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Advice for Politicians Speaking to Teachers

Time for a quick sermon. As I’ve stated before, my qualifications to preach include being a former teacher and school principal who worked with thousands of great students, teachers, and families. I’m now at the pinnacle of my career in my Gramps hat as the walker of trails.

Recently, a politician spoke at a public school staff’s opening assembly for second semester. Nothing against politicians, but if we’re looking for someone to inspire educators as they begin a new year, we could probably do better. And, in today’s politically charged division, someone not associated with any particular political party might be a better choice when addressing a diverse group of educators.

Teachers face the continued challenges of a pandemic, staff shortages, increased social-emotional health needs of students, and criticism from the public and politicians for sometimes sharing an honest rendering of our nation’s history.

A politician preaching on the dangers of our national deficit while defending his voting record and asking that teachers help students reach their full potential is not inspiring or relevant to the challenges educators face.

If Mr. Politician had a clue about education, he’d know the teachers he was addressing were committed to helping their students reach their full potential, or they would have already left. Mr. Politician might also realize that using the national deficit to justify voting against infrastructure after voting in favor of tax breaks for the wealthy exudes the aroma of BS for educators skilled in the art of detecting BS.

Mr. Politician might be better off sharing his educational journey and a teacher who inspired him if he had one. Then, asking teachers to talk to him while he listens might be a good way to wrap up the program. Just my opinion.

Paying it Forward

Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators newsletter, September, 2013.

After his first year of college my father was back in his hometown of Smackover looking for work.   He wouldn’t be able to continue his education because money for tuition simply was not there.   Two local men learned of his situation and contacted my grandfather.  They told him to send his son right back to school because his tuition had been covered for the next year.   They asked my father not to repay them but to “pass it on.”

My father went on to finish college with a degree in science while working campus and summer jobs and qualifying for scholarships.  His career path eventually led to his directing pollution control in oil and chemical plants.  By the time I entered college my dad operated a water treatment plant for an oil refinery.  I saw dark, sludgy liquids entering this plant only to come the other side as crystal clear water.  He enjoyed his job because it blended his love of science and appreciation for the natural world.  He was able to do this work because of his education.   While he may have doubted the wisdom of my decision to pursue a degree in music, he saw to it that I went to college.

I admire people who can say “I’m a self-made man,” but in my case it just wouldn’t be accurate.  The truth is that my way has been opened by the kindness and generosity of others.  I was once trying to express to my father that there’s no way to repay your parents for all that they do in your lifetime.  He said the only repayment he wanted was to see his gifts passed on to his grandchildren.

Some of the most significant gifts from my parents have been time, unconditional love, and an education.  There was never a question if my father would attend a ballgame, concert, or school event.  I never once wondered if he would come home after work.  His commitment to my mother and his children was unconditional.   He had been given some opportunities and would see to it that those gifts were passed on to his children.   The best I can do is say “thank you” and work to pass those gifts on to my children and the children I’m privileged to work with at school.

In our rush-a-day work as educators it might do us good to pause and reflect on the gifts we’ve been given.  Who has helped us along the way by giving encouragement or supporting our growth?  How have we worked to increase the value of these gifts and paid them forward?  Whose professional growth are we investing in and how are we encouraging others (children and adults) on their paths of learning?

I never met either of the men who covered my father’s college tuition.  Many years later I told the story to one of their granddaughters and learned that her grandfather was a giving person who helped a number of young people in his community in similar ways.  He would have been pleased to learn that his gift of educational opportunity had been passed down to his great-granddaughter’s school principal.

Some gifts have a way of increasing in value over time.  Like that gift of college tuition for my father so many years ago, our investments in others will have positive effects for years and possibly generations to come.

Note: Below is a picture of my dad (blue hardhat) and description of work he was involved with in water conservation.



My father writing a letter to my mother in the early 1950s from Korea.

My father writing a letter to my mother in the early 1950s from Korea.

Climbing a mountain in Mexico with my dad in the late 90s.

Climbing a mountain in Mexico with my dad in the late 90s.

My dad in 2013, at 85, visiting his hometown of Smackover.

My dad in 2013, at 85, visiting his hometown of Smackover.

What We Do Matters – Thoughts on Retention

Report card from my elementary school years. Six-week grading periods.

Report card from my elementary school years. Six-week grading periods.

What we do as educators matters and may change the trajectory of a child’s life long-term.  I know I’m stating the obvious but, as this story illustrates, our actions have significant consequences on children.

A student moved into Alma last summer.  The parents were unsure where their child should attend since she was being retained.  They produced a letter from the elementary principal in another town and school district (which will remain nameless).  The letter said the child was being retained in the 2nd grade because she had “not mastered the skills necessary to move on to the next grade level.”  The letter went on to say, “Once a child is moved on to the next grade level, he or she never again has the chance to ‘go back’ and learn the skills of the previous grade.”  This statement made me angry.  Since when did grade-level skills become so specific, clearly defined, and easy to measure?   Since when did children become consistently formed cogs that fit so tightly into specific grade levels in our schools?  I’m continually “going back” and relearning things.   Sometimes I learn things I missed or that became relevant to me later in life.  The same thing happens with children and with much more fluidity.

I resisted the urge to scream “educational malpractice” after reading the principal’s letter and looked for evidence of the need for retention.  I should give full disclosure here and say that I don’t believe repeating a grade is good practice in education.  One reason I don’t care for this practice is that I have found no creditable research that supports retention.  But, we looked at the evidence on this child.

  • Attendance in second grade…pretty good.
  • Grades in second grade….All As and Bs with one C.
  • Light’s Retention Scale results….none had been done.
  • Student attitude about retention….Neither the child nor the parents had been asked about this.
  • Test scores from spring of second grade…. From 62nd to 81st percentile in various sub-tests in Math.  Lower in reading with scores below the 40th percentile with higher scores being in reading comprehension.  This would register concern about fluency skills and developmental delays which might be recovered with intervention and good teaching.

After having the parents complete a Light’s Retention Scale and consulting together about the results, we decided she should not be retained.

Since August we’ve seen this child engage in learning and enjoy strong relationships with teachers and her peers in our third grade.  She is progressing at a good rate based on all assessment criteria.

How different might her life have been if she’d gone through another year of second grade?  I think we avoided what would have been a long and negative trajectory because we made thoughtful decisions about this child and placed her with wonderful, engaging teachers.  What we do matters.

Daily Prompt: Undo – Education Without Textbooks


Daily Prompt: If you could un-invent something, what would it be?

I would like to un-invent school textbooks. When I imagine what my own education might have been like without textbooks, not much of significance is missing. Textbooks served to replace the likelihood that we would seek knowledge from authentic sources.  The hidden message?  What was important to know was contained in textbooks.

How might our lives been different without following an “accidental curriculum” based on a few large textbook publishers marketing to a few large states?  As an adult, I learned that much of what was contained in textbooks was biased and sometimes just plain wrong.  This was a shocking revelation.  That this occurred in adulthood shows just how irrelevant and disconnected from reality much of my education really was.

Some would say that textbooks served an important purpose in the education of generations of children but I argue the same could have been done with authentic resources right along side chalkboards or pens and paper.

Just a few years ago, we educators could count on springtime “Textbook Caravans.”  These were announced through state department memos with many locations so no one would be left out.  Representatives of textbook companies would present one of the textbooks being considered for “adoption,” highlighting the “extras” included like black-line masters (worksheets), teaching trinkets, or even rolling carts to move the heavy materials from one location to another.   Snacks were usually provided by the well-meaning retired educators-turned-textbook-reps.

Textbooks are desperately hanging on.  Money is at stake here.  Textbook companies have consolidated in efforts to remain afloat.  They’ve made attempts to deliver the same big-state-driven content with technology.  This might improve efficiency, but not relevance.

Students must find it amusing that adults resist dropping the use of textbooks. The broad range of technology and print resources available for free or reasonable subscription charges make textbook adoptions on eight-year rotations look absurd.

Imagine a world without textbooks where teachers and students move through inexhaustible resources that are relevant and customized to the learners!   Sounds like one step toward a relevant education.

“That-a-way, Bo!” Encouragement Makes a Difference

“That-a-way, Bo!”  Those words meant a lot to this freshman, unsure about his chances of success in college.  The memory of his high school counselor’s hesitancy about his college plans were still fresh and caused strong feelings of doubt.

Now, with the words “That-a-way” from the greatest musician he’d ever been around, the possibility of success seemed real – he was going to make it! There were some discouraging times during college, but this professor helped many students perform better than they ever thought possible.

He set high expectations and was relentless in holding to them.  He had the ability to move toward goals in spite of distractions.  He was a learner with his students even as this great man taught them.  He loved his work with such enthusiasm that the lines between work and play were often blurred.

Now, as a school principal and teacher, I am thankful for his influence.  He never set out to provide instruction on how to be a principal, but he taught many lessons and gave me confidence that I benefit from today.

When I am doing my most satisfying work, I sometimes feel like he’s looking over my shoulder saying, “That-a-way, Bo!”  There is no greater satisfaction than knowing you have done your best.  Mr. Wendell Evanson, my band director at Henderson State University, taught me this lesson.  I hope we can help every child learn the joy of work and a job well done.

Wendell Evanson and his former student having a visit.

Wendell Evanson and his former student having a visit.

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