Talk Learning, Not Logistics

Here’s my newest teaching mantra: Talk learning, not logistics.  

That means when you’re talking with students, don’t talk just about what questions they need to do, how much time they have, or how they need to quit watching car videos on their computer.  Sure, you need to tell them that too sometimes. But try to minimize it. Instead, try to talk to students about more important stuff — what they’re learning, what they’re not learning, what sense they’re making of the material, what information they need to move forward.  

Talk learning, not logistics.

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On Receiving Feedback from my Students

One thing that I’m proud about coming out of my fellowship last year is the newfound confidence that I have as a teacher.  Perhaps it’s related to the validation associated with receiving such a prestigious honor as a Rowland Fellowship, but I believe it’s more likely that this new confidence is more a matter of learning to see my job, and my role as a teacher, in a completely new way than before.

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Let It Rain is Sold Out

The other day I went down to the basement to retrieve three boxes of guidebooks to ship out to a supplier.  As I was rummaging around in the dark corners searching for the once-ubiquitous cardboard boxes bearing the name “Malbaie Press” (my invented publishing company), it began to dawn on me:  there aren’t anymore left. Aside from a few boxes I’d set in my office to keep for posterity, that’s it. Twelve years after publishing my whitewater guidebook, Let It Rain, I’m finally sold out.

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The best book about schools ever written

It took a year of being a school reformer, tasked with making change in my profession, to turn me into an incrementalist.

The most fascinating book ever written about education, to me, is 1995’s Tinkering Toward Utopia.  Written by Larry Cuban and David Tyack, two Stanford education professors, this book — from the first chapter — hell, the first page — smacked me, a would-be school “reformer,” right between the eyes.

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Parenting Your Seven Month-Old

Over the past few months, my wife and I have been embarking on what I’m sure is the most important battle we’ll face in parenting:  regaining our sanity. I’m talking about sleep training. The principal technique I employed was “being an awful person.”

Of course, we started by trying the most humane method: “co-sleeping.” This is where you share a room or even a bed with your child.  It didn’t work. Babies are loud. Co-sleeping would be like if you had a broken alarm clock that went off every 20 minutes and you said to yourself, “You know what, maybe the place to put this thing is in the bed right next to me?”

Soon we opted for the other extreme:  the “cry it out” method. If co-sleeping is compassion, cry-it-out is tough love.  You set your baby in a crib in a different room, close the door, and hope for the best.  It’s hard. Your baby is all alone in a dark room, screaming like he’s being attacked by geese.  He needs you. He needs someone to comfort him and feed him every 11 seconds and mumble soothing words, such as, “Why can’t you go the f to sleep?” But you can’t.  If he learns that crying makes an adult appear, he’ll never sleep alone.  You have to let him “cry it out.” But you feel like an awful person.

My wife, who possesses traits such as compassion and empathy, struggled to resist.  Only a series of textbook open-field tackles by me kept her hand from the nursery doorknob.

I, on the other hand, had no trouble being the bad guy.  Apparently my parenting style is modeled on the evil prison warden Samuel Norton in “The Shawshank Redemption”: “Oh, he’s crying, is he?  Put him in solitary, in the nursery!  Eight hours!”

But it worked.  Hours of screaming shrank to minutes.  Then, magically, he was asleep. Now, he barely grazes the crib and he’s passed out like it’s a NyQuil commercial.

Sometimes a little tough love goes a long way.


It’s not unusual for my wife and me to have lengthy conversations entirely dedicated to describing bodily fluids.  There’s probably a day coming soon when we accidentally forget, and — sitting at a dinner party, sipping wine and making polite conversation about Elizabeth Warren’s immigration proposals — blurt out, “Well, I’m all for migrants’ rights, but right now I need to migrate to the toilet.  The last time I pooped was six hours ago, and if I wait any longer, we’re going to need to do an outfit change, if you know what I mean.”

“Don’t worry, honey, I packed you a spare onesie.”

Even if we don’t slip up in public, at home in private, we find ourselves talking a lot about bodily functions.  But what words to use? Poop and pee are little kid words.  I feel like one of those kindergarten teachers who gets home and forgets she’s not still at work: “Sweetie, before we go out to the club, do you need to make a doody?”

So what other words to use?  For starters, you can’t use bro-ish euphemisms.  Your baby doesn’t have to “take a leak.” He’s not pledging Alpha Delta Phi.  You can’t call out across a roomful of in-laws, “Hey, can you check his diaper and tell me if he took a dump?” Clearly, no.

Of course you’ve got your polite euphemisms, but new parents don’t have time to be polite.  We need specificity. Six month-olds don’t “go to the bathroom” or “visit the restroom.” (Chances are he has already “visited” his diaper.)

I suppose you could go with comic pop-culture phrases.  “Son, do you need to take the Browns to the Super Bowl?” But let’s face it: the Browns will never go to the Super Bowl.

So I have taken to using fancy Latin words instead.  They’re polite, but specific (and make you sound like you’ve been reading Norman Mailer).  Someday my son is going to be in preschool, telling the teacher, “I have to micturate. Don’t worry, already defecated.”


Here’s another parenting decision I’ve had to make.  

With my son riding in the car with me now, I have tried to cut back on cursing at other drivers.  Just what we need on his first day of kindergarten.  Some nervous five year-old walks in front of my son on the way over to the carpet for circle time, when suddenly: “Hey, did you just cut me off, you f—ing s—head?  Where’d you learn to drive? Trump University?”


Speaking of which, can you imagine the pressure on kindergarten teachers?  My wife and I are going to be a mess in our first parent conference: “Alright, what’s our ceiling, here?  Are we talking off-the-charts genius? Or that weird kid who makes bird noises during math? You’re not saying anything.  Should we be thinking Berkley, or low-level TSA? What about mid-level?”

Being a high school teacher is much easier.  By the time kids get to me, their parents have pretty much heard it all.  

“Uh, hi, Mrs. Smith, just wanted to let you know that your son Johnnie . . .”

“I know, I know, he’s a little shit.  We’re literally counting the days until we turn his bedroom into an office.”

Hopefully my wife and I will have some idea before we go to that first conference, but I have a feeling we’ll still be sweating.


Last point.  

It is hard for me, an introvert, not to hope my son turns out to be an extrovert.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the gifts introverts possess — inner fire, reflectiveness, an affinity for deep conversation and intense friendships.  I do. But life is unmistakably easier for extroverts. It’s our culture. Garrulousness is currency. Introspection is suspect; “reserved” is a pejorative term.  The need to escape people (to recharge) is usually confused with disliking them.  

Better to be uncomplicated, an extrovert. An optimist, too, if possible.


Those are my hopes now at seven months. Now if you’ll excuse me, some f—ing jerk just cut me off . . .

Why do Schools Have Sports?

What do you think the most important class is in school?  Math? Science? Social studies? How would you know, anyway?  Because I don’t mean the class that seems the most important.  I mean the class that the school and the community demonstrate, through their actions, is the most important.  There’s one way to know: You’ve got to follow the money.

There are two places we spend money on classes:  time (which is money in schools) and staff. So to locate the most important class, you might start by considering which classes 1) Are given the most time during the school day, or 2) Are best staffed (have the lowest student-teacher ratio).  Sound fair? Let’s look.

Consider two typical classes at an American high school:

  • Class A meets 38 minutes per day, with a student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1.
  • Class B meets 120 minutes per day, with a student-teacher ratio of 10-to-1.

Which one’s more important?  That’s not even hard. So what are they?  What two classes could be so imbalanced, with one so clearly valued over the other?  Does this really happen in modern schools?

The answer is yes.  It happens in almost every school in America, right now.

Class A is English.  Class A is math, or science, or social studies.  Class A is any core academic course.

Class B meets right after school.  It’s two hours long. There are no interruptions.  There are usually two, sometimes three coaches, for a small number of students.  Parents flock to watch Class B. Kids in Class B are celebrated for their accomplishments around the school and community.  Class B can sometimes get them special scholarships to college in ways that any individual class like math or science cannot.  Class B is clearly a lot more important.

Starting to see the picture?

Class B is after-school sports — the most important class in American schools.  

It’s true.  We say we value academics, but the numbers don’t lie: sports get more time and staffing than any academic course.  Every day kids spend more time on the basketball court or the football field than they do in any one academic class.  Total it out over a year for a multi-sport athlete, toss in time spent driving to games and practicing in the summer and it’s not even close.

Teachers know.  Ask any poor English teacher who’s had to run writing groups with a half-empty room because twelve of his students had to leave an hour early for away games.  Ask any principal who has ever strolled into a packed basketball gym and run into a half-dozen parents who’ve ducked parent-teacher conferences for a decade. They know.  Here in America, we love our sports.


But should our schools be the places to house them?

This is the question posed by a fascinating book I just read, Schools That Do Too Much, by Etta Kralovec, published in 2003.  Kralovec believes that sports, expensive and time-consuming, drain public school resources better spent on core academic programming.  Not only that, but Kralovec believes we’re better served by pushing the responsibility for funding and directing sports out to community organizations.

Kralovec traces schools’ stewardship of competitive sports to the early 20th century, when Americans were increasingly utilizing compulsory public education to “Americanize” large numbers of newly-arrived immigrants.  For a time, competitive sports were the purview of student-run athletic associations, until reformers, concerned about the “rowdiness” of student leagues and “driven by the anti-immigrant sentiment of the day” began to insist sports come under the control of government-run schools:

“Believing that sports would be a great way to teach the American virtues of hard work, fair play, and competition, civic and school officials began calling for sports clubs to be housed in public schools.  A public campaign was launched denouncing student-led leagues as unsafe . . . and this was the birth of the institution of school sports.”

To this day, Kralovec writes, sports are so entwined with public education that it’s almost impossible to read a school budget and determine the cost of athletics.  Most Americans don’t even question the arrangement.

But we should.  

Why?  Because, as the title of her book implies, American schools are overburdened.  I agree. It’s starting to become clear to me that early 20th century progressive reformers, who not only saddled public schools with Americanization but with curing social ills, might just have overplayed their hand.  If you make big promises, you just might be held to them. In the wake of both the 1957 launch of Sputnik and 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” responsibility for America’s perceived lack of international economic and technological competitiveness fell squarely on the shoulders of its schools.  This was never fair, and we knew that; later, when the economy boomed and innovation flourished, public schools received none of the credit. It was simply that the increased importance reformers had trained on public schools made them easy targets when things weren’t going well.

But it’s not as though school reformers had made the case to an unwilling public.  In fact, the opposite. As Michael Katz argues in his essay “Public Education as Welfare,” unlike many European countries, we’ve long offered education as the primary social support in lieu of government welfare programs:

“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while other nations were introducing unemployment, old age, and health insurance, the United States was building high schools.”  

According to Katz, in contrast to American ideals of equality, which have always been about “a level playing field where individuals can compete unhindered by obstacles” and in which “education has served as the main mechanism for leveling the field,” European countries “focus on group inequality and the collective mitigation of handicaps and risks that, in the United States, have been left for individuals to deal with on their own.”

Rather than building a social safety net, we built schools, confident that education — along with American virtues of thrift, hard work, and ingenuity — are the most viable escape from poverty and hardship.

In other words, if ed reformers oversold what schools can do, their arguments fell on receptive ears.


All of this supports Kralovec’s argument: by doing too much, schools do little well.  It’s time, Kralovec argues, to rethink our educational goals and to carefully examine what we devote precious time and money to.

What should we do?  Get engaged, says Kralovec.  Attend school board meetings.  Review the budget. Ask to see how much money is spent on competitive sports.  Then ask, how does this money support the goals and mission of the school?

After all, how many students really do play sports?  I don’t think I realized until I became a teacher how few students continue playing competitive sports all the way through high school.  Where I work, by roughly tenth grade, the middle class kids are well on their way to captaining sports teams, padding their college resumes, and being applauded at state championships and at sports banquets.  Meanwhile, the poorer kids are turning in their cleats and jerseys for a 3-9 shift at Shaw’s bagging groceries. They’re not gearing up for the college admissions arms race, and they’d rather have a car than a high batting average.

But sports are expensive.  I looked at the budget for one central Vermont high school.  They spent $741,000 on co-curricular activities. That’s $1,000 per student!  That’s also more money than is spent on Social Studies ($647,279).  Of that money, about $608,000 was spent on sports alone.  Now, add in the $518,983 spent on P.E. and you’ve got $1,126,719.  That’s about 8% of the total school budget. How many kids are actually playing sports?  What’s the cost per student? These are good questions to ask.

And what about the educational value of sports?  This question is raised every year by students I teach who ask, “Why do I still have to take PE classes if I play three sports a year?  Can’t I get PE credit for being on the soccer team?”

This question pits a district’s PE goals, which usually include building habits of lifelong health and wellness, against a competitive sport’s, which are not subject to local or state educational standards.  When was the last time anyone even had a conversation about the learning goals of our sports programs? Where would that even happen?

Here’s how I see it.  I think we view competitive sports as merely an extension of the PE department, although not graded, and not supervised directly by PE teachers.  Sports are enrichment, let’s say — the way the debate team is enrichment. You must take a minimum number of PE classes, then sports exist if you want to further your physical education.  

Fine.  But let’s take a hard look at what that says.  We know that sports often dictate schools’ use of time.  The firmest argument always given to starting and ending school when we do, which we know is developmentally too early for teenagers, is because of sports commitments.  Not to mention all the kids who miss class because of away games. Think about that: Our entire school schedule is dictated in large part by the enrichment activities of one department, paid and administered by the school, but run largely outside of the dictates of local educational standards by coaches who are not required to be licensed educators.  Every school in America does this. When you walk into most schools you see a trophy case full of sports awards, not academic celebrations. It’s interesting to think about.

Also interesting is the surprising extent to which high school sports are already being run by non-school organizations.  Travel soccer teams and AAU basketball teams are more and more common. A few years ago I was taken aback to hear high school students in my class discussing how inferior the play was on the school’s varsity team than on their privately-run travel team.  Perhaps, in the way that other after-school programs are often outsourced to community organizations, someday sports will follow suit. This is what Kralovec advocates.

That said, I don’t see it.  For better or worse, sports are important PR for schools.  They’re a way for the community to feel pride in an institution.  They’re also a powerful “recruiting” tool: many are the young men whose primary attachment to the school is their sense of accomplishment on the football team, their feeling of belonging on the basketball court.  Once a week in the fall they get to wear their game jersey in the halls and feel like a conquering hero, not a remedial math student. There’s a reason most high schools have “spirit weeks” and a reason so many of them train in on sports-centered pep rallies: social climate is important in schools, and sports are a great way to foster pride and connection to the school among students and community members.  Could we accomplish this sense of belonging in other ways in schools? Perhaps. But sports have grown into that space so fully that it’s hard to imagine schools without them.

Schools That Do Too Much asks important questions about values.  What do we spend our time on? What do we spend our money on?  What should be the focus on a school? How much should schools take on given their limited time and money?  Where does this need to take on so much, including competitive sports, come from, historically?

It’s a great read that’ll make you think. I highly recommend it.

The Ideal Student

Let me tell you about the college student that I hope all my high school students become.  

In fact, let me tell you about the college student I wish I’d been.  

He only graduated two years ago but he is already a published author.  His name is Zachary Wood and his new book is called Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America.  I think you should read it.

Wood rose to national prominence while an undergrad as the president of an organization at Williams College called “Uncomfortable Learning,” dedicated to bringing controversial speakers to campus.  Today, two years after graduating, he’s a hero in free speech circles. He writes and speaks to a variety of influential audiences. In the book he writes openly about his desire to run for President someday; a lot of important people who’ve met him don’t laugh at his chances.  After reading this book, I wouldn’t either.

As someone who believes in the First Amendment, it’s challenging to see how in the past five years, in the name of progressive reform, many liberals, perceiving the First Amendment as a protection of systemic discrimination, have turned against free speech.  Long ago, the reverse was true; important gains for liberals during the Civil Rights Era were secured largely through courts’ robust interpretation of the First Amendment to protect liberal activists. Even more challenging has been to see not just conservatives but right wing provocateurs grab the mantle of free expression, using their platforms to do little more than poke at liberals, then position themselves as martyrs when they’re shouted down.

It’s hard not to blame liberals though.  The First Amendment is being used by the Supreme Court to justify increasingly sketchy interpretations of free speech.  Examples include the protection of large companies’ campaign donations as “free speech,” the break-up of unions due to the apparent free speech rights of individual members, and the protection of small business owners’ rights not to service gay customers on the grounds that the very products they sell are somehow speech not to be coerced.  It’s hard not to think that we’ve gotten a little far from the point. When justice Elena Kagan complained that conservatives are “weaponizing the First Amendment,” she had a point. Under the Roberts court free speech is starting to seem less a defense of the powerless than a defense of the powerful.

What good is it then, really?

Enter Zachary Wood.  


Zachary Wood stands out.  When I first read about him, I was not surprised that Wood, a preternaturally gifted spokesperson for viewpoint diversity and a bringer of controversial speakers to his liberal campus, was once vilified by peers as a “white supremacist.” I was surprised to learn that Wood is not even white.  In fact, this vocal critic of ideological homogeneity is not only not a stereotypical white boy college Republican in preppy clothes, or a vaguely white nationalist, anti-this and that-style troll.  Zachary Wood is a liberal, progressive, African American man. Unlike most of his college peers, he is not rich. In fact, he comes from an impoverished background rife with abuse.  It is this background which both directs him toward a political mission of social progressivism but also implores him to pursue very different means of achieving his goals than those of most of his peers: what he terms “uncomfortable learning.” His story is one that means something in today’s divided America.

Let’s start with his background, which is absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever heard about.  Wood’s mother, who raises him, suffers from serious mental health issues which cause her to abuse her son in a vividly-depicted series of escalating confrontations, but at the same time to instill in him a remarkable self-reliance, poise, and conviction.  It’s as if she is teaching him to withstand her in order to withstand greater foes. For example, at one point Wood’s mother, finally under the guidance of mental health professionals, has apparently completed a remarkable turnaround. A naturally articulate and gregarious person, she and Wood are invited to speak, a mother-son team, at mental health conferences as a kind of testament to the power of modern psychological treatment.  Trouble is, she is by no means fully healed, only skilled at hiding it. She continues abusing her son (recounted in some truly dark vignettes) — all the while schooling him in the arts of public speaking in preparation for their conference talks (which are a hit). Even as she privately taunts him with some of the most uncomfortable (and sometimes weirdly sexual) invective I’ve ever read, she demands that he stand tall, make eye contact with her, and never retreat an inch.  It’s truly bizarre: in the process of making life a hell for her son, Wood’s mother is instilling deep pools of courage and resilience.

And it is this courage that allows him, years later, to make his mark.

Here’s what I admire so much about Wood.  He does not court controversy to relish the attention, raise his profile, rankle fellow students needlessly, or even because he agrees with the conservative thinkers he invites to campus.  Instead, over and over again in the book he explains his bedrock belief in the importance of exposure to divergent viewpoints in order to strengthen his own arguments and understanding of the world.  It’s diversity he wants — viewpoint diversity.

If you’re reading this book even half-awake, you quickly realize that Wood’s desire to hear all voices is really just part and parcel with his almost overwhelming hunger to learn.  By high school, Wood, having escaped his mother’s abuse, moves to Washington, D.C. to live with his father, who is caught in a cycle of debt and poverty, despite working three jobs.  Each day, Wood commutes an hour each way by train from his Anacostia neighborhood past gang members and drug addicts who taunt and sometimes beat him, across the city to the uber-rich suburb of Potomac where he attends a fancy private school.  If anything, Wood might work even harder than his father. Although he is popular and well-liked on campus, he is so zealously wrapped up in his learning that at one point he passes out on his makeshift desk, reading all twenty-two of Cornell West’s books in order to say something perceptive during the Q & A at West’s upcoming speaking engagement.  When Wood’s father visits him in the hospital, the first thing Wood asks for is his books. His father, a constant but laconic presence, wisely tells him no — he must restore some semblance of balance in his life.

But this is not just a Horatio Alger story where a young man from a poor family does double time in the library to keep his grades high, before riding a college scholarship straight into law or business school, eventually escaping the cycle of poverty and making partner.  Wood has more than financial gain in mind for his studies. This is why I think Wood is such a role model: It’s not grades he’s interested in, it’s learning.

Wood actively wants to make the world a better place.  Remember, he’s interested in politics. His values are recognizable as social-progressive (which is why it is ironic that he has been hailed by conservatives for his free speech advocacy).  He pauses a number of times for perceptive, politically-tinged asides about his mother’s mental health treatment, his father’s poverty (“it’s expensive to be poor”) and the social conditions that contributed to his dangerous neighborhood.  It’s not hard to see his budding political ambitions.

But perhaps because he has always been an outsider — poor and black in a rich, white private school — he has grown accustomed to trying to understand the way others think, and it dawns on him that if he wants to improve the world we live in, first he must learn everything he possibly can about why the world is the way it is.  This is not just rhetorical. He is not just trying to win the argument. He’s interested in understanding context.  I didn’t learn this until much later in life: the importance of asking not “Why can’t we?” but first “We do we?” Not “Why can’t we end discrimination?” but “Where does discrimination come from?” It’s a similar desire to know that leads him to a voracious reading of history and philosophy, and to an insatiable curiosity to listen to his ideological opponents.

During high school, Wood presses his wealthy white peers (and sometimes their parents) as far as he thinks he can, trying to learn why they think the way they do.  But it’s not until he attends a summer program at Stanford University, where he engages in a series of classic late-night common room debates with a genial conservative friend that he learns the thrill of intellectual debate.

Then he gets to Williams College.  

Suffice to say, his small, elite New England campus — which he chose for the rigorous tutorial program (of which he makes characteristically voracious use) — does not offer this same kind of robust debate.  Wood finds himself in an ideological bubble where most students and even professors subscribe to the same set of progressive-left values.  It is for this reason that Wood takes up with a student group called Uncomfortable Conversations, and immediately begins pushing the campus to engage in the kinds of debates that he believes are urgent.

When Wood invites a series of increasingly controversial speakers to campus, the backlash is fierce.  Wood tells a number of anecdotes about how vilified he becomes. The most disturbing is a death threat he receives, a drawing of a tree with a message strongly implying he should be lynched.  That Wood is African American and poor makes it especially striking when many of his peers at Williams, most of whom are white and rich, criticize him, with one of them labeling him a “white supremacist.” What’s awkward is that most of his peers and professors — even the ones who are African American — are card-carrying progressives, whose discomfort with the dissenting views that Wood seeks to bring to campus is partly based on the desire to protect minorities like Wood himself from discrimination and harm.  Consider the irony of a historically white campus like Williams trying to create a welcoming environment for persons of color by opposing the efforts of and even personally vilifying Zachary Wood — just the sort of poor, minority student they’re claiming to protect.

It’s not surprising then that conservative media adopted Wood for their own cause, but for all his classmates’ protestations, Wood time and time again reiterates that while he shares their progressive ideals, he just wants to better equip himself against his opponents:

“I wanted to push myself even more to immerse myself in the complexities of what my opponents thought and felt so that I could use them in service of my own goals . . . If I knew my opponent well enough to confidently conjecture his moves and lines of reasoning, I could act astutely and respond effectively.”

And this is what I think is so promising about Wood’s approach.  We can only convince people if we understand where they’re coming from.  The more we remain in ideological echo-chambers, the more we caricature the other side’s beliefs and motivations.  In a way, we not only allow them to dehumanize us, but we dehumanize them.

Perceptive readers soon realize that in the end it is not the conservative speakers who Wood invites to campus that are his true adversaries — it’s his intolerant peers.  They are his best training. It is their arguments he finds himself most seeking to understand, their hearts and minds he tries hardest to win over. He came to Williams College looking for debate and he found it — except it was among his own kind.

I know I never would have had the courage to be a Zachary Wood, especially while I was in college.  It’s hard to imagine withstanding the censure of one’s peers the way he did, especially on a small rural campus, particularly with your name in the national headlines.  Even more importantly, I can’t imagine ever having had the wisdom and perspective of a Zachary Wood when I was 28, let alone 18. Imagine being mature enough to resolve to set an entire campus on its head because of a far-sighted principle.  To be fair, there are moments in this book that remind you how young and idealistic Wood is, and how fresh and unprocessed many of these experiences are, how unmitigated by reflection and time. But generally I found myself coming up short time and again at Wood’s old-soul perspective on the importance of both viewpoint diversity, intellectual curiosity, and of simple, old-fashioned reading and studying as a compelling counterpoint to the ideological division, the rush to judgment, and the tribalism that dominates our politics today.

These are the qualities I admire in Zachary Wood.  These are also the qualities I aspire for my own students to have.  They are finally the qualities I aspire to have myself. Read this book and take note of Zachary Wood.  Something tells me we’ll be hearing a lot more about him.

Putting Off PBL

It doesn’t seem as though there’s a lot of talk online about the VTDigger news story that came out this week:  The Vermont NEA is calling to delay the Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) graduation requirement, which is set to go live for next year’s seniors. My sense from talking to colleagues is that many of us expected something like this to happen, perhaps even sooner than it did. I’ve been surprised by the relative lack of vocal opposition to PBL here in Vermont. But then this is the moment — as the first PBL graduating class closes in on their final year — when PBL’s requirements start to seem very, very real.

Then again, it’s hard to know how seriously to take this delay proposal. Right now, it’s just the NEA saying this.  It’s not Montpelier. And even the NEA doesn’t sound like they’ve got their minds made up.  Maybe the talk of a delay will all blow over? Then again, I remember a few years ago the Maine NEA came out against PBL, and it wasn’t long afterward that the mandate was strongly scrutinized, then dropped entirely. The NEA proposal is surely a harbinger.

But Vermont is unique. Let me step back and say I’m proud to teach in Vermont.  You start talking to teachers in other states — or even following the news — and it starts to dawn on you how good we’ve got it here. Watching the tumultuous year we’ve had in education — the teacher strikes, funding wars, the fights over whether to arm teachers — I’ve often thought, “That’ll never happen in Vermont.” Often it’s true.

Think about it: We had a Republican governor change our gun laws because of a school shooting that didn’t even happen.  Where else do you get that?

This is not to say we don’t have our problems.  Those are well documented. But we are more sensible than most. We never bought in hard into the punitive ed reforms of the last twenty years: test, punish, repeat.  We don’t just say we value schools, we actually open our wallets. Our schools are some of the best funded in the country. Our classes are small and our student-teacher ratios are low. And unlike every other state in the union, we actually know our American history.

Once again, I am not suggesting Vermont’s schools are perfect. I’ve written many, many words to the contrary. But I think it’s easy to forget, as we dwell on the problems of declining demographics, how unique we are.

I think the main thing that makes Vermont’s schools so different from other states where I’ve worked is our progressive values.  We like to see ourselves on the cutting edge.  PBL, although it descends from old ideas, is still a radical departure from today’s educational mainstream, scrapping age-old pedagogical mainstays like the Carnegie Unit and the alpha grading scale.  PBL as Vermont envisions it is progressive and student-centered. Taken alongside the rest of Act 77 — Flexible Pathways, Personalized Learning — it is innovative and bold.

Or is it untested and unproven?  

That’s the dilemma. Because the problem with being an innovator is that sometimes what you’re attempting isn’t research-based simply because it hasn’t been tried before.  I see that tension now in Vermont. We want to innovate but we don’t want to harm. PBL advocates have never been able to point teachers toward any clear, reassuring models of PBL done at scale. We’re told to pattern our work on embryonic charter schools, or lone districts in Alaska. I always thought it was interesting that PBL advocates never talk about the mastery learning movement in the 1960s and 70s, the minimum competency movement in the 1970s and 80s, or the outcome-based education movement in the 1990s. You rarely hear competency or proficiency backers mention William Spady or even Benjamin Bloom. If anything, the pivot to different names for the movement (how interesting that two states sharing a border — New Hampshire and Vermont — call the same reform by two different names) is really a pivot to better branding. It’s as though advocates, wary of getting bogged down in the very real debates about efficacy and values that happened in schools during previous incarnations of PBL, wish to shroud these earlier efforts from teachers and voters. As a teacher, that’s part of what has been maddening under this mandate: we’ve spent six years being told we should show kids models of what we want, and clarity of objectives — yet we aren’t given a single convincing model ourselves of what PBL should look like, or any kind of historical clarity about the origins and evolution of the movement we’ve adopted.

Here in Vermont, are we innovating — or flying blind?  I guess it depends on who you ask.

So into that context is dropped this slightly awkward news article. Now the Vermont NEA is asking for a delay to the PBL requirement.  As I said, I’m not surprised. Maine delayed their PBL graduation requirement, too (before getting rid of it last year).

Should Vermont do the same and delay?

Here’s my answer:  Don’t.

First of all, a delay kills our credibility with students and families.  Right now I’d argue that we’re at the make-or-break moment. Our first PBL-graduating class is now second-semester juniors.  As the reluctant guinea pigs for five years, they’re not only conscious they’re being experimented on, they’ve passed through the stages of PBL-related grief, and now as a few colleagues and I have joked, they’ve finally arrived at acceptance. This has only happened because they’ve finally realized that we’re not joking — they’re actually going to have to meet all of these different proficiencies if they want to walk across the graduation stage next year.  If lawmakers pull the plug now, right as students have finally resigned / committed themselves to the new system, we’ll undercut years of work getting them to buy in. Not to mention we’ll ruin educators’ credibility with subsequent graduation classes. Future students may think, “If they delayed it once, they’ll delay it again.” Children are often very good observers of adult behavior, after all.

A delay will also undercut teacher support.  By now we’ve spent years of our lives learning complex, even experimental new methods of instruction, curriculum design, and assessment.  We’ve chained ourselves to the computer night after night, doing reams and reams of additional PBL data entry, all while fielding a slew of new questions from parents about the new system. Most importantly, we’ve been the ones standing in front of a crowd of resistant teenagers and selling a system we’ve often struggled to understand ourselves. If lawmakers show us they don’t have the will to finish what they’ve started, they’ll lose credibility with us for the next statewide reform. Why invest next time if Montpelier’s just going to renege?

Lastly, a delay accomplishes nothing.  We’ve already had five years; what’s another going to accomplish? A delay three years ago might have helped us tighten and clarify, but by now the main questions we must answer all require the final “summative assessment” of a PBL-determined graduation: Is the bar set in the right place? Does our new system articulate the proficiencies that teachers and parents actually value? Are all schools graduating students on equal standards?  The pressure of high school graduation has a way of clarifying important questions. And we need the answers. A delay gives us none.

I understand that people are worried about what’ll happen when you try to graduate students under PBL.  I think the main worry is that we just don’t know what’ll happen. Sometimes PBL reminds me of screenwriting legend William Goldman’s famous quip about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Partly because we’ve tried to cover up the past experiments in mastery and outcome-based learning, we’re not sure how this is going to turn out. It’s uncharted territory.

But that’s what Act 77 asked for. The price you pay for being innovative is that you have to be comfortable with taking risks.  We venerate men like Steve Jobs while forgetting that he failed repeatedly. The old system is familiar and safe, and most educators rightly sense a lot of uncomfortable problems we’ll have to face next year. But isn’t it better to face them sooner rather than later?  

Because too often with bold reforms, facing your problems later can quickly turn into never facing them at all.

(Update: I had just published this post before seeing this new story. Apparently the AOE is now opening the door to a delay now too.)

The Immovable Mountain

A few years back, Chuck Scranton, long-time Vermont high school principal and now the Executive Director of the Rowland Foundation, gave a TEDx talk called “The Immovable Mountain.” It’s a great metaphor for what educators seeking change are up against.  What Scranton was referring to was the mammoth weight blocking the path of any would-be school reformer or innovator.  It represents a lot of obstacles. The immovable mountain is the Carnegie Unit. The immovable mountain is the schedule.  The immovable mountain is the need to parcel out learning into eight separate, discrete classes every day in different rooms.  All of these “facts” of American education have proved next to impossible for even the most intrepid public school “change agents” to displace.  

The reason is, people know what a ‘real school’ looks like — it has bells and lockers, and eight separate subjects, and last 6.5 hours, and final exams, and letter grades.  There aren’t wacky semester-long projects, or free comings-and-goings in the halls, or long breaks in the middle of the day for sports, or student taught classes. A “real school” is what we know — and deep down, despite our desire for positive change, that’s what we want.  The immovable mountain, in other words, is tradition.

This year I was lucky enough to receive one of those Rowland Fellowships, but last year, during my interview with Chuck Scranton, he asked me pointedly how I hoped to change “the immovable mountain.” Since that day, even before my fellowship began, I made it a point to learn as much as I could about where that immovable mountain came from, and why, exactly, it’s so hard to move.  I wanted to know who had tried to move it, and why they failed.

Up to this point, I’d not read much professionally.  Then starting last winter, soon after Chuck asked me that question, I began reading, hurriedly, about educational history, reform, and theory.  Sometimes — more than I ever imagined — I’d come across a nugget of insight so fascinating that I found my basic understanding of the job I’d been doing for nine years subtly altered, some new light shed on a practice I’d never understood or questioned.  I read many of the school history and school reform classics — Tinkering Toward Utopia, Horace’s Hope, and — almost by accident, a mind-blowing book called Schoolteacher by Dan Lortie.  

Lortie’s book, written in 1976, is a sociological study at the teaching profession.  It sounds dry, doesn’t it? Let’s just say that sociology wasn’t my usual go-to genre before this.  But within the first few pages I was riveted, and after finishing this book, which is as fresh and current as if it’d been written last month, I’ve become a major believer in the analytic tools of the sociologist to shed light on exactly what makes a group of people tick and move.  It’s the most penetrating analysis I’ve ever read. What was remarkable about it was that here was a book that was explaining to me what I am, as a teacher, in ways I’d never considered. The second I put it down as I finished the last page, I knew I’d be rereading it again within a year.

I was reminded of its power the other day, when I happened to pick it up from behind my bedside nightstand or wherever it had fallen to (my house is filled with such remnants; while I’m spotless-clean at work, I’m less fastidious at home, and also something of a compulsive partial rereader, strewing half-reread books across the house).  I wanted to share a short gem of an insight that I came across this weekend, flipping through the early pages again while making tea.

Let me set the context.  One of the biggest wishes of would-be school reformers, particularly practitioner-reformers, is the notion that teachers should teach in teams.  Many schools do this — math and science together, social studies and English together, formed into interdisciplinary classes. Or even better — all four teachers banded together to teach one large group of kids in one academy-style “school-within-a-school.” In Ted Sizer’s famous and influential book, Horace’s Hope, this vision was central to the Platonic Good School that the fictional school committee seeks to found.  It is, in a way, Horace’s Dream. And teaming has been the lodestar of many other progressive school reformers going back decades.  Even Chuck Scranton’s TedX talk specifically referenced this as a promising model of school change, citing examples of initiatives funded by the Rowland Foundation in Vermont over the years.  In fact, two of my cohort classmates now are working on setting up a similar program at a school here in central Vermont. It’s a great model.

So why aren’t more schools doing it?  What exactly is the “immovable mountain” standing against such an agreed-upon progressive reform.  After all, when you learn more about educational history, you know that this reform isn’t exactly new.  In fact, it was a major tenet of the Eight Year Study, a major educational reform movement in the 1930s, which sought to break up the cellular nature of traditional schools to allow a more integrated, student-led curriculum, team-taught curriculum to flourish.

So, what’s the problem?  

Obviously tradition gets in the way — the notion of what a ‘real school’ is.  (That’s really the main thesis of another mind-expanding book I read, Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s Tinkering Toward Utopia.)

But there’s more — and that’s where Lortie comes in.

Here’s where Lortie showed me the answer.  Early in his book, he writes about American education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In particular, Lortie highlights how the employment regulations of female teachers influenced the development of the profession: “Continued growth of the public school system required the services of thousands upon thousands of young, single women.  This pool of personnel has never produced a high proportion of teachers ready to commit many years to work outside the home;” [this part feels dated, but for a long time was likely a fair statement] “and the problem of turnover was compounded by school board policies which ruled out the employment of married women. Such restrictions prevailed well into the twentieth century.”

Wait — what?

“In short, teaching was institutionalized as high turnover work during the nineteenth century and the modern occupation bears the marks of earlier circumstance.”

This is fascinating — so the fact that public schools were growing rapidly in number and size, and that for a long time the only people they could get to staff them were young, unmarried women (who could only work, presumably, for a short time until they married) — all meant that teaching was “institutionalized” (what a great word) as a high-turnover profession?  


I’d never heard of this idea of a “marriage bar.” But here’s a fun fact: up until the start of World War II, 87% of districts refused to hire married women, and 70% refused to keep single women who married.  So much for job security and fair hiring practices!

But there’s more.  Here’s where it connects to team teaching — and the immovable mountain.  Because schools adapted their very structures, says Lortie, to fit that employee transience:

“It was easier for those governing schools to see them[selves] as aggregates of classroom units, as collections of independent cells, than as tightly integrated ‘organisms’ . . .  New teachers could readily be placed in the former teachers’ classrooms with new groups of students. Such flexibility was possible as long as teachers worked independently; but had their tasks been closely interwoven, the comings and goings of staff members would have created administrative problems.”

Again, fascinating.  This is why teaming never caught on.  It wasn’t because teachers were anti-social.  It wasn’t because they didn’t think co-teaching was solid pedagogy trick.  Instead, it was administrative. According to Lortie, the primary historical reason teachers don’t team teach is because they were forced to leave the profession so frequently because of marriage restrictions that it was just easier to plug them into their own rooms to teach than to try to work them into teams.

And according to Lortie, this was still the case even after the marriage restrictions were lifted.  He hints in this section at what he’ll talk about subsequently: that later on, schools were largely staffed by married women, who cycled in and out of the profession (this was long before the advent of modern maternity leave) in order to have families.  This only fed the existing need for teachers to be easily replaceable and in turn only reinforced the “egg crate” design of separated classrooms — with the goal of a relatively porous workforce causing minimal disruption to existing structures. In short, teachers came and went so frequently that teaming was hard.

This notion of teacher transience seems at odds with the traditional notion of teaching as a stable profession, union-protected, a job staffed by fairly domestic, settled professionals dedicated to community service and uninterested in career advancement.  

And yet, teaching is a profession that allows us the freedom to move.  If I suddenly wanted to pick up and move to the Rocky Mountains, I could probably find an English teaching job in any kind of town I wanted: big city, college town, small village in the mountains.  They’ve all got high schools. They all need teachers. Part of what drew me to teaching, if I’m being honest, was that flexibility. I knew that if I was suddenly gripped with the need to reroute my life to, say, Big Sky, Montana to ski, or McCall, Idaho to kayak, I could probably get a job right there in one of those towns.  (If I was a math teacher instead of an English teacher, I bet I could all but name my salary.)

When I think back on it, I’m always surprised at how many coworkers have come and gone at the school where I work.  Although I teach in a stable, happy school with good pay and good morale, in the past eight years, I’ve had no fewer than eight fairly young coworkers in my department of ten leave.  This is not even counting the four who’ve retired. When I think back on it, two of my coworkers left to become administrators, but a number of them simply moved away. They went down south to be back with family, out west to chase warm weather and dreams, to the big city to be around friends and like-minded people.  

And this ability to simply pick up and plug into another school is significant, because it both reflects the historical norms Lortie describes and reinforces them.  Schools are not like law firms, where you work your way up, slide into larger offices, fancier titles, and higher pay by dint of serving that specific firm. In schools there is no real hope of upward movement if you wish to stay in teaching, and no hope of any more than the same incremental upward movement in salary as everyone else.  If you were to pick up and go to another district, you’d theoretically start at the same step on the salary scale you’d been on before, by virtue of your experience level — not start back at the beginning. In this sense, just as Lortie described, teaching is a career that makes it okay to come and go — either from the profession, or to and from different schools.  That I think explains a lot of the turnover even in good schools like the one where I work.

But if people are cycling in and out, team teaching becomes much harder.  Teaming takes time and effort getting to know and understand your partner.  That becomes very difficult to do if you start having to replace too many faculty.  It’s hard enough even if you’re not co-teaching, but merely working on content teams, or on middle school core teams that call for common planning but separate instruction in different rooms.  

I remember a few years ago I was on two content teams — a ninth grade English team, and a tenth grade English team. I started with four colleagues between the two teams, and within three years, five new teachers had cycled into different positions on the team.  I vividly remember my experience on the tenth grade team, spending an entire year with one coworker, planning the course, learning how to work with each other, building a shared understanding of the other’s style and perspectives. Then one day she informed me that she’d be leaving for another school at the end of the year.  The next semester I teamed with her replacement, a dynamic and talented educator, but a wholly new person with a different style, background, and lack of familiarity with not only the curriculum but with the school itself. I remember feeling, partway through the year after several disagreements, as though I was back at square one.  While I enjoyed the experience, I got the sneaking suspicion that this woman herself, new to the state, would soon leave the school and the region as well. Within another year, she left the state. I had already moved on to teaming with others.

While working with new people can be invigorating, it can also be exhausting.  Training someone new, even an experienced veteran, can be a lot of work. Every school runs differently, and even similar courses at different schools — American Lit in School 1 and School 2 — can be composed of such different books, assignments, and grading standards as to make it practically a new course to learn.  No two student bodies are the same either. It takes time to get a new teacher up to speed.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like if these coworkers and I had been team teaching, rather than merely planning together.  I think it would have been almost unworkable by even the second year. You have to keep the band together, at least for a while — and that can be hard.

That’s Lortie’s point.  Because teaching is set up to be each person in a discrete classroom, it’s easier to imagine switching schools if you want to move.  And because this ability to move has become a well-known featuring of the profession, that in turn further increases the likelihood that teaching arrangements will be cellular rather than truly co-taught.  This is not to say that teaming is a bad model, only that the historical forces aligned against it in public schools run deep.

I love learning stuff like this — about how the early days of public education in the United States dictated what was to come in ways often overt and conscious, but often subtle and below the radar.  I highly recommend Dan Lortie’s book if you’re interested in uncovering the nature of why our jobs are the way they are.

I’ll think about this now every time I hear someone wonder why schools don’t do this or do that, especially if they’re wondering why teachers don’t co-teach or team-teach in academies with their coworkers.  Because the immovable mountain’s not just tradition — it’s a response to historical working conditions that continue to define our jobs in ways we rarely detect.

In the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

It doesn’t have to define us, but often it does.  If we’re to have any prayer of escaping the grip of the past, we must understand its influence and how it continues to shape our profession.

I recommend Dan Lortie.

Know Your Place

As a first-year teacher, I’d say one of the worst role models you could have is Miss Caroline from To Kill a Mockingbird. You don’t want to be Miss Caroline.

(But chances are, during your first year, at least for a while, you probably will.)

Remember her?  Miss Caroline is Scout’s teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Harper Lee’s characterization of this type is timeless:  fresh out of college, brand-new to teaching and to the town she’s teaching in, hailing, of course, from a more sophisticated part of the state, she is both incredibly confident in her fancy new ed techniques . . . and woefully unprepared for the reality of the job. She cries on the first day — in front of her students. Doesn’t get much worse than that.

But what’s most memorable is how ignorant she is of the community where she has been assigned to teach. Her cultural missteps come one after another. First she insists Walter Cunningham, a boy from a poor but proud family, to accept a loan for lunch money. Then she tries to force Burris Ewell, from a family that does not or cannot bathe, to go home and clean himself. Both times, it is Scout, on her first day of school, who has to gently correct her. It’s a nice little exposition device to introduce the town’s families, but more than that, it hits on a truth.

More often than not, new teachers are just this ignorant.  Placed in districts far from home, often in very different types of communities than they grew up in, thrown into classrooms on the first day with hardly a drive through the local neighborhoods, they’re liable to begin their jobs without knowledge of the local town, its people, or its customs.  You don’t want to be Miss Caroline when you start out, but chances are you probably will be.

And yet even as we become more experienced teachers — and the Burris Ewells of the world no longer unnerve us with their lice and with their profanity — still the culture and the customs of the communities we teach in sometimes continue to elude us.  This is a problem because a thorough understanding of your students’ cultural and social context is, in its own way, every bit as helpful to a teacher as knowledge of their reading and writing abilities.

I have been thinking a lot about this because I have been reading Christopher Emdin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood (and the Rest of Y’all Too): Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education.  Emdin’s thesis — quite a provocative one — is that modern urban students are akin to “neoindigenous” peoples — “colonized” by (primarily white) educators who see the culture and values of inner city children as inferior and in need of shedding at the schoolhouse gate.  It sounds extreme, but the way Emdin explains it makes a lot of sense. It instantly had me thinking about:

1) “No excuses” militaristic urban charter schools such as KIPP.  These schools are basically the army. Kids learn to do everything as their told — even to track teachers with their eyes.  It always struck me that no white, middle class parent where I live would EVER allow their children to be educated this way — to be forced to drop their cultural values at the door, to adopt an entirely different mode and manner of speaking, forced to spend huge amounts of time at school and on homework, all with the overt goal of removing them from their neighborhoods and families.  (Now that I think about it, “colonization” might be too light a term.)

2)  Test prep-heavy urban public schools that pump kids full of rote memorization in order to inch past the cut-off scores on the all-important standardized tests.  These approaches proliferated under NCLB, throwing music, arts, and everything else not nailed straight out the window in favor of endless hours of prep in math and reading.  Once again, it always struck me that no middle class white parents would ever allow this to happen.

Both of these kinds of places are classic examples of schools believing that it is their mission to teach students whose cultural values are so different, or whose skills are so deficient, that a plowing-over of who they are and where they come from is essential to educating them.  It’s educational boot-camp, educational occupation. It’s amazingly common.

But Emdin’s problem isn’t just with the brute heart of the system itself.  It’s with the system’s emissaries — the teachers — who don’t bother to become interested in the communities they work in.

Most of us are like this at the beginning.  I remember the first public school I taught in.  It was a small, rural public school in Vermont — and I completely misunderstood the culture.  It was the sort of school that devotes a day during spirit week to a “camo day” — and everyone in the school wears camouflage everything (boots, hats — even, later in the year, a camo prom dress).  The students love country music and working on engines. In the fall the student parking lot was filled with rows of souped-up pick-up trucks. In the winter these same spaces were taken up with snowmobiles which the junior and senior boys rode to school.  In the mornings, boys tracked mud into school from their barn chores.

It was also a community rife with the sort of poverty I’d never studied in grad school — rural poverty.  In the wake of the Great Recession, jobs were scarce. Already the first signs of opioid addiction were appearing, though we didn’t realize it at the time.  Alcoholism and unemployment were easier to identify. So were neglect and abuse of all types. Just a year before, a girl had been kidnapped and murdered in the next town.  It was, again, the sort of town I’d not read about or studied, and it caught me off guard. It was as though this kind of rural poverty was almost unnoticed beside the much greater problems of urban schools and communities.  Years later, I thought about towns like this, so overlooked, when voters in these kinds of towns sent Donald Trump to the White House because he seemed to remember them.

It was hard sometimes not to read this community, with so many poor, needy students and with such obvious blue-collar rural values, as places that did not value academic learning.  It became easy as a teacher to believe that our job was to inure them against their own impulses, to inculcate in them the same values and ideals with which we ourselves had been raised.  It was a game of “us versus them.”

But education at its best should never be that way.  How ineffective this is for a teacher! I remember the amount of time I spent fighting with my students over trivial matters.  That year, I disallowed them to say the word “crap” in my classroom. I considered it vulgar. Now I realize that enforcing such a petty rule asked my students, in some small but important way, to reject who they were.  You can’t very well tell a young man that his father is course and mean and expect him to wish to learn from you.

This is not the way to educate kids.  Instead, teachers must tap into precisely who students are at their deepest levels.  They must feel as though they matter to their teachers if there is to be any hope of learning from their teachers.  Good teachers have a way of being able to take a student from where he is to where he is capable of going with some help.  But we can only do this if we understand students — both the origins of their misconceptions, but also their preoccupations and cultural values.  In this sense, education is always “local”; you simply cannot teach two groups of students from vastly different communities the same way. You will not reach them.

But it is not easy to understand fully the context of the community you teach in.  That school in rural Vermont is a case in point. Outwardly, it should have been an easy context for me to understand.  My students and I were of the same race, and grew up in similar rural communities. Not only that, I was born in Vermont and lived there for years.  And yet even I missed badly just what these students loved and valued. The United States is, it seems to me, a much harder place to be a teacher than other countries precisely because of its vastness and diversity. If I had this much trouble misreading my students in a place so close to home, how would I have done in another region entirely?

Now I am not saying that all students arrive at school with attitudes and values that we teachers are obligated to respect.  In every community in the United States are students who arrive at the school door having learned how to bully, how to hate, how to curse and scream until they worm their way out of work.  

What I am saying is that you get nowhere as a teacher dismissing your students because of their perceived backgrounds or cultural values.  What I am saying is that if we wish to bring students from where they now to where they can be at their best, we must understand where they’re truly starting from.

It’s hard, it takes time, and it takes a kind of humility.  We must listen, and we must open our eyes, and we must not be too quick to judge.  We must have careful conversations with our communities about values, about what an ideal education looks like for graduates — and real conversations about what we need to attain that vision.  But we must start by understanding the place we’re teaching in.

Because you don’t want to be Miss Caroline — not for too long, anyway.