Tim Munkeby is an advisory committee member of The Reporters Inc. To learn more about him, click here.

Photos by Lisa Munkeby

Cracks in the Foundation

Public Education Is Rapidly Crumbling; How Do We Fix It?

Photos by Lisa Munkeby

May 2019

BY TIM MUNKEBY

As I start writing this, it strikes me that I should impress you with my credentials so that you’ll decide it’s worth your time to read on. For example, I just finished reading an article about why democracy will prevail. The writer points out he spent years on American warships around the world protecting democracy, and became an admiral. I’m not sure how qualifying the warship credentials are, but that admiral sounds admirable—and so you might think he’s worth a listen.

I’m sorry to say I’ve never been on a warship—but, I’ve kayaked a lot. I have no ivory tower credentials, but my tower (ok – upstairs dormer) in which I’m writing this overlooks a beautiful lake. More to the point, I’ve actually taught kids to write and to enjoy reading, adults to succeed financially and otherwise, and I lecture at colleges and universities. I’ve had three books published and a fourth—The Advocate (a novel illustrating the need and struggle to educate kids early in their lives)—is currently percolating in literary agents’ mailboxes. (Any of you agents interested?) Since I’ll be writing here about education, these qualifications may seem more pertinent than kayaking. Maybe. Maybe not.

Oh, and I’ve attained a piece of the American dream. Not to sound pretentious—well, I suppose a little—but, as I just mentioned, I’m looking out over a gorgeous body of water, called LakeVermilion (named one of the 10 most beautiful lakes in North America by National Geographic). My home is here, a tasteful 1880s-style Cape Cod tucked into the northern Minnesota pines, with five grey-clad shake cabins for each of my kids and their families for their visits.

My wife, Mary, and I achieved this on our own. I made a decent living selling women’s shoes while in college. Paid for college ourselves. No loans. Took a decrease in earnings, as a matter of fact, to leave shoesales and go into teaching. Seriously. Although we started out in a trailer, we eventually captured our American dream and ended up here at this sky-blue waters lake. That’s all gotta be worth something?

So, for what it’s worth, those are my credentials. I hope they’re enough to interest you in continuing to read (assuming you’ve read this far).

 

After taking a sabbatical to teach in Colombia, South America in the mid-1970s, I returned to my school district in Minnesota to find that my new assignment, one nobody wanted, was to teach English to the “problem students,” the ones that supposedly couldn’t function in the “regular” program.

On my first day at my new position, one kid sat in my class covered in bandages, the result of a knife fight. That kind of student. I had previously taught creative writing and “gifted” classes, so this was going to be an adventure.

They faced me, some eyes hostile, others pretty vacant, all tongues sullenly silent. No initial confrontations but, I felt, they were watching closely to discover my weaknesses. I started by telling them that I was there to help them. Snickers. Apparently, they’d heard that before. But I still wanted them to hear it from me. I decided I wasn’t there to force-feed them grammar. They’d had 11 or 12 years of gagging on it already and so I knew, at least right then, they didn’t give a crap about writing and it wasn’t gonna work to start out with grammar. Who wants to come someplace every day where you’re made to feel stupid?

I doubted that most of these kids (only two were racial minorities by the way—one black) were ever prepared for school to begin with. They found themselves behind the 8-ball before the game even began.Then twelve years of frustration, repeatedly being told they’re dumb, failures.

A few weeks later, on “parents’ night,” no parents appeared. They apparently felt their kids were my problem for six hours each day. And many of the parents, I soon discovered, had more problems than their kids did.

Some of these kids, besides reading at low levels, I assumed had undiagnosed learning disabilities. So with trepidation, first day, I handed out a book to each (today I’d probably have to buy them myself) and had the kids take turns reading aloud. It was an easy book—The Outsiders by S.E. Hilton. I think they were a little intrigued by the title. I found some read quite well but most struggled a little and read slowly. Some stumbled but pushed on not wanting to appear dumb in front of their peers. Even though they were academic “outsiders” themselves, they–hell, nobody—want to be considered dumb.

One, a senior, sitting as far back in the room as possible, couldn’t, or wouldn’t, recite a word. I asked him if he was unable to read. He glared. A girl up front whispered that he couldn’t. Don’t push it, she warned.

I told him if he can’t read, I couldn’t pass him. Before I had a chance to say that I’d get him help and bet he actually could learn to read, he stood and yelled, “[Expletive] you! Twelve years in this [expletive] hole and now you tell me I can’t graduate!?” He stomped out, knocking over his chair. I knew he’d have to come back, or return to a reformatory. Them’s the rules here.

Great start.

 

 

A paradox: Are some things just so obvious we can’t see them?

Like the jar of jam right in front of us in the fridge, that we blindly shove aside, inexplicably searching instead for it somewhere lurking in the back. Or, how we don’t see why a kid who can’t read or has learning disabilities or is told he’s dumb, drops out of school, lives in poverty, joins a gang, commits a crime, maybe injures or kills someone, and is incarcerated? It’s obvious why this can happen. Why do we look past it?

When the ground under the foundation of a home is unstable, the foundation cracks, starts to crumble. Walls separate. We hire a carpenter to arrange molding to mask the problems. Ceilings crack. Then a painter comes to cover up the flaws. Etc. Someone points out there must be something causing these problems. But we don’t want to think about that. That’s too big a problem, too expensive to fix.

To state the obvious, with a stable base and a good, solid foundation to begin with, we would obviously spend less time and money trying to fix resulting problems.

The foundation of our society is education. The ground supporting the foundation is early childhood education. Can you argue? That jar is right in front of our faces. Totally obvious. So, why don’t we see it? Why push it aside? Why not just face it: if we don’t fix (or let’s just say for now: fund and evolve) our public education system properly, society will continue to crack and crumble. It’s too expensive not to face the facts. As Bob Dylan once suggested in his song “Forever Young,” “May you have a good foundation…when the winds of change shift.” And, of course, he also sang “The Times They Are A-changin’.”

 

So, for the “can’t read” kid to get back into school and my class, we had to have a conference with me, the principal, the kid, and his parents—or in this case, his single-parent mother.

At first look, I knew she was not going to be tremendously supportive of the school or me. But I figured she’d be defensive about her son–the “victim.” I had checked his history and he had never been assessed for learning disabilities or referred to “special ed.” So, although he couldn’t read or do most assignments, he somehow was passed along every year, an unresolved “problem.” And now he was my problem.

On a too-early rainy morning, we all sat down. The mother, not just tired and unhappy looking, but haggard, stressed and pissed. The first thing she did was light up a cig, and then refused to put it out. OK, so… gumption. Good. I told her I couldn’t and wouldn’t graduate a student that can’t read. It’s too bad your son doesn’t qualify for help, I told her. I didn’t specifically mention special ed as the “help” he needed—just the sound of that might have been a deal-killer with the kid. He had an image to maintain, after all.

“Whatcha mean he ‘doesn’t qualify?!’” she responded defiantly. “What, my kid isn’t good enough? I pay taxes just like everyone else…” Yada, yada, yada.

“Well,” I said, looking at the unamused principal, “we might be able to pull some strings.”

“Yeah, you darn well better!” Mother warned, blowing smoke in my face.

The kid grudgingly agreed, with Mom’s insistence, to accept an assignment to a “special” teacher. Unfortunately, against my protests, it ended up being with a ready to retire old-timer. I knew he would eat her alive.

He did.

I then tried to convince another “special” teacher, a friend of mine who I knew could handle him, to take on the challenge. It took a bit of convincing because this teacher was especially good, and, thus, in demand. I finally shamed him into taking this kid on. Turns out, because he was such a good teacher, he was the right match for my kid. When their lessons were completed, not only could the kid read but they even ended up liking each other. Cool.

At the end of the school year, I had the kid read aloud a thank you letter (I bet it was his first, hope not the last) to my friend, his teacher, in front of our class. He’d composed it himself, and labored through it, but everyone clapped when he finished. He was proud. And so, it seemed, were his fellow “problem” students. I wondered about his mother. I was pleasantly surprised…and proud, as well.

 

SNAP! When I snap my fingers again you’re all going to agree that nothing is more important than education. It’s the great equalizer. Again, the foundation of society.

According to Webster, the definition of “educate” is “to develop mentally and morally.” Notice the “morally” part.  As Nelson Mandela once noted, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” Best to teach children to be kind, empathetic and tolerant from day one—before the lines of division harden. Make sense?

Your children’s teachers and the educational system they’re currently constrained within will mold who and what your children will become, and thus what our society will become. A big, rather important job wouldn’t you agree? Maybe the most important job, other than parenting?

SNAP!

OK, now that we agree, let’s take a look at some of the cracks in the foundation, before it crumbles (and it is crumbling). A starting source for hope can be found in the words of Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen: “Cracks let the light in.” Let’s shed some light through these cracks:

 

Funding:

About the only issue regarding education that gets addressed in Washington is cost, meaning money. And the allocation of this money (our tax dollars) is questionably not what’s best for humanity, our society, or our children. How and if to fund education is always an argument, little is agreed upon, and little happens. America basically has the same educational design as it did during its Little House on the Prairie days.

No surprise when partisanship and money, not humanity, are the talking points in Washington. Making education a partisan, protracted   debate is erroneous—or perhaps better put—ignorant. According to a December 9, 2018 report in the Mesabi Daily News by Derick W. Black of the University of South Carolina, “State revenues have been up since 2012, but most states continue to fund education at a lower level than they did before the 2008 recession.” Not good, but it is what it’s always been.

So, assuming the problems and stalemates in Washington continue, let’s focus on a platform that’s more manageable – like individual states. Better yet, let’s focus on my state, Minnesota. It’s a state that actually has a history of occasional bipartisan support for funding and improving education.

 

Support:

60 percent of the U.S. population believes education is under-funded, according to a 2018 Ipsos/USA Today poll. Probably a much higher percent believe so in Minnesota. It should be 100 percent, if people actually looked at, not past, that elusive jar of jam in the fridge.

Regarding funding and support, for this treatise, let’s start where it’s first needed—at the beginning.

 

Early Education:

According to a September 2018 article in the Minneapolis StarTribune, a business coalition formed to combat education issues found that half of Minnesota kids—disproportionately lower income and minorities—weren’t getting the brain development they needed in order to be ready for kindergarten. A “crack,” no?

The group concluded that “getting kids ready for school was the best single investment Minnesota taxpayers could make.” Kids who succeed early on in school are less likely to drop out when they get older, less likely to get in trouble with the law, less likely to get pregnant and less likely to tap into public programs. Instead, they’re “ready to be trained for employment or postsecondary education and (become) economically self-sufficient taxpayers.”

Duh.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, except to also point out the societal costs when “getting in trouble with the law” can also mean injuring or killing someone. Can’t even put a dollar value on that one.

According to James Noble, Minnesota’s legislative auditor, the availability of money for early education isn’t the only problem in Minnesota. Putting the money to good and effective use is the real issue.

According to Noble, in 2016, $500 million was spent on early learning programs, including $165 million on early learning scholarships and child care assistance for low income families. Yet 35,000 kids under the age of five still aren’t able to afford or access early-learning programs in their urban and rural communities.

And at least 40 percent of Minnesota kids still, today, aren’t ready for school. This from Parent Aware, a group that helps families find quality childcare and early education.

Confusion grows when you consider that an assessment presented by Noble to state lawmakers in August 2018 found that at least 42 programs related to early education in Minnesota are “complex and fragmented” and in need of “significant review and coordination.” For example, there are some pre-kindergarten programs in various districts throughout the state, but not all. Some districts have before-and-after school programs to accommodate working parents, but mostly in wealthier school districts. The only consistent statewide program the Minnesota legislature has been able to agree on is all-day kindergarten, which almost all children in Minnesota now have access to.

All-day kindergarten is certainly good. The existing pre-K programs in some districts, such as the pilot “Birth to Age Eight” program in Dakota County, are a start in the right direction regarding pre-kindergarten education. But this doesn’t fulfill the need for a permanent comprehensive and coordinated program for early education forall children before entering kindergarten. “Pilot” programs are not permanent. Funding can and does disappear.

Furthermore, there’s the growing need for early education of non-English speaking children, especially those with non-English speaking parents. It’s a “crack” that’s becoming larger and larger as the times change. The earlier these children mix with English speaking children, the sooner they can speak and understand English and, therefore,assimilate and be prepared for school when they get there.

There are a variety of random private programs like Head Start and New Horizon Academy that have been quite affective, to an extent, in poorer districts. There are also some volunteer efforts like an Adoptive Grandparent program, born of good intentions.

But there’s a need for even more innovation. I created what I hope is an interesting “advocacy” program that I detail in my upcoming novel, The Advocate, also born of good and, hopefully, feasible intentions. Couldn’t all kids, especially when they’re very young, use an advocate? Someone, in the place of, or in collaboration with, an absent or overwhelmed parent or parents? Especially when a parent, maybe a single parent, isn’t (for whatever reason) able to provide some of the educational basics that their children need—reading to them, for example. Think of all the benefits reading to a child offers: on top of vocabulary and brain development, the attention and intimacy shared with the child are invaluable intangibles that help a child grow healthily.

Noble’s assessment also found that “the patchwork of programs, rules and applications make it tough for parents (or anybody) to sort out where they can get help for their children. Some programs are open only to families under a certain income, some offer enrollment on a sliding scale, and some are open to all state residents. They vary in whether they have to provide transportation, how they handle waiting lists, and the age of children who can participate.” Etc.

So, maybe funding is not the primary problem because we really have no idea what we’re actually funding and how much it would cost to do it right. If we apply the principle of “Occum’s Razor” (the simplest solution is usually the best) to rid us of extraneous blather, how difficult would it be to designate an actual “educator”–not a politician—to organize this district(s)-wide? Really, does this seem that complicated? Then, with success demonstrated, nationwide? Or is that asking too much? Imagine the benefit to world peace if early education existed worldwide.

 

However, the real problem it seems is inertia. Yup, get the government involved and whatcha got? INERTIA.

Partisan bickering. Who gets the credit? Public or private? Didn’t get it done this legislative session so we’ll argue again next year, and the next. In an article titled, “Fight for federal right to education takes a new turn” in The Conversation, University of South Carolina Professor of Law Derek W. Black points out our government’s founders’ warning that “…in letters, presidential addresses to Congress, and other official acts, the strength of our democracy would depend on public education cultivating the skills of citizenship. Public education was to be the fuel that makes America work.”

Yet the belief that every child has a “right to education” is only hot air in many states. And currently in Washington, public education is not a priority and that, in turn, affects state funding, obstructing the progress of what “makes America work.”

Ted Kolerie, a longtime public policy analyst in Minnesota who received the prestigious James Bryant Conant Award in High School Chemistry Teaching for his contributions to public education, wrote a report called “Nation At Risk” in 1983. In it, he declared that our educational system desperately needed a change or our nation would be “at risk,” a risk many now feel we are experiencing with our current presidential administration, especially regarding the current status of—and lack of attention to— our educational system. If Kolerie pointed this out in 1983, would it now be safe to say inertia in government exists?

Of course, doing something about that risk would require perspective, as well as funding. When the ensuing discussion in 1983 led to nowhere in Washington, the Ronald Reagan presidential administration passed the buck, declaring that the educational system and the structure of school were just fine. The problems, it decided, were low performance and accountability. To clarify: low performance by U.S. students as measured by generalized standardized tests. And accountability on the part of teachers.

So the conclusion, it appeared, was not that we need to evolve our educational system to properly serve today’s children, but that students in America are simply stupid, and we need to teach them to answer test questions better. Thus came federal programs like “No Child Left Behind.”

Sounds good, except if children aren’t prepared for school, they’re left behind before they even get there. And eventually it was discovered that teaching kids to answer standardized test questions rather than, for example, to think, hasn’t improved test scores. So, educators in some schools and districts who care about actual learning have wisely moved their classes, schools, and districts away from these misguided programs.

As for accountability—a.k.a. the instructors’ fault—It doesn’t cost anything to pass the blame onto teachers.  And this has had the effect of eroding, in the public’s eye, the prestige of the teaching profession. So, besides losing good teachers to higher paying, more prestigious professions, we are not attracting new and talented teachers. Any wonder our educational system is in dire straits?

Back to the basic problem: inertia by the government. Kolerie came to a solution for this inertia (It’s the jar of jam, again—totally obvious): “Let teachers fix it,” he postured. Fantastic, Mr. Kolerie. What a genius! Let teachers figure out what to do about teaching—not politicians (as I mentioned earlier) but teachers! Why didn’t somebody see that jar sooner? Man, amazing. (Ok, so it’s hard for a teacher, even an “ex,” not to get sarcastic.)

Teachers, better than anyone, will know how to organize the appropriate programs for their schools and districts. This is happening, randomly, as I’ve said. Teachers in Minnesota have created some excellent programs in various districts (I would imagine in districts with the most parental involvement, school board support, and public funding?). That’s certainly a start. Now we need to get more parents involved and give teachers more power to develop programs in every school district. Then we need state governments to support the teachers and the programs so they can be coordinated, homogeneous, less confusing, and fair to all students regardless of economic or geographical differences. And finally, is it a pipe dream to consider that this plan could be expanded to get national support, state by state?

Maybe the United States could, once again, be a role model for education. Right now, we are NOTKeep politicians out of the implementation of ideas. Education is not a political issue, except to provide support and arrange funding for those who know what needs be done. Teachers will change things quicker and more dramatically than even school boards, much less the government, if given the opportunity.

 

 

So, how to engage my “problem” students and help them to respect that they have abilities other than the ones they’d been told they’re failures at? I told them all to get ahold of a camera.

When they looked at me askance, I told them anyone who came in with a camera the next day could go outside with me. I figured they’d do anything to get out of “prison.” I also told them I might not notice if they lit up a cigarette. They all smoked back then—the least of their transgressions. So, sorry, but I needed to make concessions. I needed them to believe they could trust me, not just see me as another cog in the system they felt was against them.

Next day they all showed up with cameras—I’m afraid many of them by fraudulent means. Oh, well. We went outside and I told them to film the alphabet. Most of them lit up immediately, blew smoke toward me and said, “What?” I pointed to the goal posts out on the football field, as an example. “H,” I said. “The goal posts form a visual ‘H.’”They went to work.

Second day we looked at some of the more creative photos. They hadn’t gotten through the entire alphabet, but the ones we printed were inspiring. Even the kids who hadn’t taken the assignment all that seriously thought: “I can do this.” So, they wanted to go back out.

It got competitive. They wanted to outdo each other. I had shown them a few professional photos and, seriously, they were impressed and motivated. Many really had a good eye. (They hadn’t been told this is something they’re not good at.)

To give them a reason to have to write, I told them to create captions for their photos. They weren’t as good at this at first. Writing summoned up bad memories, anxieties. They all had been told, at one time or another, that they were bad writers. I decided I had to change this self-perception. Few people excel at things they’ve been told they’re no good at, especially when you’re told it as a kid.

Then I brought some of the better pics to my literary magazine staff—a group of academically motivated kids who were pretty much the exact opposite of my “problem” students. (I was the advisor of the magazine.) They were impressed and loved the idea of creating a page or two in the magazine depicting the entire alphabet in photos. They also were pretty surprised and impressed by some of the captions, calling them clever and creative. (As a matter of fact they accused me of writing them myself.)

When I brought this plan back to my students, along with a couple past issues of the literary magazine for them to look at, they got, like, nervous. They didn’t trust, I discovered, that I would really follow through with it; the distrust, I believe, came from their own insecurities—again, they didn’t believe they were good enough. This irritated the hell out of me.

I asked the four who had taken the most creative pics if they wanted to complete the alphabet by getting some good pics of the missing letters. This meant I had to let them go outside on their own, unsupervised—against prison rules, of course. I asked them if I could trust them to not do something stupid, getting all of us in trouble, not just me. They smiled, said not to worry.

Well, some responsible adult saw leather-clad hoodlums out a window, and soon the principal was at my door accusing me of being insane. I convinced him that we should give them a chance on their own—that I trusted them completely (my fingers were crossed). But how can you teach “trust”? Only by trusting, it seemed. And so it was.

With the rest I made a contest out of coming up with better captions, not just for their own photos, but for any of the picture they liked. I gave my two best grammarians the job of correcting the spelling, etc. This embarrassed some of them, and, miraculously, out of the blue spelling and grammar improved. I guess for the first time it mattered. I’m sure they could just see other teachers, even students, looking down at their work and down on them, thinking them stupid. That was their history. Can’t change history, but the future can be a different story. They really seemed proud of what they were doing.

This gave me another idea: I informed them we would be writing some poetry as well for the literary mag. This got quite a laugh, and a few unprintable responses. To make a long story short I convinced them that, like with “blues” artists, they had experienced pain, anger, and had strong emotions and conflicts in their lives that the ordinary student had not.

So, we listened to some blues. I had them write down line-by-line (like a poem) answers to some random personal questions I asked them. Told them to let loose, not to worry about swear words, spelling or grammar—that we could clean it all up later. Well, talk about catharsis! Holy snot!

Then I had them rearrange the lines to make them more potent, and I wandered around giving them some suggestions. It didn’t take much. I introduced them to the thesaurus. Their vocabulary was limited. Few of their parents had ever read to them or even had books in the house, meaning very few of them read at all. And, naturally, there had been little to no early childhood education. My purpose was to get them to need to read. My ultimate, yearlong challenge would be to get them to enjoy reading. It was accomplished, for most, with the novel, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. More on that later.

We got into the habit of listening to various blues and other artists. Their favorite, surprisingly, was Leonard Cohen (influenced maybe a bit by me as he is also one of my favorites). Maybe because they had never been stymied by conformity, they had no problem with the abstract. They loved metaphors.

I made a game out of it. We would take a line like, “Feeling nearly faded as my jeans,” from the song “Me and Bobby Magee,” and I’d ask them to fill in the blanks: Feeling nearly ______ as my ______. They enjoyed doing it and they came up with stuff a person with a “normal” upbringing wouldn’t. Surprised the heck out of me. They loved the lyric “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” They got it. From the line, “Bobby shared the secrets of my soul,” we pulled a lot of secrets from their souls.

When I brought their written work to my magazine staff students, they again couldn’t believe that my “problem” kids had written it. My staff was composed of some brilliant, exceptional writers—one even won the prestigious National Council of Teachers English Award. So they were perceptive to good, powerful writing. While the syntax wasn’t always right, sometimes we left the spelling and phrasing incorrect. It added to the artistry. The cool thing was that my “problems” now knew when it was wrong and could have corrected it if need be.

 

Back to cracks in our foundation—cracks that are letting light in and illuminating more problems. Take away prestige, fair compensation, monetary and moral support, yet expect to attract dynamic people to the teaching profession? Dynamic, dedicated teachers that are molding your children’s futures? Not happening. I hate to repeat myself, but we’re losing teachers and fewer good ones are entering into teacher training programs in college. We currently have a teacher shortage.

According to a January 31, 2019 report in the Minneapolis StarTribune titled, Most licensed Minnesota teachers are turning to other careers”, some 70,000 licensed Minnesota teachers aren’t currently working in classrooms.

And, it’s only going to get worse unless we address the problem. Think about that. If we don’t wake up soon, it’s likely to become a catastrophic problem. The foundation is crumbling!

A September 13, 2018 article in TIme magazine cites U.S. Department of Education data: Fulltime public school teachers (K through 12) are experiencing some of the worst wage stagnation of any profession, earning less on average, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than they did in 1999.The data also indicates that, on average, teachers make 24 percent less than other college graduates.

Furthermore, the Department of Education says that adding a Master’s Degree doesn’t necessarily help. Though it varies from state to state, depending on how poorly each pays, teachers with Master’s Degrees make about 40 percent less than those with Master’s Degrees working in other professions.

You going to encourage your kids or grandkids to become teachers? They may have to live in a trailer (I did, remember?), and they won’t be able to afford to put their kids through college. But, hey, even if underpaid and under-appreciated, look at all the good they’ll be doing.

In an October 2018 essay, former teacher and journalist Rubin Navarrette ill-advisedly advises teachers, “If you don’t love it, leave it.” He, representative apparently of many politicians, essentially believes teachers have a lot of gall to ask for fair pay. Great advice, though! (Sarcasm, of course.) Unfortunately, teachers that love it, are leaving it.

I’m a case in point.

Now, I’m not complaining about the job itself. It was, for me—and should be for any teacher—a rewarding profession. I felt I was playing an important role in society. I thoroughly enjoyed my students and my intelligent, dedicated associates. Some are still friends—both students and associates. I loved all of it. At the time, I told people I’d do it for nothing, which in effect I almost was, living paycheck to paycheck. There was nothing left at the end of the month. Eventually, however, you realize you’re not getting paid what you’re worth.

Oh, but look at the job security, I’d hear. Even if you’re a lousy teacher, we can’t get rid of you (because most teachers are tenured). Where does this accusation come from? Is being a lousy teacher determined by your students’ standardized test scores? It’s easy to toss the blame on teachers, instead of parents, the system, or a lack of funding. My “problem” kids would have scored poorly on a standardized test. Would that be my fault?

 

I don’t need to quote studies that identify the most important element in a child’s education to be the parent(s). It’s self-evident and unarguable. It’s true that the more education parents have, the more likely they are to read to their children, support education, and, thus, the more likely their children will be prepared for school and predisposed to succeed. The more involved the parent(s), the more likely the child will succeed.

Yes, families living in poverty are likely to have less education, and, therefore, are less likely to promote education or to read to their kids and, consequently, their children clearly have a lower chance of success—in school and, naturally, after. Thus the “achievement gap.” So, obviously, this is a clearly recognizable reason kids living in poverty may need an advocate and early childhood education for sure.

This is especially significant regarding, once again, the so-called “moral” necessity of education. It really needs to be a part of EVERY (not just low income) young child’s early education; we need to promote tolerance to diversity before the lines of division harden. Since there is no way to ensure this happens in the family, a teacher, a caring adult or an advocate of some sort must be provided by our educational system to give all kids the same opportunity for moral and character development.

For all of our sakes, we need a unifier and an equalizer. Every child should have the same advantages in order for them to become collaborative members of society. Not only is that fair, but beneficial, as we have discussed, to all. As the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone eloquently stated: “When we all do well, we all do well.”

This may offend some, but may I remind you: your children need you, as parents, to do your job well, regardless of social status.If prejudice, hate, and intolerance are learned, the parent plays the ultimate role in this moral aspect of their child’s education. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway smash Hamilton, is quoted in a December 2018 TIME article saying,“The hardest and most worthwhile job is to teach and model empathy to our children.” That used to be an assumed parental job, until we all got so busy with our careers, our own immediate “survival” needs, personal moral battles, or whatever it was that made us lose perspective on what our most important job is.

If a parent is intolerant, angry, unkind and uninvolved, our educational system needs to be involved prior to school, to change the culture of hate and prejudice that is roiling through our country (and much of the world, of course). Well-prepared teachers and advocates need to be involved to reinforce these “moral” aspects.

Children’s behavior in school is mirrored by what’s expected and acceptable at home. And when teachers don’t have the support of the parent(s), they cannot do the job, ironically, that the parents expect them to do. Educating children is a collaboration.

Back to “lousy” teachers. You can’t survive in a classroom if you’re not dedicated. Those innocent rug rats will see right through it, eat you alive, and spit out your eyeballs. Yes, as in any profession, some teachers are able to resonate better with their students than others.  We need to attract these people to the profession.

And back to “job security” as well. Even after 13 years of teaching, I became the least senior English teacher in my school district due to declining enrollment (something else that needs to be addressed about the system). I knew I was going to get a pink slip. The principal told me to hang in there, that I’d probably eventually be all right. But with five kids and a wife at home I anguished: “What do I do?”

 

 

If you recall, I mentioned earlier that the novel “Of Mice and Men” got many of my students to develop a positive attitude towards reading. It also provided an education for me, and created my most poignant moment in 13 years of teaching.

I’d discovered that many if not most of my students, since they had rarely if ever read for enjoyment, only saw words but didn’t live the experience, actually visualizing the characters and action.

Knowing that Of Mice and Men worked well on the stage, as a play, I asked them if they’d like me to read and interpret the characters for them. Perhaps not so surprisingly, they thought it was a great idea. With me “performing,” they could “read” the book without any anxiety. Being a theater guy and a sometimes-ham, I read it as interpretively as I could, playing each role.

If you don’t know the story (I’d highly recommend it—it’s a relatively brief, beautiful story) or don’t remember it, here’s a brief synopsis: The characters Lenny and George are itinerant farm workers in the Dust Bowl era. George is a bright, fast-talking con artist who has been taking care of Lenny; it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, as Lenny is intimidatingly large and strong, yet gentle and simple-minded.

George keeps Lenny’s spirits up by always talking about a rabbit farm that he promises they’ll one day own. Lenny loves rabbits and it’s all he can talk about. But Lenny always pets the rabbits too hard and inadvertently kills them.

When I pointed out this irony (getting the opposite of your intended effect, i.e. killing by affection), their eyes opened wide, like they’d just seen something for the first time. They, of course, had similar experiences in their lives. This precipitated several little interruptions in my reading, the students pointing out other perceived ironies and metaphors in the book (some were on target, some weren’t). I was pleasantly surprised at how engaged my kids had become. I feared they’d think it was juvenile that I was reading to them. But no. They really got into it. They were living it.

In the book, one day Lenny pets the hair of the farm owner’s pretty daughter-in-law, and when he does it too hard, she starts to scream. Lenny puts his hand over her mouth to quiet her and accidentally suffocates her. He and George have to run. They don’t get very far before George hears the dogs, and knows they aren’t getting away. They stop by a creek and as George soothes Lenny, talking again about the rabbit farm of their own they’d now be sure to get, he pulls out his gun and shoots Lenny, saving him the savagery he would have experienced when they would be apprehended.

While reading that last scene, I realized you could have heard a pin drop in the room. None of the kids moved a muscle; they hardly breathed. When George shot Lenny, nearly every one of them broke into sobs.

I was actually overwhelmed. I was finding out that their toughness was a very thin veneer. But what got me crying is that, maybe without them being able to articulate it, it hit me – like Lenny, they saw themselves as “losers,” “misfits,” “outsiders.” They felt they were not going to ever get their rabbit farms.

Tim Munkeby teaching in the mid 1980s.

 

I did get hired back the next year…

…on the last day before school was set to start. Of course my old position was available; nobody else wanted it. So back I went.

However, during the summer a teammate in a softball league I played for had convinced me, as a back-up plan in case I was to get laid off again, to go through training to become a financial planner.

Hmm… I’d never before seen myself as anything but a teacher and a coach, yet in the financial world I would make a lot more money. Still, I wasn’t in teaching, obviously, for the money. I loved teaching. Could I actually leave it?

Back at school, I decided I would run a few of my “problems” that year through the regular English curriculum so they could, maybe, go to college and actually find their rabbit farms after all.  Some of them succeeded. Went to College and discovered said “farms.” Many of these students still keep in touch. A few have attained notable success. One girl started her own business and became a well-known specialty welder, and I took her on as a client after I had become a financial planner. There were others.

I was working around 80 hours a week between teaching, advising the literary magazine staff, and the financial training and studying. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, as they say. The most important thing in my life, my family, was suffering. Halfway through the school year I had to make a decision.

I knew I was going to get laid off, again, at the end of the year. And working at the training just minimally, I was making more than three-times my teacher’s salary. I was offered a management position at the financial company, the perfect transition to becoming a financial planner. I could see the rabbits hopping on my own farm (and the shimmering waters of Lake Vermilion) in my future.

I have never found a real resolution in my mind as to what I should have done. I believe—no, I know—my financial planning clients are grateful. I‘ve helped many find their rabbit farms, too. I’ve handed my own successful company off to my son and a daughter. Helped put my kids through college. Found my version of the American Dream.

I can’t say I’m not content with what I’ve done with my life. I can’t say that financial planning wasn’t satisfying and important. I retired early, gradually over time, while living at my lake and taking some glorious trips around the world. But I can’t get rid of a burr in my brain. It scratches and nags at me to this day. Could I have been satisfied with some other version of “the Dream?”

What is truly important in a person’s life? I can’t bear to think that leaving teaching was about money. Most dynamic teachers could be dynamic in another profession as well, and obviously make a better living, too. That’s why teachers have to be paid better if we don’t want to lose, much less be able to attract, excellent ones. Should I have tried to hang on, ensuring that more of those “problems” got a chance to go to college?

An easy rationalization is to conclude that fate intervened. The English teacher below me in seniority was also laid off, and then re-hired, every year for several years, though eventually attrition caught up and he made it to retirement. But he’d been single, unmarried, with no children. Could I have justified—to myself and to my family—this continual agony of job and career insecurity, year after year?

Well, I can conjecture, postulate, and brood all I want. It is, now, what it is. (I can hear the waves lapping the beach from my dormered “tower” window as I end this.) But education in the U.S.—and in many parts of the world as well—is simply not what it should be. At all levels. So, maybe to assuage my guilt, I now feel a need to be involved in drawing awareness to the necessity of three essential factors:

(1) Evolving and updating our educational system—the ground supporting the foundation of society—to fit the needs of today’s students in our changing world. I included excerpts with my “problem” students in this piece to demonstrate, hopefully, what real education is. Standardized tests would have been worthless with these students. I would have felt worthless as a teacher, as well.

(2) Keeping good teachers in the profession. Attracting quality candidates to teaching. Maintaining the dignity of the profession by paying teachers what they’re worth.

(3) Adequately funding education, most importantly early childhood education. From my experience kayaking, with all that time to think out there, I’ve decided there’slittle more important than reading to kids, from as young an age possible.

 

 

This piece has, hopefully, given you some pause. And pointed out that the “jar” is right in front of us.

We need to have sufficient foresight to fix the foundation of education now, before the cracks cause a collapse. It’s not only too expensive not to, it’s what we need to bring and hold America together.

In a December 2018 opinion piece in the Minneapolis StarTribune, attorney Michael Ciresi and economist Art Rolnick propose “A plan to get the most bang for the early-learning buck.” They write, “Every $1 invested in helping low-income children access high-quality early-learning programs yields up to $16 in societal benefits.” Rolnick and Ciresi suggest moving toward “Universal Pre-K (UPK)” where low-income kids are served first, middle-income next, and, eventually all pre-K kids. They suggest: “It’s time to put the bickering aside and reach a bipartisan compromise on early education.”

The more people that recognize this need, and then act on it, the sooner our neighborhoods, our state, and our country will become a better place—for us and for our children and grandchildren. We need to keep and attract teachers that are dedicated and who resonate with their students. Learning should be exciting. Every child—poor, entitled, learning disabled, and yes, the “problems”—should all have a fair chance for a future.

SNAP!

We don’t need “warships” run by admirals in Washington to muddle barely forward (if not backward). Instead, we need to give funding and authority to educators (not politicians) to guide a kayak here and a kayak there…school district by school district, ideally with parents coming along for the ride…until every child learns to be tolerant, kind, empathetic.

This moral aspect of education becomes the foundation for our children to grow into successful students and, in turn, fruitful and content members of humanity. So, please act! Do something!

And then the children, too, can paddle on into their future, with the wind at their backs.

SNAP!

Nothing’s more important.

SNAP!

Nothing.

 

 Photo Illustration by Ben Miron

 

Tim Munkeby can be found at timmunkeby.com where he blogs as “The Obvious Advocate.”  He’s also the author of three books, with a fourth, The Advocate, being released soon. 

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