Education Opinion

Regular Teachers, Regular Schools

By Nancy Flanagan — September 29, 2011 3 min read
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So--who’s watching Education Nation this week?

My friends (a group with a disproportionately large percentage of teachers) are neatly divided into two camps: the folks who thought last year’s Education Nation was such a smarmy, hyped-up caricature of “journalism” that they’re avoiding the whole thing in favor of grading papers or watching baseball--and those who are watching, hoping fervently that NBC will have learned something from their heartfelt complaints / letters / tweets / blogs. Call them education’s jaded pessimists and earnest optimists.

I’ve been watching, too--sporadically, not compulsively. A look at the list of sponsoring organizations was enough to tell me what I needed to know about truth, social justice and the American way at (drum roll) Education Nation 2011. Yeah, I know--advertising is how networks bring us all the “free” magic. But I’ve had enough corporate-sponsored educational “innovations” lately, thank you.

Still--you have to pick up your bat if you want to play the game. There have been some notable things at Education Nation 2011.

Ann Curry’s panel of students was refreshingly focused on what actual kids think of their education. But the parent panel was a moribund and thoroughly deceptive mess--with the exception of Peg Tyre, who kept pointing out that parents don’t really know what to do with all the “information” and “power” that other panelists kept saying so-called parent revolutionaries must demand. And NBC ought to fire the person who thought WI Governor Scott Walker had something valuable to contribute to the discussion around improving schools.

The ever-genial John Merrow tries to walk a middle path in his blog; he notes that last year was a disaster, but turns on a dime and declares this year’s event not only a resounding success, but the “lofty, must-attend” summit of all summits, a place to “see and be seen.” He praises NBC for including lots of “regular teachers” and both union presidents.

And there’s the rub, for me: Education Nation is not a program for regular teachers or about regular schools, let alone regular parents and school leaders. “Seeing and being seen” isn’t on regular teachers’ agendas-- they don’t get to attend summits. These days, regular teachers don’t even get the opportunity to attend conferences or get good professional development. They’re lucky to have a job.

Other people--"experts"--gather in national forums, to talk about teachers’ work, declaring it measurably inadequate, uninspiring, lousy enough to develop a petition shutting down public schools. They compare “regular” teaching to jazzed-up video teaching, and “regular” schools to franchise schools with advertising budgets. And they make judgments, based on glittering media showcases of What Could Be. From Merrow’s blog:

We know that students using the Khan Academy math program can move through three, four or five 'grade levels' in math without ever being aware of how rapidly they are moving -- because there are no "Stop, you have reached the end of 5th grade!" signs. That kid's teacher is probably going to have to tell him to slow down, which is a terrible message to send.
KIPP kindergarten teachers explain to their kids why they are going to walk in a line and why they are expected to be quiet in the halls. Lots of regular teachers just tell the kids to line up and be quiet. The first way is respectful and creates shared responsibility, while the second seems likely to create behavior problems down the road.

There are those regular teachers and schools again--bossing kids around without explanation, and slowing down their natural eagerness to learn.

Merrow seems unaware that KIPP schools gathered and packaged their best ideas by watching exemplary--regular--teachers, masters of classroom management who have been talking to kids and tinkering with strategies for centuries. He doesn’t seem to know that regular teachers make their own instructional videos all the time, tailoring them to specific kids and programs, and making them freely available to other schools, on the web--something you can’t say about Sal Khan.

And here we are dividing American schooling into two camps again: regular schools and the “special” teachers and schools highlighted, at the surface level, by Education Nation.

Good teaching is not about classroom rules, cute videos, raising test scores, cool field experiences or unions. It’s about relationships, mastery, analysis, persistence, diagnosis and continuous reflection. It’s complex, layered intellectual work. And it happens in hundreds of thousands of “regular” classrooms, every day.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.