Readers react to what teachers told Obama


President Obama speaks ahead of a lunch Monday with teachers in the Blue Room of the White House. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is at left and teacher Justin Minkel, who wrote the post below, is to Duncan’s left. (Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

There was a lot of reaction to a post I published a few days ago about what happened when four teachers from high-poverty schools sat down with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for lunch at the White House to talk about education, teaching and school reform. Here are some of the reactions from readers.

The piece was written by Justin Minkel, the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, a board member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year,  a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, and author of two two blogs, Teaching for Triumph and Career Teacher. He described what the teachers told Obama and Duncan. The four basic points in Minkel’s piece, which you can read in full here, were:

1. There’s nothing wrong with the kids.

2. “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.”

3. It’s not about good and bad teachers. It’s about good and bad teaching.

4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do those same things

Hundreds of comments were written about all parts of the article, which ended this way:

The last thing the president said to us was, “You all make me feel hopeful.” President Obama, you left us hopeful, too.

Here are some of them, including a few by Minkel responding to readers:

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Rob Bligh
7/11/2014 9:46 AM EST
There is nothing wrong with the kids except for those who must live among adults who treat them as an annoyance rather than a treasure. Such children show up on the first day of kindergarten unprepared for formal education and never catch up. Developmental damage inflicted during the 50,000 hours between conception and kindergarten cannot be healed by teachers during the 14,000 hours that each child spends in a K-12 classroom. Our experience under ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act]since 1965 supports no contrary conclusion.

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PMichaels-Artist-at-large
7/12/2014 10:29 PM EST

I’ve been thinking about this article for several days; I have positive and negative reactions.

just the photograph with Arne, Obama and 4 teachers made the meeting look far too staged. With so few people present, and 2 of them very powerful, I have to wonder at some of the questions and answers and wonder if both weren’t overly contrived just to make everybody feel “I’m Ok, You’re OK”.

“THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THE KIDS”. Really? Children aren’t stressed when Mom and/or Dad can’t afford to put food on the table? They don’t react if someone in the family is sick and can’t get well? The siblings don’t have difficulties when a brother or sister is disabled? Or if Mom or Dad is depressed?
I don’t mean to say that this is the situation with every family, but it certainly is the situation with many families, and I think it is a throw-back to 1950s thinking to say that if we all just wear happy smiles, believe that “Father Knows Best” and that the home life has nothing to do with school, then the schools are just fine.

On the Positive side, Points 2 and 4 seem excellent:
“……But they [teachers] are unwilling to teach in sterile classrooms stripped of literature, the arts, and critical thinking in order to drill students on which one of four bubbles to pick.” No kidding!!! Who wants to teach in ANY such school? A school that values only drudgery, when the teachers are punished for wanting to open students minds by being graded with the wrong test scores?

“..Autonomy, collaboration, the potential for innovation [a.k.a. creativity]“……..these are some of the fires of the spirit that move teachers to become their best for their students.

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boscobobb
7/12/2014 11:28 PM EST
PMichaels,
I think you’re misinterpreting their first point — “nothing wrong with the kids” does not mean they don’t have challenges at home, just that the root cause of the problem is not the kids being incapable of learning.

From my understanding of the selection, these teachers are not shrinking violets. They take their vocation — teaching — seriously and literally are there to advocate opportunities for their students through education.

Your other comments reflect an understanding of what frustrates great teachers — and what inspires them.

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PMichaels-Artist-at-large
2:28 AM EST
“That the root cause of the problem is not the kids being incapable of learning”. Point taken. I surmised that that was the general understanding. I still think the statement allows EVERYONE — from administrators to parents to teachers — off the hook, and glosses over the notion that one can effectively separate the challenges that children deal with at home to those they face at school. And that holds true for children in better environments as well. Children are expected to shoulder an awful lot these days — not that they didn’t always — but with the extra awareness of life’s issues being accessed daily via all kinds of media, I think we can safely say that children come to school with an awful lot on their minds, and that those preoccupations can have an impact on how well they do in schools.

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Rick F
7/12/2014 2:33 PM EST
….My daughter teaches in Harlem (as part of TFA), at a second chance high school. A lot of the kids are over 18. Some of them have been in jail. Most of them are from extreme poverty. However, they want to be there, but they face very difficult odds. They have to spend their own money on subway tix to get there. They have difficult home situations. They are sometimes victims of gang violence because they are trying to get OUT of the gangs they were in. They often don’t show up for class. When that happens, my daughter wonders if they’ve been shot. ( it’s happened). Now, 35 percent of my daughters evaluation is based on how well these kids do on the Regents exam for NY State. Is it fair to say that if these kids don’t do well on the test, it’s my daughter’s fault? Is she a bad teacher if they fail to improve?

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Curmudgeon59
7/11/2014 12:08 AM EST
How were these four teachers selected for this meeting? Who are they? That’s probably as important as where and who they teach. It’s difficult to know how representative these teachers are without some knowledge of their backgrounds, training, experience, and educational worldviews. Without a sense of how they measure and define “successful” education (or “content delivery” in current parlance), it’s hard to know how to weight their generic impressions, plaudits, or criticisms. Were they selected for different viewpoints or a shared worldview? If all four of these folks engage in “Arne-think”, this is a meaningless photo-op.

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Justin Minkel
7/11/2014 4:11 PM EST

Speaking only for myself: I have taught in high-poverty public schools since 2000 and I did a two-year Masters in Elementary Ed; in 2007 I became the Arkansas Teacher of the Year. I don’t engage in “Arne-think”; to give one example of disagreement, I think the problems created under NCLB (punitive sanctions and shaming rather than support, and a fixation on standardized test scores that don’t measure the abilities that actually matter to student success in college and life) have largely remained intact over the past 6 years.

That said, I think it’s possible to disagree with someone, including powerful people like the Secretary of Education, and still engage in respectful debate.

I don’t think the four of us can be presumed to speak for an entire profession, and we weren’t asked to do that; I’m sure despite much shared philosophy and shared experience, we disagree on some issues even among the four of us. That said, the commonality for this meeting was that all of us have taught in high-poverty schools for over a decade and plan to continue doing so.

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TechT
7/10/2014 11:03 PM EST

I understand the respectful tone of the writing of this article. One must show respect for the position, even if you do not respect the man. Does Justin Minkel truly believe that Obama’s actions thus far were due to a lack of understanding of public education?

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notsankofa
7/10/2014 10:58 PM EST

As a teacher for 10 plus years and a two time voter for Obama, I find myself shocked and sadly disappointed by someone who ran on hope strangling whatever joy remains in school by siding with corporations whose only interest is maximizing profits.

Hope is a smokescreen used to sell developmentally inappropriate standardized testing and school privatization to an unwitting citizenry.

Unfortunately, both sides of the political spectrum are intent on dismantling public education. I fear that, by the time voters and taxpayers realize the damage wrought, it will be too late to reverse course.

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katyo
7/10/2014 5:19 PM EST

I am in full agreement with everything you have just said all up until the last sentence, which I am very curious about. How is it that Obama left you feeling hopeful? I am a school teacher also and was so full of hope when Obama was first elected. Hopeful for all of the things you have just mentioned. Yet every day since then, I am newly amazed at just how much more I feel let down than the day before. Just when I think I couldn’t agree any less with Duncan, he says something to prove me wrong. It seems to me that this administration is heading us in the exact opposite direction from what you describe. I’m interested to know what about your meeting with Obama gave you any hope.

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Justin Minkel
7/11/2014 4:18 PM EST

I felt hopeful because the President listened sincerely to what we had to say, even when our beliefs reflected disagreement with the current direction of federal education policy. But I also felt hopeful because as a profession, we have not been beaten down by district, state, or federal policies even when they disrespect teachers or make it harder to teach students. I continue to see teachers create conditions for joy, curiosity, and critical thinking, under conditions that would be difficult even with a great deal of support.

My colleagues, including those of you who have responded to this article, give me hope. The three teachers I met on Monday give me hope. The students I teach give me hope.

I think of the Maya Angelou poem “I’ll Rise.” I see skilled, compassionate teachers meeting students’ needs under very difficult circumstances. I also see them working not just to diagnose problems, but to propose constructive solutions.

One meeting between teachers and the President is by no means sufficient. But I think it was a positive thing, and I would like to see more of these meetings happen.

(NOTE: I fixed  a few misspellings in these comments)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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