Warning:  This Column Has a Grudge

 M the Media Project
Mick Carlon writes on public education for M the Media Project. He is an internationally recognized author of novels for young adults.

Mick Carlon’s Jazz novels—RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN; TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and GIRL SINGER (Leapfrog Press)—are in the curriculum of 100+ schools in the United States. According to the late Nat Hentoff: “Nothing like Carlon’s books has yet been attempted in the history of Jazz. They are introducing a new generation to the glories and stories of our music.” A six-time speaker at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, Carlon has spoken to audiences about Jazz in New York City,Boston, Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and all over New England. After enjoying a 38 year career as a public school teacher, Carlon lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts with his wife, Lisa. The couple are very proud of their daughters Hannah and Sarah.

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In my decades in the teaching field, I worked (in my estimation) for three exceptional superintendents; four exceptional principals; and many exceptional assistant principals and disciplinary deans.

Yet in the last decade or so, a new breed of “educational leader” has emerged.  I have long felt that education has an inferiority complex when it compares itself to the business world–hence, its borrowing of many business world terms.  For example, overnight the term “best practices” began to be thrown around at faculty meetings. Within a few months it was best practices this and best practices that.  The only trouble with slavishly adopting business terms?  Teaching is not a business.  I would add that teaching–despite the arguments of the data driven–is not a science.  I believe that teaching is an art–an art that can be performed in many different ways by many different artists.

An older friend, who also happened to be a gifted teacher, once said to me:  “Think about it.  You work in a watch factory.  You and your fellow workers have to produce two thousand watches a day, five days a week.  You are given uniform materials that will not break.  You are given state-of-the-art working conditions.  Your tools are cutting edge.  So you dive in and begin producing those watches.  Now think about teaching.  In front of you are, say, twenty five young people.  Some have parents who read to them daily from infancy, while some languished in a crib all day.  Some return home to loving and supporting parents.  Some return home to people dealing with severe addictions who love their children–but who can’t cope with daily life.  Some kids are reading three books a week on their own; some have never read a book in their lives.  Yet you are expected to produce the same amount of watches each and every week?  It’s not going to work.  The business model of education fails to take in the fact that we are dealing with human beings.”

I am not saying that the experience that I will describe below happens to all teachers.  I have no idea whether it does or does not.  But I’m pretty sure that it has happened to most of us in the teaching trenches.

You have taught for over twenty or thirty years.  That’s a long time.  You know how to teach.  You are always looking for ways to improve—you are not complacent—but after decades in the trenches, you know how to teach.

Your superintendent has hired a new “leader” with a fancy title.   This Expert will be paid $120,000 a year.  This sticks in your craw because your salary—after over three decades of dedicated service to your community—is $89,000.  (Oh, but please subtract from that figure the slightly over 15,000 dollars that is ripped from your paychecks for your health (not dental) care.  Oh, and don’t forget the yearly $10,000 that is taken out for your pension savings).

At your first meeting of the year, the Expert tells the gathered teachers that… guess what?  You’ve been doing it wrong all these years.  There’s a brand-new way of teaching–called SLOSOAO (Students Learning Obvious Stuff Over And Over) –that is foolproof!  You won’t believe the results!

Naturally a sterile Power Point presentation follows.  And what do you see and hear?  A reheated steaming pile of pointless educational jargon created by drones in skyscrapers (who have probably never taught a day in their lives) making copious loot for some corporation.

The jargon is so thick that it is nonsensical.

The concepts are so simple as to be insulting.

*Do you know that you should allow students to revise their work?

*Do you know that positive reinforcement can work wonders?

*Do you know that you should introduce new vocabulary words more than once?

*All Hail!  SLOSOAO is your new preferred method of teaching!

Buckle up—because for the next year you will be receiving a torrent of emails from the $120,000 Wonder to justify his job/salary—each one more thick, pointless and nonsensical than its younger siblings.

These emails became a joke among your colleagues. “Have you deleted this week’s letter yet?”  “Do you even read that crap anymore?”  “Did you know that you should explain directions to students more than once?  Jeez, who knew?”

(Is there really a new way of teaching a new skill?  The skill–let’s say, writing a  mind-grabbing lead paragraph to young journalists–is introduced.  Students read models of fine leads written by previous students and by professionals.  Then they dive in and begin to write their own.  More practice follows–followed by the teacher sharing exceptional leads written by classmates.  More practice follows–and the skill is drilled again and again in the weeks to follow.  There is no shortcut–but after a month, the students know how to write a mind-grabbing lead paragraph. Did not the master sculptor teaching a skill to a young apprentice in a workshop in Athens in 600 B.C. use basically the same method?)

As the year grinds on, the Expert becomes more and more arrogant, strutting through the hallways like a grand rajah, telling teachers how to do their jobs.  “How are you integrating SLOSOAO into your daily practice?”

“I don’t,” said one colleague braver than I.  “It’s pointless bullshit.”

Pretending he didn’t hear the peasant speaking the triple truth, the Expert struts on.

And then in January you find out that this money-ingesting “educational leader” has never taught a day in his life.

Meanwhile you have 27 seventh graders in one classroom, and eight have special needs.

The Expert’s salary could have paid for two new teachers in your building, lowering class sizes.

And that is one of the obscene disgraces of public education today:  So-called “leaders” who have never been in the trenches, “earning” bloated salaries for doing…nothing.  As a colleague recently told me, too many of these folks “are busy making it look like they’re useful, rather than being useful.”

Imagine if a skilled surgeon with a record of proven success now has to listen to a non-surgeon tell her/him how to perform her/his job.

Sorry for my bitterness, but this situation reeks.  And yet we teachers have to listen to people who have never experienced our jobs telling us how to teach.  And the soulless jargon seems to have one goal in mind:  To strip away the art of teaching.  To make teaching the act of creating watches in a factory.

Until the day when our students have been transformed into identical shiny robots, glowing with humming tubes and wires, teaching will never be a business.

It will remain an art practiced by dedicated artists.


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