A Teacher Becoming Maladjusted

I sat in a conference listening to Dr. Christopher Emdin from Columbia University speak a few weeks ago and his presentation has haunted me ever since. I encourage you to look into the work that Dr. Emdin is doing with “Reality Pedagogy” (http://chrisemdin.com/portfolio/reality-pedagogy-christopher-emdin-at-tedxteacherscollege/), but it was his reference to the word “maladjusted” that has stuck with me. Dr. Emdin shared the words of Dr. Martin Luther King in his address; during a speech in 1963, Dr. King said this, “there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1j-4cTtecuM) Dr. Emdin suggested that it was time that we, as educators, become maladjusted to much of what is happening in public education today.

 

I am a 49-year-old white man who lives in a safe suburban neighborhood in Iowa. I teach in an outstanding school district with strong community support. It would be pretty easy for me to become adjusted to the current educational landscape. Yet, in reflecting on Dr. King’s words and Dr. Emdin’s speech I find myself uncomfortable with idea of simply accepting the things that seem to happening in education and in our nation.

In Dr. King’s 1963 speech he said, “I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence…” I find that his words resonate with this middle class white man more than 50 years after he spoke them.

 

The things that Dr. King said he could not become adjusted to are not just abstract notions. I live in a state where business tax credits have grown from $75 million in 2007 to over $230 million in 2016, all while we underfund our public schools (https://iowapolicypoints.org/2017/03/21/a-spotlight-not-a-floodlight-on-business-breaks/). I refuse to become adjusted to the idea that this type of corporate welfare is more important than the public school programs and staffing that are being cut in our state. I refuse to become adjusted to a federal budget that would eliminate funding for after school programs that this administration says don’t benefit young people, and yet evidence suggests the incredible things that they do (http://time.com/4704661/trump-budget-after-school-programs/). I refuse to become adjusted to the notion that those who seek to profit off of education are better suited to run our schools than those of us who have dedicated our careers to improving learning for every student. I refuse to become adjusted to the notion that our government should not protect the rights of our most vulnerable young people (http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/03/15/passing-house-bill-610-dismantle-strongest-aspects-public-education). I refuse to become adjusted to an apocalyptic view of American schools (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/schooled/2017/03/betsy_devos_thinks_schools_could_not_get_much_worse.html).

 

It is one thing to say that we oppose segregation, discrimination, bigotry, and economic injustices, but we must recognize that by becoming adjusted to policies and rhetoric that are creating those conditions; we are part of the problem. America’s educators must become maladjusted to anything other than the premise that our schools exist to support the fact that ALL students can learn. We must rise up and advocate that our nation’s resources reflect the belief that our public schools hold the key to a better life for ALL young people.

Sharing our maladjustment isn’t a safe choice for teachers. There are those that would rather we remain silent and simply become adjusted to the whims of those non-educators who wish to “reform” education. I believe that it is our moral responsibility to become maladjusted to the idea that educators don’t know what is best for our public schools. We must feel empowered to do what we do best and put students first. Public educators must be our students most powerful advocates. The real work of teaching and learning won’t be done by legislators, it will be done by teachers who feel empowered and who are maladjusted to the idea that our schools are anything other than sanctuaries of hope for EVERY young person who walks in our doors.

Steve King Is Who We Think He Is: His Constituents, Not So Much

It would be easy to listen to quotes from Iowa Representative Steve King (R) and make a lot of assumptions about the district that he represents.  Yesterday Rep. King sent out a tweet saying that we can’t “restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” (https://twitter.com/SteveKingIA/status/840980755236999169).  That’s a quote from a sitting United States congressman.  It is not the first racially-charged comment that he has made.  Rep. King has questioned whether any “subgroup” has contributed more to civilization than Caucasians.  When speaking of immigrants he said, “for everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that–they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”  He also proudly displays a confederate flag on his desk (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2016/07/18/steve-king-creates-uproar-salute-to-contributions-of-white-people/87270220/).  Steve King is who you think he is.  Noted white supremacists such as David Duke (https://twitter.com/DrDavidDuke/status/840991087959379969) and Richard Spencer (https://twitter.com/RichardBSpencer/status/841090733918511104) quickly came to his defense this weekend.  Steve King really is who you think he is.

What about the people in his district?  What does it say about them that they have elected him to congress eight times?  This district, to the surprise of no one, is 93% white.  It is a little older and it is more rural than most of the rest of the country.  I have lived in Northwest Iowa and I have many friends and family from Northwest Iowa.  They aren’t bad people, but they long for a different time in America.  The faces around them are changing.  As those faces change a guy like Rep. King shows up and talks about American values.  As he talks about those American values he throws in buzzwords “subgroup” and he talks about how much Caucasians have done for civilization.  Borrowing from Aaron Sorkin, whatever the problems of Northwest Iowa are, Steve King isn’t the least bit interested in solving them.  He is only interested in two things, making them afraid of it, and telling them who to blame for it.

He has tapped into the fear of decent people.  I have no idea what is actually in Rep. King’s heart.  He may actually believe the racist things that he says, but the sad truth is that, through his white supremacist rhetoric, he has painted his whole district as a safe haven for people who believe the things he says.  We aren’t born wanting to hate.  We aren’t born intolerant. We are taught to hate and we are taught intolerance.  Steve King has helped to teach people to be afraid of those who are different.  In the musical South Pacific, a soldier says something very wise, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”  Voices like those of Steve King find a home in a place like Northwest Iowa because the world is changing fast and it is easy to be afraid of the unknown.  Family farming will never look the same again.  The manufacturing sector will never look the same again and it helps to have someone to blame for those changes; Steve King knows that.

David Duke seems to be encouraging intolerant people who are afraid of a world that is changing rapidly to head to Northwest Iowa.  I think they would be disappointed.  The truth is that the people of Northwest Iowa are hardworking people who are trying to figure out what to make of this changing world.  I believe that they will soon discover that Steve King is on the wrong side of history.  When hate and fear are replaced by education and an appreciation for the unique perspectives that come with more diversity, Rep. King’s rhetoric will cease to resonate.  The people of Northwest Iowa are good people who want what we all want; they want to be safe, they want to be prosperous, and they want to leave their corner of the world better than they found it.  That is exactly what my immigrant forbearers wanted for their family, and it is exactly what our newest American families want as well.

The president in the movie “The American President” says, “We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people.”  This is a time for serious people, and Steve King, your fifteen minutes are up.

 

Why Do You Want Me To Be Afraid?

I have a fear of ringing telephones. It goes back to my childhood when the phone would ring and my father would say, “nothing good is ever on the other end of that phone.” While the person on the other end of the phone was sometimes a friend or family member who was hoping to share something cheerful, it was also often bad news or simply an annoyance. I have no idea if lots of people cringe at the sound of a ringing phone, but it gives me the heebie-jeebies every time I hear one.
Lately, it feels like a lot of people want me to be afraid of a lot of stuff. In recent days I have been asked to be afraid of transgendered people in bathrooms, immigrants, Sharia law, failing schools, people from the inner cities, the news media, and much more. The weird thing is that the people telling me to be afraid of all of this don’t seem to have encountered transgender people in their bathrooms, immigrants wishing to do them harm, schools that aren’t doing their best, anyone trying to impose Sharia law on them, people from the inner cities threatening their safety, or are being forced to read or watch news that they don’t care to engage with. But, they seem afraid of some or all of these things anyway, and they want me to be afraid as well.
Here is the difficult thing, I recognize that there are bad people in the world. I recognize that there are schools that are struggling to meet the needs of the kids who walk in their doors. I recognize that the news we all consume has different points of view. I can recognize all of that without being afraid of problems that don’t exist.
I have used public restrooms all of my life. I never gave it a second thought until a few years ago. I have a friend who is deathly afraid of public restrooms. When we would travel together and need to make use of public facilities you could see the fear come across her face. As a person who had never been afraid of such a thing, I was fascinated by her fear. As she described her state of mind, suddenly I became afraid as well. The thing is, the things she was afraid of were real. She was afraid of things that you could see, touch, and smell in those restrooms. Suddenly her fear became my fear and I now go into public restrooms with a whole new appreciation for the scary things that lurk in them. But, suddenly there are those who tell me to be afraid of public restrooms because of something that there is no evidence exists. While it is entirely possible I’ve shared a restroom with a transgendered person, not one of them has done me any harm. The only people I’ve ever been afraid of in a public restroom are the pale drunk guys next to me who have bad aim; that’s something to be afraid of. If someone wants to write a bill making it illegal for drunk guys to pee on my shoes, I’m in.
It’s hard to be afraid of immigrants when the immigrants I encounter are hard working, kind, and only hoping for a better life. I suspect that they are much like my immigrant ancestors who came to this country in order to achieve the American Dream. While there are surely immigrants who commit illegal acts in our country and should be deported, I also see the crime committed by American citizens a little too close to my home. The guy who shot two police officers a few blocks from my home wasn’t an immigrant; he was just a bad guy. What if we all just agreed to be afraid of the bad guys? As a matter of fact, let’s not so much be afraid of them as agree that we need to help them before they do bad things and punish them appropriately when they do bad things. That doesn’t have anything to do with where they are from or the color of their skin.
I have been told to be afraid of Sharia law in recent days. I wasn’t that familiar with Sharia law, so I studied a little bit about it (http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2016/07/19/asifa-quraishi-landes-5-myths-shariah-law). According to Muslim scholar Imam Suhaib Webb, the five things that Sharia law aims to preserve are: Life, learning, family, property, and honor. I’m not sure why I’m supposed to be afraid of that. In honesty, I’m more afraid of politicians who want to take my tax dollars and provide monetary support to religious schools. That’s a real thing that is happening.
There are real problems in our world. Too many people go to bed hungry and cold each night, too many people don’t have access to quality health care, too many people who aren’t able to go to college, there is too much violence, and there is too much hate. I wish I had answers to all of that, but I know the answer isn’t to waste our time trying to solve problems that don’t exist. Those who want us to be afraid of non-existent problems have an agenda; it’s not my agenda. Those who want to feed the hungry, clothe the homeless, make our schools the best in the world, and provide shelter to those in need have an agenda as well. We’re not paid protestors, we aren’t snowflakes, nor are we the enemy of the American people. We just want to address the real problems that we actually see.
You don’t have to be afraid of the phone ringing or someone peeing on your shoe, those are my fears. Just don’t expect me to be afraid of things that aren’t worthy of my fear.

What Should I Tell My Son Who Wants To Be a Teacher

My son is a college freshman studying to be a teacher. While I may be a little biased, he is smart, talented, and he loves working with young people. He spent his winter break volunteering his time to work with middle school music students and that experience reinforced his desire to teach. He is the kind of young person we all hope will go into education and support our next generation of learners.

 

My wife and I are both teachers, so he is well aware that teaching isn’t an 8-4 job; it requires a lot of hard work, and that he won’t get rich. Because he has spent his life being raised by teachers, he also knows that the work is incredibly rewarding. My students were his role models as he grew up. During my years as a high school band director my students were his second family. As he cheered them on at band events throughout the years, they babysat him, taught him music lessons, and served as his chaperones on 30-hour bus rides to Disney World. He had a front row seat to the magic that is created when you get to work with the incredible young people who make up our public schools.

Don’t let the story of this era of public education be that the best and brightest won’t do this work. The kids that are being born today deserve to have smart, talented, and passionate teachers.

When he shared his intention to become a teacher a couple of years ago it felt like he knew what he was getting into. Much has changed in the two years since he made that decision. In just the last couple of months our country has installed a Secretary of Education who not only has never worked in education, but whose life work has been to siphon money from public schools into the pockets of those who seek to turn a profit. In my home state of Iowa, our legislators took less than a week to rip collective bargaining rights from teachers. If that wasn’t enough to make a young person reconsider this profession, those same legislators are doing the bidding of out of state interest groups to force school vouchers down our throats, acting directly in opposition to the research that vouchers have a negative impact on student achievement.

 

So, what should I tell my son about becoming a teacher in an era when public education is increasing not being valued? How do we encourage anyone to want to become a teacher when legislators create more and more mandates on schools, continue to underfund public education, and disregard the voices of those who have dedicated themselves to educating young people? Why would anyone want to become a teacher when the narrative of public education is being told by those who aren’t doing the work?

You know what I will tell him? Don’t just teach, be a great teacher. Don’t let the story of this era of public education be that the best and brightest won’t do this work. The kids that are being born today deserve to have smart, talented, and passionate teachers. As the right wing of American politics tries to privatize our schools and demean public educators, I want my son to be part of the Greatest Generation of American teachers. While I spent the early part of my career allowing the story of American public schools to be told by others, I will encourage him to tell his story loudly.

 

Mostly I will tell him to teach, because it is an honor to work with eager, intelligent, and talented young people every day. There is no greater joy than to see students grow and flourish. In the last week I have had the pleasure of hearing from former students who are just starting new jobs in agriculture, making a living as professional musicians, working as nurses, and maybe most importantly teaching. With each note I get from a former student I recognize that our job is to ignite the flame that exists in each young person who walks through our doors each day.

 

My son is watching as legislators are doing all they can to sell our public schools to the highest bidder; he is watching as they work to strip away my pension and my benefits; he is watching as they tell a story of failure. But, here’s the thing: He has seen the real story. He has had teachers challenge him, support him, and uplift him. He has seen the magic that happens in classrooms every single day. He gets to tell his story and it is my hope that when he is 50 years old, his narrative will be a celebration of the Golden Age of public schools and the educators who make them great.

Iowa (not so) Nice

My son is currently a freshman at a university in Iowa studying to be a teacher. He spent his winter break working with junior high choir students each morning at 7 a.m. and it made him more committed than ever to want to teach. He would ultimately like to teach right here in Iowa. It is becoming harder and harder to encourage him to stay in our home state to teach. Iowa has long had a tradition of caring about public education. Iowans also pride themselves on a certain civility (sometimes masking a thinly hidden stubbornness, made famous in the musical The Music Man)…but always doing our best to be Iowa Nice.

That dedication to public education and civility is being sorely tested this week. Without any warning last week, Republican legislators unveiled a legislative attack on collective bargaining rights for public employees. If passed, it will not allow public employees to bargain for health care, for due process, and retirement benefits. Republicans say that it isn’t “union busting” because we will still have the right to bargain for compensation. Of course, we will be bargaining over the tiny amount of money that they have approved for us, because Iowa is giving away hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax breaks that don’t seem to be finding their way into the pockets of middle-class Iowans (I wonder whose pockets those hundreds of millions of dollars end up in?).

 

Republican legislators in Iowa didn’t campaign on this issue. There were no rallies, stream of phone calls and letters, or organized campaign by Iowans that they wanted public workers to lose collective bargaining rights. The only “outcry” is a commercial running on local stations that is funded by out-of-state money. Republican legislators are doing this to punish unions. It really is that simple. They won’t say that in public, because that’s not Iowa Nice. I’ll say it for them. So, while Republican legislators punish those of us who have dedicated our careers to public education, what will happen to our schools? If only we knew? Oh yeah, Wisconsin did this 5 years ago. The result is that rural schools are struggling to find teachers, fewer young people are entering the teaching profession, and there is no evidence that student achievement has increased (except the occasional cherry-picked statistic the governor trots out). Of course, Iowa is a state where we have watched Kansas plunge into economic crisis with massive corporate tax cuts and said, “hey, why don’t we try that?” A case could be made that our Iowa legislators don’t pay a lot of attention to the obvious consequences to their actions, even when those consequences are taking place in states all around us.

 

It is all about consequences. Elections have consequences. Iowans elected a Republican legislature and a Republican governor, and those politicians are going to do what the out-of-state conservative political cash cows tell them to do. We elected these people and we should have known that this was the agenda they would pursue (although not a one of them campaigned on destroying collective bargaining during November’s election). But, actions have consequences and legislation has consequences. Much like the massive corporate tax breaks enacted since 2013 have created an artificial budget crisis, forcing us to cut millions of dollars from the state budget, busting up pubic sector unions will also have a consequence. Rural schools will find it hard to get teachers, fewer smart young people will want to enter public service, teachers will be forced to fight among themselves for salary dollars (won’t it be fun to know that if your colleague gets a bonus of $10,000, the rest of the staff makes $10,000 less…yeah, that’s how this will work), and teacher morale will be at an all-time low. Some of this seems to stem from the idea that our Republican legislators think we have had it too good for too long in education. They must believe that there is an army of people in our communities who would make better teachers and do the work for less money and fewer benefits? If so, where are they?

Here is the thing. Teachers aren’t going to be Iowa Nice for long. We’ll continue to teach young people with all of our hearts because that is what we love to do, but our legislators better be ready. I’ve never seen teachers so demoralized, angry, and ready to take action. We teach, and we teach in Iowa, because we believed our state respected our work. We still believe our communities respect us, but our legislators don’t. We get that. Our anger that this legislation has been thrust on us behind closed doors and is being rushed into law won’t be without consequences. We’re nice, but we’re also Iowa Stubborn when it comes to doing what is best for the young people of Iowa. There are those that think that this is about protecting bad teachers or protecting our fantabulous lifestyles…as a famous politician regularly says, “WRONG.” This is about what is good for our schools and good for our young people. If Iowa’s Republican legislators want to have a conversation with Iowans about collective bargaining, this isn’t the way to do it, and that’s not what Iowans want. Iowa’s Republican legislators want to punish unions and in doing so will hurt public education in Iowa. Do it, but remember: consequences.

Money Wins

I have spent my career as a teacher.  I think in lesson plans, data, and outcomes.  Today the United States Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as Secretary of the Department of Education and I’m trying to figure out what lesson has been learned.  Money wins.  It really is that simple.  Ms. DeVos has no real experience in the field of education, unless spending millions of dollars to advocate for unregulated for-profit charter schools counts as experience in education.  It is also worth noting that the DeVos family has given over $950,000 to the senators who confirmed her today and that the DeVos family gave over $8.3 million to various conservation Super PACs over the last two election cycles.  Those of us who don’t find Ms. DeVos qualified had just our voices.  It is estimated that our senators were receiving as many of 1.5 million calls each day regarding Ms. DeVos’s nomination. Our senators received a massive amount of emails and tweets sharing our legitimate concerns about the answers she gave in her confirmation hearings, her conflicts of interest, her agenda to divert resources from public schools to private interests, and her lack of experience with public education.

We have been told that our legislators appreciate hearing from their constituents.  Never before has the public gone to such lengths to share legitimate concerns about a cabinet nominee.  So, again I ask, what is the lesson that we have learned?  Money wins.  I have been shocked at how many of the senators who voted in favor of Ms. DeVos today went to great lengths to point out the limited scope of the Secretary of Education’s responsibilities, as if to say that it doesn’t really matter who we put in charge.  Rather than trumpeting her qualifications, many of them bent over backwards to say that she is committed to enforcing federal law, as though that somehow makes her exceptional.

I try to be a glass half full guy, so here’s what I’ve got; education made the front page for a few days.  Public educators (who despite our reputation for being in lockstep, often agree on very little…ever been to a faculty meeting?) have come together united in our concerns about this choice to lead the Department of Education.  People who would never have considered calling a legislator’s office have made repeated calls in order for their voices to be heard.

Despite the best efforts of some to make it so, education isn’t a game of winners and losers.  There were no winners today and those of us who are concerned about Ms. DeVos didn’t lose.  I wrote a letter to Ms. DeVos a month ago in which I told her that those of us in public education are a little freaked out by her nomination.  We’re still a little freaked out, but it would be silly to wish her anything but the best.  It is important to recognize that all of us are here to serve ALL of the young people who show up every day needing a safe place to be challenged, nurtured, and supported.  Our legislators didn’t listen to our voices today, but let’s hope that Ms. DeVos does.

 

 

Education Advocacy 101

When I began my career as a teacher 25 years ago, it didn’t occur to me that there was much of a need to advocate for our schools. I took it for granted that everyone understood that strong public schools were the foundation of our country. It was also understood that teachers became teachers to help young people. Support for public education wasn’t a particularly partisan issue at that time.

 

Well, for better or for worse (OK…for worse), education has become a partisan issue. Education, for better or for worse (OK…for worse) is also a huge industry with billions of dollars attached to it. No one becomes a teacher because they want to have to advocate for resources or compete with other schools, other teachers, and politicians for programs and budgets, yet here we are. We are living in a time when those who have our boots on the ground of public education have to speak up to those in power. The narrative of public schools in our country is largely being told by those who haven’t spent much time in them. The tales of “carnage” in our schools and communities doesn’t match up with the heroic work that is happening in our schoolhouses. The idea that our schools are “failing” doesn’t match up with record graduation rates and record high parent satisfaction with schools; the idea that our schools are failing doesn’t account for increased diversity, poverty, and emphasis on standardized testing. The notion that teachers stand in the way of changing our schools for the better is laughable. There can be no doubt that the future of our schools is in the hands of the teachers who are willing to dedicate their lives to supporting the students they serve.

 

While we may not want to, we are in a time and place when those who care about public education must become advocates for this thing that we care about. Recently, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley opined that he thought the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture should have some dirt under his fingernails. I agree. I also believe that those in charge of our nation’s schools should have some chalk dust on their pants. Those of us who have experienced a little chalk dust on our pants need to tell our story. I began blogging over two years ago. Roughly 50 people read my first blog and it wasn’t meant to be particularly political (https://patrickjkearney.wordpress.com/). Smart people suggested that putting my thoughts down in writing was a good way to process my teaching philosophy. Those smart people were right; it has been a great outlet to express myself. Below are a few suggestions to those who are ready to start sharing their thoughts about education.

 

1) Tell YOUR Story.

I believe that it is important that the stories we tell about our schools are personal. Talk about schools through your lens. Share your passion with those who will listen.

2) Facts Do Matter

In an era when people seem to disagree about what a fact is, it is important that we use good data to inform our advocacy for schools. Much of the premise of those who want to upend public education rely on a “feeling” that creating a market of competitive schools will improve education. We have to answer those “feelings” with real data.

3) Show Empathy

We should recognize that not everyone is going to agree with our viewpoint and that’s OK. As we advocate for what we believe to be best for kids, we have to understand that everyone’s experience with schools is unique.

4) Go Straight to the Source

The most effective advocacy is a phone call to those in power. Call federal and state officials and tell them what you think; it is surprisingly easy and satisfying. When you email you legislator, be sure to tell them where you are from. If you are using Twitter, be sure to connect to their Twitter handle. All of these different communications to our legislators add up.

5) Be Strong

It can be hard to be an educator advocating for education. We are often accused of only looking out for our own interests. School administrators don’t always love educators who stick their necks out on political issues. Our issues aren’t always at the top of everyone’s agenda. With that being said, the issue of public education is too important for us to remain silent. Our voices have to part of this conversation at the local and national level. The reason we care about public education is because we care about young people. In many ways we represent their voices.

 

These are challenging times for public schools. Those of us who care about our local schools can’t afford to be silent. We have to tell our story. In the words of the musical Hamilton, we have to put ourselves “In the Room Where it Happens.” Be confident, be brave, and tell our story.