Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Let's Blame the Schools

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I’ve heard things like this for years.

The students can’t read as well as they should: It’s the schools’ fault.

Our kids aren’t as proficient in mathematics as they should be: The teacher isn’t doing his job.

My child can’t write very well: It’s all because of Ms. So-and-So’s lack of teaching my child properly.

I’ve heard these types of things for years.

In fact, when No Child Left Behind was passed, I was in the infancy of my own teaching career. I do remember it being something that people were excited about—just like any other promise made by politicians. For example, when George Bush Sr. announced, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” the crowds went wild.

Could he make good on his promise?

I think we all know the answer to that.

Being an educator, I saw NCLB going into effect through different eyes than the cheering crowds at the pronouncement of George W. Bush that—in a nutshell—all American schoolchildren would be proficient in both reading and math by the year 2014.


The other day I saw an article to which I haven’t been able to relocate. In it the author asked a few questions such as: Do we expect police officers to end all crime by a certain date? For firefighters to stop all fires? For doctors to end all illnesses?

Let’s be realistic here…we don’t. However, we expect them to do their best and strive as they can to make this world a better place for us all.


While this editorial of sorts is not meant by any means to have the solution to the educational dilemma we face as a society, I do wish to address some basic concerns, as well as share some thoughts, that I’ve had for a long time.

First off, let’s get one thing straight…are there poor teachers in our schools? Of course there are. There are these proponents of apathy in every career field that we have available to us. These are they who clock in at the assigned time, and are gone the moment they are permitted to do so, putting in no extra effort other than the basics that are required—it’s the nature of the beast. Sadly, these types of teachers are those who cause all those in the field to be painted with the same negative stereotypical brush.

But you know what? I’ve worked in two different schools in my educational journey, and in these two schools I’ve seen very few of these types of teachers. Furthermore, these teachers do not ‘fly under the radar’ by any means. The other teachers know exactly whom they are, as does the administration (who often are trying to help them to do better), and many parents in the community usually know how to spot them. However, I’ve come to discover that these types of individuals are far and few in-between as a general rule. Sadly though, it is these types of teachers that tend to be remembered in our own varied backgrounds and experience. After all, we can all remember that awful teacher we had, and how much we hated that particular class or year in school.

Yet, in all honesty, most teachers that I know do their job, work hard, and often stay extra time at the school; frequently they will take work home because there simply isn’t enough time in the day to stay caught up. My first principal, Cindy Wright, once told me, “Teaching is one of those careers that will consume your entire life if you let it.” She then told me about finding balance and realizing that there is a time to go home and stop thinking about work. Even now - years later - I still find myself struggling to follow her advice…I worry about my students who are not achieving, I’m continually planning ways in which to better engage them, and putting in countless hours off the clock to make sure that this is happening.

Of course, not all teachers do this—but for the most part, I think a majority of them are doing the best the can, day in and day out. Most of them went into teaching because they wanted to make a difference; after all, one usually doesn’t go into education planning to get rich.

My own teaching career has been a rollercoaster of assessing, remediation, and more remediation. I’ve not known a year in teaching where I was not continually assessing students, and trying to think of ways to move them along further down the boulevard of knowledge.

It was a few years ago that I remember chatting with a kindergarten teacher. This teacher told me that in her class she had kids who came in knowing their first and last names (as well as how to spell them), all names of the basic colors and shapes, kids that could count to 10 or 50, and those that could even tell you all the letter names in the alphabet and basic sounds they made.

I was blown away…

She then went on to tell me about the kids who’d come in knowing hardly any of these things. When asked what their mom’s name was, they’d simply reply, “Mommy.”

Already—even in the first year of school—these two groups of students are clearly at an advantage and disadvantage in their education. In talking with a few parents about how their kids had learned these basic things, many of them gave responses like, “I have them watch PBS programs like Sesame Street,” “I read with them all the time and talk about the book,” and probably the most important of them all, “I spend time talking to them, explaining what all these things are.”

Even these, the simplest of things, can make a huge difference.

I remember talking to one parent (not in my school) in regards to this and her response was something to the effect of, “Teaching my kid? That’s not my job, they learn that stuff when they go to school.”

Already, this woman’s children are more at a clear disadvantage than many others.

I thought about Jimmer Fredette this morning. I thought of how skilled he is in basketball, too. To watch this guy on the court is like watching poetry in motion.

Now, whether or not you like Jimmer is totally irrelevant. The fact is he’s a better basketball player than I will ever be.

But why is this? Why aren’t I as good as Jimmer?

Oh, I imagine that a lot of it is simply athletic ability and hand-eye coordination. This plays a big role. However, I think that there’s something else, too.


I’ve played basketball before, and I’m not bad, but I’m not that great at it, either…mostly because I never practice. The reason I don’t practice is probably because it’s not important enough to me to invest the time to do so.

But what if I wanted to become better? What would I need to do?

Let’s say that I sign up for a basketball class with a coach, and he shows me different methods and skills I can use in my playing.

So, while I’m with him, I do what he says. “Now practice this at home.” He tells me.

I go home and sit on the couch. Since I know he’ll be checking in on me the next time I go to his class—and he’ll ask me if I’ve practiced—I head outside for five minutes, shoot a couple of times, dribble the ball with my heart half into it, and then stop because my favorite television show is slated to come on.

I drop the ball and count it as time served.

Now, compare that to someone else who goes to the same coach, and gets the same instruction that I did—we’ll call him Jimmer. Jimmer heads home and then spends an hour each day on the court, trying to master the skills he’s been taught. He keeps shooting until he can make the shot and practices dribbling with both hands.

We both return to the coach, and both report that we went out and practiced.

And really, we did; however, one of us was trying with all his heart and wanted to get better, while the other one of us was just serving time.

So, who is going to become the better basketball player?

Every year I have students in my class who do something quite similar to this. I have the student that is taught a skill, given an assignment, and then goes home—knowing that this is practice of what he’s already been taught. Often it either gets done halfheartedly (to get it over with), or he comes back the next day having not finished it at all, but armed with a barrage of excuses. Now compare this to the student who not only completes the assignment, but the one who tries their very best and goes above and beyond.

Who is going to become the better reader, writer, or mathematician?

Now, let’s change up the scenario just a little bit. Let’s pretend that after my basketball class I went home, and there I have a friend that’s better at basketball than I am who says, “Hey, how about if I watch you practice and give you some pointers? Maybe even practice with you for a while?” After all, it’s more often easier to do something when we have somebody at our disposal with a little more knowledge than we do.

Chances are, I’m going to get better at basketball because he’s going to see the errors I’m making, and he’ll point out the places I need to improve. In other words, he’s going to help me to hone my skills as a ballplayer.

Compare this to coming back home after practice, trying to remember what the coach said, and applying it. Whether this practice is with all my heart, halfhearted, or not at all, none of these will be nearly as powerful as having an expert there along with me, helping to guide me as I try to improve.

Now, if you put this in an educational context, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

Can parents make a difference? Indeed they can.

In fact, I’ve noticed over the years that those students who generally excel in school, who are the higher readers, and those who comprehend math concepts are the students whose parents are involved.

Not always, but nearly always.

The students who are behind in assignments, are lower readers, and are poor academic achievers as well are usually—but not always—those with parents who are not involved.

Having a parent there with you can make all the difference, but it does take patience, effort, and most of all…time.

A past colleague of mine received a letter from a parent that informed her that she didn’t appreciate homework being sent home. She also went on to let the teacher know that it was the teacher’s job to educate her child. She said that when her child came home from school, that this was her time to spend with her daughter, and they couldn’t be bothered with things like schoolwork.

I thought that this was kind of funny…after all, when we go to a doctor we don’t fully expect that the doctor will be the one to heal us in a moment or two; however, we follow his directions when he lets us know the things that will make us better: we rest when he asks us, we take the medication he prescribes, and we make sure that we’re doing what he recommends because we want to get better.

Education is not something that happens only during the time school is in session, it happens in a thousand little moments all throughout life. It is a constant and consistent thing that should be nourished and helped along the way.

Also, education is a partnership.

The coach, the mentor, and the athlete are all working together for the betterment of the athlete, in much the same way that a teacher, parent, and student are working together for the education of the child.

It’s a win-win-win team when all are doing what they should.

Now, before I conclude, let me address one more little thing: The parent who works hard with their child and still sees little to no progress.

Well, back to Jimmer.

While Jimmer most likely has more athletic ‘talent’ than I do, I can still become a better basketball player than I currently am. We all have different areas in which we excel. A parent who has a struggling student—and all three parties are working hard to overcome it—shouldn’t be discouraged by this. After all, in comparing our own levels, we should well be aware that if we compare ourselves to how well we’ve done in the past, we are more likely to have an accurate marker of our achievement and progress. If I judge my progress based solely on Jimmer’s ability, and how close I am to matching up to him, I will always find myself lacking and become discouraged.

There are those of us who simply struggle. However, having something like a learning disability gives us a challenge to work at and then finally overcome. Just be aware that the more we ‘dis’ our ability, and compare ourselves with those around us, the more discouraged we’ll become. We need to keep plugging away. We need to keep taking those shots from the 3-point line trying to make it. We should keep on dribbling that ball. After all, it’s through the consistent practice and work that we’ll find ourselves discovering that we have more ‘ability’ than we perhaps originally thought.

One more thing about Jimmer and then I’m through; it was something he said at a basketball camp to the hundred or more kids who attended. He challenged them to reach for their dreams:

“I set a goal…I went out and worked as hard as I possibly can every single day, I saw my dreams start to come true. Now, I’m from a small town, I’m probably from a smaller town than almost all of you guys that are in here…no one thought I could go up and play in the NBA, no one thought I could be a division one basketball player. No one thought I could be reaching these dreams that I’m reaching today. But I did! And the biggest thing is, it’s because I went out there and I worked as hard as I possibly could every single day…My challenge to YOU is to go out and do it. Go out and reach your dreams. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be playing basketball…like I said, instruments, schoolwork, it doesn’t matter what it is, I challenge you guys to set a goal…that you want to reach later on in your life. Write it down, okay? Then post it up, right above your bed. So every single night, you’ll see it and you’ll be thinking about the goal that you want to accomplish. If you guys really put in the effort every single day, you guys can do it and I promise you that.”

—Jimmer Fredette

Police officers are not able to end all crime. It’s impossible for firefighters to stop all fires. It’s unrealistic to expect doctors to cure all illnesses. We shouldn’t expect everyone to be to the same standard by a certain time, either.

However, should we stop trying to do any of these things?

Absolutely not.

It was Dory from Finding Nemo who reminded us that we simply need to ‘keep on swimming’ in order to make progress to finally get to where we need to be.

...and that is exactly what I plan on doing.


Connie said...

Hear! Hear! Well said!

Bits-n-Pieces said...

As a teacher of Kinder and 1st for 22 years, I know exactly what you are talking about. Thank you for expressing it so eloquently! (I don't think I could've been that nice about it!)
And I think that article you are referencing but couldn't find was "In What Other Profession" http://m.examiner.com/k-12-in-topeka/in-what-other-profession

Brooke said...

Beautiful post Mr. Z.

Fun With Ali and Hayden! said...

Sharing, Posting, Printing for the other teachers at my school... Perfectly said!! And something I try to tell my students all the time. You have to practice to get better!

Kristina P. said...

I love this! I feel like many parents see school and teachers as free babysitting. Not the start of the learning process, which to build upon.

You are obviously one of the good eggs.

Rhoda said...

Great post!

Mindee@ourfrontdoor said...

Intelligent and thought provoking without being inflammatory or defensive. Well done Mr. Z.

Tracy P. said...

Yes, yes, yes!! I'm glad you are finding yourself surrounded with committed professionals. I did too. I left the classroom 12 years ago, but teaching will always be my profession, and I will stand up for teachers as long as I live. Your students are blessed!

Jamie said...


Sierra said...

Um, yes. I don't even know what to say. I couldn't agree more. Perfect.

Cheryl said...

Pitch perfect! I have one of each kind of kid you described in my own house, which makes life interesting...

Kalei's Best Friend said...

Jason, I totally agree with you.. Parents need to get involved.. after all THEY chose to have children.. We buy cars, homes and they need maintenance- same as w/children... When I worked in the schools, I over heard a mother tell her son about his after school schedule which included a visit to Sylvan.. The poor child wanted just attention -he was trying his best to get her to listen and she wasn't listening... He wasn't thrilled about going to Sylvan but she insisted since she was paying them to teach him to read... If she only knew that maybe he may have wanted her to teach him??
My grandma taught me to read, she had patience to sit and hear me read out loud.. unlike my mother who was either too busy or couldn't be bothered... Nowadays parents are busy, yes, working.. little do they know their children want their attention and interest and not passed on to someone else who is getting paid... Parents need to be accountable.

Nancy said...

Beautiful post!

Mamma has spoken said...

OH Jason this is so dead on! I've sat through hours and hours of ATM meetings and RTI tier meetings and it's the same names time after time. We cheer for those who the interventions had been successful, we try to come up with more interventions for those who aren't making great progress. Yes there are some bad teachers out there, but I know where I teach at, those teachers are handled just the way you said AND they are kept away from the regular classroom.
Thanks for the early morning inspiration.

tammy said...

The blame game - it's what this society has turned into. Everyone wants everything the easy way.

It's got to be so frustrating when you see the kids that are getting no help at home.

Linn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diana said...

Love your post and agree with what you said. That being said, do you have any pointers on getting and keeping your child engaged while doing these things? My boys love to be read to and or to read to me. Numbers and math are shaping up. But I have a horrible time getting them to do their written homework or school work. (They are only 4 and 6 - Pre-K and 1st grade).

Even as a non-educator, I thought that NCLB would never do what the politicians thought it would. All people are not created equal, and not everyone can meet the same standards at the same time. I believe in equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.

mCat said...

Perfectly stated. As a parent, I can most certainly attest that the more time I spent with them when they were YOUNGER, led to more self sufficiency when it came to their school work as they got older. Not that we didn't stay involved, but their own level of accountability rose, but because we taught them early, they were fairly sucessful. They have to have the tools in elementary school, and the tools begin at home.
I also had one that struggled. No defined learning disability, just struggled with school, he most definitely has a different approach to learning and life in general and once we accepted that we adapted for him and encouraged whatever level of success he obtained it was much better for everyone. Did he have some poor teachers? Yes, but he also had some outstanding teachers and you are so right when you say there is mediocrity in EVERY profession.

Great post JZ!

Richard & Natalie said...

Wow, what great insight so clearly spelled out. Well done and I completely agree. I will try to remember this when I feel like I want to beat my head against the wall when it comes to my kids and their homework. ;)

Stacey said...

100% On. The. Spot.

I am not a teacher, but I am a parent - a very invloved parent. When I asked our children's teachers to meet with us to discuss their progress, they were overjoyed...and a little surprised. They weren't used to meeting with parents who's children were successful in the classroom. I firmly believe that my kid's are successful because we give them the chance to be successful and show them the importance of learning at home.

Kara said...

Excellent words. As I am now thinking of my oldest starting Kindergarten this coming fall, I can only hope he gets a teacher half as dedicated and invested as you.

Mar C said...

I haven't watched basketball in years until I saw Jimmer Fredette play with BYU last year. He is truly an inspiration, and so are you!

Karen Peterson said...

This is a great post.

One thing I would add is that I see way too much classroom policy being set by bureaucrats who have little, if any, classroom experience, or who have been away for so long that they are, frankly, out of touch.

Teachers need to be part of the conversation about how to improve education.

Pedaling said...

this post brings to light many great points.

things I thought of while reading...

1. We've had some awesome teachers involved in my life and the lives of my children.

2. Parental involvement is vital to great success.

3. I wish teachers made more money...(I know you said nothing about that) just my wish..that's all.

4. No Child Left Behind--not good. The government needs to get out of education!

5.10,000 hours. Have you ever read Outliers?

Great post.

wendy said...

Very Good. I was married to a school teacher for 13 years, and I worked in the school as a teachers aid for 3 years.
I have somewhat "been in the trenches" so to speak.
Yeah there are some crappy teachers out there...just like there are some crappy politicians, crappy doctors, crappy dentists...on and on.
The GOOD ONES don't get the recognition, as always.
It gets to be very frustrating.
How can Parents NOT get involved with their childrens education and development.
I remember after many a parent teacher night...my husband coming home and saying
"well, the apple certainly does not fall far from the tree"
Makes me sad for the children who are neglected at home, by those who should Care The Most.

I be you are a great teacher, otherwise you would not even bother to post this.
Be Proud.

Shauna_Rae said...

LOVED this!

So many people want something without the practice associated with it. Have you read the book "The Outliers"? It is ALL about the practice. :)

Mindy said...

You speak the truth my friend.

While I, like others, had a couple less than stellar educators, the ones that truly stand out in my memory are those teachers that made an extra effort.

I wish more people realized that education truly is a team effort between parents, children, and teachers. Thanks for the reminder.

Vida Bombek said...

I love your article. I wish also the parents of our pupils would read it.

Teachinfourth said...

B&P - Thanks for the link to the article...that was it!

Diana - Sometimes kids' attention spans are lacking; therefore, by doing something like turning the assignment into a game (how quickly can we finish it right...a kind of 'beat the clock' and let's do this problem in under a minute type of thing) can help kids to focus a bit more. Something else is to break the time into small segments (10 minutes to work, then take a two minute break to run one time around the house or get a drink of water, etc.,) can help homework time not to be this daunting never-ending block of time. Most of my students also like to have soft, instrumental music playing in the background because it helps them to focus.

Everyone Else - I really do appreciate your thoughts/comments & I apologize for not responding to you all individually.

One of the best ways to make sure that parents read this is to share it with anyone that you feel that could benefit from it.

Of course, handing this article to a parent might not be received very well...therefore a far less intrusive way is to post it to Twitter, Facebook, a class website with a reference to it as 'an interesting read' or something like that, or your own blog as something you liked.

I would appreciate that as well.

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