Co-authored by Kevin Lindsey of First Focus
As the nation pays tribute to and reflects on the life and work of Robin Williams, it is notable that Williams earned Academy Award nominations and one Oscar for his incredible portrayal of teachers dedicated to making personal connections to young people that are both inspiring and life-changing. Those two characters are Professors John Keating in Dead Poets Society and Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting.
Ask yourself, family members, friends, successful community leaders, and current students to describe a great teacher and they will invariably use words like "life-changing," "motivating," "encouraging," "caring," "helpful," "creative," "outside-the-box," and "fun." They are also described as "someone you can talk to," an adult who "gets me," or someone who "got me to think about things in a new and different way."
This is what we should want and encourage in our nation's teachers. The challenges the next generation will face won't be found on any standardized test. What we need are teachers who are pushing students to be outside-the-box and creative thinkers to keep our nation strong, vibrant, and forward-thinking.
As Professor Keating said:
Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try. When you read, don't just consider what the author thinks; consider what you think. Boys, you must strive to find your own voice, because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you will find it at all.
As the tagline for Dead Poets Society reads in describing Keating's impact on his students, "He was their inspiration. He made their lives extraordinary."
Unfortunately, in real life, rather than inspiring respect and admiration, these qualities and attributes can get a teacher in trouble with school administrators, parents, politicians, and some "school reformers" who sometimes are more interested in conformity, tradition, and standardized-test scores. In one exchange, Keating defends himself against criticism of his teaching style:
Keating: I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.
Headmaster Nolan: At these boys' age? Not on your life!
Another exchange with a fellow teacher:
McAllister: Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I'll show you a happy man.
Keating: But only in their dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be.
Pushing students to think about poetry, beauty, romance, and love and pursue their passions, hopes, and dreams is not the type of material found amidst multiple-choice questions or rewarded on the standardized tests that have been increasingly imposed upon schools, teachers, and students by some education reformers.
In Keating's case, he was railroaded for the tragic suicide of one of his students. Although the child's parent is at fault, the parent wishes to point blame at Keating, and the private-school administration works to force Keating's students to turn against him in an effort to impose blame upon him. Such a situation is a good example of why real-life teachers should be guaranteed due-process protections, which have been recently threatened by the Los Angeles County Superior Court decision in Vergara v. California. That decision radically weakens California's teacher-tenure law, and, as Peter Greene explains:
It forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, "Do as I tell you, or else."
Advocating for and helping students should be the first priority in any school, yet, as has been shown in case after case, institutional interests can often displace those of a child or the teacher. As an example, there have been reported instances where teachers who reported suspected child abuse were threatened, pushed to resign, or reassigned.
A Vergara-copycat anti-teacher-tenure lawsuit was recently filed in Staten Island, New York, and alleges that teacher tenure and due-process protections violate the right of New York schoolchildren to a "sound basic education." David Sciarra of the Education Law Center and Billy Eastor of the Alliance for Quality Education argue that the lawsuit misses the point. As they point out:
The complaint ... presents no evidence to suggest that ending tenure or altering due process protections for teachers will somehow improve student outcomes. Nor could it because there is none.
This lawsuit gets one thing right: Children in high poverty, urban and rural school districts across the state are indeed being deprived their constitutional right to a sound basic education. What is gets completely wrong is why: the state's continuing failure to fairly fund high need schools so they can recruit, support and retain effective teachers and deliver rich instruction in math, science, world languages, the arts and other core subjects under optimal working conditions.
Teachers can and do make a real difference in children's lives, and a real reform agenda would make investments in improving teacher quality. But we must not pretend that eliminating due process would improve teacher quality, that raising students' test scores is the sole solution or that teacher quality is the only educational obstacle facing students. Research has shown time and again that, whether it's poverty, hunger, health or safety threats, or other challenges, the experiences a child has outside the classroom are at least as important as, and often more important to his or her chances of educational success than, anything that happens inside the classroom.
A real reform agenda would face these hard truths head-on and offer real solutions. Such an agenda should include addressing child poverty in this nation in a systematic way, as has been accomplished more successfully in Great Britain.
Such an agenda should also demand that school funding be more equitable so that students disadvantaged outside school aren't disadvantaged again at school. As Arthur Camins, the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology, recently wrote for the Washington Post:
We need to ensure that the resources for effective education are equitably distributed and not a function of local or parent wealth. ... With some recognition of geographic variance in school operating costs, equity must be guaranteed at the state and national level.
For the same reason a real reform agenda would invest in "wraparound" services to help deal with the out-of-the-classroom issues that affect classroom performance, including more school counselors, health and mental-health services for some schools, anti-violence interventions, etc. Camins says:
The conditions of children's lives outside of school -- in their homes and their communities -- have profound impact on their ability to learn in classrooms. We can make those conditions better, but as a society, we have not made this a priority. This is an unconscionable choice that undermines learning and children's success. We need to start by providing "wrap around" economic, social, and emotional support services for children and their families. Other countries do it. We can too.
Schools need teachers and administrators who are child-centered rather than test-focused. Rather than list knowledge facts, students need to be taught how to, as Keating said, "think for yourself" and see things from different perspectives. Adds Camins:
It is certain that our children will function as adults in a world substantially different from the one in which they were born. Therefore, while knowing what is now known is vital, learning how to learn must be the primary goal.
Children need to be prepared for that world or we will have failed them. At the very least, that means our nation's political leaders must take responsibility for tackling incredibly important issues, such as child poverty and equitable school finance, rather than imposing more teacher blaming and student-mind-numbing standardized testing. Rather than demonizing the teaching profession, politicians would be wise to partner with, listen to, support, and respect our nation's teachers in their mission to teach our nation's children.
That would be real education reform.