Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Yes, There is a Parenting Manual

Parenting is an exciting, heartwarming, challenging, fascinating, wonderful time in our lives, and it's important to know we are not alone in figuring out how to do it. Contrary to many quips from people who believe there is "no instruction manual for a child," there are plenty of parenting books to guide our decisions, actions, and feelings. Here's my piece from the April 1 version of The Villager:

Yes, there’s a Parenting Manual

At age fifty-one, with two kids in high school and college respectively, I look back with pride and a bit of relief I didn’t screw it up.

In reflecting on how we got to this point, my wife and I recalled getting ready to welcome our first child by reading. We read and talked a lot about parenting before we started living it. Just like we always did before planning a trip, we researched, heading to the bookstore and library in search of what was known about the experience we were about to embrace. Obviously it helped that we were both educators and natural readers. It has also helped we somehow have two incredibly amazing kids. In fact, we might not actually be good parents because in some ways we haven’t parented. Of course, that just means we haven’t struggled with managing their behavior. In reality, we’ve parented every minute of our kids’ lives, even when that means stepping back, giving them autonomy and freedom.

Parenting is undoubtedly an uncertain and ever-evolving series of events, and most parents advise newbies that you can never fully prepare for what comes next. However, that doesn’t mean there is no store of knowledge and wisdom about parenting. Sadly, too many people feel they are destined to fly blind, living in a state of crisis management throughout the childhood years. I recall an episode of Oprah when a guest lamented to Dr. Phil, “you know, there’s no parenting manual.” Both Oprah and Dr. Phil nodded, exclaiming, “That’s right, there is no parenting manual.” It’s not like the hospital gives you a user's manual as you head out the door, right? My wife and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. “Of course there’s a parenting manual,” we protested to the TV. In fact, dozens sprang to mind without even doing an Amazon search.

Being a Gen X child of a 70s upbringing, I remember my mom talking about Dr. Spock, the pediatrician whose 1946 bestseller The Common Book of Baby & Child Care influenced post-World War II parenting. Granted, much discussion these days is about everything Dr. Spock got wrong, but there’s no denying the significance of his book and his simple faith in the parenting instinct which reminds us “you know more than you think you do.” Dr. Spock had plenty of detailed advice on how new parents could raise and nurture their children into adults. His revolutionary tome broke with traditions in parenting by encouraging parents to not follow strict rules but to see their children as individuals. It’s an adaptive model used to raise two generations.

In contemporary America, the parenting self-help bookshelf has greatly expanded, and the industry now has specialized genres on everything from feeding your child to getting them to sleep. There are books on literacy and emotional intelligence and allergies and toy selection. There’s no shortage of books on discipline, with full manuscripts about whether or not to spank (Helpful Hint: don’t). In fact, two enterprising parents and “parenting coaches,” Carole and Nadim Saad wrote Kids Don’t Come with a Manual, a bestseller which has since become a series. However, if I am advising a future parent, I think it starts with the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which should be a mandatory baby shower gift, and it should always be paired with What to Expect the First Year. If my wife and I reflect on our experience, the next most significant book we read was Proactive Parenting. And, of course, many people will swear by the “parenting Bible,” How to Talk so your Kids will Listen, and Listen so your Kids will Talk.

Some parenting manuals aren’t guidebooks, as much as they are memoirs of success and failure, sharing tips on how to raise children the French way, or singing the praises of tiger moms and hipster dads. As the parents of two successful children, my wife and I have often fielded not only compliments but queries about what we did. Mostly, we have read and talked a lot about parenting.

So, that’s the crux of my advice: there is a parenting manual, and there is one that is perfect for you and your child. Now read it.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Do's & Don'ts of Hybrid Teaching

 A few weeks ago, as many schools nationwide returned to the physical classroom for the first time in a year, I was asked by educator and ed writer Larry Ferlazzo, who blogs at EdWeek, to write a piece advising teachers who've been remote on how to return to class in a hybrid model. It started with a response to Larry's tweet asking for advice on online and hybrid learning. My comment was "You can't recreate the physical classroom online; don't even try." My response piece on advice about hybrid learning is below for anyone who doesn't have access to EdWeek:

Do’s & Don’ts of Hybrid Learning

If we’ve learned anything during the past year of remote learning, it’s this: you cannot replicate the physical classroom in an online setting. Don’t even try.

A quick bell starter in an actual classroom might be a statement or question followed by a whip-around with a few students commenting or responding. The teacher can assess a great deal through the comments, responses, facial expressions, nods, and even by walking the classroom to peer over shoulders at who wrote down what. Last spring many of us mistakenly tried to recreate that experience online with discussion boards on Schoology or Canvas. Big mistake. What takes a couple minutes in class with natural, fluid responses could easily become hours of forced work online.

The pandemic has given educators many unexpected lessons about kids and content, pedagogy and learning. Online learning was conceived, intended, and designed for self-directed, intrinsically motivated, independent learners. It was never meant to be a pandemic response or health crisis safety valve. Yet, out of necessity we’ve developed tools and techniques we’ll hold on to even in more normal times.

Now, as many schools that have been on remote learning for most of the year head back to the classroom in various forms of hybrid learning, it’s important to think about what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly, remember that we physically go to school for human connection and to be a part of a learning community. We miss each other. Our kids miss each other. This will be their only class time to directly interact with classmates, so let students connect with us and each other. Encourage it. Plan for it. Expect it.

Let them talk, chat, collaborate, engage, share and use their peers for learning and support. Pre-plan how you will group kids, and stick with standard groups so time is not lost daily pairing up. Collaboration can be very tough online, and let’s face it, kids don’t like breakout rooms and don’t talk when we’re not checking in. Since time together is limited in person, plan and use discussion protocols to keep kids on track and maximize class time. However, don’t micromanage the time you give them. Plan for interaction but also let the connections be organic and natural.

A colleague summed up the in-person approach well for me: “I’m a teacher, so when the kids are actually in front of me, I’m going to teach.” Don’t waste any precious class time with tasks or materials that can be handled online. Thus, don’t spend time on announcements or review, and it should go without saying, but don’t show videos in class. Any tech or media use should have little-to-no set-up time. Make sure students know the lesson plan and objectives before they arrive, but POST IT ANYWAY everyday.

Direct instruction is fine, but remember the lessons of books like No More Teaching as Telling by Cris Tovani and Elizabeth Birr Moje, and don’t use the time to be a simple presenter of information. For many teachers doing hybrid all year, it’s now a natural instinct to front load and frame the week’s lessons with an intro video and resources. In any part of instruction, allow time for questions. Present then query, question, reframe, and follow up. Call on kids, but rethink how you question. It’s subtle but effective to shift from asking whether they have questions to querying, “What questions do you have?” And set realistic goals and timelines for classroom instruction because depending on the hybrid schedule, you likely can’t just plan to go over or pick it up the next day. In checking for understanding, another teacher told me, “All my assessments are online and virtual.” We can't afford to use class time watching kids take tests.

As always, listen to the kids and be responsive to their needs. My fifteen-year-old daughter candidly said, “I actually kinda like the hybrid schedule.” While she expressed uncertainty about learning enough and being prepared for next year, she’s actually grown comfortable with two days in person and a couple others to do the work, study, review, and get help during office hours. Her most important advice for teachers was to plan carefully so it didn’t feel like two separate classes, one online and another in-person. “Don’t have due dates for online work the night of the synchronous class,” she urged me.

Finally, when kids are in your physical presence, don’t sacrifice the social-emotional elements and the classroom culture. Take advantage of the simple but easily overlooked detail of eye contact. Ultimately, we need to be honest and candid in identifying and planning for our non-negotiables, our learning targets, and our exit standards.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Business/Marketing 101 for Rockies Ownership

The people of Colorado are no doubt thrilled to be hosting the All Star Game this year, but that's about all there is to celebrate in regards to the home team. It's tough to be a Rockies fan these days, especially after the loss of franchise player Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals. The hardest part is knowing that inept ownership and central management is the problem. Here's my column in The Villager with advice to the Monfort brothers about how to run a mid-market team:

Business/Marketing 101 for Rockies Ownership

Sometimes the free market doesn’t seem to operate as it should. Anyone who’s taken a basic econ or business class knows the market and consumers should decide winners and losers. A well-run company putting out a quality product should profit while a poorly-run business with a consistently substandard and disappointing product should struggle and ultimately fail if it doesn’t change its course or leadership. If that were true, however, then both Dick Monfort and Jeff Bridich of the Colorado Rockies would be out of jobs.

In last week’s Denver Post, two panels of baseball experts examined the problems and challenges of major league baseball and the struggling Rockies. The commentary on the Rockies organization and its ability to make money with a crappy team and poor management was a fascinating lesson in the inadequacies of the market system in professional sports ownership. The publicly-financed stadium which hosts the Rockies only makes the story harder to swallow for Colorado baseball fans.

In explaining why the Rockies cannot compete for the best talent, the team’s tightwad owner and CEO Dick Monfort said the organization cannot go out and sign top-line free agents because they are a mid-market team and can’t afford to take that risk. Yet, the metro population of Denver is actually slightly larger than the metro area of mid-market St. Louis, whose Cardinals took Nolan Arenado and got money-bumbling Monfort to pay them $50 million to do it.

The Milwaukee Brewers are consistently competitive even though the area has half the population of Denver. The Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015 in a market half Denver’s size. And the San Diego Padres just signed Fernando Tatis, Jr., one of baseball’s most dynamic players, to the largest contract in MLB history, and they did so in a market only slightly larger than Denver, and one that recently lost its football franchise. Clearly, market size and money aren’t the problem, and Dick Monfort can certainly afford marquee players.

In basic economic terms, Denver is a larger and richer market than St. Louis, and it's a truly sports crazy town. Additionally, it faces almost no regional competition like St. Louis, which has two other MLB teams within fours of it. How can that small town midwest team succeed? Well, it’s arguably one of the best run organizations in all of pro sports. Over the past decade, the city of St. Louis has sent several urban planners to Denver to learn the magic of revitalizing LoDo. Perhaps they could return the favor by inviting the Monforts for a tutorial on running a baseball team.

Clearly, ticket sales are not a problem for Denver, but there is more money to be made in marketing and media. The Monforts have thousands of square miles to develop, yet have failed to capitalize by growing the fan base, instead content to build party decks and sell a few more Coors Lights. That’s not how brands or franchises are built, and it shows surprisingly small-minded business vision. Rockies ownership seems far more interested in developing real estate across the street from Coors Field than it does in developing real estate between the baselines. Rather than thinking of new ways to sell products on the concourse, they should be thinking of ways to sell Rockies baseball from Salt Lake City to Lincoln, Nebraska.

In the 1980s Ted Turner created a huge generation of Braves fans outside of Atlanta by using his cable station WTBS to broadcast the Braves nationwide to communities with no specific team to support. The Cubs have had similar success, with WGN featuring games across dozens of states. The Cardinal Nation fan base is so vast because for decades KMOX was the country’s most powerful radio signal, and with nothing else to watch or listen to, legions of fans from north Texas to South Dakota rooted for the Cardinals. Currently, there is no pro baseball in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, Idaho, Iowa, or the Dakotas, yet the Monfort boys have no idea how to court new fans.

Denver is a sports town with a huge market for baseball, and if the Rockies were run by people who actually had to work hard to achieve their financial success, the team would be much more successful. But that’s the untold lesson of econ 101: sometimes the market doesn’t work as it should. Sometimes the privileged and comfortable can continue to fail with impunity.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Transcendental Punk Rock Poet: Henry David Thoreau

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

Though it was written in the early part of the nineteenth century, the previous sentence is an apt and accurate description of punk rock and the entire punk aesthetic. Henry David Thoreau, the man who basically coined the phrase and inspired the idea that some people "march to the beat of their own drum," epitomized the spirit of punk. While obviously emphasizing an anti-establishment stance, the punk rock ethos is as much about being authentically individual.

As I continue to develop my ideas about Thoreau as the original American punk, I've been enjoying the insight from a great book The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant by Robert Sullivan. While the book's title acknowledges the environmentalism for which Thoreau is often credited, Sullivan's analysis actually digs deep into the entire philosophy of Thoreau. It was much more than the ponderings of a man who found truth and answers on how to live by spending time amidst "nature," living in a cabin by Walden Woods. It was also, like Greg Graffin explains in his Punk Manifesto, about the "personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions" and "a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution." In his cultivation of individuality and the necessary authenticity needed to maintain it amidst a society pushing conformity, Thoreau was the original American voice of being an original American voice.

In Sullivan's analysis of Thoreau's life, beliefs, and actions, I particularly enjoyed his insight that "In living at the cabin, .... Thoreau was rejecting the changes that nineteenth century America presented to him." 

How very punk.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Are You Really Reading the Newspaper?

 In my ever-present quest to teach people more about literacy, and perhaps deepen their understanding of how and how well people read, here's my column from March 11 for The Villager:

Are You Really Reading the Newspaper?

“If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

I’ve seen that platitude on countless bumper stickers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs over the years, and though it’s rather trite, it does make me smile. However, it brings up an important question: can you read? Seems like an odd question to begin an essay, yet literacy specialists would not dismiss it, for they know many adults don’t read regularly or effectively, and most Americans did not read a single book last year. An equally large number do not read the newspaper, instead skimming articles online, surfing social media, or watching TV. Abraham Lincoln, a voracious reader of the classics, warned us “the man who doesn’t read has no advantage over the man who can’t.” Granted, many people say, “Oh, but I can when I need to.” I wonder what the average adult might learn about himself if he sat down with the SAT or ACT reading section.

According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), roughly 40% of high school students are “dys-fluent” in reading even when encountering grade-level, familiar text. 80% of colleges have courses in remedial reading, including the Ivy League. As a result, many adults are also technically "dys-fluent,” which basically means they can’t read. Of course, they’re not illiterate, but they can’t truly authentically read complex texts with fluency and comprehension. In the field of reading instruction we’d say they’re “fake readers.” Their eyes may be able to skim the words and their brains can pronounce them, but they don’t truly comprehend what they are reading.

Sadly, there has been little discussion of the need to teach reading throughout high school and even college. In reality, most school systems teach students to "decode" in first and second grade. After that schools simply assign reading. The problem is as texts get harder and material becomes more complex, students need assistance in how to tackle the more challenging texts. Especially at the upper levels, all teachers need to teach students how to read for their class. Reading is a learning skill, not an English skill. However, most teachers simply tell students they need to “read it again” or “read it more carefully.”

Yet, it’s not simply a failure of pedagogy, but instead a failure of nearly everyone to understand literacy. As an English teacher with decades of experience and two college degrees, I can honestly confess to struggling with reading even in adult life. While completing a master’s degree in English, I initially struggled, along with my cohort of twelve people, reading the text for our socio-linguistics class. On the second day of class, our professor acknowledged with a benevolent grin, “Of course you don’t understand it. I haven’t taught you how to read this content yet.” That insight resonated with me years later when I read a book about reading instruction by Denver-area teacher Cris Tovani. I Read It, but I Don’t Get It is based on her efforts to work with struggling readers, and it literally changed my life as a teacher, moving me from assigning reading to teaching it. I now actively promote reading to my students, and though they’re teenagers, I still spend time teaching them how to read.

Last Tuesday was Dr. Seuss’ birthday, which is also National Read Across America Day, a day meant to be devoted to the art of reading. The last year of the pandemic and remote learning is undoubtedly having harsh effects on the literacy of many young people, but that doesn’t mean students’ reading skills will naturally decline. Carol Jago, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, recently tweeted “Students who have been reading avidly - and had access to books - are unlikely to have fallen behind in reading.” The written word is a special gift. Reading, however, is not natural or intuitive. It’s actually a complicated and challenging skill, one which we too easily take for granted.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Punk Rock Conservative?

Philosophical question: are punk and conservative antithetical or symbiotic?

As I continue to work on the idea of Henry David Thoreau as America's first punk rock poet, I have been reading through reflections and commentary on the rise of punk as a movement, and I'm pondering the political and philosophical implications. My starting point for the "what is punk" question is the Punk Manifesto, written by Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin. It's worth reading the whole piece, as well as checking out Graffin's book Anarchy Evolution. For, as many people will attest, punk is a social movement that is not just about the music or the fashion or the posture. It's an identity and belief system grounded in the integrity of individual identity amidst a world and society that pushes stifling conformity.

As I posed and discussed my question on social media, I heard many of the standard descriptors of punk as anti-establishment and even anarchistic. Yet, I want to probe deeper into those ideas. For example, is the primary focus "anti-establishment," or is it simply "pro-individual" and promoting individual liberty and self respect? That distinction is what led to my question about conservatism, as opposed to progressivism. Of course, anytime the idea of political ideology is broached, we must address the role of the Trumpian Republican party as well as the intrusion of Nazi-skinheads into punk at various times over the years. These forces are certainly problematic.

So, as I continue to ponder, I'll conclude with Graffin's summation:

PUNK IS: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions.

PUNK IS: a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature.

PUNK IS: a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution.

PUNK IS: a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be.

PUNK IS: the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Maybe They Should Study Art History in College

My college-age son is a true GT kid and math freak of nature who took AP Calculus as an eighth grader. Yet, he chose a college that provides a liberal arts emphasis to feed his soul as much as his mathematical mind. And while he will ultimately major in math and comp-sci, he is currently taking a rich and diverse course load for his first three semesters. My fifteen-year-old daughter is a different human altogether, and as we discuss possible colleges and career paths, I am happy to steer her toward the liberal arts. She's leaning toward a communications and media/journalism focus, with the possible path toward law school as well. 

As the humanities continue to take it on the chin from myopic thinking and bean-counting market forces, I took a look at the study of the liberal arts for my column in The Villager:  

Maybe They Should Study Art History in College

On January 20, 2021, a University of Delaware graduate who was a history and political science major with a minor in English became the forty-sixth President of the United States. That background would make Thomas Jefferson and our Founding Fathers proud, for they believed deeply in the power of a classical liberal arts education. In fact, the liberal arts were the primary focus of early higher education among those great men in order to create knowledgeable leaders who were also deep thinkers. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, a political science major, would most certainly agree.

In recent economic downturns, as liberal arts programs have continued to lose funding, the nation has pursued a new focus in higher education, and it will be to the detriment of our national identity. Colleges are cutting majors mostly in the liberal arts to focus primarily on STEM careers and basic utilitarian job training. But we go to college for more than just job skills; we study to become fully actualized human beings. And the liberal arts are more useful than many might suspect. Carley Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and GOP presidential candidate, studied medieval history and philosophy. John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, majored in philosophy and religion.

In 2015, Fareed Zakaria wrote In Defense of a Liberal Education, which basically explains why we study what we study. It’s about being a well-rounded, educated person. I often explain that to students after they ask “When will I actually use geometry or poetry or knowledge of the mitochondria?” The blunt, honest answer is probably never, but they will use the well-developed critical thinking brains they have for learning those things. For, education is not simply utilitarian, which is an argument we’ve been having since Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times. We don’t just teach what you’ll need for a job because education is not job training.

However, as the costs of education, especially higher ed, have soared, we’ve become more critical and narrowly focused on jobs and career skill-based education. In reality, employers often just use diplomas as a screener for jobs to identify educated people who have the persistence to complete degree programs. And this can be a problem. In the rise of a tech-STEM world, the liberal arts lose favor, though the skills and knowledge they offer are integral to all the other fields. Sadly, the necessity of a bachelor’s degree and the question of utilitarian focus in education have also become politicized.

In 2015 President Obama quipped, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." And in 2019 Senator Marco Rubio said “we praise four-year college degrees but look down on technical certifications; we count ridiculous classes on pop culture as credits toward college degrees, but not wood shop.” Sadly, while trying to promote the trades, they needlessly knocked down the liberal arts. And a side-effect is that some business leaders and politicians have hinted we shouldn’t fund the liberal arts, and that students should only be given college loans for engineering or nursing, but not literature or music or social sciences. That would be a cultural and societal catastrophe.

And if that doesn’t convince you, then consider these people. Andrea Jung, the head of Neiman Marcus and Avon, focused on English literature in college. Sue Wojcicki, the first CEO of YouTube eschewed business and computer science in favor of history and literature. Coloradan Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, was an art history major, as was Michael Lewis, the author of books like Moneyball and The Big Short. And finally, Steve Jobs, the visionary tech genius, credited his study of the humanities at Reed College for the unique brilliance of Apple computers.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Leaving Admin - a return to Mazenglish

So, ... after eight years as a school administrator, I have decided to leave admin and return to the English classroom full time. I couldn’t be happier about going back to teaching. This past year has taught us all so much, and for me, it was in losing the classroom that I found my way home.

I've now been in education for twenty-eight years, and I've worked in the United States and abroad, in public and private schools, in city and suburban communities, at elementary and middle and high school, as both a teacher and administrator. While I've mostly taught high school English, I am also an education policy geek, as well as an advocate for equity and gifted education. It has been a wonderful career, both enriching and challenging. 

When I first entered administration, I thought I might work through my school and district and perhaps even look toward a state job because I was so engaged and interested in education policy. Yet, my first admin gig was at my current school, where I'd been teaching and my two children would attend. It was undoubtedly the perfect job, for I was a TOSA, an "assistant-to-the-principal" and the GT Coordinator. However, that was only 80% of my job, and I was allowed to keep teaching one section of AP English Lang & Comp. This allowed me to stay connected to kids and content, and it was a boon to the admin team to always have a teacher voice present at the table. 

Over the years, I realized that I had no desire to move on to other positions, especially as my own kids arrived at the high school. And, as I approached the age of fifty and reflected on my career, I realized that I'd always had an inclination to finish my career back in the classroom, though that might be at the next level (as I had been heading toward Ph.D. programs in English when my son was born). And, at this point in my career, I do have some adjunct opportunities, and I am doing more writing, so it only makes sense that writing and the classroom came a calling again. And with one kid already in college, and the other approaching her junior year, it was only natural to start thinking about the admin and the teacher pathways.

So, why now?

Well, it was really the quarantine last year when our world fell apart. I had a truly wonderful AP English Lang & Comp class; it was a sharp group of juniors, many of whom I'd known since they were in middle school. We were having a great year of learning, and I felt like I was still growing and learning to be a better teacher day to day and week to week. And then it was over, and I didn't get to finish the year with them, and I felt like so much was left undone. And it made me really sad; I really missed them and regretted not being able to finish their junior year. And as that feeling sat with me during the summer, I slowly began to realize that I was no longer preferring the admin role to the classroom. So, at the end of July I went to my principal, truly a princi"pal" and a man I trust and respect so deeply, and I told him, "I think I'm done with the admin thing; I'd like to return to the classroom." He supported my decision, though he wondered if perhaps I'd do a 60/40 split and stay on as GT Coordinator. We planned to check in during December.

Well, come August, my professional world turned sideways again, as I was shifted away from my high school and over to our district's new all-online school to help on their admin team. What had been an online 9-12 program with several hundred students became an online K-12 program with more than 10,000 students. All of the high schools in the district lent some staff to help out, and I volunteered to go for my team because with my roles it made the most sense. The hardest part was giving up the one class I'd always taught; so for the past year, for the first time in nearly three decades, I was not teaching English. And I missed it all the more. The time has certainly been a professional challenge, and while I was happy to do it, the experience only reinforced my decision. So, I checked in with my principal in December, and just last week over spring break, we finalized my schedule. I now have roughly nine weeks left as a school administrator.

Next year, I return to my calling, my passion, my art, my love -- I will once again be a teacher.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

(Don't?) Become a Teacher

As an educator, especially one who works with juniors in high school as they ponder the big year and their next step in life, I am often asked by students about the teaching profession. I'm sure all teachers have had those pangs of ambivalence and internal conflict when our students mention wanting to become a teacher. For my column in The Villager a couple weeks ago, I pondered the question and my thoughts about my field:

(Don’t?) Become a Teacher

“Don’t become a teacher.”

That advice unfortunately enters my mind too often these days when talking to students. As they share thoughts on the future and mention an interest in teaching, I can’t help but pause. My reservation is not surprising. Even our most revered educators have concerns about steering young people down our career path, as in 2015, when the national Teacher of the Year Nancie Atwell shocked educators and the general public by warning students away from our profession.

Though it’s disheartening to hear, the profession has long had difficulty attracting and retaining educators, and it has a high attrition rate with more than one-third of new teachers leaving the field within their first five years. Now the precarious nature of teaching is in the news again after the Denver Post reported a poll showing 40% of Colorado teachers are considering leaving the profession. After a stressful and draining pandemic year, teachers cited safety concerns, unmanageable workloads, and low pay as primary reasons for walking away.

The revelation is troubling, but it represents a growing trend as the state and local districts continue to tighten budgets while increasing responsibilities. Nationwide, schools struggle to find qualified educators for the fifty-five million children enrolled in school. Education programs produce fewer graduates every year, and districts find themselves traveling far and wide to lure young people to the field. Additionally, the financial question is tough for future teachers, for they will knowingly enter a profession earning among the lowest starting salaries for any credentialed college degree. They will spend their entire career making 20% less than their private sector counterparts. The reluctance to commit is not hard to understand.

In addition to being content experts and masters of pedagogy, teachers are expected at a moment’s notice to become counselors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and even security guards. At times of social unrest, such as the political protests that flooded our nation following tragedies like the killing of George Floyd, students often naturally turn to their teachers to help them process and understand. They may even speak to their teachers about issues they would never discuss with their families. Yet teachers can often feel unprepared, unqualified, and even unapproved to talk with students about the issues.

Additionally it can be dispiriting to enter a profession where so much seems beyond your control. Non-school factors are the predominant motivators of academic achievement. And issues such as vocabulary and knowledge gaps from the moment kids enter kindergarten create a daunting and seemingly insurmountable task for educators. Keep in mind that between their first day of kindergarten and their high school graduation, students spend 90% of their time outside of school. Thus, the classroom learning opportunity is a very small window to impact a young person’s life. Yet that is the commitment and expectation.

Of course, no one enters teaching thinking about those problems, worrying about those challenges, or focusing on the money. We think about our passion for learning and how we want to share it with kids. And when we think about the times a student shares an insight we’d never considered before, or asks a great question that had never occurred to us, or solves a problem in a unique way, or simply shows their joy about learning, we remember why we do this. We remember what an honor it is to be a person of trust to another human being, and we realize sometimes we might be the only one. When our students say “thank you” after we’ve given them a really hard test, we marvel at their good nature, and we’re grateful to have found such a rewarding vocation.

A longtime colleague used to pass me in the hallways before class, and he'd say, “Hey, they need you today. Bring your ‘A’ game. They need your best.” So, yes, I hesitate when young people describe a desire to teach, but then I speak from the heart when answering.

“Go for it,” I tell them. “Become a teacher. We need you.”

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Break Means Break

 I'm just coming off Spring Break, and I very happily disconnected from school for a while to refresh and re-charge my batteries for the final quarter. I wrote about it for this week's column in The Villager:

Break Means Break

For the past few days my daughter has been relaxing, enjoying herself, and not thinking about school. Hopefully many kids in the area on spring break have been able to do the same. From holidays and spring break to winter vacation and summertime, kids and teachers need breaks to comfortably step back and decompress from the pressures of school.

As a teacher I’ve always believed break means break, and it’s been my practice to complete units and assessments before we leave, sending kids off with no homework during the break. I’ve never understood teachers who assign a bucket load of work over long breaks that is turned in on the first day back. Who’d want something like that? The last thing I’m looking for after Thanksgiving weekend or Spring Break is for a hundred research papers to start grading. Ick. When we return to school, I want everyone rested and ready to start fresh.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Support the Journalism Competition & Preservation Act

I want to use this post to acknowledge and thank Colorado's Rep. Ken Buck and Rhode Island's Rep. David Cicilline for sponsoring the Journalism Competition & Preservation Act. This piece of legislation is long overdue, and it is important and appreciated that the industry has bipartisan support for action that supports the free market and the Fourth Estate, while also standing against monopolistic and anti-competitive practices of a largely unrestrained, unregulated, and unaccountable tech industry.

“One of the bedrock values of our country is a free press, but we have seen thousands of news organizations crushed by the monopolistic power of Big Tech,” Ranking Member Buck said. “This bipartisan bill is an important start to remedying the results of Google, Facebook, and other’s anticompetitive conduct toward local news outlets, conservative media, and other news organizations.”

“A strong, diverse, free press is critical for any successful democracy. Access to trustworthy local journalism helps inform the public, hold powerful people accountable, and root out corruption,” Chairman Cicilline, who has introduced the bill in each of the last two Congresses, said. “This bill will give hardworking local reporters and publishers the helping hand they need right now, so they can continue to do their important work.”

News companies must have a free market to compete; tech companies who use & profit from print media must pay for it.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Billionaire Philanthropists Wanted: Buy a Newspaper

Print journalism, especially daily newspapers in major cities like Denver, continues to face financial pressures, and the industry needs a sugar-daddy, as opposed to the parasitic vampire hedge funds like Alden Capital that are currently buying up and gutting the Fourth Estate. As tech companies like Google and Facebook have exploited communications laws to make billions off a product they don't produce, and as print readers continue to decline, newspapers have struggled to maintain staff and resources. And at this point the billionaire philanthropist seems as good a savior as any.

Granted, some skeptics are critical of billionaires like Jeff Bezo buying the Washington Post, for they fear a compromises in journalistic integrity and interference in candid investigative reports on corporate America. While those concerns are certainly valid, the situation seems to be working well so far, and ownership of the WashPo by Bezos is definitely not worse than ownership of the Denver Post by Heath Freeman and his cronies at Alden. Regarding Bezos, I tend to view the situation more like Andrew Carnegie deciding to use his fortune to invest nationally in libraries. Perhaps he also wanted to control what people read and might have corrupted the process of which books to acquire and which to forbid, but there's no evidence of that, and the benefit of the libraries is undisputed.

And, of course, Jeff Bezos and WashPo is not the only story; billionaire Patrick Soon-shiong also saved a newspaper by buying and supporting the Los Angeles Times when it was facing insolvency and predatory interest from hedge funds. Someone with deep pockets and who doesn't have to worry about pinching pennies to turn a profit can free up a newspaper to do the important work of reporting and writing without the stress of financial spreadsheets (except those of companies and politicians who might not like the spotlight). Another model which frees papers from the conundrum of bottom-line profits is the non-profit model utilized by The Salt Lake Tribune. The non-profit approach was envisioned and ultimately implemented by wealthy owner Jon Huntsman, and to this point it has proved to be a viable business practice. Of course, strong support from the community has played a key role as well.

Print journalism is the life's blood of a democratic republic, and there are two important truths to the situation:  newspapers are in need of deep-pocket investors who will support and grow the business, and there are plenty of billionaires who could make a Carnegie-style philanthropic impact on a society in desperate need of authentic news coverage. So, if anyone could put me in touch with some billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Phil Knight, Ken Griffin, Philip Anschutz, or even some altruistic investment groups, then please let me know. We need a campaign to save journalism.

For more insight, check out this article on Stewart Bainum:

A resident of Chevy Chase, Md., just outside Washington, Mr. Bainum has had The Sun delivered to his home for years and began to worry about the paper as its print edition grew thinner over the years, said Jim Friedlich, the chief executive of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mr. Friedlich added that he first discussed the newspaper business with Mr. Bainum in a Nov. 10 Zoom call.