Friday, November 11, 2011


Rev. Dr. Barbara Austin Lucas often invokes renowned sociologist Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot when she discusses the relationship educators must have with their charges. Lightfoot said, “You can’t educate anyone unless you can see your future in their eyes.” This means there has to be some connection, some investment, some sense that your future’s success is tied inextricably to the success or failure of the person sitting before you. That is a powerful statement, but more importantly, it is a true statement. You can’t teach “at a distance”. You have to be in the trenches, with your sleeves rolled up, not standing on the sidelines pointing out every mistake or theorizing about what might work. You’ve got to be a problem solver in addition to being the problem finder.

Any successful reform or change, particularly as it pertains to education, must have some sense of humanity, some sense of connection one to the other if it is to work. From where I am sitting, the educational reforms are lacking in this element. You gotta love the rhetoric; “No Child Left Behind”, “Children First”, “Rigor”, “Students First”- problem is, it’s only rhetoric. It has no humanity, it has no soul. As a poet, (and I am sure musicians and artists would agree), when I write, if the words have no humanity, nothing to connect the reader to the experience being captured on the paper, then the words are just words- they do not move or inspire, they just sit on the page. The same is true in education. If the changes or the words are just about making the numbers look good or making them fit a particular bottom line or paradigm, then they are devoid of the “connective tissue” that makes them more than just changes or catchy phrases. Many of the reformers’ children do not attend public schools, (and if they do, they do not attend those that are ravaged by the rhetoric driven reforms), many of them apparently did not attend public schools, (or have forgotten that those schools gave them the foundation to be where they are today), many, if not all of them, do not value or respect public schools, nor do they believe in, trust or respect public schools, public school students or those who work in the public schools.

I have always believed in public schools and their power to transform lives, and when it came time to put my money where my mouth was as it pertained to that belief, instead of choosing to enter a career that would have garnered millions of dollars for me, I, like a lot of others who had the same belief), became a teacher. Where would President Barack Obama or Colin Powell have been without a public school education? What about Barbara Streisand, or Sandy Koufax, or Al Davis? Or James Baldwin, or Garry Marshall, or Dr. Ben Carson, or the young men from Newark who wrote The Pact, or former New York City schools chancellors Harold Levy and Joel Klein, or Mets owner Fred Wilpon? Oh and these people, (and many more such as my brothers and sisters, many of my friends and many of the people I taught and worked with over the course of my thirty plus years career), attended public schools long before all of the reforms

and the rhetoric of reform. If the reforms and the rhetoric are so vital and necessary, if schools were such failures, how did any of these people even survive, forget become successful?

One thing I learned as a coach is that you have to trust your players. You have to believe they can do what you need done. If you trust them and believe in them, there is nothing they will not do for you. If you don’t trust them and believe in them, you won’t get anything from them at all. Teaching works the same way. If you believe in and trust the students you teach, most of the time, they’ll “play hard” for you. If you don’t, they will give you nothing. The New York City DOE and many of the other reformers do not value, trust respect or believe in either the schools or the students who attend them. I have always believed in and trusted the students I taught, even when they did not believe in or trust themselves), until and unless they gave me a reason not to, (which happened from time to time if we are being honest).

You can’t successfully reform education unless there’s some value placed upon it, and you can’t value anything you don’t believe in or respect, anything that is devoid of a “connection” to you, that if it fails, it weakens or hurts you, too. You can’t reform from the outside. You have to get in and move the rocks and the boulders, too. You have to be willing to do some of the heavy lifting and not just stand on the sidelines and tell everybody elsewhere to move things.

I know that someone reading this right now is saying, “This is just the rantings of a bitter, burned out, should-have-been-retired-years-ago-don’t-wanna-teach-no-more-teacher.” If the person thinking that is you, let’s take a little test. Remember science class when you were in school? Remember the litmus test?
That was the test where you took a coated strip and touched it to a liquid to test for the presence of acid and if the strip turned a certain color, that told you acid was present. Well, for me, this issue has a litmus test, too. For me the litmus test is the answer to this question- “Which one of the reformers would send their children to the schools their reforms have created?” Which one of them would send their children to a school that housed 6-8 different schools, with 6-8 different philosophies, that shared one library, auditorium, gymnasium, (that is if they have a gymnasium or library), that promote separation rather than collaboration, (by virtue of the fact that each school inside of each building is encouraged to “brand” its space), that have principals who cannot train teachers or teach them to become better teachers because they have taught only 2-3 years, (if they have taught at all), that have teachers who are only in teaching because the dot com companies bottomed out or Wall street collapsed, or schools that focus only on students passing tests rather than the students learning to analyze and critique philosophies and concepts, and challenge themselves, expect more of themselves, or schools that do not offer students

challenging, competitive classes such as AP classes, honors classes, calculus, physics, trigonometry, etc., (although those same students are supposedly
receiving “a world class education”), or schools that use technology as a solution rather as a tool to help students to succeed, or eschew the use of experience and experienced teachers whose methods and philosophies have been tried and tested? I am certain beyond any doubt; the answer will be “No.”

To me, if you would not be willing to trust this type of school/reform with your child/children, it is criminal to create schools with these elements/constructions for other children. It’s like you inviting me over to your house for dinner, you cooking all of the food, preparing a heaping plate of food for me and then refusing to eat the food you are offering me to eat. Somehow, that’s just plain wrong.

As a teacher, I have always taught my students the same way I’d want my children or my nieces or nephews or godchildren to be taught I’d want my nieces and my nephews or my children or godchildren to have teachers who are diligent and who teach them to analyze, think for themselves, to challenge themselves, to expect more of themselves. That is exactly what I have tried to do in every class I have taught for over three decades. For me this is the school’s role and this is the purpose of education.

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