Because I write for kids about social and emotional learning I spend a fair amount of time in schools presenting to students, teachers and parents. My perception of any school is only a snapshot, but it’s often revealing and well… educational.
Over the years I’ve had the privilege of meeting and observing many many wonderful administrators, counselors and teachers. These men and women are highly effective educators and leaders, as well as compassionate human beings and beloved mentors. Each is a special gift to their students but it’s a gift all students deserve.
In my travels I’ve also encountered those who seriously have no business working with kids. A middle school coach who screams like a Marine drill sergeant. A teacher who sarcastically greets a specialist with: “Thank god you’re here. JOEY! GO!! Take him!” A school secretary who viciously brow-beats a timid group of late-arriving students.
Once, during a professional training I led (for which all teachers were paid to attend) one teacher continuously texted, one slept, and another graded papers never once looking up or participating in a lively discussion on how to encourage students to be more respectful in class.
When I encounter folks like these I wonder, Why are these people permitted to teach? Everyone knows who the “bad” teachers in any school are and yet year after year their principals agree to let them continue damaging children. Why?! How do the bad teacher’s students and their parents feel about the sentence they’re serving in that class? What, if any, are their rights? How does having a bad teacher as a colleague makes the good teachers at the school feel?
John Merrow, author of The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership, has also wondered and researched and documented these issues and others. The result is the best book about education I’ve ever read. Merrow has been covering the field for NPR and PBS since 1974 and is currently Education Correspondent for PBS NewsHour and President of Learning Matters, Inc., an independent production company in New York City.
I love books that make me think in new ways. I especially appreciate those that shine a well-informed light on the political and social dynamics of institutions that affect children. Merrow knows the situation in American public schools. He’s taken the time to interview district-wide stake-holders in many communities. He finds too many public and charter schools damaging the kids they ought to be committed to serve. In light of the ongoing national conversation on school reform, this isn’t a surprise. What is surprising is how directly Merrow defines the problem and calls out those most responsible for perpetuating a broken system. The way he sees it, leadership is key and that key has been missing for too long at the district, school and classroom levels.
If you’re lucky enough to be satisfied with your kids’ schools you might think, “Yeah, that’s a shame, but it’s not my problem.” Of course it is. Kids coming out of under-functioning schools are heading toward an adulthood with few bright options and many frustrations. Cheated by their schools, they’re turned out into society under-educated and lacking the ability to think critically. With what they’ve been given, they can’t succeed. In a nation that claims “Our children are our greatest resource” that is nothing short of criminal.
I urge you to read The Influence of Teachers. Encourage parents, teachers, administrators, superintendents to do the same. Come armed with it to the fall’s first PTO meeting. Get real about what’s broken in your school. Use John Merrow’s strong recommendations and work together. We’ve got to do this for our kids. If not, they can rightly assume we don’t care all that much about them or the country’s future.
UPDATE: Exciting news! A new teacher training bill was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday. It’s called Crowing Excellent Achievement Training Academies for Teachers and Principals. Read more.