Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reformers Have Broken Thanksgiving

Mmm...More Gravy please.
With Thanksgiving Break just ahead I thought I get it started a bit early.  So I hustled from my classroom into the crowded cafeteria during one of our 24-minute lunch periods eager to grab a meal and scarf it down before the bell rang and the hordes of students headed out the door, some back to my class.  I waited patiently to place my order in the line.   I could have cut as some staff do but that never seems right to me.   The menu featured turkey, stuffing, green beans and mashed potatoes, all among the most American of meals.  I stepped forward and said "I'll take some of everything..and gravy on all of it too please"  But before she reached for the first helping of Turkey with the tongs, she paused.  She looked up just for a moment and then paused.  I hung on the slightest movement.  Then it happened.

She signed and said "You cannot get Mashed Potatoes and Stuffing Together."


She apologetically offered "it's not up to me" and she simply was not able to serve the two together.  The words stung me like a slap to the face.  I recoiled and said "Oh?"  I added a second later that "sounded pretty Un-American to me."  She agreed and I reluctantly chose the stuffing as she added to my gravy across styrofoam tray.

This scenario should not serve as an indictment of my school's or any other cafeteria in the nation.  She and they are doing their best.  (Nevermind the choice to throw away thousands of styrofoam trays a month...that seems flawed.)  But the un-Thanksgiving-like choice forced upon me illustrates the point perfectly and is a microcosm of education.  In an well intentioned effort to make things better, decision makers had done something that just wasn't right.  Sure child obesity is a major concern and yes healthy meals are important, but that did little to assuage my discontent.  Could anyone who decided that two starches cannot go together look me in the eye and make a rationale case for why that was so in this particular case?  I think not.  As a result of their decision, quality didn't get better, it got worse. 

And at every turn classroom teachers are facing similar sorts of situations.  Reformers, working to make things "better" are too far removed from ground level.  They've lost touch and in many ways are affecting change without really knowing the consequences to students and teachers.  The result is we feel powerless to help things improve and do what we know would make things better.  Paternal activism in this case is a bad thing.

I see it every day where testing, data collection, standardization and top down policy inadvertently interfere with the ability of talented classroom teachers to do their job well. But like the lunch lady, what choice do we have?  When we speak up we run the risk of being labelled an agitator or not a team player.  It's tough.

My colleague said it best:

"The only way to get common sense reform is to put decisions 
in the hands of those closest to where it matters most"

But we continue to move in the opposite direction in our misguided national effort to improve education quality.  No magic elixir exists and issues facing schools are as diverse as the students themselves.  Solutions and reforms should be local and driven by those with the greatest sense of understanding.  So unless you want to be told what you can't do as I was, then encourage decision makers to entrust people in schools to direct and affect change in the way they see fit.  Let them give me both stuffing and mashed potatoes.  It's the right thing to do


  1. Yes, Yes and YES! I could not agree with you more, Rich. Teachers on the elementary school level are also becoming increasingly frustrated by the structures and mandates that govern our teaching practices. I've enjoyed reading your blog!. Hope you don't mind that I quoted you and linked you on my blog: Thirdgradethinkers8@blogspot.com

  2. You are welcome to and we don't mind and take it as proof there are "real" people there who stumble across us once in awhile. Third grade huh? You are very brave. Glad you enjoyed the post. It is sad my colleague and haven't been able to keep up as much with the blog since we've been so busy actually trying to teach(ironic?). Maybe one day we will go back to where we are doing our best instead of the best we can. That statement will only be truly understood by a fellow teacher.