In 1974 I walked into the first classroom of my life. At that time it was a band hall. I was a brand new, newly minted band director out to change the world. Like most new teachers I had a number of preconceived ideas shaped by my education school. There was going to be nothing I couldn’t do. There was going to be no kid I couldn’t reach. I would be a star among my colleagues. I had the first rule of teaching I had been taught in mind. That rule was “make friends with the school secretary”.
I proceeded to try to teach my middle school charges using the other rules I had been taught. Don’t smile until Christmas. Start tough so you can loosen up later. Practice your “teacher” expression in the mirror until you can freeze a kid in his tracks. Well, I didn’t smile and neither did the kids. I found out that I hated being tough. And, I don’t, never did and never will have a “teacher” expression. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, horrible. About the middle of the year my mentor appeared. Bless the man’s heart he told me that I was horrible. His name was Merle Jensen. He saved my life. That afternoon Merle picked me up and went for a drive. He drove me to a quiet area where we could drink some of the beer he had brought and talk. And did we talk! I remember so much of what he said but one thing out of everything really sticks with me. Merle told me to remember that “every kid you teach is the apple of someones eye. And if you treat them like that they will love you, you will love them and the parents will support you 100%”. I forgot to tell you there were several parents who wanted me fired. They were right. The next day he started coming to my performing band. I don’t know what he saw in me but soon a teacher started coming out. Soon the kids were slow to leave the room. Most important the band sounded excellent. We went on to win a sweepstakes that year — straight ones. I continued to practice that principle which flies in the face of what a lot of educators are taught to believe.
Now we have armed police officers walking the halls of middle and elementary schools. Kids come through metal detectors. Often they are met at the door by people not saying good morning but “get that shirt tail tucked in” or “where is your id”! Most often those comments are barked at the kids without the smile most of us would want to meet at our place of work in the morning. And make no mistake school is their place of work. That is where they are shaped, formed and molded to take their place as good “citizen workers”. Administrators now speak of them as “our product”. I once sat in a meeting as a teacher leader listening to the chief operating officer from a lumber company speak of how they processed their product. Then he started trying to tell us how we should “process our product”. That day I knew that I no longer had a place. I knew that I had to become a rebel, fly under the radar as much as possible to survive, and make aggressive sorties against the dragons when I had too. By that time I had been sickened by the new rules of the state of Texas regarding their Pass/Play policy which did untold damage to the arts and music until the kids who couldn’t cut it consistently in academics began to drop out. I had changed fields to science. I would work another decade and one half but the rest of the time was spent in trying to find a way out for so many kids, flying under the radar to help kids and trying to change things I could not change.
As I became more radical when I closed my classroom door, I started to have even more success. I tried to treat each kid as an individual. I started trying to make being in the classroom as fun as I possibly could. Each day was something totally new. My test scores went up. I was often questioned, however, about why my grades were so skewed toward A’s and B’s. I had my first perfect evaluation.
Then the era of measurement started. We became even more of a product oriented business. I saw kids who just went under when they had to take the high stakes standardized tests even though they knew the material. They could talk about it. They could demonstrate their knowledge. But their reading maturity, their social maturity and their inability to sit still for the 8 hours a day for several days the test demanded caused them to begin to fail. Soon I realized that my profession had taken the left fork in the road while I had taken the right fork. I went into open rebellion. My kids loved me. My test scores were great. I was a department chairperson who often blocked for the teachers in my department and certainly blocked for the kids I taught. Finally, we were teaching nothing but the test with endless senseless drills, warmups, skill builders and other nonsense. Education as I understood it was extinct.
My new mentor who I still have not met and who I still admire as a shining star was John Taylor Gatto. Gatto was a New York State Teacher of the Year. Everything he wrote or said seemed to ring straight into my heart. Like him I became even more of an “underground” teacher. That was the only way I could continue to teach anything. Education had just become a series of lunatic experiences that were grinding kids into chaff.
So here I am. In the last years I have become completely enamored of home schooling. I believe that one can get a better education independently than I believe they can in most traditional classrooms. The kids we turn out now may have passed that state mandated minimum skills test but they often can’t hold their own when they start doing real math, real science or real writing in college.
So this is where I have arrived. There are excellent schools that have used philosophies and practices that allow for individual attention and the commonality of real intellectual ability. But, I have also come to believe that far more can be achieved with an individual approach whether it is within a home school or a more formal setting. The industrial assembly line school is dead. Unfortunately, it is just a strangely animated body unaware that it actually is dead. The time has come when individuals must take control of their own children’s education. The time has come when older students and adults can provide a better education for themselves through technology, the web, innovative approaces and non-traditional means than can be provided in the now archaic industrial model. Those approaches, philosophies, successful individuals, successful programs, home schools and other independent means of educating oneself will be explored in this blog. I invite you to join me in this journey.