The Most Valuable Things For Real-Life I Learned From Teaching


Part 1: The Importance of Framing

It seems unfair, especially for laconic introverted people (my favorite kind), but the attitude you use to present / convince / ask things is extremely important to how people respond to it. Even if you have the best, most brilliant – or necessary – ideas and plans, if you don’t use a little people-person enthusiasm, then nobody is going to listen to you or follow you. I know. People are stupid. But you’ve got to work with that. Continue reading

Those Who Can’t Teach, Control Education


My go-to teaching story for describing the student atmosphere where I worked is when I kicked a girl out of my classroom and she threw an open condom on my floor, shouting about how turned up she was before striding out the door. The thing about teenagers disrespecting teachers, though, is that if you sign up to be a teacher in America you’re asserting that being disrespected by teenagers is a major part of your job description. The unexpected is how much adults will disrespect you for being a teacher.

A few weeks ago, a video was making the rounds on the Internet showing how ridiculously demeaned and condescended to American teachers are – an example from none other than the district where I myself taught, Chicago Public Schools. There does come a point where you become a parody of yourself, Chicago Public Schools, and then as you stand in the way of everyone you were built to support, you go from being travesty to being tragedy.

What most people don’t realize is this Professional Development session made headlines because someone happened to record and release it, not because it’s unique. At all. Certainly, that session is on the far end of the badness spectrum, but teachers don’t go a day without some other adult wasting their time, looking down on them, treating them like second-class citizens and daft non-professionals – all while they still have hours and hours of actual work like planning and grading waiting at their desk that they wish they could actually get back to. This happened all the time.
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A Scene in New Hampshire

ALLISON: What did you write about in your story, Cole?

COLE: Do you mean in terms of plot? Because plot isn’t always the most important thing.

ALLISON: Well, that’s true. What I’ve been telling the class this week is about characters. You should know everything about your characters, down to their favorite food. What’s your main character’s favorite food?

COLE: Fish skins in gravy.


COLE:  Earphone felt. It doesn’t matter. Corn cobs razed clean of kernels beforehand. Why would your character’s favorite food be important? The only reason it would be is if it implies something vital about their internal self, like if they’re a cannibal.

ALLISON: That’s an interesting thought. Let’s move on to-

COLE: If he was a cannibal, you would have found a more interesting way to reveal that major aspect of his life before you brought up what his favorite food is, so it wouldn’t matter.

ALLISON: (Sigh) I suppose, Cole.

COLE: Unless you were waiting to reveal his cannibalism because the twist was central to the story, in which case you better have a more important way to show it than his favorite food, so it still doesn’t matter.

ALLISON: Shall we move on?

COLE: So when you think about it, “You should know your character’s favorite food” is reductive tripe mass-fed to talent-less dabblers because it falsely implies some deep understanding of fiction planning. Allison, you didn’t know any better than to toss it out because your being tapped to teach this class has nothing to do with any insight or ability on your own part.

ALLISON: Go to the office, Cole. Just go to the office.

COLE: (walking out of the door) Dilettante.

ALLISON: I swear, you are the worst 5th grader.

The Rubber-Tree League

Hogwarts_at_Wizarding_WorldOccasionally I’ll get a call from my Alumni Association. Some peppy volunteer is on the line, asking if I want to share some of my wealth in gratitude to my Alma Mater. Ironically, these calls always come when I have no job. When I explain, the girl expresses her understanding and, it seems, a little bit of guilt, as if she understands it’s her fault, and the University’s, for giving me a useless degree in something like English, and they all feel bad about it now, the big mistake.

I’ve gotten plenty of jobs, of course, as a teacher and an office drone, but never when the Alumni Association calls. I like to think it’s the same girl (Karen, I call her) and Karen has been calling me randomly for the past 5 years, rooting for me to finally land a gig somewhere, but I never do. Karen thinks I live under a bridge somewhere and marvels at my upbeat attitude, an inspiration to all of them at Alumni Call Center, constantly being denied, perhaps berated. “Stiff upper lip,” Karen tells her compatriots. “We may not get donations, but I just spoke to Jeshua again, and I’m sure he’s drinking ditchwater.” “That poor son of a bitch.” Continue reading

Rigor Crisis: What Makes Education Work Elsewhere, And How To Bring It Home


I like what Amanda Ripley attacks, and I’m glad she came to attack it. Her book detailing the difference between American schools and higher-scoring systems in places like Korea and Finland, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, was released about two weeks ago. It could hardly be called an attack: its hopeful tone underlies its polite third-person examinations and deference to the data and experts. But it has a clear point to make. And it manages a rare feat: going deeply into complicated issues with nuance, and prescribing important key points as a blueprint for solutions.

As a former classroom teacher in what would quickly be categorized as “bad” schools – the kind surrounded by poverty and crime, where low scores and bleak futures appear the norm – I was drawn in to Ripley’s claim that academic success is not inversely related to financial background. I’d heard this from places like Teach For America before, but from them it sounded like a battle cry to holler before the big charge: It doesn’t matter how outnumbered and outgunned you are, fight. Idealistic, yes. Necessary, yes. But realistic? I was more prone to agree with the words of (recent incarnation) Diane Ravitch, that educational problems are a symptom of poverty problems, ones that require major change within our country.

But I love to keep an open mind and see if I can be won over Continue reading