Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What’s Shakespeare Got To Do With Anything? – Part 2

I was thinking a little bit more about the infectious nature of bad leadership, and, while I may be stating the obvious here, probably the best validation of the concept can be found in an organization I know rather intimately – public education.

Having already written extensively about my own experiences with poor administration, I’ll try not to repeat myself here, but if we consider institutions as microcosms of society, there can be little doubt about the ripple effect when “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” Whether at the board level or within the individual school, when teachers perceive inequity, corruption, or malfeasance (and believe me, those unsavory elements can be pervasive) but feel powerless to remedy the problems, the pernicious effect on morale is difficult to ignore. Some teachers will simply shrug their shoulders, close the door to their classroom and try to carry on doing the best job they can. Others will try to bring the wrongdoing to the union which, unless it is a contractual violation, will say it is beyond their purview. Still others, noble but naïve souls, may try to take the issue to a higher level, only to find that upper management really wants to ignore unpleasantness if it can, and more often than naught will try to threaten or punish the whistleblower. As you can see, none of the responses I’ve outlined here are satisfactory, largely because the problem continues to fester, gnawing away at teachers of good heart.

I realize that what I have written here is quite vague and theoretical sounding, but it is based on things I know but cannot be more specific about for a number of reasons. My point, however, is that just as a kind of moral malaise can beset those working within an organization, so too can the citizens of a country suffer in a similar way under poor political leadership.

Next time around I’d like to look at some possible antidotes to this illness.

Monday, July 30, 2007

What’s Shakespeare Got To Do With Anything?

Mentioning Shakespeare to a classroom of students is somewhat akin to telling them they are about to receive a massive dose of cod liver oil – something to be avoided at all costs. Maybe it’s true, as someone once said, that education is wasted on the young, because the older I get, the more I understand what the Bard has to offer to our fractured and troubled world. Today I would like to discuss only one small element of his relevance.

Being something of a ‘political junkie’ may be one of the many reasons that I took such pleasure in teaching two of Shakespeare’s greatest works: Macbeth and Hamlet. But literary merits aside, the plays’ compelling qualities are in part informed by the Elizabethan view of the universe, one that we have long since abandoned, but which, at its core, perhaps helps to explain much of the political and moral malaise of our times. Known as “The Great Chain of Being,” this view, very concisely, stipulated that there was a natural order in the universe, with everything emanating from God. Each realm, be it divine, human, animal, or mineral, had a hierarchy; remnants of that notion remain today. For example, we talk of the lion as the ‘king of the jungle; reason has priority over emotion, the eagle is deemed the head of things avian, etc. In the realm of human affairs, the country’s leader, the King, was believed to be God’s representative in the secular world, and thus was responsible for the well-being of the people. If the King was good, the nation prospered; if bad, as in the case of a usurper, the country suffered.

Both Macbeth and Hamlet deal with usurpers, people who have stolen the crown from God’s rightful representative. In both cases, the people suffer tremendously. Under the bloody dictator Macbeth, Scotland suffers a reign of terror; in Hamlet, the usurper Claudius, who has killed his brother in order to ascend to the kingship, is responsible for a moral corruption that grips Denmark.

So what’s Shakespeare got to do with anything? Well, even though power is no longer seen as coming from above, i.e., from God, but rather from below, i.e., the people, (at least in a democracy,) I have never really subscribed to the notion that government is merely a reflection of the people, that people get the government they deserve through the electoral process. After all, very few purposely vote for ineptitude, corruption, and cronyism; yet these elements seem to define so many democracies today.

The part of the Great Chain of Being so pertinent today is the infectious nature of bad leadership. Here I don’t mean the obvious consequences of being led by someone not fit to govern: abuses of basic freedoms, manipulation of truth, the abrogation of due process, catering to special interests, etc. More insidious, and something Shakespeare clearly demonstrates in Hamlet, is the toll exacted upon the nation’s spiritual health. The central metaphor of Hamlet is that of an unseen yet highly contagious disease. If we consider the widespread cynicism and disengagement gripping people today, we are witnessing the effects of bad leadership.. When people refuse to vote because they don’t feel it will make any difference, when they ascribe corruption and greed as the main motivations for people seeking elected office, when they evince little or no surprise at the flouting of constitutional laws by their elected representatives, they not only have fallen victim to a spiritual or moral malaise, they are in fact facilitating its spread, something I suspect our elected representatives are not in the least bit concerned about; after all, the more disengagement and disaffection there is amongst the voters, the easier it is for politicians to continue on their self-aggrandizing paths.

So what is the solution, the cure for this disease? How does a nation recover its soul?
Those are questions I would like to consider in a future article.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

School Dropouts

Recently I posted an article about Pathways to Education, a program that has remarkable success in decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the percentage of those graduating from high school and going on to post-secondary education. Much of its success, no doubt, comes from the high degree of support offered to those enrolled in the program, but there is little doubt that the other factor has to be the motivation of those who are receiving the help. Without that, the most earnest efforts rarely come to fruition.

Which brings me to the purpose of this posting. Long before I retired, I held the belief, as I still do, that dropping out of school is not necessarily the worst thing that can befall a young person. While administrators might feign shock at such an attitude, and society may ring its collective hands over dropout statistics, I suspect a significant number of teachers would agree with me for many reasons. First, we have all had the experience of students whose attendance could be described most charitably as sporadic, surely one of the prime symptoms of school disengagement. Then, when they are present, they tend, through their behaviour, to disrupt the learning of others. The dynamics of a classroom are such that even when the majority wants to learn, as few as one or two individuals can make that almost impossible, and believe me, it has nothing to do with the teacher’s ability to control the class. While I am not saying that efforts to keep kids in school are misguided, I am suggesting that there should be reasonable limits put on such efforts.

Some might find my attitude elitist, but my logic is simple: young people are often most reluctant to accept the experiential wisdom of their elders. In other words, sometimes they have to learn the hard way. Once they do absorb the hard fact of life that without an education they are essentially doomed to minimum wage jobs or worse, many are ready to resume their education, either within the conventional classroom or through alternative programs. Then real learning can take place.

Often, it seems to me, school officials and governments are more worried about the ‘optics’ involved in having a statistically significant dropout rate than they are about the learning realities of the classroom. Perhaps it is time for them to begin consulting teachers on this issue.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Do You Hate Your Boss?

An interesting story appeared in the careers section of today’s Globe and Mail. Entitled “Sorry, boss, but everyone hates you,” it discusses an analysis of a decade of surveys representing the opinions of 50,000 employees in Canada and the United States. It is probably no surprise that the majority expressed varying degrees of antipathy toward their bosses. Particularly instructional, however, and I would think pertinent to school administrators, are the reasons for their ill-feelings:

- 66% said that management doesn’t listen to their concerns, and 67% said management doesn’t act on their suggestions.
- 56% felt that management doesn’t accord them respect.
- 40% felt they don’t have sufficient authority to discharge their duties properly.
- 52% felt that if they make known their opinions, they will face retribution.

While I realize this in no way describes every work environment, in my teaching experience the survey elements were present in sufficient degree to frequently contribute to low staff morale. Ultimately, of course, the solution can only come when the bosses realize that they need the goodwill of the staff in order for the organization to run properly. Unfortunately, not everyone who becomes an administrator is temperamentally suited to discharge his/her duties effectively.

Perhaps in the future, school boards will consider the use of a battery of psychological tests before promoting people to positions of additional responsibility.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

School Dropouts and Pathways to Education

Teachers will be well-familiar with the following scenario: you have a class that is made up of a range of abilities, from the very bright to the struggling, but their common trait is that almost all of them want to succeed in the course. But then there is the proverbial Johnny, bored by every strategy you try, both jealous and resentful of his classmates, who does everything in his power to disrupt learning, ranging from verbal outbursts to loud flatulence to inappropriate jokes to mockery of both you and the other students. He is part of an in-school student retention program whose instructors often are much more tolerant of aberrant behaviour than you will ever be. Then one day you get the magical note in your mailbox: Johnny has withdrawn from school!

As a teacher, I was always deeply ambivalent about student dropouts. On the one hand it was sad to see the loss (at least temporarily) of potential in those going out the door, but on the other hand, it was often a relief, inasmuch as that person was no longer going to be a disruptive influence in the class.

I feel no such ambivalence about a program that is having remarkable success not only in preventing dropouts but in helping to ensure post-secondary educational opportunities as well. It is called Pathways to Success. It is a program that, after 6 years of operation, has achieved astounding success in the troubled Toronto area known as Regent Park. Dropout rates have been reduced from 56% to 10%, and the number of students going on to post secondary education has risen from 20% to almost 80%, statistics that are amazing by anyone’s standards.

What is the key to the program’s success? Essentially, all Grade 9 students and their families where Pathways operates are offered an opportunity to sign on with the program, which offers a myriad of potential benefits:
- access to tutoring 4 nights per week
- participation in group mentoring
- access to career and individual mentoring in senior years
- bus fare to attend school
- access to youth workers for both students and their families
- financial help for special opportunities
- a university or college scholarship worth $1000 for each school year students participate in the program

As a retired teacher, what I find so exciting about a program like this is not only its success rate but also the fact that it involves a real commitment on the part of both the student and her/his family. So many times in the past, I felt public education was engaging in futile efforts to help those who did not want to be helped. Here exists an opportunity for motivated young people to surmount social and economic barriers and compete on a much better footing with those who have had many more advantages in life.

If interested in more information about the program, visit http://pathwaystoeducation.ca/

I would also be very interested in hearing from readers about other programs that are trying to achieve similar objectives.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

One of my grievances against journalists today is that many of them seem to have forgotten the vital role the press is supposed to play in keeping its citizenry informed. The obvious example, of course, is its failure to ask any relevant questions before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A more local but no less important one to Canadians arises over the tragic shooting death of an 11 year old boy in Toronto this past weekend. Our Minister of Public Safety, Stockwell Day, in response to growing calls for a handgun ban, is quoted in today’s Globe and Mail: “We’ve looked at other jurisdictions that have put in bans on handguns and it has not reduced crime with firearms, crime with handguns.”

What the minister said may be true, but to my knowledge, he was not asked when or how this study was conducted, the statistical basis for his conclusions, etc. When journalists fail to force politicians to justify their comments, they are, in fact, giving them carte blanche in making misrepresentations to the public. It therefore becomes even more important for the voters to think critically and independently, seeking out multiple sources of information (readily available on the Internet), in order to force our policy makers to be more honest and responsive to the citizens. By the way, I have sent an e-mail to my Member of Parliament, asking for the data Minister Day used to arrive at his conclusion. I’ll report back any response I get from him.

Again, this is another reason I think it is so important for public education to be inculcating the skills of critical thinking. The alternative is to be mute sheep, led by some very questionable shepherds.

Monday, July 23, 2007

How Politically Aware are Teachers?

As I was writing my last post on fallacies of reasoning, a thought occurred to me. Exactly how political and politically aware are teachers today? At one time in Ontario, teachers, led by an energetic OSSTF (Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Federation), were quite radical and activist. Today, sad to say, that has given way to a real quietism, even corporatism which, I have often suspected, is a reflection of the staid leadership of the Federation. Those thoughts will be discussed more fully in a future post.

My point, however, is that educators cannot afford to think, as many seem to, that they are beyond politics, as if somehow the political realities of society have no place in the classroom. At the last school I taught in, I was fortunate to work closely with a number of people who were both aware and politically active. However, the vast majority of the staff at the school, I felt, preferred to ignore much of the outside world, even going so far as to think that the Federation was irrelevant to their lives. Given that the profession now has a growing number of young people, it seems that this is the time to reradicalize them, not necessarily in the sense of pumping them up for strike action, but rather to remind them of the vital role they play in helping to turn out a thinking, reflective population so that they can be true participants in our democratic traditions.

I guess what bothered me about some of them was their complete deference to administrative authority. Even when egregious wrongdoing was committed by that authority, there seemed little passion, except amongst a small group, to try to rectify the situation. Indeed, there were those who, probably with an eye to becoming principals themselves, were, shall we say, habitués of the office. This is unhealthy, not only for teachers, but also for administrators, who can succumb to the temptation of surrounding themselves with a coterie of loyalists while treating the rest of the staff with disdain or suspicion.

The implications for society are enormous. If students are emerging from isolationist classrooms, where important questions have not been asked and discussed, how productive as members of democratic society can they be? Given the very conservative nature of those who administer public education, the chances of turning out reflective, critically-engaged citizens seem somewhat remote.

Or am I wrong? I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fallacies of Reasoning - Absolutisms

This is a strange time , Mister. No man may longer doubt the powers of the dark are gathered in monstrous attack upon this village. - The Crucible, by Arthur Miller.

As mentioned in my last post, after my disillusioning experience with class group think, I resolved to sharpen the focus of the language unit. This meant going beyond one of the core essays, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and including the "Knowing How to Think” Royal Bank newsletter. The latter opened the door to explore, in detail, fallacies of reasoning. Three of the fallacies I think my students most benefited from were “absolutisms,” “ad hominems” and “appealing to popular passions.” Coincidentally, these seem to be the three most commonly practiced by governments when communicating with their citizens, so there was no dearth of examples to be found for classroom illustration.

Absolutisms: This fallacy is perhaps the easiest to spot. It suggests that there is only one right and wrong answer, that everything is black or white, with no gradations of gray. In a world hungry for simplicity and straightforward answers, the often emotive context of absolutisms makes it easy to fall under their beguiling spell. How else, for example, could George Bush, shortly after the New York terrorist attacks, say to the world: “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists”? Or in my own country, how can Prime Minister Stephen Harper say that those who question the mission in Afghanistan are emboldening the terrorists?

As I said, there was never a shortage of examples to use in the classroom, but I often wondered how the principal would have reacted to a parental complaint that I was somehow being partisan in using these sorts of examples. As I used to tell my students, they can be found on any part of the political spectrum; it’s just that it is so easy to find them from the right wing, given the prominence accorded it by the media.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

My Awakening About Student Complacence

My epiphany about students’ complacence, their tendency to unquestioning acceptance of the status quo, came about a decade ago. To be sure, I have always had individuals who are most reluctant to rouse themselves from a self-induced torpor to engage with ideas, just as I have always been fortunate to have those who think independently, challenge assumptions, and make teaching a pure joy. However, I never quite shook my disillusionment over my Grade 12’s response to a labour situation I told them about.

At one time there was a strike of projectionists in the Cineplex-Odeon chain over wages and guaranteed minimum hours of work. This labour disruption went on for some time, but ultimately most returned to their jobs except for a small group who held out for a better deal. When they eventually gave up the fight, instead of being welcomed back into the fold, they were punished by management: they would be receiving one dollar an hour less and fewer hours per week than those who had previously ended their labour action.

Because we had studied some literature of social protest, I assumed that I would get a variety of reactions from the class. I was quite mistaken. The uniform response was that management had been quite justified in taking punitive action against the rebels as a deterrent to others who much contemplate such effrontery in the future. While there might not have been a ‘right answer’ to the scenario, I had at least expected a diversity of views.

The refusal to entertain a range of evaluations left me shaken. It was with renewed vigor that I pursued the development of critical thinking skills the following semester, altering the emphasis of the previously discussed language unit considerably.

Friday, July 20, 2007


I have a friend, Dave from Winnipeg, with whom I used to teach. An avid reader and acute student of politics and economics, he has frequently facetiously said to me, “Lorne, sometimes I wish that I had been born stupid, so I could live my life in blissful ignorance.” My response, other than to laugh, has been to think that the kind of ignorance or complacence Dave sometimes craves would probably sit well with a number of movers and shakers in our society. After all, what could be better than a compliant, unquestioning workforce and electorate? As Charlton Heston said in the original “Planet of the Apes” after spotting the mute humans, “If this is the best they’ve got, we’ll be ruling this planet in a week!” That is why I have always felt that educators have a special responsibility to produce citizens, not only with the marketable le skills demanded by society, but also with the critical thinking skills demanded by a healthy democracy.

In a recent post I mentioned two of the key resources I used to study language and logic use and misuse: George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit and the Royal Bank Newsletter, “Knowing How to Think” http://www.rbc.com/responsibility/letter/pdf/may_jun1992.pdf

Both are essential reading to begin the process of understanding how both language and logic can be misused for unworthy purposes. And both, despite being written in the last century, are more relevant than ever, given the lies, misinformation and propaganda that have become common substitutes for truth in our society. In my next post I would like to talk about when I first realized the need for such instruction.

A Book Review

I've written a review of Al Gore's The Assault on Reason, but didn't think this was the appropriate place to post it. If you are interested, you can find it at my other blog, Wick's Picks: http://lorne-wickspicks.blogspot.com/

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What Skills Should Schools Be Teaching?

When we think of the skills that schools teach or should be teaching, what comes to mind?
- literacy
- numeracy
- computer programming

Each of the above, I think everyone would agree, are necessary for students to make their way in the world, both today and tomorrow. But what role does public education play in inculcating the skill of critical thinking? Do we assume, with the existing curriculum, that the ability to think and reason is an inevitable byproduct? Or are there some additional specific measures educators should be taking to achieve this goal? Indeed, some cynics might ask, is independent thinking really encouraged in North American society today?

Having just completed Al Gore’s excellent book, The Assault on Reason, these questions have taken on a new urgency in my mind. If the author’s thesis is to be accepted, democracy is under assault today, not from some shadowy terrorist organization of Mid-East origin, but rather from a threat much closer to home: the government itself and its insidious abandonment of reason as the basis of public policy. Although I am a Canadian, I am not so complacent as to think that this assault is a uniquely American problem; indeed, to varying degrees, I suspect that most Western democracies are thus threatened.

Whenever there is a restriction on the flow of information, the threat exists.

Whenever a government looks upon its populace as incapable of understanding the larger issues, the threat exists.

Whenever a population feels sufficiently disaffected with politics to disengage from the process, the threat exists.

Whenever government caters to those it deems its friends and chooses to ignore the rest, the threat exists.

These realities place a special responsibility on the shoulders of teachers in public education today. How good a job are they doing, and what obstacles do they face?

I would really like to hear from teachers in the coming days as I continue writing on this vitally important issue. If, for example, you teach social studies, history, English, etc., are there aspects of the curriculum that allow you to teach the ability to separate fact from opinion, opinion from propaganda, emotion from logic, not just within historical contexts, but within the framework of contemporary society? Or does the injunction against being political or partisan prevent you from evaluating the public policy pronouncements of domestic political and corporate leaders?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Teacher Man – Frank McCourt

Although I read it shortly after it was published and so forget many of the details, Frank McCourt’s third installment of his memoirs, Teacher Man, left a lasting impression on me.

Having taught for 30 years in public education in New York City, McCourt speaks with an authority that demands attention. His uncompromising portrait of what happens in the classroom, and the regular interference perpetrated by administrators, are experiences that any teacher will readily identify with.

In one sequence, he relates how his English department head berated him for having no ambition. His sin? He was content with teaching, while at least four other members of the department were studying for their supervisory papers in anticipation of moving into administrative positions. And McCourt’s character was deemed lacking?

In another part of the book, he says something to the effect that administrators and other bureaucrats had escaped the classroom, only to come back to bother the teachers and the students who were busy trying to get on with the real purpose of education, learning. What teacher can’t relate to those observations?

However, this book is intended for a much larger audience.

Members of the general public will benefit from and enjoy this book because it offers a demystification of education. Replacing the kinds of propaganda that school boards and education officials are inclined to disseminate (you know what I mean, platitudes like ” No Child Left Behind” “Every Child will Succeed” etc. etc. ad nauseam – as if it were that easy) McCourt succeeds in showing that yes, sometimes there are moments of magic, but mostly progress is slow and hard won, so much of it dependent not on the teacher, but on the students themselves. While the tone of the book is anything but self-pitying, he makes it clear to his readers that the life of a teacher is just plain hard work.

Those who see the profession as a series of undeserved perks will not likely be swayed from their biases, but anyone with an open mind will derive much from this memoir.

Even as a retired educator, Frank McCourt has much to teach us.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Education Notes Online: A New Teacher Story - updated

Now here is a story to warm the hearts of anyone who has ever been abused by an administrator!

Education Notes Online: A New Teacher Story - updated

Nothing New for Today

Sorry there is nothing new posted today. I am ensconsced on the deck reading Al Gore's Assault on Reason. I'll have more to say about its implications for education as as soon as I complete it

Monday, July 16, 2007

Education, Language, and Politics

As an English teacher, central to my philosophy was the belief that the classroom is the ideal forum within which to explore ideas and engage with the world. While this might seem a truism, in many ways it ran counter to the very conservative nature of public education, which stresses the importance of teacher neutrality in the classroom. It was an expectation I regularly violated.

In teaching Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, a seminal essay that is still frequently referred to today, some sixty years after its publication, it was impossible not to engage the students in the issues of the day. Central to Orwell’s thesis was that language and thought are intertwined, and if we are sloppy in our thinking, that fact will be reflected in our language, and visa versa.

However, his most trenchant comments are reserved for the political uses of language, which he describes as largely “the defense of the indefensible.” Whether in speech or in writing, he attempts to warn his readers of how language can in fact subvert truth. Taking examples from his time, he shows how euphemisms can conceal true horror:

Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Amongst the modern euphemisms my students quickly uncovered are the following:

“did not meet course objectives” = failed
“finds it challenging to keep on task” = talks too much
“pre-emptive strike” = we started the war
“war of liberation” = we didn’t like their politics
‘the need for democratic reforms” = we don’t like who they elected
“socialist government” = we don’t like who they elected
“ establishing freedom and democracy” = electing a government that we like
“ethnic cleansing” = genocide

In future posts I’ll discuss some of the errors in logic my students studied, and how they applied them to international situations.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Al Gore and The Assault on Reason

As I read Al Gore’s Assault on Reason, I can’t help but continue to think about the book’s implications for the education system. A recurrent theme is the vital role played by both literacy and reason in a healthy democracy. He talks about how the framers of the American Constitution made certain assumptions in their vision of government: that the citizenry, through the printed word, would have access to sufficient information to make sound judgments, and that those judgments would emerge through the exercise of reason. Due to factors Gore makes clear, neither of those assumptions seem to be operating very well in the United States today.

He is uncompromising in his indictment of the Bush administration’s violation of logic and crass manipulation of people’s fears. The power of governments to subvert their citizens is something that we, as educators, should be especially mindful of when we teach. One of the greatest pleasures for me in the Grade 12 Academic English course I taught up to my retirement was a six-week unit on the use and abuse of language. Two core essays, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and a Royal Bank newsletter entitled “Knowing How to Think” allowed us to explore how language and logic can be used for unworthy, even dangerous purposes. I was never short of material drawn from the media to illustrate the pitfalls, and the unit culminated in a research assignment whereby students had to analyze media, especially newspapers, and report on the flaws of language and logic found therein.

In my next post, I’d like to tell you of some of the things they discovered.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Al Gore, Institutional Behaviour, and School Boards

I’m currently reading Al Gore’s excellent book, The Assault on Reason. Although I am only on chapter two, there is much in it thus far reinforcing the vital role that reason and education must play in a civilized society. As well, there is much in it detailing the abuse that institutions are capable of. It is the latter that I would like to offer a few comments on.

Gore examines the behaviour of two bodies, the CIA and the FBI, to show how those at the top often subvert the integrity of their operatives. For example, in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, CIA analysts who disputed the link being forged between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were under tremendous pressure to keep their own counsel. The cost of displeasing their superiors was too high -lost opportunities for promotions and salary increases. Similarly, in an earlier era, for an FBI agent to challenge J. Edgar Hoover’s belief that Martin Luther King was closely aligned with the Communist Party could have meant dismissal, transfers to undesirable locations, etc. Again, their voices were muted.

Anyone who believes the institution of education operates any differently is deluding him/herself. Although I could provide countless examples, let me draw on one brief anecdote to illustrate. A couple of years ago during an in-service session, one of my colleagues called into question some of the assertions being made about a program that the director of education was promoting board-wide. I guess someone on staff or administration must have communicated this ‘disloyal act,’ because about two days later the director made an unannounced visit to the school, and invited the critical teacher into the principal’s office to ‘clarify his remarks.’ My colleague, through some quick-thinking, was able to defuse the situation, but there is no doubt that had he been less resourceful, serious consequences for his career would have ensued because of his independent thinking.

The message sent to the rest of the staff by the director’s visit was both chilling and all too clear: “Disagree with me at your peril!” There were no further questions about his initiative.

So much for exercising one’s critical faculties.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Because we are in the midst of summer, I have been trying to keep my posts in a relatively light vein. However, to give you an idea of what is coming up as we get closer to school opening again, I am listing a series of topics that I hope to explore, in no particular order.

As always, I invite readers’ input. Is there something that you would like me to address?

For example, if you are a member of the general public interested in public education, is there anything that you have been wondering about that I or the readers of this blog might help you with?

If you are a parent, what have been your experiences dealing with the education system? What have been your best experiences? What have been your worst?

If you are a teacher, are there issues in your life as an educator that might help readers to better understand the profession? Is there any advice that we can offer about problems you are confronting?

If you are an administrator, my criticisms notwithstanding, what do you do to foster a positive school climate for both staff and students?


What’s Wrong, and What’s Right About Education Today?

Parent - Teacher Relations

Organizational Amorality – being Part of An Institution Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Housekeeping – Management’s Capacity for Sweeping Things Under the Rug

Parents and their Child-Rearing Methods

Why Principals Don’t Respect the Classroom Teacher

School Attendance Policies

Mistakes Made in Education – Teachers Taking on the Sins of Society

Is Dropping Out the Worst that Can Happen?

Teacher Organizations – Their Strengths and Their Weaknesses

What is A Truly Educated Person?

Teaching Inexperienced Educators How To Deal With Difficult Parents

The Concept of Servant Leadership

Improving School Climate: How the Truly Effective Administrator Operates

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Author Recommendation #4 – James Lee Burke

My fourth summer reading selection, James Lee Burke and his Dave Robicheaux series, is by far the darkest. As an author, Burke has all of the attributes of both Colin Dexter and Michael Connelly, but his explorations of character, informed by questions of good and evil and the pursuit of redemption, often make for some very dark excursions into the human condition.

Like Dexter and Connelly’s protagonists, Dave ages throughout the series; while originally a member of the New Orleans Police Department, for most of the novels he has been a detective in New Iberia Parish. His longtime friend and former partner, Cleetus Purcell, appears in most of the series, and while the latter is capable of some truly shocking and violent behaviour, his excesses are, in most ways, no greater than those of Robicheaux, something that Dave never seems to realize. Their kindred natures make it clear why their friendship has endured for so long.

There have been many losses and much pain in Dave’s life over the years. I have frequently thought his behaviour to be masochistic; he often brings trouble to himself and his family when it can so easily be avoided. However, I now realize he is partly motivated by an unquenchable thirst for justice, the achievement of which, I suspect, offers the hope of redemption for this deeply flawed character. Never are we more aware of the duality of human nature than when we experience Robicheaux’s character and world.

As with my other selections, I strongly advise that you read the novels sequentially in order to truly understand the character. I will give away only a few specific details by revealing that some of Dave’s spiritual and psychological problems stem from the fact that his mother abandoned him when he was young; in fact, she is the subject of one of the later books; as well, frequent references to experiences in Vietnam suggest that tragic misadventure as another source of his malaise. And then there is his ongoing battle with alcoholism, surely not unrelated to the aforementioned factors.

If you are looking for a mildly diverting reading experience, James Lee Burke will not provide it. In many ways, his themes and his writing approach literary status. Despite being a popular writer, he is not afraid to deal with some harsh truths that many of us may wish never to confront.

If you are interested in pursuing this author, please visit the following website for a bibliography of his work: http://www.jamesleeburke.com/bibliography.html

You won’t be disappointed with the work of James Lee Burke, but you may be profoundly disturbed by it.

Monday, July 9, 2007

"Sicko" and the Educated Person

My wife and I just saw Michael Moore’s new film, “Sicko,” about the gross inadequacies of the American healthcare system. While I have always enjoyed his work, I think this is his best. He skillfully juxtaposes very sad tales of people who have lost spouses, children, their economic freedom and peace of mind with countries that provide universal health care, such as Canada, Britain, and France. By the end of the film, one cannot help but feel sorry for a nation as powerful as the United States squandering its resources, allowing so many of its citizens to live and die in healthcare misery.

The film made me think about the crucial role that education has traditionally played in developing critical thinking skills. To be able to think and reflect on issues, to be able to evaluate both sides of a question, as opposed to simply responding viscerally, is to me the mark of the truly educated person. That we have drifted in many ways from that notion to embrace the inculcation of a set of skills in preparation for the job market as the main purpose of education seems dangerous, As Moore’s film indirectly suggests, one of the reasons for the sad state of affairs in the U.S. is the willingness to accept the overblown rhetoric of the vested interests who oppose universal health care. Emotive words such as ‘socialism,’ ‘government intervention’ and ‘restrictions on freedom of choice’ seem to be acceptable substitutes for reasoned debate.

That can’t be good for any society.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Results So Far

I also post this blog on another site that seems to be read exclusively by teachers, and it seems more successful in eliciting comments than is this site thus far. I am therefore taking the liberty of pasting in the three comments I have received so far based on yesterday's invitation for input about experience with administrators.

Betty said:
I had one particularly bad experience with a principal a few years ago. I have mentioned him several times in comments (not by name, of course). He loved to pick on teachers and made evaluations stressful and miserable. Did I say stressful and miserable? Just wanted to make sure. One year it was my turn to be in the hot seat, and he made my life unbearable. I stuck it out but probably should have transferred to another school. A couple of years later he acted like nothing had happened and told me he thought I was an excellent teacher. Go figure.
# July 7, 2007 1:19 PM [Remove this Comment]

Betty said:
I am still laughing at myself. Maybe it's the lack of air conditioning up here in my office. Trying to conserve, you know. Okay. Now I will respond to your actual question. I had a marvelous lady principal who valued everyone in the building. I would work for her today if I could. She was always smiling and made everyone's day better. She was very supportive of the staff. The thing I liked the best was that she really listened to us and implemented a lot of our ideas. She was awesome.
# July 7, 2007 1:23 PM [Remove this Comment]

MysteryTeacher said:
I have had principals that others thought was fantastic. I didn't. She was a control freak of the worst kind. She did everything herself and did not delegate. Lazy teachers loved that. I prefer to have input and be part of the solution, not just told how it is. The best principal I have ever had was my first. She came right out of the classroom and she really understood what was going on. If she hadn't had an affair with one of our more randy teachers, she probably would have lasted forever.
# July 7, 2007 2:16 PM [Remove this Comment]

Again, please don't hesitate to leave a comment. If you are an administrator, for example, what are some of the things you do to work effectively with the staff?

If you are a teacher, have my comments been representive of your experiences, or was I just unlucky in my career?

If you are a parent, what has been your experience with administrators?

Saturday, July 7, 2007

An Invitation to Readers of This Blog

As I said when I started this blog in June, what I have been writing about thus far is the truth as I see it - hence the largely negative comments about administrators. I would be very much interested in readers writing about the experiences they have had with principals and vice-principals; in the pursuit of balance, I would especially like to hear of administrators that you feel either make or have made your lives better. Simply press on the comment section and leave your thoughts.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Author Recommendation #3 – Michael Connelly

My next pick is American writer Michael Connelly. A former crime reporter for the L.A. Times, Connelly brings real authority to his writing about a netherworld that few of us, fortunately, will ever have contact with. Although he has written novels outside of the series, it is the Harry Bosch storylines where Connelly’s strengths are most apparent.

Like Colin Dexter’s creation, Inspector Morse, Harry Bosch is a man who ages as the series progresses, even to the point where he takes early retirement only to find, after about 3 years, that life as a private citizen does not afford the grim satisfactions to be derived from solving homicides. He therefore returns to the force and, as of his latest literary outing, is still going strong.

In addition to the strengths I praised in Colin Dexter’s work (please see earlier posting), two more aspects make Connelly’s creation particularly strong for me: first, Harry has a deep sense of and yearning for justice, the genesis of which we learn over several novels, and second, in the pursuit of that justice, he often has to run afoul of his superiors who, more times than not, are depicted as rather craven political creatures, more concerned about the optics than the truth, forsaking principle for expedience, not unlike the ‘bosses’ I encountered during my career in teaching. His sympathies, I think, are always with the underdog, and almost all homicide victims are underdogs to Harry, since they can no longer speak for themselves; Bosch embraces the detective’s credo that he now must speak for them, giving them one final show of respect by demonstrating that their lives had meaning by solving the circumstances of their deaths.

In his pursuit of justice Harry, like Inspector Morse, emerges as a flawed but very human character. He also frequently has to pay a high price for his ideals. I hope you enjoy his development as much as I have over the years.

If you are interested, please visit the following website that offers a Connelly bibliography: http://www.authorsontheweb.com/features/lists/li-connelly-michael.asp

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Author Recommendation #2 – Ishmael Beah

My next selection marks a foray into the world of non-fiction, but it is a world as horrendous as any that can be found in the darkest of fiction. Yet upon completion of the book, the reader realizes that he or she has made a journey to redemption alongside the author.

Ishmael Beah, the author of A Long Way Gone, is a victim of war-torn Sierra Leone, the country depicted in the film Blood Diamond. Now a young man of 26, this very bright, articulate and talented writer effectively conveys the horror of his experiences as a boy soldier, conscripted into the army at the age of 13 to fight the rebels, although the bloody, inhumane behaviour of each side makes them virtually impossible to distinguish.

An apparently happy and sensitive boy before both the loss of his family and the conscription, Beah is quickly transformed into something barely recognizable as human. Through the deadening effects of drugs and a yearning for a renewed sense of family, both readily provided by the army, he becomes a conscienceless killer, dispatching people not only in the relatively impersonal context of the battlefield, but also in the more immediate environment of open air interrogation of captured rebels. At no time in the book does Beah seek to minimize the atrocities he was involved in, although there is much that he chooses not to dwell upon, I suspect out of respect for his readers’ sensibilities. It is enough to say that the innocence and the humanity of the boy are lost.

But if this were all there was to Beah’s story, it would be unrelentingly bleak. Thanks to fate, God, or just pain luck, he is rescued, against his will, from a life that surely would have ended soon. Taken by UNICEF to a rehabilitation camp, Beah begins the long struggle to reintegrate into a normal existence. The second part of the book takes an uncompromising look at the difficulties this entailed for the boy soldier and his peers, who for a long time resist the most determined efforts to restore their humanity; their anger at having been taken from their ‘family,’ the army, is made palpable through the author’s prose.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. Most of us, myself included, would be hard pressed to even find Sierra Leone on a map, much less say with honesty that we spend any of our waking moments worrying about the plight of child soldiers in the world. Ishmael Beah humanizes the things that we may, in passing, read about in the newspaper over coffee. But his book accomplishes so much more. We are also invited to witness the restoration of his soul, an arduous process, but one that cannot help but remind us that even in the seemingly lost cases of the world, redemption can be attained.

As Beah himself has said, “It is very easy for a person to lose his humanity, and very difficult to get it back.” Difficult yes, but not impossible, as A Long Way Gone amply demonstrates.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Brief Return to My Criticisms of School Administrators

I know I promised lighter fare for the summer, but my hometown paper today carried a provocative story originally published on June 22 in the L.A. Times. Titled “With Iraq play, students act on beliefs,” it details the experiences of a group of students at Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut who had been working for two months on a play called “Voices in Conflict.” The play, actually a series of dramatic monologues, was the result of the drama teacher’s idea for the students to research the war in Iraq through documentaries, books, and articles that represented both sides of the conflict.

You can probably guess what happened. The principal, Timothy Canty, received a few complaints about the content of the pending play, and made the decision that it could not be performed. Oh, and by the way, the drama teacher was put under ‘administrative review’, which essentially means that her job was threatened. There is ultimately a happy ending to the story, one that has nothing to do with the school administration. In fact, the play was recently performed off-Broadway. To read the full story, please follow this link: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-iraqplay22jun22,1,4871859.story?page=1&cset=true&ctrack=1

Reading about this administrative overreaction reminded me once more of how feckless and political school principals can be. Here was a group of young people, using their critical thinking skills to synthesize and dramatize what they had learned, surely an example of the goals of education, only to have their efforts arbitrarily dismissed.

This story also jogged my memory about an incident that happened several years ago in the board for which I worked. The Grade 10 English Department at a local high school taught the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the American classic by Harper Lee that exposes the ugliness of racism and teaches the oh so important message of tolerance. Apparently two students complained about the use of the n word. The principal immediately, and I suspect without even bothering to read the book and the contextual use of the controversial word, declared that it could no longer be taught at his school.

But the story doesn’t quite end there. The media learned about the situation and the local news channel covered it. In the last part of the piece, the principal declared that the book hadn’t been banned, as it was still available in the school library. He was then shown in the halls, encouraging students to read the book.

So, in addition to my previous complaints about administrative ambition, politicization, and cravenness, I will add one more: hypocrisy.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Author Recommendation #1 - Colin Dexter

A number of the recommendations that I’ll be making in the days ahead pertain to police procedurals and mysteries. The best of the genre offer intellectual challenge, well constructed plots, excellent characterization, and, in the case of an ongoing series, the opportunity for the reader to develop a real affection for the authors’ protagonists.

My first selection is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series. Some of you may be familiar with the character through the films carried by PBS over the years. Although the film series is very good, with the late actor John Thaw very well cast as Morse, the books are superior, in the way that books always seem to be.

First recommended to me by Murray, an old teaching colleague, I was immediately captivated by the character of Morse whose first name, by the way, we only ascertain in the final book of the series, The Remorseful Day. (I won’t spoil it for you.)

Irascible, given to overindulgence in alcohol, and often both condescending and insulting to his subordinate Lewis, Morse would, with the avid mind of a crossword puzzle addict, relentlessly piece the clues together, often to only find that he was completely wrong! Rest assured, however, that he would ultimately solve the case.

Colin Dexter achieved a type of character that is uncommon in my reading experience. First, as the years went by, Morse aged, unlike some of the seemingly eternal sleuths of popular fiction. As he aged, I think both his loneliness and estrangement from normal human relationships deepened. My suspicion was that his knowledge of human nature, derived from his many years as a police inspector, made it impossible for him to ever have a lasting relationship with a woman. In fact, his only friend throughout the entire series seemed to be the much abused Lewis who, with unfailing affection for his boss, would put up not only with Morse’s temperament, but also his apparently endless capacity for sticking Lewis with the bar tab, (“I’m sorry Lewis, I seem to have forgotten my wallet. Do you mind?”) even though the latter only ever seemed to drink orange juice.

So Inspector Morse, this very flawed, and therefore very human character, was someone I would greet as an old friend every second summer, as per Colin Dexter’s output. Sadly, it was after about 14 novels that he decided to end the series. It truly was a remorseful day.

Below I have included a link to a Colin Dexter website, which lists the books in publication sequence. I strongly suggest that you start with the first novel, and work your way through them. You have many reading pleasures awaiting you.