and all this time I thought I was the bad parent

I wanted to rant like a crazy woman after reading Allison Benedikt’s manifesto on private schools vs. public schools where she suggests parents who send their children to private schools are bad persons. I really really wanted to be clever and bitingly sarcastic, but when I finally sat down to write, the best I could muster was a little pity.

Her premise certainly got my attention: if parents who have the means to send their children to private school would channel their children into the public school system instead, then the school system would benefit from those parents who would work hard to improve the schools. Not doing so is selfish.

A new spin on distribution of wealth? Only this time, it’s a distribution of homeroom mommies? Seriously?

She acknowledges that this improvement would take generations, and in the meantime, those generations of students who could have had excellent educations, won’t, and it’s no big deal — it’s all worth the sacrifice for the common good. After all, she had a crappy education and doesn’t know anything about art and culture and all that stuff, and look at her, she’s turned out ok.

That’s a pretty odd thing to be proud of, but she’s probably right. One assumes she’s a productive and contributing citizen. Of course, I’m just assuming here….

Benedikt ends her ludicrous “fix” for the state of public education by using the usual emotional appeal, “Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt — listen to it.”

I found myself periodically looking at the site’s flag at the top of the page to verify that I didn’t accidentally click on a link to The Onion.

Why should anyone need to feel guilty about being financially successful and in the position to pay for things that will enrich their children’s lives? And why on earth would she demonize those parents and call them “bad persons” or as Max Lindenman clarifies, “bad Americans?”

I pretty much dismissed the whole thing for what it is, the ignorant screed of an attention-hungry misguided koolaid-drinking nut. Or as she self-identifies, judgmental.

Except, she says some things that are true. Or at least sound like they could be true:

I get it: You want an exceptional arts program and computer animation and maybe even Mandarin. You want a cohesive educational philosophy. You want creativity, not teaching to the test. You want great outdoor space and small classrooms and personal attention. You know who else wants those things? Everyone.

Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same.

I think that’s valid in most cases. However, there’s a big difference between wanting something, and wanting something, so you work for it. I want to lose 20 pounds; meanwhile, wait a second while I go serve myself another bowl of ice cream.

Surprisingly, I also agree with Benedikt that the fix will likely take generations, although the solution does not depend upon having parents run strong PTAs. Don’t misunderstand me, strong parental support is not just a good, but an important part of any educational program. Children need to see and know that their parents support them.

The bigger problem, what she doesn’t address at all, is that the public school system(s) needs reform. In fact, more than reform, there needs to be a complete and total makeover. Of the school system and society.

But here’s the thing, we probably don’t even have to focus so much on reform as we do on accountability.

Corruption and a lack of oversight at every level have been damaging our children for decades, and the political machine that re-elects school boards that are more interested in perks than learning are to blame.

So are superintendents who are sycophantic to these boards.

And the principals, who tolerate mediocrity and poor performance.

And teachers who don’t teach.

And students who don’t take responsibility for their learning.


Oh. Did I just say that out loud?

my first day of class manifesto

It’s fall. Again.

By fall I mean we’re back to school even though it’s still August and there’s plenty of summer left. The new school year seems to start earlier and earlier. That’s probably because it’s still August.

When I was a kid, by the middle of summer I secretly wished school would hurry up and start.

That hasn’t changed much. Now that I’m on the other side of that desk, I still look forward to the beginning of the term.

There’s something about the fall term, more than spring or summer, that speaks to new beginnings. It’s an opportunity for a reboot, and truth be told, I can always use a reboot.

It’s an opportunity for discovery, too.

I love teaching because it puts me in the position of always learning. I’m not talking about the traditional sense of life-long learning, which we all should embrace, but in the practical honing of my skills. I learn how to be a better teacher by teaching.

I didn’t grasp this early in my career, probably because I was too green and insecure in my abilities to reveal those insecurities to my students. (To be honest, my greatest fear in the classroom, still, is to be discovered as a fraud).

So, I put on a persona of expertise and stood in front of the group and professed. I professed a lot. Lots and lots of lectures where I stood there and spoke my pearls of wisdom and my students took notes and then spat them back at me in various assessments. I was good, and they were good. But somehow, we weren’t good together.

So what changed?

Over time I became more comfortable with what I was doing. I discovered, a little bit at a time, that perhaps I was meant to be doing this. I lost the fear of being wrong or not having an answer, and shared that with my students. It occurred to me that they might know answers to things I didn’t know.

I gave myself permission to not know, and invited my students to fill in the blanks.

I took that risk to help them think for themselves. Too many years of spitting back facts clouded their ability to think critically. And then I thought, what if the problem is that they are afraid to think critically?

What if the problem lies in, not the cognitive domain, but in something else — their ability to recognize their worth. That they have something to say.  I’ve tried, with varying levels of success, to help my students find their voices.

“Teaching, therefore, asks first of all the creation of a space where students and teachers can enter into a fearless communication with each other and allow their respective life experiences to be their primary and most valuable source of growth and maturation. It asks for a mutual trust in which those who teach and those who want to learn can become present to each other, not as opponents, but as those who share in the same struggle and search for the same truth.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen

I hope that’s the environment I create in my classrooms this term. A safe place to share and learn from each other. To do this, I have to share a little bit of myself, enter into a certain level of vulnerability — it won’t make me weak; it will make me strong.

There are fancy names for this…those of you who are teachers will recognize that what I’m talking about here is an engaged pedagogy — but the root of that is much deeper than an educational philosophy.

It comes from a Truth that I know — that I’ve always known and lived by, though God surely knows I haven’t always been able to articulate this, and it’s only by His grace that I haven’t messed it up too badly.

To reach my students I need to begin by acknowledging their fundamental dignity as human beings.

Too much of my job relegates students to data points. Measurable outcomes keep me employed, I suppose, but it’s the other thing, my vocation, that keeps me coming back every year.

It’s the knowledge that something great happens in the classroom, even if it’s not measurable. Even if it’s only a seed that I’ll never see germinate.

I’ll try to remember this as I begin a new term, and remind myself again and again … and again if I have to, when things get slow or difficult, that I am a teacher. That I have answered God’s call to this vocation and that it is my duty, the commitment I’ve made, to serve God by serving my students. That I am called to love them.

Delivery Matters

I’ve been presenting at a series of educational workshops recently that focus on course content. Curriculum building, especially full blown curriculum redesign, is the buzzword these days.

Content, as they say, is King.

But we have to remember that delivery matters. All the great content in the world is useless if we can’t deliver it in a way that is meaningful and relevant. We are not operating in a vacuum, acting like talking heads sharing our brilliance where it may fall — we need to establish a rapport with our students that promotes a relationship — with the instructor, with the content, and with the potential that the content opens for the students.

It occurs to me that this paradigm is not some revolutionary educational construct. It’s about good communication. Period.

Because delivery matters.

another term begins…

Tomorrow I get back to work in earnest. On-line classes become available to my students, so while technically, students start attending their classes on Monday, I have to be ready to go tomorrow for the few enthusiastic ones who have been waiting for their on-line classes to go live.


I don’t blame them. I was that nerdy student who sat in my room the night before classes started, caressing my school supplies, sharpening pencils, labeling notebooks. I know, it was a giant nerdfest for me. Don’t judge.

It’s not that much different on the other side of the desk. I still get a little utz in my stomach — part nervousness, part anticipation. The start of a new term, the start of a new class is full of all the hope and wonder of new beginnings. A little bit of the unknown mixed with the desire to do things right this time. To really get the most out of the term, or experience, or whatever.

It’s one more chance to get it right.

My school supplies are easy these days. A red pen is all I need. In most classes, I don’t even need that — we’ve gone practically paperless.

I’ll walk into my first class with a smile and a plastic pen that lets me magically make images appear on a board. A click, a swipe, a tap here and there and I’ll open up an entire universe to students who’ve never ventured beyond the natural boundaries of their neighborhoods.

I’ll introduce them to art and literature and history that will confuse them, inspire them, anger them, and, if I’m doing it right, move them and make them think.

I don’t take this responsibility lightly. Some days I get angry, and other days I feel like phoning it in. But most days I get up ready to face the challenge with enthusiasm and joy.

Part of my job is to inspire and motivate my students. I recognize that I am a source of many things for them — sometimes the content of the class is not as important as how I deliver it. It’s a crazy responsibility  — forming minds. Too many times I feel that I am not up to it — what if I get it wrong? What if I fail? What if I unintentionally hurt someone –squash dreams, crush hopes.

I don’t dwell on these thoughts too much or I wouldn’t be able to do my job. They are not paralyzing — just simmering under the surface. Let’s say that these thoughts keep me honest. I am aware of the power I have in the classroom. Power for good if I harness it properly.

That’s why I found Pope Benedict XVI’s address to university professors so inspiring. He acknowledges a great truth that drives what governing bodies tell me I must do:

At times one has the idea that the mission of a university professor nowadays is exclusively that of forming competent and efficient professionals capable of satisfying the demand for labor at any given time. One also hears it said that the only thing that matters at the present moment is pure technical ability.

That can’t be all I do, for I would fall short … way short of the potential for teaching the whole person. Otherwise, I might as well be training pets to do tricks.

In truth, the University has always been, and is always called to be, the “house” where one seeks the truth proper to the human person. Consequently it was not by accident that the Church promoted the universities, for Christian faith speaks to us of Christ as the Word through whom all things were made (cf. Jn 1:3) and of men and women as made in the image and likeness of God.

I don’t teach in a Catholic university. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to face a different kind of student than the demographic I serve. Most days I consider it a very special mission … they deserve no less than what I would offer elsewhere. It becomes an unexpected lesson in dignity and respect for the human person. Although I work in a very secular setting, I cannot divorce my faith from who I am and how I teach, and ultimately what I teach, if not explicitly, then certainly implicitly:

…we realize that we are a link in that chain of men and women committed to teaching the faith and making it credible to human reason. And we do this not simply by our teaching, but by the way we live our faith and embody it, just as the Word took flesh and dwelt among us.