24 July 2014

Why Public Education Matters

Public education is the new endangered species of America. The reasons are many: there is the myth of failing public education, the teacher blame game review, the over-testing Common Core regime, and the romance some have with the “take public money but privately run run run” charter/voucher schools.


What struck home (literally) for me about this charter school debate was the fact that low-income, and families with limited English don’t apply for charter schools. Most likely, the poor are dealing with the stresses of paying the bills and providing food and shelter, and those with low English ability simply don’t understand what’s available to them.

I came from such a family. My mother immigrated to these United States from Thailand in the early 70s (legally, thank you), and even though she took English courses, her English has plateaued and is not very good. When I was in grade school, I hated when teachers told me to ask my parents for homework help. My father died unexpectedly when I was 6, and my mother would often ask ME to interpret bank statements and other letters that were way over my head.

Later, when I applied for financial aid for college, I learned how to do it all on my own. I went to the public library and borrowed a book. I worked at Little Caesars Pizza while attending community college. And even though we had a friend help my mom fill out her jury duty form, she was still called in, and it wasn’t until she addressed the judge as “your highness” that she was finally excused.

I love my mom. I wish she had received more education than the equivalent of a 5th grade in rural Thailand.  She values education greatly and drove my younger brother and I crazy over telling us how much it was important. But she was right. (There I said it, mom!)

Despite how much money families have, despite their connections or lack thereof, despite any obstacles, all children deserve to have a solid education. I bristle upon bristle when people act like the educating of their child has greater value than any other kid. Okay, I kind of get the competitive aspect of my child is better than yours at football, art, academics, whatever, but seriously, folks? Seriously?!

Isn’t an educated society preferable to an educated few??? Do we really need or want our educational system to be built on competitiveness? Do we want losers and winners? This isn’t about all of us skipping to ring-around-the-rosy, this is about cultivating a community of critical thinkers to help foster greater understanding and compassion for each another so we can thrive.

We are faced with incredible problems that need all of us to grab a mental shovel and dig in to – I believe we all carry unique and special gifts that we can bring to our societies. I don’t want to live in a world where substandard education is the norm for the greater population because we thought competitive learning was a great idea.

Why do we have to race to the top? Because I can tell you already, children are going to be left behind. You might not care because it’s not your child, but I assure you, one day you will.

15 July 2014

The Myth of Super Teacher!

There was a time in my life when I thought I wasn’t a good teacher, and I would never be good enough. I was taught that if you thought you were good then it meant you were bad. Now, of course, I don’t feel that way. In fact, I can look back on my Waldorf years and see that I was a good teacher because I was trying and caring. I was invested in the job: mind, body and soul - and, yes, it took a toll.

I feel the idea of being “good enough” is something that we teachers have to struggle with on an constant basis. The reason why we are struggling with being “good enough” is because teachers are often seen as NOT being “good enough”. In other words, when there is a problem, regardless of origin, teachers are expected to “fix it” and if we are unable to, then we are considered part of the problem.

I’ll be the one to take full responsibility for my actions and like most of my peers, I know we are the first ones to think about how we can make any situation we come across - work. We are also the ones who will most likely be hard on ourselves for not figuring out a student or curriculum dilemma. Most teachers are damn hard workers, so I resent it when we are seen as “not good enough”.

Enter: The Myth of the Super Teacher. When I watched Roxanna Elden’s humorous speech, I was excited that she really nabbed what I feel to be an important issue facing teachers today. But I wanted to elaborate on this idea because her speech was mostly targeted to new teachers.

To watch, go here: http://vimeo.com/43565010

Teaching and learning is a relationship. We seem to forget this when we hammer teachers with clever ideas on how to make students behave. Relationship advice, as we know, varies greatly, depends on the situation and the other person. If a student refuses to cooperate or learn, then what are we supposed to do? Students have to be willing to learn and engage. I get frustrated when teachers are asked to do MORE when the students can get away with doing LESS.

What’s worst is we look like bad teachers because we are seen as “unable to handle it”. We’re not good enough. This was how I was perceived at Trembling Trees. And it's crushing to give it your all and be told you're not doing enough or your best.

Obviously, most students can be worked with, but what I want to break is, this myth that the teacher is “not doing enough” (aka automatically at fault) and can work mind-blowing miracles on a student-by-class basis.

I mean, Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, has announced his brilliant new plan to put “good” teachers into low-performing schools! Here is the myth of the super teacher in pressure-cooker action. He’s kidding, right? Instead of looking at the reasons behind why certain schools are "low-performing" (aka low-income), he's assuming SUPER teacher can swoop on in and save the day.

Teachers need support. The expectation that we can always be better (this is really put on us), use our free time to do more work (which we already do) and give, give, give (we do, we do, we do) has got to stop. These days our most experienced teachers have 1-2 years when 20 years ago it was about 15 years. This is not a good sign. Enter the great exodus of teachers in these United States.

We can be superheroes because, frankly, that is why many of us got into the profession. We wanted to do good. We wanted to help students. We are already naturally martyrs and saints. Stop telling us “the skies the limit,” because most of us are already reaching as high as we can and with meager pay. The teaching profession is in a dysfunctional relationship with society and society keeps saying, “You’re not good enough.” I resent teachers being the scapegoat for society’s ills.

There is a great economical divide not only in the US, but throughout the world. In other words, we have big problems we need to solve. The issue of education is extremely related to haves and have nots. It’s time to think about how we can raise each other up rather than putting one another down. I think we will find it more effective for the education of our children, and our human kind.

17 June 2014

The Three Ingredients to Successful Learning

Jon McClelland, Harvard Psychologist, has stated that the three ingredients to successful learning are: wanting to learn, knowing how to learn, and having a chance to learn.

Sometimes you don’t even realize that you want to learn something until you have stumbled upon it. I was visiting my old college roommate Nadya when I saw her and her friend Sheree crocheting together.

“Oh,” I gushed. “I’d love to learn.”

“Sheree taught me,” Nadya said.

“Could you teach me too?” I asked Sheree.


I think Jon McClelland summation of the three successful components of learning is accurate and concise. If I had walked into Nadya’s room and never asked, I would not have learned to crochet. The desire or will to learn has to be present in the individual.

Secondly, I needed a teacher to teach me the basics, someone who possessed the knowledge and the ability to communicate. In this case, it was Sheree who was perfect because she adapted to my left-handedness which presented a tricky situation.

And lastly, the opportunity needed to be there. Luckily, there was an extra crochet hook and plenty of yarn to help get me started. Having the chance to learn means having the tools (or the imagination) to get the job done.

When I was six or seven, my mother made me play the piano. I had no desire to learn, but she said it would be good for me and invested in one. Next, she found a teacher who taught me how to sit, place my fingers on the keyboard and how to read music. It took a long time for me to appreciate what I was learning, but since I had to practice, I eventually became proficient at playing the piano. I dare say I even started to enjoy it. I remember on Christmas morning I snuck downstairs while everyone was asleep, opened the keyboard lid and started to play Christmas carols. It seemed rude, but I giggled as it got the job done - everyone woke up!

Unfortunately, we moved from Hawaii during the middle of my sixth grade year to the middle of nowhere, Barstow California or let’s just call it what it really was - the Mojave Desert. Here I had the piano and the desire, but no one to teach me and advance my work. So as a consequence, I stopped playing. If I was meant to be a pianist perhaps I would have pestered my mom relentlessly or taught myself, but as a child I needed the discipline and push that a teacher provides.

What is interesting is how I didn’t have the desire, but at a young age desire can still be taught. “Knowing how” and “having the chance” on the other hand, derive from outside the person. Having a chance to learn means you have to have the materials and in this case, a piano, but I didn’t have the knowledge which as McClelland states is one of the three components to successful learning. The learner is dependent on external factors. And given the fact that we learn by doing and watching (or reading) this makes sense. Learning is a relationship.

 * I originally wrote this as part of my entrance essay for SIT's TESOL or teaching English as a Foreign Language program in Bangkok. Thank you Steve, Bella, and Lyn for being fantastic instructors.

03 March 2014

Is privatizing public education the solution to the problems public schools face?

Some believe the backbone of the US was founded on public education, but that democratic ideal is now being threatened. As the US public educational system struggles to stay relevant, corporations like Pearson, and billionaires such as Bill Gates push for the privatization of public schools.

But are they right? Is privatizing public education the solution to the problems public schools face? What are the problems? Many educators, including myself, recognize that public schools are worth saving, and the problems are not what they first seem to be.

In the simplest terms, public or state education is free, and private education, think parochial schools, are not. Most public schools are funded by property taxes. Yet, as we know, some neighborhoods, states and counties are wealthier than others - creating an inequality of funds and monies.

Another interesting problem free education faces is no one wants to pay more property taxes. Yet costs of materials, like the cost of living, have risen, and government programs that were implemented in the past to help level student inequality have been eliminated.

There has also been a sharp increase of charter schools in America as part of the “solution” to “failing” public schools. Unfortunately, these independent schools have also diverted much of the funds that would have gone into public schools.

As a result of less funding, public classrooms, class size, curriculum, students and teachers have been, and continue to be, deeply affected. In fact, public schools are closing. Meanwhile, wealthy and privileged children are enjoying a higher quality education that does not include reduced spending on building maintenance, equipment, or program cuts like music, art and geography that public school peers are experiencing.

School vouchers were introduced as a remedy to this public school problem, and it’s a highly controversial system that essentially allows parents to choose any school, public or private with government monies.

The biggest proponents of school vouchers believe in the “free market of education” and trust competition between schools will force failing schools to work harder or die out completely, and reward good schools. Pro-voucher advocates, in addition, feel private schools will become more diverse places, and strengthen educational quality. In essence, vouchers are all about promoting school choice. 

But a problem to consider is private schools can reject students.  By their distinctiveness, they are selective. What made public school a great equalizer was, children with disabilities, learning challenges, or those from poor economic conditions were still able to go to a school. But even with a voucher, there can still be a financial deficit for lower income families to overcome. Vouchers are not free tickets; they are coupons for a specific amount of money to be applied to their school of choice.

Another concern is what competition will foster for our children and our schools. What privatization of public education truly creates is a “survival of the fittest” climate, and a “race to the top” as Obama calls it. Consequently, free and public education for all becomes education for the privilege, few and select who can play the game and who can compete. As Diane Ravitch, an education historian, astutely points out, there will be winners and losers in the competitive market of education.

For me, this analogy comes to mind. Let’s pretend we’ve really trashed and ruined a city, so we decide to move to somewhere else. Vouchers and privatization are in theory, moving to another city, and leaving the mess behind. Instead of figuring out a way to save public education, we're hoping a corporate model will be our savior. Unfortunately though, corporations can be corrupt and with no one to answer to.

In the world of learning, I don’t want winners and losers, I want the guarantee that every child can go to school and receive a quality education. Vouchers and privatization feel like a good answer, but there are too many families and children who will pay the consequences for our inability to keep education free.

References and further Reading: