrams or tongue twisters in a third [Howard Gardner]. Among the gang culture in prison, the third is dominant—the environment I happened to be teaching in when the administrator told me I was not “intellectually challenging” the students. In truth, both of us were two aliens that knew very little of what we spoke of. Anyone who wants to be cured of ignorance must confess it [Montaigne].

That administrator gave me a poor evaluation, and I accepted it as hers and not mine. I didn’t mind signing it at all because I was signing it as hers, and I told her while I have no problem signing her opinion, as a witness to her opinion, it in no way represented any truth about me. When she gave me a good evaluation months later, I told her the same thing. I am the only person that reserves the right to define my value… Period.