Monday, November 18, 2013

Mr. Keating Goes to Public Education

"Let me be really clear: Great teachers are wonderful. They change lives. We need them. The problem is that most schools don't like great teachers. They're organized to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average."
- Seth Godin, Linchpin

I'm offering a few brief thoughts on public education today.

My wife teaches second grade. She is good at it. She possesses--has always possessed--an extraordinary social gift. She connects with kids, spreads love, makes people feel valued, creates inclusion, and spawns the desire to please. She has the God-given ability to inspire children to believe in themselves and want to learn. It is the very essence of effective classroom teaching. Without even trying, she is a teaching genius.

She works in an environment in which these essential qualities are overlooked, and worse, buried under the demanding expectations of test scores, conformity, and bureaucracy.

I'm not sure whose fault it is--parents, politicians, the faceless entity known as Public Education? I'm not casting blame, I'm making an observation, and a biased one at that. I'm a simple-minded observer. I know that Karen is a great teacher. I also know that she feels like a failure much of the time, unable to complete her work in a reasonable amount of hours, under constant demands of prodigious amounts of record-keeping and educational gobbledygook, forced to attend a multitude of meetings labeled by initials that no-one can explain, judged by the test scores instead of the personal success of her students. Every day she faces incredible challenges to keep up. She gets up at 4:30am and goes to bed after 11:00pm. She is never finished. I admire her more than she knows.

She taught many years ago, before we had children, and she's been back at now for about eight years. Each year the job gets harder. Each year it changes just for the sake of change. Each year it requires more loyalty to technology and less to common sense. Each year it becomes less about the teacher as a human, and more about the teacher as a factory worker. The creation of curriculum flows ever more upward and loses touch with the needs of each child. The pressure of meeting the political demands of a failing system flows downward, squashing people who simply love to teach under its weight. I have a brother who is a principal, and a sister-in-law who is a teacher. Both are, like my wife, exceptional at what they do. I think they would agree that public education has become widget-making instead of art, and what is lost in this Faustian transaction is the intrinsic value of the social genius who can unleash the dreams and talents of each unique child under her charge.

Remember John Keating? He was the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society whose unorthodox style inspired his buttoned-up prep school boys to pursue Carpe Diem instead of Carpe SAT. They learned to love poetry and dream big dreams while studying engineering to please the establishment. Well, Mr. Keating is dead. He didn't last at Welton. He would never get hired in Frederick County, and if he did, he'd be exhausted from the bureaucratic beat-down.

I wonder if, at some point, the whole system will break down. The world is changing. There's no longer a need to create a society of corporate minions. The days of working 40 years for one company in order to build your pension are over. The new world favors movement, creativity, art, and entrepreneurship. It favors those uncontrollable, outside-the-box thinkers whose gift isn't good test scores, but new ways of thinking and seeing the possibilities. It won't favor those who succeed within public education, but those who succeed in spite of it. I don't know how or when it will happen, or what it will look like, but I believe it's inevitable. Great teachers cannot be kept under wraps forever. Mr. Keating will rise again.

Monday, November 11, 2013

It's good they stink

I have my Sundays back!

The life of a youth pastor revolves around Sunday--at least it does for me, since our youth ministry meets on Sunday evenings, and of course we have church in the morning. Every fall Sunday since I've been at Mountain View, I've felt the frustrating tug of my other career -- being a Pittsburgh Steelers' fan.

Yes, I know it sounds trivial, but one of the challenges of the life I've chosen is that Sunday afternoons in the fall do not allow me to watch much football. Both my location (Maryland -- few Steeler games on TV) and schedule (Sundays very full) make it difficult to indulge one of my primary hobbies. With the Steelers being so good the past 10 years or so, I've constantly wrestled with getting ready for youth group while wondering what my beloved team is doing.

Imagine the inner tension. There have been many times when I've had a meeting after church, or had to leave home at 4:00, just as the rare televised game was beginning. There have been many nights I had to turn the TV off in our youth room--right in the middle of the 4th quarter of a close game--because it was time to start worship. Two years ago, I heard about the fateful Tebow playoff pass to beat the Steelers from one of the kids checking his phone during my sermon. Twice in the past six years, I've had to make a difficult choice between watching the AFC Championship Game or teaching a lesson about Jesus. (The game won once; Jesus won once)

But this year that's not an issue. The Steelers are bad, really bad. They won yesterday, but they are 3-6 and have little hope of making the playoffs. They have lost to perennial also-rans like the Raiders, Titans and Vikings. Their defense had the all-time worst day in franchise history against the Patriots. It's embarrassing. It's sad.

But it's also a bit of a relief! You see, this fall, instead of worrying about what the Steelers are doing, I've been set free. With defeat mostly assured before the game starts, I've been more focused on my work. I've been able to get fully prepared. I've been able to hang out with students without being grumpy or distracted. I've been able to look a taunting Ravens fan in the eye and say, "How was your week." I've been "in the zone"--and not the red one, unless you mean the words of Jesus printed in my Bible.

So for now, it's good the Steelers stink. It makes me a better pastor and maybe a better person. Here's hoping next year's NFL draft will make me a worse one.