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Root Causes and the Save Our Schools March

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I saw some really poor teaching the other day. Doesn't matter where. The kids were great ... in fact, they were incredibly tolerant of the poor teaching.

The teacher sat in a chair in the front of a classroom where the desks were neatly in rows. The students had their notebooks out, and many -- I'd say most -- of them were diligently taking notes as the teacher went over notes from some kind of curriculum guide. It was almost as if someone had transported me to the classroom from Ferris Bueller's Day Off("Bueller... Bueller..."). I watched the classroom for about ten minutes, just wondering if things would change ... was this a warm-up to something else, although the tone in the teacher's voice suggested to me that it wasn't.

After ten minutes, I called a student out of the class and asked, "Is this how class is most days?" I was assured that it was. I asked, "What do you think of the class?"

"Honestly, I chose to take the class, so I guess I just have to put up with it," was the response I got.

And I was angry, because I wanted to know how this teacher could possibly have thought that this was an OK way to teach. Who could possibly think that kids could learn that way?

And I thought of a point I've made in dozens of presentations -- "Put a good person in a bad system and the system wins too often." What created a system where an adult thought that sitting in front of students and lecturing in a monotone voice about any topic could possibly inspire a child to learn? To care? How was this teacher educated? Did a teacher ever inspire her?What has this teacher's experience in the classroom been? Was there a time where she cared and had that care disrespected?

Was there a principal who said, "Just follow the curriculum?"

Was there someone to mentor her who was able to offer profound advice, not merely survival tips?

Was / is there space for her to continue to be a learner?

Was there a specific moment when she just got tired? When she gave up? When it became "just a job?" When she stopped seeing the kids in front of her? When someone told her that the only way to be a "good" teacher was to give up every other moment of her life?

I want to be angry at that teacher -- and, to be clear, a big part of me is -- because she was missing an opportunity to really teach with kids who were choosing to be in what they had hoped would be a learning environment.

But to be angry at one teacher and not look at the system that created the moment I observed is to miss the larger moment.

We have to do better at creating profound, caring institutions of learning for everyone who spends time in the thing we call "school." After I got over being angry, I wanted to sit down and talk to the teacher and ask her about her teaching career ... about what she values ... about why she teaches ... about what still inspires her ... about her pedagogy ... and if she thought what she was doing in the classroom was effective. I don't want to ask those questions as a "gotcha," but because I really don't understand, and I want to.

The question, I suppose, is this -- was this teacher one of "those" teachers that we hear so much about in the media? The "bad teachers" who should be removed from the profession because their test scores aren't high enough, their classroom not inspiring enough?

I don't know. I honestly don't. I watched for ten minutes, and listened to one student. That's not enough time.

But even if, at this moment in her career, that teacher is not someone I would want to teach my own children, I don't think identifying that is enough. Because I don't think she went into the profession to be a bad teacher.

We have to find a way to make schools healthier places. We have to find a way to make it easier for teachers to get better at their craft. We have to make sure that we never lose sight of the humanity of all the people who inhabit our schools. If we want teachers to see the kids in front of them, we have to see the teachers in front of us.

As a principal and a parent and a teacher, I want to know who broke this teacher. I want to know why. I want to understand ... and I want to help her see that it doesn't have to be that way ... that hurt doesn't have to be permanent ... that the kids are still there, waiting for her.

We can't Wait For Superman. We don't need more martyrs. We have to understand that there are over 3,000,000 public school teachers in this country, and we have find ways to repair the damage that has been done to them over the past decade. We all have to find ways to heal. We must do it for two reasons -- first, because to attack and abuse those who have gone into a caring profession is an act of cruelty, but second -- and even more importantly -- because teachers are human, and if they are made to feel dehumanized, attacked, unsupported, those feelings will inevitably come through in the way they teach.

We have to make sure that people who want to care for children, can. We are wasting the energy, good intentions and care of thousands ... and then we're blaming them for the systemic failures that they were not heroic enough to overcome.

The challenges our kids face will require us to be the best versions of ourselves. We need to be alive, awake, aware and empowered to face those challenges head-on... co-conspirators with our students, so that they can feel our passion -- not for our subjects, but for them. And we need to be able to do that over a career, not for a two year stop-over before law school, and not just for a few years until we have our own children and can't work 70-80 hours a week.

If we want students to believe that learning is, indeed, life-long, then students must see that teaching is life-long as well ... and that learning and teaching are forever linked, necessary and beautiful.

And that's not going to happen with the current trends in educational policy. In fact, the current movement will engender less empathy, not more.

And because I believe that, I stand in full support of the Save Our Schools March.

Our schools -- and the people, young and old, who inhabit them have a lot of work to do.

We're not going to get there by simply going through the motions, but we're also not going to get there by punishing the people who are trying to do the work -- students and teachers alike. We're not going to get there by hoping that businesses find the right profit margin to want to open schools or thinking that schools need to be just like business, but we're also not going to get there without being willing to innovate from the best of old ways and the best of new tools.

We will never, ever get there by thinking we can bully adults into caring for kids.

I want to say that one again.

We will never, ever get there by thinking we can bully adults into caring for kids.

And we're not going to get there without all of us being willing to do the hard work of teaching and learning every day with and from each other every day.

Thousands of educators are going to Washington this weekend to say -- Yes, we are ready to do the work for and with our children. But you can no more make schools something that is done to us than we can make classrooms something that is done to children.

Schools must be empowering for all its members if we want our children -- and therefore our society -- to thrive. And for that reason, we must Save Our Schools.