We Can Do Better

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The truth is that there is a price for everything and that is no more apparent than in education. Few parents are able to afford the cost of private schools for their children, so the vast majority of our youngsters attend public schools. The bulk of educational expense lies in teacher salaries and benefits. Budgets are tight because the only flow of income to pay for all of the people and things needed to run a great academic program is found in taxes and a bit of federal money and grants. Parents sometimes chip in with fundraisers for a few extras. On the whole educational funding is a balancing act wrought with so many difficulties. Teachers want and deserve a fair wage commensurate with their education, knowledge, skills and experience. Schools need a certain level of educational resources all of which require additional money. At the same time citizens are only willing to accept so many taxes before they rebel even if it means cutting back on school funding. The tug and the pull is never ending, and a source of great concern both for educators and parents.

One has to be somewhat altruistic to accept teaching as a vocation. It requires not just an initial degree, but continual certifications and retraining, aspects of the job that are necessary and almost always paid for by the teachers themselves rather than the schools. Few classrooms are stocked with all of the materials necessary to keep students learning on the cutting edge, and so almost every teacher that I have ever known spends vast amounts of his/her own money to supplement what is provided. Teachers work longer hours and more days than most people realize, and often do so with little fanfare. It’s a difficult job, and I have witnessed former engineers, accountants and sales people run from its challenges after thinking that changing to a career in education would be a lark.

We see teachers across the country walking out of their classrooms to draw attention to the problems that exist. They are enduring the brunt of insults to insure that the future of public education is assured, because it is certainly true that if the conditions get bad enough the entire system will begin to fail just as it is already doing in certain corners. If we are to provide the best for all of our children, then we must get serious about the kinds of changes that we need. It’s a new world with a new way of doing things and a box of chalk and an eraser won’t cut it anymore. Nor will a salary that borders on insult be sufficient to attract the kind of teachers that our children need and deserve.

In the Houston area and other parts of Texas there are schools where the students are consistently failing. Instead of getting to the heart of the problems inside their walls the suggestions run from shutting them down to turning them over the charter programs. Perhaps thinking out of the box is the way to go, but it will take innovation, dedication from gifted educators, support from parents, time, patience and money. There are many success stories on the educational horizon, but they arose from a willingness to invest heavily in the lives of underserved populations. Drawing upon research and lessons learned there are no doubt answers to the problems, but it will require honesty and a willingness to address the staff, the facilities, the procedures, the role of parents and the students from the ground up. It may even require creating schools within schools whereby the buildings house smaller groups of youngsters who never fall through the cracks because they become part of an educational family. It may also mean providing financial and educational incentives to teachers so that the best of them will be willing to work with the most challenging populations.

It’s fairly well understood that the problems that plague failing schools are complex and include the reality that some children come from environments in which there is little understanding of the value of education. When parents become an integral part of the process the changes are almost magical. The heart of the KIPP Charter Schools lies in the commitment of parents, teachers and students to a daily routine of rigor with a goal of getting to and through college. There are more than just teachers driving the program, including counselors who follow the progress or lack of it from pre-school all the way through earning a college degree. The mantra “Once a KIPPster always a KIPPster.” is very real and every person who works in one of the schools takes the challenge to heart. The schools are kept purposely small so that everyone knows everybody. It is a true team and family atmosphere. The organization also provides opportunities for advancement paid for by the system. The best of the best have the opportunity of being awarded thousands of additional dollars in the form of stipends for excellence. At five year intervals teachers are honored with travel vouchers as well. These may appear to be small things but they drive the enthusiasm and dedication that teachers must have to make it for the long haul.

It’s time that we rethink how we treat our teachers and our students. We need to begin to redesign the way we do things and that doesn’t mean forcing the experience to revolve around standardized testing. It has nothing to do with dismantling the pension programs or simply purchasing a few computers. It will take a willingness to set things aright with funding, hard work and support from all of us, not just those who have children. Our future demands that we do a better job.

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I’m Still Not Dead

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There’s a line in one of Willie Nelson’s songs that goes something like this, “I woke up still not dead today.” Willie has a way with words as well as music. I suppose that for someone in his eighties like he is it feels good to see one more day while still wondering when the clock will stop on his run. I’m about fourteen years younger than Willie, but I have to admit that there are times when I feel as though I’m taking a leap of faith when I go to sleep at night. At my age there are no guarantees that I will wake up the next morning. In fact, so many of my contemporaries have already died that I more and more appreciate the fragility of life. I understand that each passing day pushes me just a bit closer to my the ultimate human fate, death. For that reason I find myself trying hard to focus on the aspects of living that are actually the most important, and I am irritated when mundane tasks vie for my attention. Like everyone else I simply have no idea when I will draw my last breath, but at the age of sixty nine I am fairly certain that my days are numbered more so than when I was thirty. That means that it’s really time to pack as much meaning into them as possible.

Family and friends have always been first for me, but I have lately found myself also wanting to pack in as many experiences as possible before my health deteriorates or my income becomes too meager to allow for extravagances. When I think back on my life the moments that I remember always revolve around quiet nights spent with the people that I love and exhilarating moments when I witnessed something extraordinary. Things fall apart and become meaningless, but relationships and adventures are timeless and priceless.

I was watching the movie All The Money In The World last week and it reinforced my thinking that having a great deal of wealth is only as good as what we do with it. If we horde it or become obsessed with it our lives lose meaning. Sadly for some acquiring money becomes an end in itself. Young people are sometimes urged to choose career paths based more on future salaries than passions and talents. All too often adults counsel the young to go for the gold rather than happiness. It worries me that so many young people are being lead down a path that they may one day regret, for in the end there is something about the human spirit that longs for purpose and human contact more than riches.

Don’t get me wrong. Having sufficient economic power is crucial to fulfilling our most basic needs. Having money for nonessentials provides the means for a sense of well being. I don’t advocate living like a pauper, but I have found that it is very possible to lead an exceptional life without bowing to the demands of a lifetime spent chasing the dollar bill rather than fulfilling dreams. As a teacher I enjoyed a rather minimal salary, but it was just enough. The joy that I felt each day that I was at work was far more important to me than a burgeoning bank account. My riches are found in my sense of accomplishing something important and I still managed to enjoy creature comforts without sacrificing my altruistic tendencies.

Each of us is unique. For some there is great excitement in the world of business. For others it is in building things that the most contentment is to be found. If we are lucky we find the niche that helps us to experience the joy factor of life. Even better is when the people around us support our choices.

I used to tease my mother by suggesting that she write a book on parenting, but I was only halfway in jest. The fact is that she somehow managed to raise three children who are so unlike one another. She not only allowed, but encouraged us to follow our individual dreams. When one brother announced at the age of five that he wanted to be a mathematician, she provided him with the tools to develop his interests. He ultimately attended Rice University and worked for a NASA contractor creating the navigation system for the International Space Station. When my other brother revealed that he wanted to be a fire fighter she was just as proud of his accomplishments. He rose through the ranks earning two graduate degrees, running the training academy, and becoming an area chief. While she sometimes imagined that I would become a doctor or a lawyer, she was quite proud of the work that I did as an educator and even helped me to work my way through my earliest days in the profession by providing guidance and understanding. Not once did she ever indicate that one of our professions was better than the other. Nor did she point to the differences in prestige or salary associated by the public with our chosen careers. Instead she boasted that we had each been successful and that more importantly we had actually enjoyed our work.

As time goes by I become more and more convinced that we are making to many attempts to socially engineer our young so that they will become versions of what we want rather than acknowledging the importance of every single job. As I write this carpenters are replacing damaged sheetrock in my home. Given that my husband and I do not possess their skill, I am in total awe of what they are able to do, and appreciate that they chose to offer this service to me. Right now they are as important to me as a scientist or a financial wizard. In other words, we need a variety of people in our world and that even includes a Willie Nelson whose musical genius entertains and comforts us. Where would we be if everyone chose to only focus on the lifestyles that are most likely to bring wealth rather than finding that one thing that makes them feel so alive?

I’m happy each morning that I wake up still not dead. It’s one more day to spend doing things that I enjoy with people that I love. Lucky for me I have few regrets because in the long ago I was able to follow my personal dreams. I recommend that route for anyone who is just starting out.

Taking One For The Team

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A little food for thought… A group of twelve wolves:  The three in front are old and sick, they walk in front to set the pace of the running group lest they get left behind. The next five are the strongest and best, they are tasked to protect the front side if there is an attack. The pack in the middle are always protected from any attack. The five behind them are also among the strongest and best; they are tasked to protect the back side if there is an attack. The last one is the LEADER. He ensures that no one is left behind. He keeps the pack unified and on the same path. He is always ready to run in any direction to protect and serves as the body guard to the entire group. Just in case anyone wanted to know what it means to be a leader, it’s not about being out front. It means taking care of the team. —-Ivan Ginsberg

The best bosses that I ever had were quiet leaders. Sometimes it was not until they had gone that those of us who worked for them understood the full extent of their greatness. They were the kind of men and women who rarely tooted their own horns, but rather proudly shined the limelight on their employees instead. They sometimes took the heat in our defense without mentioning the troubles that they were willing to endure for us. They were low key but ferociously loyal to the team. The success that they sought centered on finding and developing the individual strengths of each member of the group. Often their guidance helped us to find talents within ourselves that we didn’t even know we had.

In particular I recall working in a school that had a less than sterling reputation. It was one of those places where people were reluctant to go. The employees were thought to be mediocre to bad. Public opinion of the place was abysmal. A new principal infused life into the place without hiring a single new person. His secret was quite simple. He made a point of providing each individual with special responsibilities based on their particular skills. He turned followers into leaders. He made former weaklings feel strong. Before long people were flocking to the school from all over town to see what miraculous things were happening, when in fact the only real change had been in how the system was run. The talent had always been there and this man was able to make it work.

There is a current trend to see the brash and boastful as the sort who should lead us. We tend to favor those who sling the most hurtful insults or fire the most people. We view arrogance as power, when the truth is that such individuals are actually harmful. They are the sorts who will leave us stranded and responsible for our own safety when danger lurks. They mouth caring platitudes, but when push comes to shove they are all in for themselves and toss us to our enemies.

Years ago my husband worked in a start up company created by a man who literally sucked the air out of any room that he entered. His focus was more on his own needs than those of the business and its employees. At the grand opening party I met his mother. She was a sweet lady who was nervous about the impression that she was making. She did not want to ruin the event for her son who was doing his best to avoid her. She confessed to me that he had only asked her to attend for the optics, otherwise she felt that she was somehow an embarrassment to him. At one point he walked over to her and stealthily suggested that she had been there long enough and needed to just go home before she messed up his big moment.

I remember thinking that he was a horrible man for treating his mother so poorly and I silently worried about my husband working for him. My forebodings were right on target. Within months the organization began to fall apart as the man slashed and burned the cohesion of the team. Eventually there was almost rebellion among the employees and my husband was among those who left in complete frustration. For all of his fanfare the arrogant boss ended up being all hat and no cattle. There was nothing behind his words other than his own insecurities which ultimately led to the business failing rather quickly.

Loyalty is rarely produced by intimidation. A great leader understands the importance of seeking a common purpose and using individual talents in that pursuit. When there is an atmosphere of respect and gratitude for each contribution people are eager to work for the cause whatever that may be. When we feel safe we are able to ascend to higher and higher levels of actualization. When we see that each person is valued we are willing to take risks to become more and more accomplished.

The downfall of organizations or governments can be traced again and again to a kind of megalomania that pits one person against another, breeding paranoia and unhinged competition. Enron had been a good place to work until Jeff Skilling unleashed an atmosphere of winning at all costs that lead to cut throat tactics and deceit. The mentality of firing the bottom fifth of producers each year created a chaos that encouraged lawlessness. In the end the employees were left for slaughter.

One of my former students has started a very successful business. I have noticed with pleasure how often he gives credit to his employees and demonstrates his gratitude for their hard work. He understands that his job is to be the leader by following behind and taking care of the team.

There are entire educational programs designed to teach individuals how to to manage organizations. A great deal of social science has been dedicated to researching teamwork and leadership. The one thing that all conclusions have in common is the realization that working together in a spirit of mutual respect is critical, and it is the leader who makes or breaks the system. If we want to drain the swamp of any group that is not working, we must first find a leader who is willing to work with the group.

The Cries Of A Child

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I recently had a very long day. I had arisen early and prepared for a series of appointments which literally spanned the hours from nine in the morning to six in the evening. After completing all of my duties I picked up my husband and the two of us hit the gym around seven. We finished our workouts about an hour and a half later and only then began to think about having dinner. I instinctively understood that it was a bad idea to eat at such a late hour, but it had been one of those days in which I had moved from one thing to another without a moment to even think of nutrition. Since the YMCA that we use is across from a grocery store I suggested that we find one of their prepared meals to heat at home rather than opting for fast food. It would be a quick and preferable alternative to undoing our attempts at a healthy lifestyle and would cost less as well. It seemed to be a grand idea.

The section containing what we wanted was located near the front of the store and we quickly found choices of seafood and chicken coupled with fresh vegetables that ranged from four hundred to five hundred calories. We made our selections and headed for the checkout which wasn’t particularly crowded because by then the clock was ticking toward nine. As we were waiting behind a young couple buying ice cream and a number of items that we have chosen to eliminate from our diet I heard the screams and cries of a small child.

I glanced over to see a father attempting to control a little boy who had obviously reached his limit of navigating happily through his own long day. I felt for the father who was doing his best to console his son, but as a mom I knew that the youngster was simply exhausted and ready for bed. The frazzled dad didn’t appear to be in much better shape. I imagined that both of them had been blowing and going all day long and that the child had been the first to hit the wall. I thought of how tired I was and remembered the times when I would work all day outside of the home and be making last minute runs to the store to purchase items that we had to have for the following day. I just wanted to go hug the little boy and tell the man that things would be better and that he would one day be able to laugh about such incidents. Still, I worried about our often relentlessly fast paced and demanding society and wondered what it is actually doing to all of us.

I’m retired now, so one really rough day of obligations isn’t that tough on me. I am able to sleep in after challenging schedules, but that wasn’t always the case. My work hours were often erratic and almost always long. I recall so many times when I reached home after nine or ten at night hoping that my family’s needs had been sufficiently met. Routines were difficult to create because we each had such divergent schedules. There were times when we literally felt like strangers passing one another in the night. As a teacher I had to attend meetings, conferences, trainings, performances, and field trips. Those demands only increased once I became an administrator. I assumed the role of caring not only for my students, but also for my teachers. All too often my own family had to take a back seat, and to this very day I worry that I may have neglected them a bit more than I should have, even though they appeared to be quite resilient.

My husband too had to work strange hours from time to time. My dear mother and mother-in-law often covered for us when our obligations coincided and our girls were going to be home alone. I know that I missed some important moments with them, and even though they were safe and sound the guilt that I felt was far greater than I might have wanted to admit at the time. I have often wondered if we as a society have created an unhealthy new world order with our two parent careers, or if our children are actually okay with just rolling with the whatever happens. After all, the only reality that they know is the one that we as parents create for them. They do not experience the same type of steadfast routine that I did when I was growing up. The world is different for them and they seem to have adapted, but when I see a youngster like that little boy crying from sheer exhaustion, I wonder how many times I too pushed my children to the brink. I think about how I might have done things differently or at least a bit better.

Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs that there is. In today’s world many adults are raising children all alone. They don’t enjoy the benefits that I had of extended family members filling the gaps. I can only imagine the tough choices that they must continually make as they balance work and home obligations. Most organizations don’t take too kindly to absences even when they are supposedly allowed. Shirking overtime demands is a quick way of losing momentum in climbing the career ladder. Those who defiantly insist on working only the minimally required amount of time are in danger of receiving lukewarm appraisals and of being thought to be lazy. The tension between work and home is real and both men and women feel the push and pull. It’s tough to be all things to all people, and yet we seem oblivious to the toll it is taking on all of us. We just keep moving day after day like drones on a conveyor belt, hoping that one day there will be some rest.

There was a time when workers generally had a more carefully constructed schedule that allowed them to arrive home each evening at a fairly consistent time. If they worked long enough for the same company they would accrue as many as six weeks of vacation time and their bank of sick days would steadily grow. Jobs were fairly plentiful and raises and bonuses were an expected part of the packages. Many organizations provided generous pensions and health insurance benefits. One by one many of those things have gone the way of the buggy whip. A single worker today often fulfills the duties that might have required multiple individuals in an earlier era. Employment opportunities are more difficult to find and once someone lands a job he/she is expected to demonstrate utmost loyalty and dedication to the cause. It’s a dog eat dog environment that is putting new stresses on individuals and their families.

I have to admit to being overjoyed that I’m now retired, but I can’t just rest on my laurels. I actually worry about today’s workers as I see them struggling to keep pace and still maintain their own health and happiness. I wonder if it will ever be possible to slow things down once again as I think of a time and a promise that our inventiveness would one day create a world in which we would get things done in a shorter work day that would provide us more time to enjoy ourselves. Instead we have just decreased the need for workers and increased the demands on those lucky enough to land the jobs. There seems to be no end to the demands that we place on employees and I fear that many of the ills that we see in our society are incubated in such an environment. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we do things. The cries of our children are telling us that something is wrong. Surely we can do better.

The Dialogue

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Teachers talk all of the time. They desperately want to do the right thing for their students. They literally take their worries and concerns home, sometimes keeping them awake in the dark of night. Their constant worry is whether or not they have done all that they possibly can. They wonder what is really most important for preparing their charges for life. Is a laundry list of knowledge and skills enough, or is there actually something more important than grades and test scores? What is the recipe, the correct ingredients, the proper method for putting a life together?

This past weekend I was with two extraordinary educators and a student who is on the brink of launching her career after spending most of her life learning. We spoke of our concerns about education and all agreed that what is too often missing is the opportunity to help young people develop a foundation of particular traits that will serve them well in any situation. The young lady who had once been our student is a stunning example of a process gone right. She earned a bachelors degree in psychology and immediately followed up by working toward a masters degree in clinical counseling. It has taken her almost eight years to reach her goals. In that time she has had to work as well as study. Somehow she understood the need to focus on the prize, often with great sacrifice. She adhered to an unwavering belief that God must always be first, family second and career third. All are important, but always in that order. She values life from birth until death and plans to work in palliative care at a hospital. Somehow she has made her journey appear to be easy, but we know that it was not. She had the same kind of stresses and problems that all humans have. perhaps even more, and yet she was able to overcome them and remain healthy, optimistic and kind. What we wondered gave her the courage and confidence that she must have needed on many different occasions? Why was she able to find joy and success when so many falter and fail?

One hint that she humbly provided was that her core of values guide her along the way, but mostly her faith. Her heart is strong and it is her foundation. She is willing to work, and always determined to make a difference in our society. She is less concerned with grades or scores or rankings, and more inclined toward finding purpose in the things that she wants to do. In other words, she has found a passion for people and good works that motivates her to keep going even when times become difficult.

As we explored many ideas we concurred with her philosophies and noted that as educators we have the power to help our young develop a sense of meaningfulness, but all too often our jobs force us to concentrate on areas that are far less important. We become distracted and fractured and unlikely to have either the time or the energy to encourage each and every one of our students. We want to help them on a deeper basis but know that other demands cause us to fall short. It is frustrating, maddening even. We are in the trenches with society’s most important resource and all too many times we are bombarded with so much bureaucratic minutiae that we have to ignore our own instincts about what is most important in the care and guidance of our young.

I recall a workshop from long ago criticizing the American tendency to teach a vast array of concepts in a shallow manner as opposed to going deeply into a few key concepts. As a mathematics teacher I always felt as though I was in a race to keep up with all of the topics. Too many times I was forced to move ahead even when I sensed that my students had not yet mastered what they needed to know. I wondered why I had to teach them how to create a stem and leaf plot when they lacked an understanding of fractions and decimals. I felt that I was somehow contributing to the slow destruction of their confidence, I wondered if they would one day be telling people that they were not good in math because I had made them feel inadequate by ignoring their need for just a bit more time to master certain ideas.

During my career I worked in a variety of schools. The best of them created situations that allowed our students to feel as though they were members of a caring family. There were adults watching over them and helping them to develop traits that would serve them well in any situation. We taught them to work hard and be nice. We reminded them to remember and appreciate kindnesses. We urged them to leave any place where they wandered in a better state than they had found it. We rewarded character as much as grades. We taught them about wisdom and honor. We joined hands with their parents in the work of caring for them. We showed them how to rise to great expectations even as they stumbled in the process. We encouraged them to demonstrate true grit, helping them to realize that those unwilling to give up will ultimately enjoy great accomplishment and happiness. Mostly we wanted them to know that they were never alone. There would always be someone on whom they might rely.

Dialogues such as the one I enjoyed with my colleagues and a former student are commonplace among teachers. We understand how critical our roles truly are. Educational reform is happening every day in small ways inside the classrooms of the majority of dedicated individuals on whom our future depends. Teachers are changing lives one student at a time, and when they witness the fruit of their labors in the form of an adult who is ready to commence the heavy lifting of important work, they know that their efforts have not been in vain. Such a realization is a teacher’s greatest reward.