Making the Best of a Broken System

In my last post I defended the new Arizona law decreasing requirements for teacher certification. My point was basically: subject experts who are capable of teaching should be invited into our classrooms, not forced to take ineffectual teacher training courses.

Not to say that teaching is easy, just that it isn’t brain surgery. You can afford to struggle and learn from experience; you will eventually improve and become effective in the classroom. No one will die in the process. Kids might learn more from witnessing your determination than they would from a perfectly executed geography lesson.

Teaching will test your wits and drain your soul. The classroom atmosphere is supercharged with bundles of emotion. Because kids are powerless, the classroom often becomes a power struggle. What kind of teacher will you be? Because most kids wouldn’t voluntarily be doing what you are telling them to do, coercion is required. Will you be an authoritarian or a genteel motivator? Almost every minute of the day, a teacher makes a decision that impacts the psychic dynamic of the group. How to answer an off-topic question. Whether to let someone go to the bathroom during a lesson.

I’ve started to read Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who ends up teaching at a New York vocational school for 30 years. (Also the author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis.) He perfectly captures the classroom dynamic in his narratives. And he started teaching in 1958! Shows you how sturdy the education system has been.

He’re a riff about the role of the teacher:

In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

Show me a certification program that prepares you for that, and I’ll sign up.

Another anecdote perfectly captures the problem with “teacher education.” On his first day in the classroom, Mr. McCourt encounters this scene:

Petey threw his brown-paper sandwich bag at the critic, Andy, and the class cheered. Fight, fight, they said. Fight, fight. The bag landed on the floor between the blackboard and Andy’s front-row desk.

I came from behind my desk and made the first sound of my teaching career: Hey. Four years of higher education at New York University and all I could think of was Hey.

I said it again. Hey.

They ignored me. They were busy promoting the fight that would kill time and divert me from any lesson I might be planning. I moved toward Petey and made my first teacher statement, Stop throwing sandwiches. Petey and the class looked startled. This teacher, new teacher, just stopped a good fight. New teachers are supposed to mind their own business or send for the principal or a dean and everyone knows it’s years before they come. Which means you can have a good fight while waiting. Besides, what are you gonna do with a teacher who tells you stop throwing sandwiches when you already threw the sandwich?

The full story is hilarious. After an internal monologue about what to do about this sandwich on the floor, McCourt ends up picking up the sandwich himself and eating it in front of the class. His students were impressed, but he winds up talking to the principal after school.

The principal doesn’t know the whole story, assumes McCourt decided to eat his own lunch in the morning instead of teaching class.

McCourt smiles and nods in his conversation with the principal, but he really wants to explain why he did it, and that… “there was nothing in the courses at college on sandwiches, the throwing and retrieving of.”

Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.

I think the same would be said by teachers getting started in today’s classrooms.

If I were elected King of the Education World, I would blow up the whole system and start from scratch. In that vein, any chipping away of this dinosaur system, like relaxing teacher certification laws, is most welcome.

The Teacher Certification Debate

Teacher protests at the Arizona State Capitol.

Arizona just passed a law reducing the requirements to become a classroom teacher. Before the new law, teachers needed formal training to become state certified. Now, as long as you have relevant experience in the subject, you can lead a classroom. The school districts and principals decide who is qualified.

Public education stalwarts are freaking out. How can you lower standards for teachers?

It even got national coverage. An article in the Washington Post said the new law “plays into a misconception that anyone can teach if they know a particular subject and that it is not really necessary to first learn about curriculum, classroom management, and instruction.”

Let’s examine whether this is a misconception or not.

Granted — not everyone who knows a subject will be a good teacher of the subject. Teaching is an inter-personal art form. An experimental scientist does not automatically make a good 8th grade science teacher.

However — Bill Nye the Science Guy would probably make an excellent 8th grade teacher. Why prevent a subject expert from teaching a class if the principal of the school, an education expert, thinks this person would be an effective teacher? A teaching candidate goes through an interview process, and usually teaches a sample lesson, before getting hired. We can trust a principal to hire someone who displays teaching competency.

During debate about the lax regulation, an Arizona congressman asked, “are there alternative pathways to become a surgeon, dentist, or lawyer?”


But shouldn’t there be an alternative pathway for a former surgeon to teach high school biology? We’re really going to make a lawyer take classes on “curriculum” before teaching government?

Let’s be real. Teaching is not brain surgery. If you are organized, have the desire and some interpersonal skills, you can figure it out. In a well-functioning school, a new teacher will have guidance and support to figure it out.

I’ve taught seven different subjects over five years at the high school level. Because I’ve worked in private and charter schools, I am not certified in Arizona. Under the old laws, I would have to go back to school, pay a bunch of money for courses in curriculum and classroom management before teaching in a public district.

My first year was a struggle, but I adapted, read about strategies, learned from other teachers, and figured out a teaching style that worked for me and my students.

And here’s the thing. Everyone struggles their first year, regardless of their training or level of certification. The first year is notoriously challenging for everyone. All veteran teachers say you have to figure it out with experience.

Teacher education programs are like getting ready for a basketball season by making players watch powerpoint presentations on dribbling and shooting. You wrote an essay last month about defensive footwork, remember? Why can’t you stop these guys?!

In fairness, I’ve never gone through a certification program. Maybe it’s a blast. My perception is that it teaches you cryptic teacher lingo so you can understand what’s going on in faculty meetings.

Lots of factors are causing a teacher shortage in Arizona. If teaching paid more, more people would be willing to teach. If working conditions changed, reducing stress and improving work-life balance, more people would be willing to teach.

I see the certification debate as tangential to the main factors causing the shortage. It won’t solve the problem, nor will it lower the quality of education. It’s more of a morality and common sense thing. If someone can teach, don’t force them to jump through hoops to do it.

…Couldn’t Put Humpty Together Again

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Trump brings in Comey for the real thing.

Holy cow. Last week I thought I was processing a week’s worth of wild news. Little did I know.

Little do we know, still, what the heck is going on.

The story of the latest can be told by three quotes. First by David Plotz of the Slate Political Gabfest, during an introduction to Thursday’s podcast:

“It is exhausting keeping up with the machine gun fire of self-inflicted political scandal in Trump world.”

So exhausting, but I think worthwhile to stay aware, despite the ugliness and confusion.

Apparently Donald Trump let slip a few kernels of super secret information to the Russians during their meeting last week (whoopsie daisy.) Apparently, the information’s source was our special friend Israel. Apparently, during that same meeting, Trump had a few choice words to say about axed FBI director James Comey, calling him a “nut job” and expressing relief to have halted the pesky investigation.

Apparently, Trump had previously asked Comey to stop investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who had been firied for lying about his conversations with — you know who — the Russians. This request made Comey nervous, so he wrote down all of his interactions with Trump in memos, in case his recollection should come in handy down the road.

Which it now will, because the deputy Attorney General appointed a special counsel to oversee the FBI’s Russian investigation. (The actual Attorney General isn’t supposed to be involved, because of misleading statements he made about his conversations with the Russians.) Comey will also testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee after Memorial Day.

We really don’t know much for sure yet, though, because all these “apparent” stories slipped to the papers via leaks from the FBI, CIA, and Trump’s administration. The investigations will be revealing.

The second quote is from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, talking Sunday to John Dickerson on Face the Nation:

“Well, look. I mean, I don’t understand why people are that shocked. This president ran a very unconventional campaign. I was there for a big part of it at the beginning alongside being one of his competitors. And that’s what the American people voted for. And in essence, you know, this White House is not much different from the campaign.

I mean, people got what they voted for. They elected him. Obviously it’s in the best interest of this country to try to help him succeed. As far as the drama’s concerned, yeah, I mean, it’s unique. It’s different from anything we’ve ever confronted. I think our job remains to do our work.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio stands above the fray, here. He conveys a sense of maturity, a man whose job is to clean up after the mess of the silly voters.

Now, what he offers is probably the strongest argument against impeachment: No, Trump wasn’t obstructing justice, he’s just an ass clown, and everyone knew that already.

It’s yet to be determined whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia or whether Trump’s actions thus far amount to obstruction of justice. But Rubio can’t stand blameless. He’s among the spineless Republicans who knew better. He once called Trump a “con-artist,” but later endorsed him in the general election. You helped make him acceptable to Republican voters, it is your job to hold him accountable.

The final quote comes from the New York Times, because I trust the media and the leaks 100,000 times more than I trust Trump or anyone who speaks for Trump. Everything the White House claims is inevitably contradicted 24 hour later, if it’s not already an egregious lie. At this point, if Sean Spicer announced the sky was blue, I would think, oh crap what happened to the laws of physics, and go outside to check for myself.

From an article last week about the chaos inside a besieged White House:

There is a growing sense that Mr. Trump seems unwilling or unable to do the things necessary to keep himself out of trouble and that the presidency has done little to tame a shoot-from-the-hip-into-his-own-foot style that characterized his campaign.

Some of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers fear leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. General McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground […]

In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president for divulging classified intelligence to the Russians: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of his briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.

The more we know, the more is painfully clear: Trump is not fit for office. The sooner he is no longer president, the better.

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men…

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Trump palling around with the Russians on Wednesday

Not since the video tape of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault has his political situation seemed so precarious. Back then, even his most self-effaced supporters had to answer for it. A slew of Republican lawmakers withdrew their endorsements. After all, he couldn’t possibly win…right?

Trump fought back. Before the last presidential debate, he held a news conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers to inject some cognitive dissonance into voter’s minds. The debate itself started with 30 minutes of grotesque personal insults.

That’s where we were. The tide turned back against Hillary after the FBI director announced he was still looking into her emails. Two weeks later, Trump won the presidency.

Both presidential candidates, as it turned out, were under investigation by the FBI. Hillary Clinton for her private email server, Trump’s campaign for possibly coordinating with Russian efforts to interfere in our election.

Now, after firing FBI director James Comey on Tuesday — maybe for bungled handling of the Clinton investigation, maybe to stop the Russia investigation, maybe out of jealousy for hogging the spotlight, maybe just a bad mood — Trump is in hot water again.

Several lawmakers are calling for an independent investigation into Russian collusion.

To me, if firing Comey warrants an independent investigation, then it’s also grounds for impeachment. If you fire the FBI director to hinder an investigation of your campaign, that’s obstruction of justice.

Any defense of the firing without at least acknowledging the suspect timing is disingenuous. The Clinton email investigation ended months ago. The Russian investigation was apparently heating up.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell both regurgitated the (first) White House version of the story. Talk about a congressional check on presidential power: How’s that power going? Good? Ok, good.

If the firing was for a legit reason, Trump should be impeached for incompetence.

According to recent reporting, the decision happened on a whim. His communication team had less than an hour’s notice before the story broke. Many of his aides learned about the firing on TV. He met the next day with two Russian officials (yup, the election hacking dudes.)

Since Tuesday, the story of the firing has changed about four times. Trump admitted in an interview that the original version of the story — fired for bungled handling of Clinton investigation, per the recommendation of his deputy Attorney General — was wrong, and he was in fact thinking about, among other things, the pesky Russian investigation. The White House now claims the FBI was in “turmoil,” but that doesn’t jibe with any evidence, and the acting FBI director said that Comey “enjoyed wide support.

This morning Trump went on a Twitter rampage, calling the Russian investigation a witch hunt and threatening Comey to stay quiet.

Holy cow. For a short presidency, this episode is only the latest in a series of bungles, fumbles, conflicts of interest and egregious lies.

The national government is broken. Division is one thing. Chaos is another. No legitimate agenda can be pursued amidst a category four shit storm of a White House.

America in a Nutshell: K-Cups

KeurigI never drank coffee until I became a teacher. Sure, I would enjoy the occasional caffeinated beverage, but a month into teaching, a habit was born–thanks to late nights, early mornings, and a free-flowing coffee maker in the teacher’s lounge.

Since then I have been perfectly content brewing my own coffee each morning. For many years it was the usual drip coffee pot. Put the water into the machine, scoop the coffee into the filter, flip the switch and you’re out the door in five minutes. When you get home, clean the pot, throw out the filter, ready to go tomorrow morning.

Most recently it was the French press. With the benefit of not having to buy filters. Ground the coffee a bit coarser, boil the water yourself, and pour the water directly onto the grounds in the glass container. Let it steep for a few minutes, and it’s ready to go.

Then two unexpected occurrences changed everything. In the same week my French press broke, my parents offered me an extra Keurig machine they weren’t using.

The Keurig machine cuts approximately three minutes off my morning routine…and I’ve never gone back. Sometimes I consider my old coffee life and it seems tiring. How did I ever live like that?

Now, I see K-Cups at the doctor’s office. In the lobby of the bank. At work. They’re everywhere. In 2014, Keurig’s Green Mountain took in $4.7 billion in revenue.

K-Cups have two distinct qualities. While coffee-making used to be at least potentially communal, the K-Cups are rugged individualists, designed for one. Also, K-Cups offer plastic waste destined to decompose in a landfill for the next 500 years. The containers used so far would apparently wrap around the Earth 10 times over.

So goes K-Cups, so goes America. This new way of ingesting caffeine has us spending more money for something more individual, with the side-effect of destroying the environment. The price of convenience.


After falling sales last year, Keurig sold out to a privately owned European company. More competition and increased environmental awareness are changing the single-serve coffee industry. Maybe the new coffee way is better for efficiency, as we only drink the coffee we plan to consume.

Per usual, technological development leaves me conflicted. Even coffee is complicated these days.