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« BFTP: How important is certification | Main | Myths of creativity »

Discouraged, but persistent

I'm probably breaking a confidence, but I received this in an e-mail from my daughter yesterday:

I am looking forward to hearing from Paul's teacher at conferences. 5th grade seems to skew heavily toward doing things the teacher's way procedurally rather than actually learning anything or God forbid, making it interesting. Paul was all ready to bring his Vasco da Gama oral report alive with visuals and lots of fascinating tidbits about the "long and uncertain voyage" around the Horn of Africa when he came home and glumly reported, "No props. And we have to stick to the outline." This is the same teacher that feels diagramming sentences is possibly the most important skill children can learn. As baby Miles would say, "It hurts me." I am thankful for EL (extended learning, the G&T program). He's skyping with NASA scientists and building his own website to present his research comparing Australopithecus brains to modern humans'.  I realize, in telling you this, that I am preaching to the choir.

Ironic that this came just a day or so after my little rant about the need to give creativity more importance in all school work. Obviously Paul's teacher didn't read my compelling suggestions. Nor did, I expect, 99.999% of the rest of practicing teachers. In my little pond, I am big frog, but it is a very, very small pond.

Yesterday I gave a workshop at AASL on assessing, planning and reporting for school library programs, attended by about 35 very involved, responsive and thoughtful librarians, library directors and state library consultants. Good people to be sure, but I would say they are librarians who came in already understanding the importance of these things if the profession is to thrive and survive.

I often wonder what percentage of educators read blogs and journals, attend conferences, and engage in other opportunities for growth and improving professional practice? And I wonder how that percentage compares to professionals in other fields like dentistry or accounting or engineering?

I took a lot of heat a few days ago when I suggested that parents should be able to select their children's own teachers with in a school, and those teachers whose classes don't fill be terminated. Would such a plan have prevented the obvious bad match between the type of teacher Paul has and the type of teacher my daughter wants Paul to have?

And while the likelihood of creating teacher choice in schools or reaching 100% of educators through writing or workshops, messages like the one from my daughter renew my dedication as well as frustrate me. I may lose the battle, but it won't be without a fight.

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Reader Comments (8)

Let your dim light shine, brother. Goes without saying that I believe we need to bravely expose sub-standard teaching.

Teachers get dozens of attempts over the course of a career. Kids get one shot at 5th grade.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

Doug, I am both encouraged and ashamed. Encouraged that there are people like us who fight the good fight, trying to change our little corner of education and the education community at large through our conversations with others and through conferences like AASL. I am ashamed of my fellow teachers and librarians who are stuck in the teacher-centered model of education, while the world passes them (and their students) by. I am committed to redoubling my efforts in reaching out to all teachers and librarians, not just the progressive, like-minded folks who will receive my messages easily and effortlessly.

Perhaps a letter writing campaign, march, or protest is in order. I'm not a huge fan of camping in parks, but I am so fed up with our education system as it exists in many places now that I am prepared to take some pretty radical steps to at least begin a national conversation on how education in many places is ruining our kids' chances at a bright future. Getting rid of sub par teachers (and administrators, and librarians) is a great step.

I'm in the Denver airport, headed to Minneapolis. I hope to see you and get a chance to chat sometime this weekend.

All the best,


October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLen Bryan

"I often wonder what percentage of educators read blogs and journals, attend conferences, and engage in other opportunities for growth and improving professional practice? And I wonder how that percentage compares to professionals in other fields like dentistry or accounting or engineering?"

Wish I could say 10% with a straight face. Wish I could say 75% and be proud of that. Too many I know still think list-serves are pretty hot stuff. It's going to be a hard transition, but informal learning is how we will develop/learn/progress in the 21st Century. Districts are broke. Everywhere! We can't afford to send lots of people/anybody to conferences (we were talking about this in my principal practicum message board last week). That doesn't mean learning ends. It means we need to do it differently. There's such a wealth of knowledge out there that so few educators tap into. I'm not saying that conferences are bad, but we have to be realistic about the way things are now...

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Mielke

I think the question isn't how many educators read blogs and engage in professional development (although I'm probably optimistic in my estimate) but how can we reach them? The "good" educators I know follow blogs, participate in their teacher associations, and are enthusiastic about relevant professional development, but there are two problems - time and audience. In the library world, us librarians are taking to other librarians; we post on blogs and in newsletters and present at conferences, but they are library-focused events, followed by... you guessed it, other librarians! This is great! I'm so glad there are so many dedicated and involved librarians, but I'm afraid our message doesn't reach the teachers.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdjrinio

Consequent to a talk I recently heard by Cathy Davidson of Duke U., I did some reading up on this quote from Clay Shirky: "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

I found that teachers had a great deal to say about this phrase on various blogs (so they do read them), but the problem they identified was exclusively with administration. Instruction/pedagogy never seemed to emerge as an issue within the context of "institutions," at least among the teachers discussing it. I suspect most students would have a different opinion on the matter.

Sir Ken Robinson relates a story about his daughter's opinion that her HS French class was "boring," hence the D she was earning in it. When he spoke to the teacher, her defense was that sometimes learning a language is just work to be done, that it's often going to be boring. He considered that millions of French children must be in a terrible fix, with such a boring language to master. How can a country like France actually continue in the world?

It is very easy to identify the "other" as the reason one's teaching is ineffective. However, in an environment in which professional self-examination and reflection is simply not safe in the context of high-stakes fault-finding, it's no wonder teachers will find the splinter in someone else's eye long before they see the log in their own.

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Discouraging. But also motivating. We need grassroots efforts to not only identify like-minded individuals who are determined to change the system, but to also reach out to those who are fence-sitters.

Teachers are overwhelmed and over-worked. Then in districts like mine, they spend endless hours in meetings that accomplish nothing or very little. In the first nine weeks this school year (45 student days, 5 teacher inservice days), I had to attend 23 meetings. If each meeting were only a half hour after school (many are much longer), then I have put in an nearly an extra two days' work (based on hours).

I am self-motivated, so I come home and do professional development on my own time. But there are many teachers who are not self-motivated and feel they have already given too many hours to a system that cares little about their opinions or wants.

I am on our school's Professional Development Committee (which meets again this Tuesday!) and we are charged with creating a PD calendar for next semester. Here's my chance to reach out to our overwhelmed and overworked teachers. What topics would you recommend that would attract teachers and help them to realize there is a better way?

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFran Bullington

I'm sorry to hear your grandson's (?) creativity has been stifled. It is a sad to hear that a child, brimming with enthusiasm, has been shut down because a teacher doesn't want to change her marking rubric or think outside the box. It makes me worry for the teachers my own kids will have once they start school in a couple years.

It wasn't until I started my Masters degree in Teacher-Librarianship this fall that I realized just how much important Pro-D is happening online rather than in workshops. Ignorance is no excuse, but what a difference Google Reader and Twitter has made for me. My teaching paradigm has shifted enormously just in a few months. So, take heart... if you build it, they will come.

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Lunny

Hi J,

I wish more teachers would have a real internal conversation about how much to support the testing madness. I believe that is underlying cause of a lot of reluctance to improve teaching and learning - or at rationalization.


Hi Len,

Occupy the Department of Education instead of Occupy Wall Street.

We have the means to be subversive every day in so many ways as educators. We just need to take advantage of our position!


Hi Nathan,

The beauty of the Internet is that it has made individual Professional Learning Networks possible - conferences can be the frosting on the cake!

I'm going to dig out my old book Teaching as a Subversive Activity from the 70s!


Hi djrinio,

One of the more gratifying things I sometimes hear about the Blue Skunk is that it is read by librarians, techies and an increasing number of teachers and administrators. I am offending an ever wider group!


Hi Bill,

Perceptive as always. Thank you.


Hi Fran,

Good to hear from you!

"What topics" for PD is the THE question. My sense is that anything we propose has to do two things (perhaps impossibly): reduce teacher work load and make teachers better able to meet what ever goals they have or are imposed on them. Good luck with that.


Hi Jenny,

I appreciate the comment. For the self-motivated the Internet and PLNs are a fantastic resource. Too bad more teachers and librarians do not have the personal motivation (or skills) to take advantage of them.


October 31, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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