Editor’s note: My friend Wendy Lang is a former teacher who lives in Decatur. She works for the Alabama Education Association as a uniserv district director and is a weekly columnist for the Decatur Daily. Here are some reflections from her.
Educators often have a thankless job. With rising healthcare premiums, lack of adequate compensation, legislation upon more legislation heaped on by those who know nothing of how a classroom really works, unending classroom mandates, tests upon tests and even worse, the make it or break it test scores, the occupation is not seen as the profession it once was. Ask anyone in education (or those that got out of education, for that matter) and they will tell you two things; first, it’s not a job, it’s a calling and primarily, they just want to teach. The mounds of paperwork and meetings and lack of appreciation have taken their toll. But for those who doubt that the light at the end of the tunnel exists, I know for a fact that it does.
Today I attended the Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast at Ingall’s Harbor pavilion in Decatur. This annual event sponsored by the Decatur-Morgan County Minority Development Association was full to capacity for this, their 25th year. In all honesty, the last thing I wanted to do was get up at the crack of dawn on my off day, but I did and I came home with much more than I could ever have imagined.
Years ago, I fell back into a teaching career because I had two children to raise and a degree that was collecting dust. It was a perfect fit, or so I thought, until I was placed in fifth grade. It was a daunting task at best and try as I might, between the testing and the paperwork and the crowd control, I never knew if anyone was really “getting it.” The math was above my head and enticing preteens to read was a struggle. But I never stopped trying. Neither did Stacey Staten.
Stacey lived for recess. He could shoot basketball and run off the immense amount of energy he had for ten minutes every day. His mother, Latrise Jackson, made sure that he got his homework and passed the tests; but I never really knew if he “got” it. Fifth grade is a difficult age and grade for parents, students and teachers. Even if they do the work, do they understand the importance of what they are doing? Do they know that in the course of life that it counts for something? Does the eye rolling over assignments ever stop?
Today I walked in the pavilion looking for coffee. Instead, I saw Stacey and his mother. We hugged and loved on each other and I was thrilled to see him there. I asked him about his future plans, and he grinned, dropped his head and stated as a matter of fact that he still just wanted to play ball. I was not surprised. After all, he is a star player at Decatur High School and his coach, Sam Brown, has referred to him as a “lockdown defender.” Last week, he led his team to defeat Austin High School in the city rivalry by scoring 16 points. This also won him the title of the Decatur Daily’s Player of the Week. He’s not just good; he’s amazing.
The DMDA began 25 years ago to promote education as the primary means for minority development. That first year, they awarded one $500 scholarship. Today, they awarded over $31,000 in scholarship monies to deserving disadvantaged students for their education. It is estimated that by the spring, approximately $50,000 in scholarship monies will be provided to area students in a joint, unified effort between the Association and community partners.
As students approached the stage, Stacey took his place in line to receive one of more than 50 scholarships given.. That’s when I knew….he might want to play ball, but he gets it; he gets every single bit of it. He knows what opens doors and ball courts; an education. And somehow, someway, he got the math, too. And I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
Courtney Wilburn, who is in her seventh year as principal of White Plains Middle in Calhoun County, has been named middle school principal of the year by the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS).
Under her direction, White Plains Middle has become noted for innovation. For instance, the school works hard to narrow the achievement gap between general education students and those with special needs. So they have developed classes where both the regular teacher and the special education teacher work in tandem. Teachers must get special certification to co-teach. And While Plains Middle is the only school in Alabama with four of these classes.
Wilburn is also pleased with the school’s progress in using standards-based grading. With this approach, students are graded on exactly how well they understand the content of their subjects. This helps students know just what their strengths and weaknesses are and also lets parents know how best to help their children.
Think of it this way. The coach says overall the athlete is a B grade football player. But specifically they are told that while they can catch a football very well, they need to learn how to block much better.
White Plains Middle began going in this direction five years ago and Wilburn says, “It has changed the way we do school.”
Wilburn’s success has not gone unnoticed. She trains all principals in the system on how to effectively use data to guide instruction. She is also mentoring three new principals in Calhoun County.
Speaking of “gaps,” every time I learn of someone like Courtney Wilburn and the work they are doing with our children, I am reminded of just how wide the “reality gap” is between what is actually happening and what some politicians and ed reformers want us to think is happening in classrooms.
Our tip of the hat to Courtney Wilburn.
Given all the commotion and twists and turns, not to mention law suits and investigations, swirling around the state school board in the last 18-24 months, it was dog gone near inevitable that legislation would surface for the upcoming session designed to re-structure the makeup of this board and how it is selected.
At present, there are eight elected members of the state school board. All represent districts. They serve a four-year term. There are no term limits. Four are elected every two years.
By virtue of the office, the governor serves as president of the board when present. When not, the vice-president of the board chairs the meeting. The board appoints the state superintendent of education.
This system has been in place since 1969. Prior to that, board members were appointed and the superintendent elected statewide.
Senator Greg Albritton of Conecuh County has pre-filed bills that would drastically alter this process, in essence, giving the governor almost total control of K-12 education. The CEO for the state department of education would be called “Director of Education” and serve at the pleasure of the governor and be a cabinet member.
In turn, this person would pick a 13-member “Board of Counsel” that would be made up of seven local school superintendents and six members of local school boards. They could serve for only two years. Appointments would be made in regard to “diversity of gender, race, economic status, and geographical areas.”
According to information from the Education Commission of the States, there are 10 states where the governor has the authority to both pick the chief school officer and control who serves on the board. In 12 states the governor appoints the board who appoints the chief. There are 10 states where the chief is elected and the governor appoints the board. And six states have an elected board and appointed chief. And in some states, the board is made up of both elected and appointed members.
Senator Albritton was one of three senators on the legislative committee that investigated the state superintendent search of 2016 and how info from the Ethics Commission got leaked to the public.
We covered these sessions extensively, as you can see here, here and here.
Anyone who paid attention to them came away thinking the search process was tainted, that one board member definitely engaged in activities she should not have and that certain state department employees did not conduct themselves professionally. (An internal report by the department later reached the same conclusions.)
After learning all of this, Albritton figured there had to be a better way of conducting business and came forward with his bills. He has indicated that he is not wedded to the proposed process, but does think there definitely needs to be discussion.
It’s hard to disagree with him as you look back at some of the surveys we have done. In November 2016 82.5 percent of 1,287 respondents said the state school board should be elected. Only 7.8 percent said appointed. But by April 2017, “elected” was down to 68.8 percent and appointed” up to 14.6 percent.
A survey in mid-summer of 2017 asked respondents to give the state board a letter grade. A–0; B–1.7 percent; C–16.0 percent; D–39.0 percent; F–43.1 percent.
Yes it is true most board members played no role in the chicanery that took place in 2016, but public perception does not separate good apples from bad ones. They are all in the same barrel in the eyes of voters.
The next legislative session begins January 9. This being an election year most members want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Therefore I do not sense that the Albritton bill will get much traction this session.
However, the issue of how both the state school board and state superintendent is selected is not going away. Anyone who ignores it does so at their own peril.
We’ll just call him Sully, because that’s what everyone else calls him. Except on those occasions when his mother, as mamas sometimes do, calls him by his given name of Sullivan.
He is in the third-grade and is 110 percent boy. He is not allergic to sweat or dirt, thinks that shorts should be worn 365 days of the year and thinks the true worth of any elementary student is how fast he/she can run. In most ways, he is as different from his fourth-grade sister as midnight is from noon.
From time to time, his grandmother, who just happens to be assistant superintendent of his school system, shares a “Sully story” and I can think of no better way to begin a New Year than sharing some with you.
After Auburn lost the Peach Bowl on Jan. 1, Sully said to one and all, “that sucks.” His mother immediately wanted to know where he heard that word. He told her, “on the bus.” At which point she reminded him that he does not ride the bus. To which he replied, “Well if I did I know I would have heard it.”
He went to time out.
Grandmother takes the grand children to Auburn’s aquatic research unit near the beach. They are raising giant shrimp in cages Shrimp are being harvested this particular day and a group of Hispanic workers are busy emptying cages and scooping up shrimp.
Grandmother knows a teachable moment when she sees one and ask Sully what do you need to be to do such work. She thought something like marine biologist would be a good answer. Not Sully. His immediate reply was “Mexican.”
The family was in New Orleans to attend a wedding. Everyone but Sully and grandmother had gone on to a party, leaving them to get dressed and join them. Mother laid out Sully’s wardrobe, including long pants.
When he saw them, his immediate response was, “What the hell was she thinking?”
It was a very stormy Friday with more bad weather forecast for the weekend. Sully’s teacher overheard him telling some of his classmates that “For a dollar, I will get grandmother to call off school on Monday.”
Grandmother calls me one day from her car and declares that it stinks to high heaven. Then she remembers a couple of days earlier when she and Sully were somewhere and he was playing with a very large frog.
She got Sully on her cell phone, told him she was not upset, but wanted to know if he put the frog in her car. “Maybe,” he said. And quickly added, “and if you find him, his name is Leonard.”
Later that day grandmother found the well-fried remains of Leonard.
On the way to school one morning, grandmother, Sully and sister get stuck in traffic behind a truck picking up garbage. Another teachable moment thought grandmother. She pointed out to her pint-sized passengers that if you did not do well in school, you might end up on a garbage truck.
“Well, I see they wear shorts,” was Sully’s quick retort.
What better way to say Happy New Year than to remind ourselves about the thousands and thousands of Sullys who attend Alabama public schools. In all their honesty and innocence and frankness. So far, far away from the cat fights, petty politics and busy work that too often masquerade as school.
As I have wandered in the “education” wilderness for the past few years, I have asked over and over again, “What is education?” What makes an “educated” person different from one who is “un-educated?” If we ask 100 parents what benefit do they expect their children to get from going to school, do we get 100 very different answers?
If we ask 100 teachers the same question, how different are their answers from those of parents? Or of businessmen and women?
How far away from a consensus are we? Seems to me that it is CRITCIAL that we decide what constitutes an education before we can decide how to provide it?
In search of insight into an answer I did what we most often do these days. Turn to the internet. Which is where I came upon this excellent article by developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell. She conducted an exhaustive search to find out how some of our leading thinkers have defined “education.”
Interestingly enough, no one described standardized test scores, performance against national standards on NAEP and all of the other “stuff” we spend so much time debating under the notion that we are somehow talking about education. Before you can use a map, you must know two things. Where are you now and where do you want to go. (You remember maps don’t you? Those folded pieces of paper we kept in the car before GPS came along.)
Honest, I often think we do not know the answer to either of these questions and spend far too much time making mountains out of mole hills.
What is education? Here are thoughts from many far wiser than I am.
The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done. — Jean Piaget, 1896-1980, Swiss developmental psychologist, philosopher
An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.– Anatole France, 1844-1924, French poet, novelist
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. — Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013, South African President, philanthropist
The object of education is to teach us to love beauty. — Plato, 424 – 348 BC, philosopher mathematician
The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968, pastor, activist, humanitarian
Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, physicist
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. — Aristotle, 384-322 BC, Greek philosopher, scientist
Education is the power to think clearly, the power to act well in the world’s work, and the power to appreciate life. — Brigham Young, 1801-1877, religious leader
Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer – into a selflessness which links us with all humanity. — Nancy Astor, 1879-1964, American-born English politician and socialite
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. — William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939, Irish poet
Education is freedom. – Paulo Freire, 1921-1997, Brazilian educator, philosopher
Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. — John Dewey, 1859-1952, philosopher, psychologist, education reformer
Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.– George Washington Carver, 1864-1943, scientist, botanist, educator
Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. – Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900, Irish writer, poet
The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows. — Sydney J. Harris, 1917-1986, journalist
Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one. — Malcolm Forbes, 1919-1990, publisher, politician
No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure. – Emma Goldman, 1869 – 1940, political activist, writer
Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. — John W. Gardner, 1912-2002, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson
Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.– Gilbert K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, English writer, theologian, poet, philosopher
Education is the movement from darkness to light. — Allan Bloom, 1930-1992, philosopher, classicist, and academician
Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know. — Daniel J. Boorstin, 1914-2004, historian, professor, attorney
The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values. — William S. Burroughs, 1914-1997, novelist, essayist, painter
The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. — Robert M. Hutchins, 1899-1977, educational philosopher
Education is all a matter of building bridges. — Ralph Ellison, 1914-1994, novelist, literary critic, scholar
What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the soul. — Joseph Addison, 1672-1719, English essayist, poet, playwright, politician
Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. — Malcolm X, 1925-1965, minister and human rights activist
Education is the key to success in life, and teachers make a lasting impact in the lives of their students. — Solomon Ortiz, 1937-, former U.S. Representative-TX
The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in good education. — Plutarch, 46-120AD, Greek historian, biographer, essayist
Education is a shared commitment between dedicated teachers, motivated students and enthusiastic parents with high expectations. Bob Beauprez, 1948-, former member of U.S. House of Representatives-CO
The most influential of all educational factors is the conversation in a child’s home. – William Temple, 1881-1944, English bishop, teacher
Education is the leading of human souls to what is best, and making what is best out of them. — John Ruskin, 1819-1900, English writer, art critic, philanthropist
Education levels the playing field, allowing everyone to compete. — Joyce Meyer, 1943-, Christian author and speaker
Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten. – B.F. Skinner, 1904-1990, psychologist, behaviorist, social philosopher
The great end of education is to discipline rather than to furnish the mind; to train it to the use of its own powers rather than to fill it with the accumulation of others. – Tyron Edwards, 1809-1894, theologian
Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength of the nation. — John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, 35th President of the United States
Education is like a lantern which lights your way in a dark alley. – Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, 1918-2004, President of the United Arab Emirates for 33 years
When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts. — Dalai Lama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism
Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or self-confidence. — Robert Frost, 1874-1963, poet
The secret in education lies in respecting the student. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882, essayist, lecturer, and poet
My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance, but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors. — Maya Angelou, 1928-, author, poet