A commentary on the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview on PBS

September 17th, 2011

Being a teacher is a thankless task.

Students have little respect for you, administration thinks you’re shirking your duties and are constantly evaluating you, and politicians use you as a punching bag.

Take the recent appearance of Michelle Rhee on Tavis Smiley.

Her basic message was simple:

If students are not doing well, blame the teachers (and their unions).

It’s the same old refrain that bureaucrats have been echoing for years. As a teacher, I’m frankly sick and tired of hearing it.

Because amidst these debates, one point seems to be consistently missed.

Learning is a two-way street between teacher and student.

It can only occur when both parties participate fully in the process.

Zen masters like to compare teaching to pouring tea into a teacup — if the cup is full, no amount of pouring will make the cup accept more tea.

To expand on that analogy, if the cup is closed, no amount of pouring will make the tea go into the cup too.

And that’s the problem facing most of us teachers.

Despite our best efforts, if the other party (the student) refuses to participate in the process, there’s not much we can do.

No amount of coaxing, cajoling, and teaching gimmicks will make the student learn when he/she has closed their minds to learning.

But these days, it’s fashionable to blame teachers for all the failings in our school systems.

When schools fail and test scores are low, blame the teachers. Fire them, make them jump through more hoops, subject them to endless evaluations, require them to keep copious records of students’ progress.

Most educators in the trenches know that this is just so much smoke and mirrors. Mere posturing and theater. Administrators trying to look busy and engaged in their jobs. Politicians looking for an issue.

Because despite these fancy measures, standards have continued to decline.

I say it’s time for a new approach.

And that approach is to work on the receiving side – to open up students and make them receptive to learning.

Let me qualify that by saying that no, I’m not suggesting that all teachers are blameless. Good teachers are few and far in between, just as good doctors are few and far in between, just as good pastors are few and far in between. (Is there any profession or vocation that does not have their share of deadwood?)

But learning can take place even when the quality of the knowledge that is being poured into the cups is sub par (I can attest to that, having had my share of disengaged and disinterested teachers in my life), just as healing can take place even under mediocre doctors, perhaps just not as fast.

All we need are receptive students and for that, the responsibility lies squarely on the parents.

Parents have to get involved. They have to take an active interest in their children’s education. They have to encourage and motivate their children to learn, and provide a good environment at home for that learning to take place.

Until that happens, students will continue to be disinterested in learning and test scores will continue to be low.

To quote another old saying, “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” You can bring a child to school but you can’t make him/her learn.

Back to the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview.

Until October of 2010, Ms. Rhee was the chancellor of DC public schools. Soon after she left the school district, she formed a new student advocacy group, Students First.

One of the stated goals of the organization is to recruit one million members and raise $1 billion dollars in five years. (Yes, that’s $1 billion.)

This is an inordinately large amount which Tavis Smiley was quick to point out.

He asked her, does this amount suggest that she believes that lack of money is the problem for our schools?

To which Rhee provided a rather startling answer, the money is not going to schools or students. Instead, it will be used to pay lobbyists.

According to her, teachers’ unions and the AFT are spending $500 million a year on lobbyists, so if Students First wants to counteract their efforts, it has to spend at least $200 million a year on lobbyists too.

Brilliant solution! Only in America.

To put students first, pay $1 billion to lobbyists.

I’m sure test scores across the country will skyrocket with that bold and visionary move.

2 Responses to “A commentary on the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview on PBS”

  1. Alphonsus Jr. Says:

    You’ll be interested in this essay by the excellent James V. Schall, S.J. called “What a Student Owes His Teacher”:


  2. Philip Hii Says:

    Thanks for the link. “Students have obligations to their teachers” — I’m in full agreement.

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