Saturday, March 23, 2002

A Few Quotes for Thought

"Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him and to let him know that you trust him." ~ Booker T. Washington

"Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come ." ~ Isaac Asimov

"The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do, never does what he can do." ~ John Stuart Mill

"Our plans miscarry if they have no aim." (?)

"When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind." ~ Seneca

"All lasting wealth comes from enriching others in some way." ~ Brian Tracy

"Out of clutter, find Simplicity." ~ (?)

"From discord, find Harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies Opportunity." ~ Albert Einstein

"Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. Unsuccessful people are always asking, 'What's in it for me?'" ~ Brian Tracy

"The starting point of all achievement is desire. Weak desire brings weak results, just as a small amount of fire makes a small amount of heat." ~ Napoleon Hill

Monday, March 4, 2002

Department Meeting

Department meeting today - Discussion of report of Southern Conference and Making Middle Grades Count:

My comments at meeting:

1. Everyone (at the top) is adding their own special ingredients to the soup and because of this we lose the ability to focus and be effective.

2. The emphasis on data makes us lose connection with the human beings we are teaching.

Glad I'm getting out. I don't want to be a part of what we're doing to kids. No one listens to the teachers in the trenches.

Friday, February 22, 2002

Absolutely the Best Dentist

This originally appeared on the Web site, American Association of School Administrators. The original link is no longer active but it was a guest column that appeared in June 2000.

Absolutely the Best Dentist


My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me. And, at 52, I've still got all my teeth.

When I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the state’s new initiative to help him succeed in his work. I knew he'd think it was great.

"Did you hear about the new state program to measure the effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said.

"No," he responded. "How will they do that?"

"It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14 and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better," I said. "Poor dentists who don’t improve could lose their licenses to practice in South Carolina."

"That's terrible," he said.

"That's not a good attitude," I told him. "Don't you think we should try to improve children's dental health in this state?"

"Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."

"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

"Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don’t all work with the same clientele? So much depends on things we can’t control.

"For example," he went on, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don’t bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don't get to do much preventive work.

"Also, many of the parents I serve have allowed their kids to consume way too much candy and soda from an early age, unlike more-educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay.

"To top it all off," he continued, "so many of my clients have well water that is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

On the Defensive

"It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. I couldn't believe my dentist would be so defensive. He does a great job.

"I am not!" he protested. "My best patients are as good as anyone's, my work is as good as anyone's, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists because I chose to work where I am needed most."

"Don't get touchy," I said.

"Touchy?" he said. His face had turned the color of a beet. From the way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was afraid he was going to damage his teeth.

"Try furious," he raged. "In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average or worse. My more-educated patients who see these ratings may believe this so-called state rating actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I’ll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"

"I think you are overreacting," I said, turning to some printed material about the new statewide accountability program. "'Complaining, excuse making and stonewalling won't improve dental health.' That was straight from a leading member of the DOC."

"What's the DOC?" my dentist asked.

"It's the Dental Oversight Committee, a group made up mostly of laypersons to ensure dentistry in this state gets improved," I explained.

"Spare me," he said. "I can't believe this. Reasonable people won’t buy it," he said with hope.

Help at Hand

The program still sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"

"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."

"That's too complicated and time consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."

"That's what I'm afraid my parents and prospective patients will think. This can't be happening," he said.

"Now, now," I said, "don't despair. The state will help you."

"How?" he asked.

"If you're rated poorly, they'll send a dentist who is rated excellent to help straighten you out," I said brightly.

"You mean," he said, "they'll send a dentist with a wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had much more experience? Big help."

"There you go again." I said. "You aren't acting professionally at all."

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children’s progress without regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."

Legislative Rescue

I just shook my head sadly, but he had started to brighten. "I'm going to write my representatives and senator," he said. "I'll use the school analogy--surely they will see the point."

He walked off with that look of hope mixed with fear and suppressed anger--the same sort of look I’ve seen in the mirror a lot lately.

John Taylor is superintendent of the Lancaster County School District, P.O. Box 130, Lancaster, S.C. 29721. E-mail:

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Notes From Parents to Teachers

(Names changed to protect the guilty)

Parent note #1: (Classes were reading Beowulf.)

"Johnny absolutely cannot read the book "Beowulf," because it is totally against our religious beliefs."

My note explained that students were taught reading, writing and thinking skills during study of this book. It also explained the following concepts students learn and think about in the "Beowulf" unit:

* Characters: how they change, motivation

* Theme: good wins over evil

* Symbolism: use of light and dark

* Style and figurative language: similes, personification

* Heroism: in classic literature and in our world today (9/11 fire-fighters, Rosa Parks, etc.)

* Life lessons: physical size is not necessarily a handicap; we are all capable of having hero qualities; use of brains rather than brawn is higher level social thinking

Parent note #2: (A student, who has two straight E's in my class and says he's trying his hardest, was doing math work in my language arts class. I took it from him.)

"I understand that you took Johnny's Math HomeWork from him in your Class. I am not fully aware of what actually Happened, What I do know is We are having enough trouble getting Johnny's Grades up. You Are to return this to him at ONCE so he does not get a zero for not turning in his homework. If this ever happens again in your class you are to notify me at Once. [sic]"

Sunday, February 10, 2002

Education: Three Big Problems

Brief thoughts racing through my head during change of classes:

1. Responsibility of learner - The bottom line is that the learner must take responsibility for his/her own education. "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink." - Fault of educational system.

2. Instant gratification - Fault of society.

3. Fragmentation - Fault of society and educational system.

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Encouraging Mediocrity and More

(Warning: This is a disjointed blog from a frustrated and time-challenged teacher.)

The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do, never does what he can do.
(I don't know where this quote came from but there's an odd logic to it.)

We should be helping kids set goals rather than encouraging them to make excuses. I'm sure the original intent of special education legislation was to push kids with disabilities to do what they really can, but it has not turned out that way.

We have encouraged an attitude of mediocrity with students and we're getting what we have reaped.

* Student cannot copy a sentence from the overhead. Teacher gives student a printed copy

* Student cannot remember to bring a pen or pencil. Teacher gives student a pencil.

When 20 special education students are placed in a class of 30 students, the challenges affect all students.

Average students have difficulty with ordinary thinking skills. For example, when given a research topic, students cannot form questions about the topic. The teacher must tell students what the questions are and what specific answers to look for. Life today requires us to recognize the questions that our problems lead us to and to know how to look for the answers. I try to teach this skill in my classroom but it's a struggle. Students have lost their ability to question anything but authority.

Teaching students small things such as following directions, a skill required in real life of filling out tax forms and driving, remains a challenge. Students are told to write their first and last name, write out the date, and write their class period number on three lines in the upper right hand corner of each paper. Some students are still not doing this! Students are told to use only dark blue or black ink...not gel pens and peacock colors...some students continue to do this in spite of getting no credit for it. (Those strange colors tax my failing eyes, especially when I'm grading 150 papers.)

If we are to remain a strong nation, we need people who can reach for the impossible and do what they can.

We are turning out students who say:

* I can't do that because my IEP (individual education plan) says you have to do this for me."

* "I don't want to do it that way. I can read orange gel pen on notebook paper so you, the teacher, have to read it and give me credit."

* "Why did you take off points for not dotting my 'i's'?" The teacher explains that most of their vocabulary words were "qui" words and if the student doesn't dot the i's, the teacher doesn't know if the student wrote "qiu" or "qui." "But you know what I meant."

* "Why did you take off points for my spelling in my assignment? That sucks. What difference does it make?"

Parents now tell their children they don't have to serve detention because they disagree with the teacher.

Parents tell teachers to change the grade because their children deserve a higher grade.

I give students a grade on merely coming to class and trying to learn! That's what education has boiled down to! I give them credit for bringing their notebooks and pens and making an attempt to do their work no matter whether the answers are right or wrong. Students come to me, very proud..."I brought my notebook today." "I did my homework last night." They look at this as behavior that should be rewarded...behavior that should automatically be expected...

When I was in elementary school, I was given textbooks and told to cover them at home. Now, not only do we provide them with book covers (with advertising), but we take class time to instruct them in how to cover their books. If teachers do not do this, the next day half of the students will come to class:

* "We didn't have any bags (newspapers, etc.) at home to cover the book."

* "I can't cover books."

* "Why do we have to cover our books? That sucks."

I've been grading papers this afternoon and am still amazed at how slow these kids are! Example: They have to read the Shirley Jackson story "Charles." Sometimes students fail to make even the simplest connections in their thinking.

In "Charles," Laurie is the main character. When students first saw the name, they assumed Laurie was a girl, which is understandable. However, students did not connect the pronouns to adjust their thinking. For example, the first sentence begins, "The day Laurie started kindergarten, he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt. I watched him go off the first morning…He came home the same way…" Also, one of the test questions asks, "How would you handle a boy like Laurie?"

Some students failed to connect that there was no Charles and that Laurie made up the name as he told his parents about a bad boy named Charles in his kindergarten class. They didn't see a parallel between Laurie's new bad behavior at home and fictitious Charles. Finally, when at the end of the story, the teacher tells Laurie's mother that there is no Charles in kindergarten, some students didn't recognize that this was significant while others didn't understand why the teacher would say this after all the stories that Laurie told.

This is the slowest bunch of kids I've ever taught--and the most apathetic. I can take genuine low IQ kids and work with them but the attitudes ("That's stupid taking giving me a low grade for not spelling right. What difference does it make?) that go along with it are frustrating. They don't even bother to copy correctly. I've even tried giving them answers to see what they would do and they don't care enough to take advantage of that gift. These are 7th graders who misspell words like mouther, whent, etc. They don't know what syllables are or that the pronoun I should always be capitalized. Sometimes when I correct them, they respond, "But this is the way I do it" as if that justifies doing things wrong. They don't understand cursive and don't follow directions. I tell them that I (along with the other teachers on our team) want them to head their papers a certain way and, instead of just doing it, they question it and want to know why. I explain that when teachers are dealing with a lot of papers to grade, it makes our job easier to be able to identify information quickly. Now, when the questions continue, I've resorted to saying, "Because your teacher told you to." (something I always said I wouldn't do!)

We're supposed to be teaching students higher level thinking skills when they don't even have the academic and social foundation necessary for success!

I started teaching in 1967 in Baltimore City, left in 1975 and returned in 1988 to teaching in Anne Arundel County. During this span of time, I've seen many changes in education and students. One thing that really distresses me is that every year I'm able to do less with students because they don't come to me with necessary skills. Every year it takes longer to cover the same material and much of it I have to drop because students are not able to handle it. Every year, I have to water down content and use more and more scaffolding. Right now I'm teaching the 7th grade unit on humor. My students are able to understand slapstick only for the most part and I'm trying to elevate them to understanding verbal humor, etc. They complain that they have to think too much.

Much of this problem I blame on the mindset of our society. Seventh graders today have grown up in an instant gratification society where if they don't receive instant gratification, they won't bother with it. Teachers know that learning is not instant gratification, but a long and sometimes painful process that unfolds very slowly sometimes. And I blame the mindset of our educational systems that has taken the responsibility for learning out of the learners' hands. By doing this, we've removed a crucial element in the process of learning.