Schools - American Public Education Problems

System Problems

  • A discussion of who has Authority in a Classroom.
  • And a lead-in to the follow-up second presentation of a American Public Education Solutions Improving the American Public School System Inexpensively Three-Parallel-School system

The modern American educational system is filled with an assortment of problems. Many students are not learning much at all. Most students are graduating with less knowledge and capability than similar students in other industrialized countries. Classroom disruptions are surprisingly common, and in some Classrooms, nearly continuous. School violence is rampant, including the many violent incidents we all hear about in the news. Even violence and other incidents on school buses is a tremendous problem.

What is the answer?

In general, the common approaches are to throw money at the problems, and for distant Bureaucrats to establish very broad guidelines and laws, as though they fully understand the complex situations well enough to solve INDIVIDUAL problems of students in the system. A Bureaucrat learns of one specific student's situation, and decides to invoke universal absolute restrictions on millions of students as a result. Does ANYONE think that is logical? Regarding performance issues, the Teachers are generally singly blamed, where none of the Bureaucrats who had created foolish structures are ever seen as responsible and so better selection of Teachers and better Teacher training are always what are publicly called for. Regarding violence, metal detectors and uniformed police officers roaming the halls are considered to be the common "solution." In addition, everyone demands newer, bigger, more advanced school complexes.

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This concept was developed in 1989. This presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1998.

These are all bureaucratic attempts at solutions for problems that arise on a very individual basis. Essentially, some bureaucratic "expert" in an ivory tower somewhere believes that he/she has a universal solution for a problem which he/she never actually faced in a Classroom. Such "experts" have no idea of the emotions that erupt in the Classroom, including in the Teacher, when violent behavior begins. It is a peculiar and frustrating situation to be a Teacher a few feet away from two fighting students, knowing that even touching either one of them could send you to jail. I doubt if many of the "experts" know that feeling.

Such "top-down" approaches to establishing a peaceful and safe and productive environment in the classroom have little chance of ever succeeding. Each student is an individual. Each teacher is an individual. They should all be treated like individuals, with whatever amount of respect they each personally deserve, rather than as cattle in enormous herds. You might as well take their names away now and just give them numbers, because the American Public Education System is essentially telling them that they have little importance as individuals, and they better behave like the rest of the herd if they want to avoid being in trouble. Is THIS the way young people should be "controlled"? I hope not. Is THAT the way to prepare then to become quality adults? I hope not. Such authoritarian and bureaucratic structures and attitudes diminish whatever creativity and zest everyone brings to the table. Don't I recall that this country was BUILT on the creativity and diversity of early settlers? So why should we move in directions of Schools being "armed camps" where any behavior that is "different" is subject to question and doubt and possible punishment?

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Whoever came up with No Child Left Behind was clearly a good slogan-maker, but whoever tried to think up how it was to work seems to have demonstrated that he/she was a PRODUCT of a failed educational system! In one fell swoop, they managed to absolutely eliminate ALL CREATIVITY in all (public) classrooms. No Teacher is now allowed to actually Teach any personalized perspectives or enthusiasms, because such efforts would be WASTING time which is now supposed to be spent to prepare the students to do well on ONE SINGLE STANDARDIZED TEST. A Teacher is no longer a Teacher but simply an information coach, constantly pounding the same few concepts and themes that WILL appear on the Standardized Test! It is foolish for any Teacher to ever now spend any time in CREATING his/her own quizzes or tests, because they are all given the ACCEPTED quizzes and tests that have been approved as being focused on those specific subjects that will be on the Standardized Tests. And can any Student have any creative thought? No, such things MUST be quashed, because they also distract from the single function of the American Public Education System today, to score well on the Standardized Tests. And in case all that wasn't restrictive enough, ALL Public Schools KNOW that whether they get government funding (which is most of their budget) depends 100% on how well their students do on those Standardized Tests. So, in case School was not boring enough for students, and it is for many, the fact that NCLB forces an absolute uniformity of handling all students, makes sure that the better students will NEVER face any interesting challenges! And those smarter students are smart enough to see that the Teachers now all spend nearly all their time and effort on the poorest students. The smart kids WILL do OK on the Standardized Tests, so why waste any time in working with them? No, instead, spend thirty times as much time with the High School kid who never even learned to read at First Grade level, because THAT kid could screw up the class results in the Standardized Tests. Could anything be WORSE than the idiotic system that is applied that is called NCLB? Even though the CONCEPT behind NCLB was very admirable?


Considering the tens of thousands of (Public) Schools in America, the total financial cost of each of the proposed "top-down" approaches is staggering. And, unfortunately, the likely benefit of each of these approaches is minimal. Yes, metal detectors at School entrances might keep most weapons out of the School buildings, and uniformed full-time paid Police Officers walking the halls might lessen the number of violent incidents. What would keep an angry, vindictive adolescent from then waiting outside, as happened several years ago in the South, where some kids waited outside with weapons to pick off children leaving school? All of the expensive solutions suggested have similar likelihood of success. They may reduce some aspects of symptoms of a problem, but a related, different problem will arise as a result, such that very little real advantage actually results. The fact that Bureaucrats who invariably create the universal rules and laws they impose, have rarely ever been IN a classroom in many decades, and rarely have the slightest clue of the reality which exists.

I find a similar situation already existing in most Courthouse buildings today. A few incidents of violence had occurred in Courtrooms over the years, so Laws were passed where Courthouses now have metal detectors and a lot of Security Personnel. This is VERY expensive! Is it for OUR benefit, to keep us safer in the building? Apparently not, because people are still shot outside such buildings. The Judges are probably safer now, especially since they look so different out of their robes and since they enter and leave the building by separate private entrances. But the millions of dollars of expense for every one of those large public buildings has almost no benefit for the public. And it has a tremendous downside attached to it. I personally do not like to have to do any business in such buildings, because of the over-bearing feeling of military-style authority that seems to pervade the environment there. It is also clear that many of the Security Personnel definitely enjoy their ability to harass and intimidate anyone they choose, including frisking and body-searching people with essentially no actual reason. I also don't enjoy the mere THREAT of being frisk searched, under the assumption that I am a potential criminal. I am NOT a criminal, in fact, I have been a Pastor of a Christian Church for many years, yet that system seems to REQUIRE each person to somehow PROVE THEIR INNOCENCE! Isn't America supposed to be based on the ASSUMPTION of being innocent UNTIL being PROVEN GUILTY of something? Don't they have it backwards at Airports and Courthouses and Schools? To initially ASSUME that everyone entering a building is dangerous and guilty is a horrific thing for society, and especially for the educational environments for young minds.

Is that the environment that would be conducive to young minds being open and receptive to new educational ideas? Not a chance! Instead, it foments an atmosphere that minimizes creative thought or intellectual growth, very much like our military branches INTENTIONALLY do during boot camp or basic training. As soon as metal detectors and an obvious police presence exist, the light, airy environment necessary to effective learning experience evaporates.

As it happens, I was both a student and then later a Teacher at Thornridge High School in Dolton, Illinois. As a student, I happened to win First Place in the Illinois State Science Fair, which the High School took to be something significant. They mounted a Brass Plaque with my name and that accomplishment on the wall of the hallway of the Science Building. I was later an effective and respected Science Teacher in that same building a few years later. At a later time in my life, I happened to pass near Dolton and decided to see if the Plaque was still there (and whether the Teacher's Cafeteria still made a delicious lunch meal!) I barely entered the door before three Armed Security Guards surrounded me and demanded that I lie down on the floor! They didn't ask a single question and simply issued that demand! It was clear that I was about to be seriously beaten! So I repeated over and over that I used to be a Teacher there and that I wanted to be taken to the Administrative Office (where they might still have recognized me as a prior Teacher). The Security Guards would NOT take me to the Administrative Office, and my only option was to talk to them. Since they clearly were looking for some entertainment in beating up an elderly white man, there was no future in that. Since I was only two steps inside the School building, they eventually decided that they would let me back up and leave, as my ONLY available choice! I have no idea if there is still a Brass Plaque honoring me in that School, and I never again had the slightest interest in ever knowing. (I was immediately aware that if I had been an elderly BLACK man and they had been young WHILE security men, they would have immediately been put in prison for what they did to me that day, and I probably would have won millions in a Civil Rights legal action! Sometimes, there are severe disadvantages of being a white man!) It could not have been any more of a Military Camp environment. I was GLAD that I was no longer a Teacher, as I could never Teach under those conditions, and I REALLY was glad that I was no longer a student, as I would have been in permanent fear OF THE SECURITY GUARDS, in addition to whatever threats that they believed existed that they were paid to overwhelm. I was NOT impressed!

IF you work in an office somewhere, do you think you'd get your work done as efficiently if you continuously saw an armed Police Officer out of the corner of your eye, often staring at you with the apparent expectation that you might be about to do something illegal or dangerous? You might for a little while, out of a fear factor. But, soon, you would likely have an indescribable feeling similar to paranoia, whether regarding the permanent reminder of the possible threat the Officer is supposed to thwart, or because of his presence itself. Your clarity of thinking, your creativity, your overall efficiency, your learning of new skills, would all certainly degrade. Just because he was there.

This is the real world. Bad things sometimes happen. There are bad people. In principle, we could each hire a dozen permanent armed guards to stand outside our homes, 24/7. We could do the same for our vehicles. Is this the future we are looking toward? Or desire?

Should we live every moment of every day, dreadful of the multitudes of dangers and threats "out there"? Should we provide a Public School environment that inculcates this attitude into our young people? I hope the answers are no.

Does this mean that there is no answer to the problems?

Not at all.

I taught high school in Illinois for four years some time back, before I started my manufacturing business. I might have stayed in Teaching, if it hadn't been for one characteristic that was in the process of change about then. When I had been a student, the locus of authority in every Classroom was in the Teacher. Both the Teacher and (the majority of) the students KNEW that the Teacher was virtually God in that Classroom. The students certainly had no authority there, and, in a sense, seemed to have few rights, except those graciously permitted by the Teacher. School administrations, parents, society, all believed in and supported that environment. It may not always have been perfect, but it allowed for reasonably consistent learning to occur in classrooms.

Students all KNEW that if they did anything bad in Class, the Teacher might call their Father, and the consequences at home could be really undesirable.

These days, people look back on those days as the "Dark Ages" of Teaching! It was certainly true that a rare Teacher would take advantage of the vast authority he/she held, and a few bad things DID happen to some children. Granted! However, most Teachers comprehended the importance and the responsibility given them in that position. After all, society and the parents WERE handing the children to those Teachers to mold their minds, and what could be more important than that? Wouldn't it also seem appropriate to put total trust in the Teachers' judgments regarding social, moral, and ethical issues that arose in that classroom? To enable and empower each Teacher to establish personal and possibly unique behavioral guidelines that would apply whenever anyone was within that specific classroom?

Aren't there rogue Cops who break laws, steal drugs and guns and money captured as Evidence? Do we therefore ASSUME that all Police are horrific people who cannot ever be trusted? No. We CHOOSE to still trust Police, ASSUMING that there are methods in place to weed out the bad seeds.

Doesn't a similar situation apply in the workplace in privately owned companies? Doesn't the boss/owner set an assortment of rules, to which each employee must comply? In most cases, this is done to establish organization and structure and consistency in the operations of that company. (In rare cases, it is because of some character flaw in the boss/owner.) Most employees tend to stay in such environments, and comply with the existing rules. A few choose to leave, to look for some other company that has rules that seem more personally compatible. Some are successful at finding such an alternative, some are not.

The Locus of Classroom Authority Has Changed!

A lot of civil rights proponents and groups have altered the environment in each Classroom. Even while I was Teaching, it was beginning. Where, in the "Dark Ages", the Teacher and the students all accepted without doubt the broad authority of the Teacher in that single Classroom, no one presently believes that. The students wield the majority of the true authority in any modern Classroom. The Teacher may appear to be in charge or in control, but that is only the case as the students choose to let him/her. The most important aspect of this is that the students know this!

Every modern student knows that, no matter what he/she does in a Classroom, the Teacher is NEVER allowed to strike, discipline or even touch the student. This is effectively a carte blanche for many students to act without any control. If a student who knows this fact decides to start talking, or yell, or throw something, or get up and walk or run around, what can the Teacher do? Not a whole lot! Multiply this by ten, in an over-crowded Class of forty students, and you have a zoo!

The most troublesome aspect of this is the amazing breadth of this situation. In the great majority of Public School Classrooms, enough of the students know this reality of the situation, to cause this to happen on a daily basis. Yes, some were taught respect for elders by their parents, and they behave. But many today are never taught such things. Instead, they are taught that being a bully can have advantages, and that unless someone truly shows an ability to indicate true physical danger, essentially any behavior can be gotten away with. How could ANY Teacher Teach under those circumstances? How could the children who were actually there to learn, ever learn much under those circumstances?

It is popular to blame the Teachers for poor academic performance of students. It is popular to blame school administrations for the rampant violence and disorder that exists in their hallways and Classrooms. No one ever seems to blame the children for acting uncontrollably. Or to do anything about it! But since political leaders and Lawyers have tied the hands of Teachers and Administrators regarding these matters (in deference to the Civil Rights of the students), there is not much they could do to solve or even alleviate the many problems of Public Schools.

As I said, the beginnings of these changes were occurring while I taught. Before school began one Autumn, the Principal spent nearly an hour in an address to all Teachers, emphasizing that we must never even suggest corporal punishment or strike or even touch any student. He made a big point that some Teacher (somewhere) had just been put in Prison for a number of years, for slapping or using a ruler on the knuckles of a student. I have always been a very mild-mannered person, where I have always tried to treat all others with respect. Even before this news was generally known, my students knew that I was not likely to enforce any much discipline. The great majority chose to behave well, but an occasional disruptive or hyperactive student could destroy the opportunity for all to learn. All I wanted is that they all BELIEVED I HAD THE OPTION OF TRYING TO EXERCISE CONTROL! (and that I could get access to their parent's phone number!)

Fortunately, many of my students appreciated my quiet and calm and respectful Teaching style. They also liked that I kept Science interesting and exciting (much like Bill Nye, the Science Guy, does now on television). As it happens, a number of the athletes on the high school basketball and football teams came to really like me, and some would attend my Classes, whether or not they were scheduled to do so. In one such Class, a couple students were acting up one day, and I was getting frustrated at not having the opportunity to Teach. (These students had all previously seen the news and knew that the School publicly announced that no Teacher would ever be allowed to touch, strike or discipline any student.) A huge (300-pound) Lineman from the football team (named Art Riley) suddenly stood up and calmly said to me that he would make a point to "meet with" the two students after school to "discuss" the matter. He also later mentioned that if I had any similar problems in any of my other classes, that he would "speak with" those students as well.

I was a little sad to see that one of the troublesome students came in the next day with a black eye. But this incident had remarkable effect! During the remainder of that School year and all of the next (while that Football student was then a Senior), I had virtually NO disruptions in any Class! I accomplished a LOT of productive teaching! (After he graduated and went to play football for the University of Southern California, my classes again had a few disruptions. Art Riley later became a star player in the NFL.)

I was very fortunate to have that student establish a situation where I was actually allowed to be in authority in my Classroom! Well. "I" was not actually in authority, he was! The benefits were wonderful, for me, for the students, for education. As far as I know, that football player never actually injured anyone on my behalf, and no one ever mentioned the apparent black eye to me, but just the possibility accomplished the desired behavior improvement. In ALL my classes! Where the students had previously felt no reason to use self-restraint, now they chose to. Interesting! The grapevine worked very efficiently that time!

One of the more interesting aspects of this whole subject is that the majority of my students seemed to have respect for me and knew I respected them. The few that were disruptive were just apparently responding to being in an environment where they perceived (correctly, unfortunately) that NO rules of conduct actually existed!

We see the same situation in families where parents either do not know how to control and discipline their children or they choose not to. Guests observe children that do not recognize any authority figure and who behave in uncontrollable behaviors. The parents often then say that they just do not know how to make them behave. Or they blame such aberrant behavior on some alleged birth defect or some bad medicine, or anything other than themselves. The parents in such families might think they have authority but they do not. The children quickly learn that no significant discipline will occur for any behavior, and they soon learn that they can "get away" with absolutely any behavior. Even when yelled at, they know that a few minutes later, the freedom to do anything will again apply.

Since many modern children see this situation at home, and equally at Public School, is it any wonder that they grow up with no respect for authority? Where would they have learned to have respect for ANYONE? Including Police, the possessions of others, the rights of others? Essentially, we are training many children to have a mentality that inspires a criminal approach to life.

On a related subject, I do not believe in spanking or other corporal punishment for children, even by parents, especially since the parent/adult is often emotional during such incidents and might cause injury as a result. HOWEVER, I believe all children should believe in the POSSIBILITY of such punishment, for certain well-specified infractions. This is associated with establishing the locus of authority in such a relationship. I was never spanked while I was growing up, but I very clearly knew that if I did certain things (stealing, intentionally hurting someone, or a few other things) I was certain to be spanked. There was never any doubt in my mind about who had the authority. My father did. Even though he never needed to spank me, the very possibility of that happening was very important in defining exactly where the authority lay.

Most Police officers carry handguns and other weapons, not with the hope or intent that they will ever use them, but to assist in confirming their authority in any situation. In the distant past, many Officers did not even carry weapons, because respect for their authority was high and no one would have ever challenged a Police Officer. Scenarios such as television's Mayberry and Sheriff Andy Taylor were the norm. Similarly, the Teachers in Mayberry-like towns seldom had discipline problems with the children. Children understood the great power and authority that every Teacher had in the classroom and considered them to be on a par with Police Officers.

That was probably a good perception. Both have been given some very important responsibilities, for our safety and the education of our children. It would seem that we should probably grant them both similar abilities to establish respect and authority in the community. This is not to suggest that Teachers should be allowed to bring weapons to the Classroom! (Texas apparently passed a Law to permit that, as well as students now also being allowed to carry concealed handguns to Class. Unbelievable!) Rather, they should be given the public trust to carry their responsibility as they generally see fit. Certainly, peer review is appropriate and various safeguards must be in place, as they are for Police Officers. We allow Officers to carry handguns but we carefully train them to always remain calm and prudent, then trusting their judgment in each situation. We should do the same with Public School Teachers. Trust them. We already trust them with the subjects that they teach to children. We should trust their judgment on whether or how they individually choose to establish discipline in their classroom, without asking questions unless truly horrendous reports come from the students.

Conclusion

Parents and government should and must be able to have total trust in the Teachers of the children. In a Classroom, it is crucially important that everyone present have a clear understanding that the Teacher is in control and has all the authority. Within that Classroom, the students, although being American citizens with rights, should have the impression that they have no rights except those granted by the Teacher. This sounds tremendously harsh, but it doesn't have to be. Much of the basis of the attitudes of the Teacher and students is created outside the Classroom, by the School Administration, by the parents, and by politicians who make laws governing the situation.

As long as students know that public policy is that the Teacher is not allowed to do many things related to discipline, many of those students will never learn personal discipline and they will instead learn patterns of selfishness and total independence to all authority. Such people, as adults, represent problems for employers, spouses, children, police, and most others, because they never had to face accountability or responsibility for their actions. Until Teachers are individually allowed the right to establish the absolute rules for their Classroom, many children will learn to disrespect authority and to develop patterns of uncontrolled behavior.

In other words, the solutions to most of the litany of problems of the public education system could all be found in publicly announcing a renewed respect and trust in the judgment of all public school Teachers. Then, each should be truly trusted to create a unique teaching environment in his/her own classroom. AND, they should each then be publicly backed up!

The rapport between student and Teacher would improve rapidly, because kids respect someone that actually stands for something. Additionally, after each Teacher creates a Classroom environment that has few disruptions (however each Teacher actually accomplishes that situation) much more productive learning will certainly occur, quickly raising Iowa test scores and actual learning. Students generally only spend one school year with each particular Teacher, and in many large Schools, only have specific Teachers for an hour during each School day. Each student will therefore get a chance to see MANY Teachers' various ways of establishing order and discipline. Some of those methods, they will find acceptable. Others, they will find distasteful. The net effect is that each student will learn a diversity of methods from a cross-section of many Teachers. The theory being, that each student will both understand and respect authority (by it being imposed on them) and also that they be exposed to a range of methods such that they might make a good choice for their own life behavior. Later in life, each of the students will occasionally be in a position where THEY will represent authority, so it's best if they have developed a personal method of defining their own authority.

After most of the students have come to understand discipline and rules and authority and order and respect, the number of incidents of violence in schools and in society should drop drastically. Rather than needing metal detectors and an obvious Police presence, School environments could be even safer while being open and airy, such that intellectual creativity and growth is possible and encouraged.

THEN, even better things could happen! As individual students see their own capabilities appearing to improve, many will develop an improved self-worth, and they'll be with the program even more! Thus, the effects of better test scores and better behavior in the schools can be self-perpetuating!

There is an additional thing that a School Systems could do that would enhance the effects of this even more. It is considered very old-fashioned to teach the "three R's". It has become much more fashionable to teach small amounts about MANY subjects, like social subjects like discriminations. That might have value, but when it is at the expense of the basics, it is a mistake. Tremendous amounts of repetition are necessary to firmly embed basic skills and knowledge in a child's (or person's) mind. Did you learn the alphabet because it was shown to you once? Not a chance! COUNTLESS repetitions were necessary before you came to proficiently shoot through the alphabet. The multiplication table? Spelling? A re-emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic would fit in excellently with this general improvement of the American education system.

There is also another improvement that appears to have enormous potential benefit for the American Public School System. It is in a unique DIVISION of the students of a School District into THREE physically separate Schools. I sometimes refer to one as RUDE (which would primarily have students who had not learned or did not recognize standard socially accepted behaviors. I refer to another of the three Schools as CALM because the students attending there would virtually never disrupt a Teacher's lesson or otherwise damage the educational environment. And I refer to the third as being in between, Median, where most students might attend. The central feature of this premise is that NO intelligence or ability or Test Scores would have any involvement in which School any student could attend, and indeed, each student would always be free to Submit a Request for Transfer to either of the other two Schools at any time, and nearly all such requests would likely be granted.

The CALM School would likely have a virtually ideal Teaching environment, where a wide diversity of students were present and they' were all usually paying attention and motivated to try to learn.

The follow-up second half of this presentation, which discusses this three-school concept in depth, is linked here, which is entirely based on the reasoning of this presentation. American Public Education Solutions Improving the American Public School System Inexpensively An Inexpensive Way to Greatly Improve the Public School System, centered on Student Behaviors, Three Behavior-Based Schools in a District (first developed in 1989, and first placed on the Internet in 1998)


More Traditional Problems

I was only a High School Teacher for four years. However, I am a very observant and thoughtful person and I noticed things! Here are some brief comments about some of them, which are all more Organizational in nature.

I was somewhat unique in not having gotten a College Degree in Teaching, as mine was in Nuclear Physics. So it turned out that there were many things that I was either not aware of or very minimally aware of. One would have thought that there might have been someone assigned to aid me in becoming a good Teacher, but the reality was that I was completely on my own! NO ONE ever came into my classroom during the first three and a half years, except for once, when my Science Department Chairman came into my classroom and stood at the back for around two minutes and then he left. Since HE was the person who had gotten the School to agree to let me start teaching without the traditional education (after all there was a Brass Plaque on the hallway wall just outside his Office that was regarding me having won the Illinois State Science Fair), it was probably unlikely that he would have ever had anything critical to say regarding my Teaching! The odd reference above to three-and-a-half years was because I had been required to gradually take some Teaching Courses at a Community College, and I finally had to do Student Teaching during the last half of my fourth year of Teaching! And who had been chosen as my Adviser? The man who I had taught to Teach Physics during the previous year! Again, not much chance of me ever hearing anything critical from him!

The point here is that, in the event that I had been a really lousy Teacher, there was no method in place where the School Administration would have ever been aware of it! The Teacher who happened to have the room across the hall from my classroom, was defined as a Chemistry Teacher. It seemed to me that there were some problems! He was Greek and he had a truly extreme accent, where even I and the other Teachers often had great difficulty in figuring out what he would say, in the Cafeteria or in or Department Meetings. I wondered how kids would be able to learn Chemistry from him when they clearly had to invest so much effort in simply understanding what he would say. I became very close to many of my students and I occasionally asked about that, as they had all taken Chemistry with that Teacher the year before in order to qualify to take Physics with me. Many of them just laughed, and they admitted they rarely knew what he was talking about! Fortunately, they were smart and motivated students and they were willing to read the (fairly good) Chemistry textbook, and do the homework problems that they COULD understand which he would write on the blackboard! Still, I was not in any position of authority to tell the Administration how they should hire and monitor Teachers, so I just watched such things. I once asked that Teacher what University he had studied Chemistry at, and he informed me that he had never studied Chemistry, even in his High School, so he read the same textbook that his students were using. At least a dozen different Teachers mentioned essentially the same situation, where they would often laugh at simply having to stay at least a day ahead of their students. It immediately seemed to me that IF any student had a creative thought and asked a question which had not already been covered in the textbook, such Teachers who had never studied the subjects they were now expected to Teach, had no possible way of answering their question. EXCEPT by the common response of ALL Teachers in MAKING UP something that SOUNDED GOOD. (I will always remember in about Third Grade when I asked the Teacher why I felt hot air coming out from behind our kitchen refrigerator. She INSTANTLY answered, but with such a poorly made response that even my eight-year-old brain knew that she was absolutely wrong!)

I also knew one English Teacher who seemed to be proud of regularly using the hallucinogenic drug LSD. I never asked him whether he was ever affected while he was Teaching, but I think that was very likely. Clearly, no one ever oversaw him either! Our High School was huge, and there were around 350 Teachers. Maybe that is the excuse for having some Teachers who were clearly incapable of doing useful Teaching. I certainly was aware of well over 300 Teachers who seemed to truly care about their students and their subject, and like most Teachers, they clearly did wonderful jobs of Teaching. So my comments here are about what seemed clearly a small fraction of the Teachers there. Still, if Administrators feel that Students should be permitted Zero Tolerance about many things, I really wanted to speak up to try to weed out some really bad, and in some cases, really incompetent, Teachers. But I DID learn very early on that what my goal should be was to make it through TWO YEARS of Teaching, because then I would AUTOMATICALLY have Tenure, meaning I would have a Teaching job for life! So I realized that for me to speak up regarding some other Teacher's incompetence could never result in that Teacher being censured or fired, and as I had then not yet received my own Tenure, it probably would have resulted in ME being fired, maybe for being a troublemaker!

There was a Shop Teacher who seemed friendly enough, but his capability to form sentences in the Teacher's Lounge always made me wonder if he had to sign his paychecks with an X! He sometimes sat in in our card games in the Lounge, and he seemed to often have great difficulty in understanding basic rules of simple common card games, and his comments on other subjects always seemed extremely uninformed. I didn't do this because I knew it would be very cruel to do, but I was sometimes tempted to ask him what the name of the President was, or the Capital of Illinois, or such things. I truly doubted that he had any idea on such things. Could he have completed College to receive a Degree? It boggled my mind? Could he have taught Shop? I suppose so, but I always felt that he probably had to MAKE UP answers to many student's questions. But many students were very intelligent and very observant. One simply told me one day that there were some Teachers who no questions should be asked! He and I both laughed, because in ALL of my classes, I tried to cause EVERY brain in the classroom to be active, and I would try to involve them all in "challenges". Like pointing out my classroom window at the City Water Tower and asking the class how tall it is, or how they could tell me on the following day. I WANTED them to have a dozen different answers! Go to the City Hall and ask? Find out what company had built the water tower and call them. Get all the kids in a class to go over to the water tower and stand on each others' shoulders, and add up their heights. Find out what company had painted the name of the City on the tower and find out how tall the letters were, and work from there. And, of course, there were always students who had read our textbook and had learned about "similar triangles" and they gave the sort of answer that a Teacher smiles about!

So if a kid happened to know someone who was a Surveyor, maybe his brain would be thinking along the lines of hiring a Surveyor with a Transit, and letting him do the triangles stuff! I saw ALL such answers to be wonderful! I wanted my students to know that just because I thought I knew some RIGHT ANSWER, there are probably lots more of equally right answers! But sometimes a student would ask to use the chalk, and would draw something on the blackboard while he described his method for that day's challenge! I would sometimes notice that he had made some serious error and his method would not work, but I rarely would say anything. But some kid would raise his or her hand, and ask me whether that line in that drawing could be as the previous student had described. I would then often ask the second student if there was a better presentation, and he or she would get the chalk and go to it. The kids LOVED this! Instead of ME "announcing" correct answers, I expected THEM to see when one of them had made a mistake! The first kid would often have the opportunity to defend his comments. But sometimes there would be six kids with hands desperately waving in the air, wanting to be heard! LOTS OF ACTIVE BRAINS! Which I considered to be a central purpose of why I was trying to Teach. Yes, I knew that many Teachers simply state facts that the students were expected to memorize. The alphabet? Absolutely! But I thought I saw value in the students BEING ABLE TO THINK and not just memorize!

I hope these anecdotes make that distinction clear.

It is darkly amusing to me that by the Testing structure that was imposed by No Child Left Behind, I would have been fired for "wasting time" in trying to get my students to THINK! NOTHING is to interfere with modern Teachers getting students to MEMORIZE THE ANSWERS to the essentially known questions that the students will be asked when that School is Evaluated! I have sometimes wondered if my students would have done very well in the extremely structured tests used today. My Physics students certainly did extremely well on the tests which were provided with the PSSC Physics textbook and Curriculum. Every test had 35 questions, each of which had five multiple choices. If a student (or a chimpanzee) simply chose the same letter for all 35 questions, he/she probably would have gotten around 7 correct. Usually, the grading curve that was provided had 9 as qualifying as a D. And around 22 correct was usually an A. Apparently, the textbook suppliers had determined that such numbers generally gave 10% A's and 10% F's, 20% B's and D's, and 40% C's, the desired Gaussian distribution. My students tended to get nearly all A's, and it was fairly rare that any of my students got lower than a B. THAT got me into trouble! One day, several men in suits showed up during my Physics classes and they stood in the back of the room. I later learned that they were from the company that had provided the PSSC textbooks, and the had DECIDED that I was somehow cheating by giving test answers to the students! (I even TOLD my students that those men who had visited did not think that they were as smart as they were! The men came back on a test day, and I think they switched the tests, apparently expecting my students to mostly fail for having wrong stolen answers! Nope! I think the students wanted to make a point that day, and I believe that all but one got A's that day! The boy who ONLY got a B was kidded by his classmates. The visiting men decided to grade those tests, while they were still in my classroom (although my students had gone to a different Class by then.) It was fun to see them quietly discussing results that they could not comprehend!

I have always liked to think that the fact that I tried to get my students to have ACTIVE BRAINS, and to actually develop the capability of THINKING, might have had some effect. I do not recall any of the students having been named Einstein, but I know they were central in blowing the doors off those bureaucrats' attitudes about students! My effect was probably relatively minimal. DID I ever need to present Advanced Relativity to them? No. Or Nuclear Resonance? No. I certainly could have tried, as I knew those subject well. But I like to think that THE STUDENTS had grown in BEING EXPECTED to learn how to work at thinking through problems and solutions. I have always believed that some of the best learning had occurred when a student had left a WRONG idea on the blackboard, and where it was sometimes a minute or two before some other student had thought it through and saw the error. And then seeing all those kids with arms waving in the air because THEY had figured out what was wrong and/or what was a better answer. We sometimes replaced one wrong answer with another wrong answer, and it might have sounded like a political debate when lots of students tried to talk at the same time regarding getting to an answer! I believe that it was only once that they were still struggling (with each other, mostly!) with the class period coming near an end, where I needed to make a comment. I did not ANSWER the matter they were struggling with, but their minds were so active and they had just spent half an hour trying to think it through (in 30 different ways), that I barely got my "hint" out when a dozen students all raised their hands! I remember picking a girl who had never raised her hand before, because I knew she would love the chance of telling them what they were also all thinking!

You might have realized from these comments that I "bonded" to most of my students. I wonder if such bonding is possible when a Teacher spends all day every day as a Lecturer. But my students KNEW that I felt very strongly about trying to Teach them stuff.

I always felt that a GOOD evaluation of whether I was any good as a Teacher would have been to find those students FIVE YEARS LATER, and give them one of the tests then. I tend to suspect that most (adults) would do terribly on course work of High School classes, BECAUSE I suspect that most (Lecture) Teaching fades from memory. But IF I actually had any effect on aiding my students to have LEARNED HOW TO THINK, I would like think that they might do decently well, even many years later. But that might just be an arrogant attitude of a Teacher who wants to believe that he did some good! I'll never know!


This presentation is among several different presentations meant to provide ways of improving the American public school system's performance. Here are links to the presentations:


First Developed, 1989,
First Published on the Web: Dec 14, 1998

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago
Ex-Teacher, Thornridge High School, Dolton, Illinois