Category Archives: Education

Those pertaining to my teaching career and to education today.

Merit Badge Religion

Most of us think that in some way we must do something to earn God’s love and forgiveness in order to become a Christian and qualify for heaven after we die.  I like to refer to that as “Merit Badge” religion and  it has little to do with what Jesus taught and lived.  When I was a Boy Scout leader, the boys who won the coveted rank of Eagle Scout were those who won a large number of  merit badges and completed a useful project for the community. It was what they knew and what they were able to do that won the award.  “Merit badge religion” is the result of the church being taken over by the American culture.   In this culture we attain superiority  by competing well: by being the most knowledgeable and highest educated; by improved morality and improved behavior.  We worship success in our culture  and believe that we get what  we deserve  by what we work hard for and therefore are worthy of.

We have transferred these same principles to our churches.  So to have the right informed knowledge about God; to  know the Bible through deep study  and to  behave morally and ethically according to its perceived teachings;   and to practice the  correct rites  of worship,  communion,  baptism,  plus giving our money in acts of  stewardship we will competitively qualify for heaven . We earn it.  It  is by what we know and what we do  that qualifies us.    And therein is the problem .Note I refer to it as “religion”  not “Christianity”

 

Our Christian spiritual lives and our churches are too often  based on this same sort of religious meritocracy. For example:

  • Being able to recite Bible memory verses
  • Going to church every Sunday
  • Attending Sunday school
  • Having the “correct beliefs” by understanding and defending the church’s creed
  • Being a “good” person
  •  Praying
  • Being baptized in the “correct” way
  • Taking communion
  • t These are admirable, I will concede, but none will earn us a seat at the Lord’s table in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus makes it very clear that ONLY GOD’S GRACE can do that and it has already been given to us.  All we need to do is be aware of God’s saving love and forgiveness.   It is freely given and there is no way God’s Grace can be earned.

The problem with “Merit Badge” Christianity is that it bases our entry into God’s Kingdom on what we do  and as the New Testament says and Jesus proclaimed it is all up to God’s grace.   “Merit Badge” Christianity says we must work, labor, sweat and learn, and do more to gain a place in God’s Kingdom. The opposite is true! God gives us his Kingdom. Nothing we do on our own can gain us entrance.

Jesus did not say “Blessed are the brightest and the best”

He said:   “Blessed are the poor for to them is the Kingdom of God”.

To Live is to Learn — The World Is My Classroom

For me, “to live is to learn” in the great classroom we call “the world.”  When I reach the point where this is no longer true for me it will be time for me to permanently check out of this life.

This great classroom is full of things to be learned. The physical world around me with all of its beauty and splendor;  the world of ideas in history; in philosophy; in  biography; in theology and spirituality and religion and in science. I am also constantly learning from the people I’m surrounded by and interact with.  All are also part of the great classroom I inhabit day after day.

I always have been an avid reader and my interests are varied and widespread. For example, currently I’m reading a book by Walter Brueggemann Out of Babylon that compares the Jewish exiles living under the domination system of Babylon to Christians in the U.S. living under  the domination system of American empire. Both try to answer the basic question How do we retain  our identity as Jews or Christians under the domination systems we are currently living under?   I’m  currently reading Breathing Under Water by Richard Rohr, which is about the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous applied to Christian spirituality. I just finished a biography of President George Herbert Walker Bush, The Power and the Destiny (a book on tape that was read to me, which was 625 pages in length), and another biography of John Newton, famous for his life as a slave trading sea captain and begin transformed by his conversion to Christ. He wrote the wonderful hymn Amazing Grace to describe that transformation. I’m now listening to a book on tape, The Indigenous Peoples of North America.

Besides books, I learn each day from people who visit me–my ministers, my family, my friends, my hospice team–They are all part of my classroom.

I learn from the media as they report and editorialize on the news of the day. Programs such as: PBS Newshour, Washington Week, CBS’s 60 Minutes and the morning and evening news programs.

I long ago crossed the threshold of learning because I had to do so (as at school) to learning because I loved to do so.  That is the true test of success for our educators  today.  It is “to enable children to emerge from schools with the life-long desire and love of learning, while having the tools to do so.

As students go back to classrooms this Autumn, I pray that teachers, administrators, board members and legislators keep this lofty goal always in their minds. We need to produce students who strive to and love to learn–not because it is necessary to pass some test, but because it is necessary to satisfy the craving to learn that is a trait of all people if it is not smothered out by those who are preparing them.

Where have all the teacher’s gone?

Today’s newspaper reported that the number of teachers retiring, quitting teaching for other work,  and moving out of Kansas to teach has accelerated alarmingly over the past two years.   Meanwhile enrollment in Education Courses in colleges in Kansas has dwindled.

Where have all the teacher’s gone??

That is not difficult to determine if you have been paying attention the past two years!  Low salaries might be part of the problem but that has been true for a number of years, so the source of the present problem is deeper than just low salaries as teachers have never been paid what they are worth.

At the core of the problem is the state legislature, the governor, and the state Board  Education.  They have continued to de-value the worth of teachers at every turn..

They have taken away the right to appeal dismissal by removing tenure rights for teachers,   leaving good teachers at the mercy of administrators who are on power trips and are threatened by anything but blind obedience to their dictates.

They have tried to abolish teacher’s rights to bargain for anything but salary—not to be able to bargain on classroom conditions, etc.

They have voted out the funding formula for schools  that has been developed through the years and frozen funding in block grants—-largely to avoid having to carry out the Kansas Supreme Court decision that they are acting unconstitutionally.    They have lied about the block grants to the people of Kansas,  not telling them that much of the money in the block grant is going to makeup for past legislative failures to adequately fund the teacher retirement system and that the money going to classrooms has actually been cut.

They have threatened to pass laws to allow teachers to be charged with felony offense, if they teach something the community doesn’t approve.

As a final blow, they have discounted the preparation and education that teachers possess by now trying to meet the teacher shortage by  allowing any college graduate to get a teaching credential—-even if they have never spent a day in the classroom and know nothing of how students learn or how to teach.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a teacher and think what all of the above means to him or her.  As a teacher who spent over thirty-five years in the classroom let me try to show you what the above looks like through a teacher’s eyes.

When they take away tenure it causes me to remember a high school principal who visited my classroom to “evaluate me”.   I was teaching a civics class and the students were in the midst of a great discussion which I was leading with many students participating and all engaged in listening.    I thought, “What a great time to be visited”.  Wrong!!!   This principal sat for a few minutes and listened to the discussion and then got up and walked out, telling me on the way out that “I’ll be back when you are teaching!”    I was being evaluated by someone who did not recognize great teaching when he saw it!   I needed protection from the kind of administrators who if you crossed them, as I had done, will try and get you fired unless you have some protection.  Most administrators I knew were not educators.   They were  paper shufflers—and had escaped the classroom a.s.a.p. because they disliked teaching.   They were on power trips, and were excellent in playing the school district political power games.   In all my years of teaching I had one high school principal who I felt was a true educator!

When I see the right to negotiate anything but salary, and the accompanying inability to strike, it brings to my mind the powerlessness that I felt as a teacher.  Those making policy decisions about education were uninformed school boards and uninterested administrators.  And then I think of my home and family and the low salaries that I received, which practically always dictated a summer job and also a part-time job during the school year—taking away time with my children and wife.  And I remember the way I used my sick leave to catch up grading essays for my Advanced Placement American History classes that were too large but needed to learn to write if they were to pass the exam.  I had a high rate of passing the A.P. Exam—I don’t remember ever being congratulated for that.    I remember class sizes of 35  X  5 = 175 students to deal with each day and plan for,  grade papers,  maintain discipline. etc.    Powerlessness to do what you know needs to be done in the classroom is not a good feeling!

I remember the passage of the infamous Proposition 13 in California where I taught in a high school and the apprehension that I might lose my job because of the drop in educational funding due to it.    That’s what lack of sufficient funding means to teachers.  Teachers have families.   They have college debts that they incurred in getting the education needed to be teachers.   Lack of school funding  also means to teachers that there will be a lack of basic materials to teach with, lack of support for special education students mainstreamed in our classes,  and it means more students per class.

When I see no education requirements except a college degree for licensed teachers, I think of the education classes I took at the University of Chicago and time and money I spent in acquiring the needed education to meet the requirements for a teaching credential.  I also remember the many student teachers I supervised as a Master Teacher through the years, who came to me with no experience and no idea what teaching classes day after day entailed, and the ones who succeeded under my tutelage and the ones who did damage to students learning.     And I think of the student teachers who were not good in dealing with 150 to 175 students on a daily basis  and decided after their  student teaching that they would seek other careers.   And then I read a statement from our Kansas State Board of Education that in lifting the Education requirements for teacher licensing that they are putting the students first—not the teachers—-and I gag at the lack of knowledge about education that these political hacks who set educational policy for the state of Kansas are showing.  They seem to view teachers as just warm bodies that are in the classroom—unimportant to the educational process.

Teaching subject matter is just one of the tasks that a good teacher does.   A teacher is the one that sees the students every day—sometimes spends more time with them than their parents.    A good teacher is one that students feel confident in coming to for advice and help with the stresses of being teenagers.   Good teachers inspire their students to explore and  develop their potential.   Good teachers show care for their students.  They celebrate their accomplishments and cry with them in their failures.   In my career as a teacher I found my high school students were more likely to come and confide their problems to me than they were to their school counselors.

Teachers are the backbone of the education system in Kansas—-from Kindergarten through college.   They deserve respect.   They deserve support.  They deserve thanks for the often thankless job they do every day.  They deserve decent salaries.   They deserve protection of their jobs which are often hazardous these days due to lack of funding for schools and lack of tenure.     They DO NOT DESERVE THE TREATMENT THEY ARE RECEIVING FROM THE KANSAS LEGISLATORS,  GOVERNOR BROWNBACK AND THE KANSAS BOARD OF EDUCATION.

Where have all the teacher’s gone?

They are taking their talents and skills elsewhere to a place where they will be valued, respected and appreciated.   And our students in Kansas are the real losers!!!

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Schools are not Factories

The big word in the vocabulary of legislators, school boards,  and even Presidents as far as Education goes is “accountability”.    Teachers and schools must be held accountable for the “product” they produce.    In that word “product” is the fallacy of this entire approach.    I call it the Factory Approach to Education.   It is based on several false assumptions.

First,the Factory Approach to Education assumes that students (human beings) are the raw material that are fed into the factory (schools) and out of that should come a product (graduate) that meets quality standards of production (learning).  One of the problems with this approach that immediately becomes manifest to teachers, but few others it seems, is that each item of this raw material (student) is uniquely different.   There is no quality control on the raw materials—-public schools must take whoever is in their district that shows up at their door.   Among those are homeless children;  children from abusive homes;  children from education-friendly homes who have been to pre-school and early learning programs and children whose first exposure to learning is when they enter Kindergarten or First Grade;  children who have books and magazines in their homes and those who do not;  children who have traveled extensively and those who have never been away from their home town; children who have moved frequently  from school to school and children who have always attended the same schools in their district from K-12;  children who have learning disabilities and children who are academically gifted.  The list could go on and on….

You get the idea—-each child in the list above has differing needs.    To take all these different children and somehow come out with the same quality product (i.e. student)  is equivalent to a factory owner trying to use all kinds of different quality raw material over which they have no control,   and still being able to produce a  quality product each and every time.    That doesn’t happen!   There is no machinery that can be built that would be able to do this and produce a quality product with every run, without control of the quality and kind of material to be used.  It cannot be done!    The saying goes that  “it is difficult to produce silk cloth out  of a sows ear” remains true for factories.    In schools,  teachers are asked to produce silk cloth each and every time out of all kinds of ears, not just sows’ ears!   And we tell them we will hold them accountable for each student.   We even try to base their evaluation on meeting this quality control standard as defined b y standardized tests.  It seems laughable when portrayed in the above words, but truly it is sad, ignorant, and dangerous to our public schools, our teachers who are excellent and and the children they labor with each day to help them learn and achieve.  We should be praising our teachers and schools for dealing with what they deal with each day instead of criticizing them for not meeting some external quality control standard.  Thomas Jefferson, one of our”founding fathers’ held that democracy is impossible without a well-educated populace.   Have we forgotten this?   When he said “well–educated” he was asking for more than students being able to pass standardized tests in reading, writing, and arithematic.

I would  also mention to lawmakers and school boards and our Kansas governor that “accountability” is a two-sided coin.   Our Kansas lawmakers and governor  want to hold teachers and schools “accountable” but they themselves  remain “unaccountable”  for the lack of funding of these schools and the low salaries of the teachers.   Indeed Kansas is even taking away the tenure that protects good teachers as much or more than bad ones.    Yet, this year in Kansas  with block funding, school and teachers are being  told to be accountable but legislators are lacking accountability in providing money to educate children as teachers and school districts know how to do.

Children are human beings.   They are all unique.   Our schools teach them much more than reading, writing, and arithematic.  These extra learnings outside of academic learnings  are not testable by multiple choice tests designed to hold teachers and schools “accountable”.  

Schools teach children values.   They teach them how to get along with each other.   They teach them how to learn for a lifetime.   They socialize chiildren by teaching them our culture and school them in our democracy and democratic society and government.   They teach patriotism and also the way to criticize  our country—something  which a true patriot will do.   Schools teach human beings—-human beings are not products to be shaped all in the same way  in a factory system but are to be cared for and nurtured so that they develop to the greatest extent their own unique potential!

Asking the Right Questions Today?

 

A recent article in the Alban Weekly caught my attention by its title.   “New Questions for a New Day?”    Although it was an article on new questions churches need  to ask rather than the ones they are asking, it caused me to think about questions that desperately need to be asked in our political jungle today.    We are allowing the media and political pundits to ask the wrong questions of our politicians!   Let me give you a few examples:

The question:   “How will you vote on issues concerning abortion?” should be replaced by the question:  “How will you vote on issues concerning quality of life for all human beings in our society?”   Will your votes  seek to protect only fetuses or will your vote be for protecting the one in five children in Kansas who are hungry and without access to enough adequate foods and considered food insecure.   Will you protect these children  from disease by your votes that extend badly needed medical care, or are you only interested in unborn fetuses?

The question:   “How will you vote on issues concerning gay marriage“? might be replaced with the question:  “what will you advocate through your votes that will protect the rights of all citizens of the U.S. regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation so that all citizens can enjoy the full range of freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.?”

The question:  “Are you a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican?” might be replaced by the question:   “In what way will you vote for the common good of all citizens, regardless of party preference?”    I recently saw a poster on FB that showed a bird flying and said “politicians should be like birds–both the left wing and the right wing support the middle!”

The question:   “How can we better hold educators accountable?” should be replaced by the question, “ How are you going to be held accountable for the education of our children in Kansas? ”   How are you going to better support teachers in their difficult job?  Are you going to respect the job that teachers do, often for poor pay and little appreciation?   What are you going to suggest and vote for that will make sure that children we send to teachers are ready to learn by supporting early childhood education?   What are you going to do that insures that half of the children coming to the Wichita Public Schools are not coming to school hungry and therefore unable to learn?  or homeless and therefore insecure and having difficulties learning?    As I read recently—“When Congress passes “No Child Left Unfed, No child without Health Care, and No Child left homeless, then we can talk seriously about No Child Left Behind?  After that happens we can talk about accountability!

It’s time we get the message to the media and the political pundits that we wish to have politicians speak on these questions rather than the old tired ones that are now asked..   As Ghandi once said:   “Be the change!”  We can “be the change” by defining the real problems in our society and then demanding answers and solutions to those problems by asking the right questions.  We then need to use the power of the ballot to demand accountability from those who govern us.   The change can begin with your intelligent and knowledgable casting of a ballot that holds our elected officials  accountable.   “BE THE CHANGE”.