Assessment Opinion

New-School-Year’s Reflections

By Deborah Meier — September 15, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

September. For nearly 50 years September was a signal for me of renewed enthusiasm for the possible. Everyone seemed to enter the schoolhouse with new convictions for THIS year. It was our equivalent of New Year’s.

For kids and teachers, the resolutions included staying up to date on our assignments and keeping our desks and bulletins boards neat and current; for teachers only, never yelling at kids. (“What, never?” “Well, hardly ever.”) At home, I’d start a new system for leaving messages for the kids each morning and reporting on our plans for the evening. Each year my system ran out of steam after a while, but I consoled myself that five steps forward and four back still equaled progress. (Which was more or less what my history textbook had said when I was growing up.)

Yes, when teachers would rush together at 3 p.m. on the Wednesday after Labor Day they’d gloat over the great group of kids they had gotten that year. Until someone wise would remind us—wait’ll next week.

Kids and teachers were together in these illusions. But behind it was something I miss. The truth that it contained about the possibility that this year we’d “do better.”

As I read “Getting schooled: The reeducation of an American teacher,” by Garret Keizer in the September Harper’s, I had such a longing to be at school again. The frustration, sorrow, and down-right fury I feel day after day at the way we are messing things up for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren and, most of all, our great-grandchildren is not good for me. But when I was teaching I had no problem being on a high—the first great high was September. But to some degree every Monday was another one because this week we’ll.... And every 8:40 a.m. was one, too.

Driving to school in Harlem I used to teach myself a new story or song for morning meeting or rehearse an old one that the kids were sure to ask for. Keizer’s account of his return to the classroom rang so true.

Now, instead, I read The New York Times. Bah, humbug.

I came back last weekend from four very full days in Indiana. I spoke to a wide range of audiences—probably 500 people in all—in various sizes and shapes. I was mostly listening to would-be-teachers, student-teachers, and experienced teachers describe their concerns. Sometimes I was giving a full-scale speech that reinforced the importance of concerning ourselves with the conditions affecting our work while simultaneously giving 100 percent to the particular kids we meet with every morning at 8:40 (or so). One-hundred percent, plus100 percent, not to mention family and friends.

I participated in two seminars with experienced teachers and Indiana University faculty to ponder the purpose of college and the degree of autonomy that good teaching requires. Diane: the latter is a topic that you need to visit. How about my challenging you for your answer? And, would you say it’s any different for a 3rd grade teacher vs. a college professor? Make a note—and let’s get back to this one.

But what was for too many a new thought was the connection between democracy and education—versus the economy. It’s been said in many ways by many great men and women. But they’ve rarely connected the dots in a way that turns their language into something that can help guide our actions. Perhaps because we haven’t spent enough time defining democracy, not as part of the curriculum or anywhere else. We think the rules and rites of civic life (hence civics courses) that describe our government and how we fit into it are the same as democracy teaching. Or that holding a class election is like voting for your congressman.

Nor have we asked ourselves what some truly great people have said in defense of benign dictatorships and against “popular” democracy. Our founding fathers thought that a man without property was not free or secure enough to vote of his/her own free will. He could be too easily bought off, argued some sensible people. The same was said of women, who were, after all, under the thumb of the men in their homes and, thus, could not exercise an independent vote. Only men of property, it was long believed in democratic theory, were in position to cast a free vote. Ideally, only men who had, in addition, the free time for free thought.

I’m reminded today that in the absence of serious (controversial) history teaching few people will understand how the presence or absence of job security—with all of its scorned “union” protections—makes or breaks democracy. I was painfully reminded of it during those four days in Indiana as teacher after teacher acknowledged their own nervousness about keeping their jobs. (The new-reformers would see this as good news, I guess.)

Would I have survived as a teacher under such circumstances today?

One evening, incidentally, was spent in the Lilly Library at the Indiana University campus where the new Deborah Meier Collection now resides. Not only in the form of objects and papers, but it’s accessible by everyone and anyone via the Web, or whatever it’s properly called. You can link to information about it here (although I haven’t tried it yet myself).

When you read this, Diane, I’ll be in Greensboro, N.C., talking to music teachers from all over America. Is there a connection between music and democracy? And, if not, so what? Unlike the visual arts, it’s impossible to find the equivalent of cave paintings to uncover this vital and surely very ancient form of communication.


P.S. Folks are startled when I say that the United States would be at the top of the ranking order on the international test scores if we all agreed to exclude the scores of those below the poverty line. Hint: Maybe there is no education crisis. Since we are apparently settling into the idea that about 20 percent of the country will be perennially un- or underemployed, and without their scores we’re doing fine, maybe it’ll all work out. (I’m kidding!) But, isn’t it interesting that the both sides of the old Cold War are becoming increasingly alike in our least attractive features? Both hog the winners circle when it comes to the fewest having the most. Democracy isn’t having an easy time overcoming this obstacle in either Russia or the USA. In short: Maybe there is no “education” crisis, but rather a mal-distribution-of-the-existing-wealth, one that skews our international test scores and our democracy at the same time.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.