About 180 Days: Who’s Watching (#10)

Allen looked at Frank with a skeptical eye. “Who’s watching?”

Frank answered carefully, “At the retreat Ralph Hanby asked me to keep an eye on things. He wanted to know stuff about the high school.”

“Ralph Hanby? The same Ralph Hanby who…” started Allen.

“Who what, Allen?”

Sometimes our mouths get ahead of our judgment. Allen’s mouth had rushed far ahead of his thinking. He nearly said that Ralph Hanby had been the board member who forced Allen to send Frank to counseling. Because of his position on the school board, Hanby had access and authority to get what he wanted from the school district. Most board members respect their position, but Hanby recognized opportunity and felt emboldened by his power.

Allen decided to tell Frank. “It was Hanby who complained about you to Dr. Russell. He wanted you to be fired, but Dr. Russell stuck by your side.”

“Stuck by my side? Right. A girl makes up a story and I end up going to counseling. It was humiliating.”

“Better than getting fired,” joked Allen.

“Allen, I swear to you, I never asked her about her birth control. She offered up that she was using it so that she could miss class. I let her go to study hall and then I asked her guidance counselor what was going on. Her guidance counselor was the one who called the parents. Not me. I did nothing wrong.”

“I believe you, Frank, but Hanby was putting the clamps on Dr. Russell because his daughter who is a friend with the girl said you asked her if she was taking birth control. Dr. Russell had to do something to get Hanby to back down.”

Frank shook his head. For all the talk of the school district being a community and family, Frank’s experience had been that of a disowned child. The experience felt like a chunky rock being dropped on his foot. The pain radiated, but eventually went away. The memory, however, was recorded deeply in his ability to believe anything that was said about how the teachers, administration, and community were all in this education thing together. Hanby was a roadblock to Frank feeling trust in school again.

“Well, it would seem to me that if he didn’t get me fired and that’s what he really wanted, revenge might be on his mind. You and Dr. Russell let him down. Since he probably thinks I would rat you guys out, he came to me for dirt to use against you. I’d say his is doing more than watching.”

Allen was used to being the conniving one. Being on the defensive was something knew for him. He liked to think that he was the offensive person in most social situations, something Frank would have agreed to, but in this case he was caught off guard. There had been rumblings that the board was dissatisfied with the achievement gap between the lower socioeconomic groups and the upper crust kids. There was also a growing frustration in the community about the lack of success with the sports teams. He wondered if these could be reasons for Hanby to approach Frank. He also wondered if it was worth engaging Hanby at all.

“So what are you going to do, Allen,” asked Frank.

“Probably, nothing.”

“Are you going to say something to your girlfriend?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend?”

Frank chuckled, “I mean, Dr. Russell.”

“Do you think Hanby would go after her? Should I say something to her?”

“Allen, you do what you want, but I think Hanby is only thinking about Hanby. He wants to present himself as a community minded person. He has shown that he only thinks for the things that benefit his kids or his close friends. You need to make sure you account for every invoice, keep all of the chrome polished, and figure out how to make this PIOUS thing seem like a true innovation.”

“Or what?” asked Allen.

“Looks like counseling for you, son. I know a place with great rates.”

“Yes you do,” said Allen. “Will you keep me in the loop if Hanby gets back to you?”

“Sure, but I’m playing both sides. I may even talk to the union just in case. I don’t feel good about this.”

Allen extended his hand to Frank, “Deal and I agree with you. Something isn’t right.”

Frank shook Allen’s hand and said, “I wish I could just teach.”

About 180 Days: Americans and Soviets (#9)

Allen Marina was an average man. He had risen to the ranks of building principal by having a diverse resume that promised leadership, but hid his lack of substance. His business experience was as a financial manager which taught him the gift of gab and left him worn out with the uncertain work hours. He was a mediocre salesman and he realized that he would never be able to play on the same level of those who were above his means. He transitioned into education with all the promise of an upstart Wall Street trader who wows with a few lucky trades. A market correction would happen when Allen’s personality would expose his inability to see beyond his ambition and his failure to understand that leaders stand for something beyond themselves. In education, leaders who only stand for test scores or do not follow through on discipline issues quickly develop reputations as frauds. They then are nothing more than managers who put out orders and make appearances at events. Allen was more doorman than educational leader and despite his ability to finagle relationships for his gain, he was losing the building due to a lack of credibility. PIOUS was the latest anchor to bring him down.

The thing about power to those who covet it as they would a valuable possession is that they know enough to get it and then fear what happens when they lose it. Allen was there. He wanted nothing more than to ascend to the next level, a superintendent, but his lack of understanding of what it was like to be a teacher was a massive obstacle to his fuzzy chances of ever being the top educator for a school district. Allen knew that and feared that being a building principal, which he likened to being an announcer at a circus, was something he would do for the rest of eternity.

His observation of Mr. Mehlman’s class had been an eye opener. Mehlman talked to the students in a language that they understood. He adapted on the fly so that each student was getting independent lessons. He set clear boundaries and seemed to have little need for the latest, greatest instructional method to hit the educational ATM that schools often are. Mehlman was doing a good job with a tough group of students. Allen had a hard time understanding how Mehlman did it and he was conflicted about his knew knowledge because it went against everything his boss, Dr. Betty Russell, who just happened to be the number one PIOUS supporter in the district. For the first time in his working life Allen was faced with professional dissonance and he was wrestling with the first covenant of his ambition laden life, “Thou shalt never not think like the boss.” He needed counseling and Allen decided to turn to the one person in the school who would give him an honest answer, Frank.

Allen found Frank in his PE office working the mini-crossword from the New York Times. Frank was struggling and Allen did not know the rules of crossword watching. It’s rude to yell out the answers.

“Four across, against is “contra,” said Allen.

Frank looked back with annoyance and said, “If you weren’t my boss I would go off for that.”

“You would be beseeching me.”

“Allen, you don’t have to talk like you’re some kind of wordsmith. Why are you here?”

“I’ve got questions about PIOUS and you’re the only person who can help me.”

Frank sensed a set up. He and Allen had never agreed on much, so Allen asking him for help did not seem right. Frank was also still trying to figure out why a Board member had asked him to keep an eye on the school.

“Okay, hold on, I’ve got to rinse with some mouthwash.Taking care of the enamel you know.” Frank didn’t really need to rinse, but he knew if his mouth was full he would not be able to say something that might get him into trouble. He took a swig from the bottle and nodded for Allen to ask away.

“Well, Frank, I understand the mnemonics of PIOUS, but I am beginning to wonder if it is going to do all of the things that Betty…I mean, Dr. Russell says it will do.”

Frank swished. The alcohol was starting to burn his gums. The mnemonic comment added to the sting.

Allen continued, “I just left Mehlman’s room and there was an energy there that was like nothing I ever see in other classrooms. He didn’t have any posters up, the TV with the daily scroll was off, and there were none of the PIOUS objectives anywhere to be seen. But the kids were learning. Is the mnemonic wrong?”

Frank rushed back to his sink unable to take it anymore. He spit out the mouthwash, which had ceased stinging, and blurted out, “Acronym. It’s an acronym. Each letter stands for something, but they don’t help you to remember anything.” He lifted his thumb and said, “Practical Instruction Offered Uniquely System.” With each word he lifted another finger.

Allen stared at him for a second. His brain was trying to understand the difference between a mnemonic device and an acronym. Finding no need to recognize the difference he said, “Same thing, right?”

“Why are you here, Allen?”

“I need to understand why we are doing PIOUS. You’re a straight shooter. Can you help me out?”

“Are you sure you want me to explain to you why I think we are using this program that is being forced upon us?”

Allen nodded his head.

“Alright, but you’re not going to like everything I say. I’ve got to trust that you’re not going to send me to that place again.”

“You know that wasn’t me. That was Betty’s, I mean, Dr. Russell’s ideas. I had no choice.”

“No choice because she is your boss or because you guys are seeing each other?”

Allen paused before answering, “I had no choice.”

“Okay, have a seat. Let’s have a bit of an educational history lesson for a moment. Back in the 60s the United States began to adopt a philosophy that minimized intelligence testing and gave greater credence to environmental factors like poverty and family on a child’s ability to learn. At the same time the Russians, who believed that every person could learn whatever if given the proper instruction, were switching to a philosophy that was based on different levels of intelligence for people.”

Allen was in no mood to think, “So?”

“So? At least as far back as the 1960s people had no clue what makes some kids learn and other not. I’m guessing Adam and Eve were having battles about the best way to teach their kids. I don’t think we know which way is best. I think we’re about training more than learning, though.”

“What do you mean?” asked Allen.

“We put forth routines and rewards in a way that gets kids to learn stuff most of them don’t ever want to know and will probably have no use for. In an academic sense, we train them to memorize stuff and when they tell us what we told them, we call that achievement.”

“What does that have to do with PIOUS?”

“Everything. PIOUS is both sides of a sword. One edge is the academic side where we are trying to close the achievement gap for all students. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble goal, but just like the Americans and Soviets back in the 1960s we don’t know how to manage all of the factors that affect learning. So for us to think that PIOUS is the magic potion that will cure all of the learning issues that impact student achievement is wrong. The other side of the sword is what you saw with Mehlman, practical education. His students are doing things that don’t happen in classes with kids of higher academic ability because Mehlman has made education a fluff free zone. He recognizes what is important for the students based on his knowledge of their goals and tailors the instruction to their needs.PIOUS wants to be that, but it’s lost in academia.”

Allen interrupted, “But they seem like they like his class.”

“What’s not to like? They get personalized instruction. They get to stand up and move around. They get to express themselves. He’s a master teacher. He just doesn’t follow trends, although he could very well be the Source on PIOUS.”

Allen was struggling. He thought Mehlman was the worst teacher ever and that PIOUS was a can’t miss program, but now he recognized that using canned programs without understanding their advantages and pitfalls only seeks to promote 1960s era indecision. He would need more time to process this.

“I’m sorry for what happened. You got a raw deal. I would have handled things differently if I could have.”

“Look, Allen, you did it the way you did because that is who you are. I know you got squeezed by your girlfriend. You could have done something different, but that’s not who you are. Let it go. I have.”

“Thanks. What do you think will happen with PIOUS?”

“Honestly, Allen, in my career I’ve been through more initiatives than I can count. Any of the things that we have done would have produced a small bump in our scores, but we change them before they have time to become part of the culture. There are some good parts to this program. There are also some parts that are hokey. Teachers recognize that, but worse, so do the kids. Whatever you do, give it time to grow.”

“Good advice.”

“And Allen, keep an eye out. People are watching.”

Around 180 Days: Down the Hall (#9)

Mr. Mehlman had been teaching for forty years. He survived a year of Vietnam and after returning with a new perspective on what was important, he got a teaching certificate and hunkered down in a classroom. The jungle war had toughened Mehlman to the point where he was assigned the roughest students in school. Long before there were certificates for special education, Mr. Mehlman was helping students with behavior issues that were often camouflage for learning difficulties.

Mehlman’s strategy was simple, teach them what they would need to survive and always be brutally honest. Because his classroom was in a back hallway and far from the daily foot traffic of administrators, few knew what was going on in Mehlman’s class. When they found out, they likened what they heard to war. Profanity was a part of the class. Some would consider their language Trumpian, but the comfort with which everyone spoke to each other was more honest than most classes. Students sat wherever they wanted including the floor or on top of desks. Mr. Mehlman only had one rule. Everyone had to get 100% on the tests. Until that happened, everyone in the class kept practicing the skills until the goal was reached.

“Something in here stinks,” said Mr. Mehlman. “Who smells?”

Everyone looked down. Nobody wanted Mr. Mehlman to make eye contact out of fear that he would start ragging on them. For the first time in many weeks the class was quiet. They were like soldiers hiding in the bush waiting for the enemy to go by. Mehlman walked a slow march around the room taking deep breaths to locate the source of the odor.

“Louis, is that you?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Mehlman.”

“I think it is.” Mehlman took a deep breath. “Yes… Louis, are those the same clothes that you wore yesterday?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Louis, you can’t wear the same clothes everyday. You have to change them because you will either make everyone uncomfortable with the smell or have stuff growing on you. You’ve got to wear different clothes tomorrow. All of your clothes, including your socks. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

The thing about Mehlman’s class was that the students loved him. Outsiders thought his methods crude and they wondered what the kids were learning. The academics were basic. He taught them math in the context of money and measurement. His rationale for keeping things so narrow was that most people only really need to know the basic math functions and measuring was an important skill for people in many blue collar jobs. The college prep brigade of teachers never understood this. However, they also didn’t agree with his approach to teaching reading. He let the students read whatever they wanted. If a student wanted Beowulf, that’s what she read. If she preferred to read a newspaper or Twitter, he let them do that. In either case, the students were required to explain what was important in their reading and how it related to something that was going on in current events.

He made learning personal and the students left school with skills that they could use right away. Most of his students went straight to the working world and never continued onto college. They were happy with that. Only the college prep brigade and the narrow minded vision setters disagreed with what Mr. Mehlman had been doing for the last forty years. He was the perfect model for PIOUS and the administration was about to find out why.

Allen decided he would check in on Mr. Mehlman to see if there was something he could do to get rid of him. Allen did not like the Mr. Mehlman. The feeling was mutual. Since Allen stood for nothing, Mehlman wrote him off as a no factor.

“Mr. Mehlman, can I go to the bathroom to finish my reading?” asked Louis.

“A magazine, in the bathroom? You know that’s why they call it the library?”

“Really?”

“No, hurry up.”

Louis grabbed his magazine and exited the door just as Allen walked in. Normally, Allen would have told the teacher he was coming, but he was hoping to ambush Mr. Mehlman. After about ten minutes he realized that Louis had not returned and since there was nothing wrong with the lesson, Allen went on a scouting mission to find the AWOL student. He walked into the bathroom and found Louis with his shoes off and his socks in the sink.

“What are you doing, Louis?”

“I’m washing my socks.”

“Why?”

“Because I wore them for two days and they smelled. Mr. Mehlman said I should wash them, but I forgot and just remembered. I’m doing it now so I don’t disappoint him.”

There are times when what we hear is not what we think. Allen thought he heard Louis say that he didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Mehlman. His washing socks in the bathroom was strange, but not wanting to disappoint Mehlman was something Allen could not comprehend. His brain had been outflanked by an enemy he was not prepared for; good things were happening in Mehlman’s room.

“How will you dry them?”

“I don’t know. It’s hot in Mehl’s room, maybe he’ll let me put them in front of the fan.”

“Go back to class.”

Louis put on his shoes and grabbed his socks. Allen followed a few steps behind. He was going to stand outside of the door and listen to how Mehlman handled the situation. Louis walked into the room.

“Where have you been?”

“Mr. Mehlman, I forgot to wash my socks, so that’s what I was doing. I didn’t want to stink up the room again. I was squeezing them out when Dr. Marina came in and told me to come back to class.”

“That kind of squeezing is also called wringing. Put your socks in front of the fan, get a computer, and see what you can learn about wringing water out of laundry. Can Dr. Marina confirm your story?”

“Yeah, he’s out side the door.”

“Oh. Come on in Dr. Marina.”

Allen looked around the corner. He was embarrassed and shocked at the same time. He was embarrassed to be called into the room like a traitor being brought to trial. He was shocked at how well Mehlman had made dirty socks into a mini vocabulary lesson.

“It’s just as he said. Nice job, Mehlman.”

For Allen, PIOUS began to take a different meaning.

Around 180 Days: Meanwhile Back in the Classroom (#7)

The first few weeks of school are like the early rounds of a boxing match. The fighters circle each other and throw a few scout punches to see how the opponent will react. If the pugilistic espionage is met with an offensive move, then the fighter can understand how to defend and later attack his enemy. The start of a school year is similar in that the teacher and students must get to know each other. The dynamics of the relationship of everyone in the classroom is more important than the skills of the teacher or the acumen of the students.

Jack knew this and liked to take his time getting to know his students. He would throw ideas at them just to get a reaction. With the younger students getting that reaction was easy. He could push their buttons just by mentioning anything that went against the culture that had been shoved into their heads for their previous eight years in school. He would ask them why rules were stupid? They would nearly get out their seats to explain how unjust life was in the eyes of a teenager.

On this day, Jack decided to push a button. As he started to explain the focus of the class and how it would relate to the students’ lives, he stopped, looked at them with a pained face, and asked, “What do y’all think of PIOUS?”

The groaning started right away. Jack felt the angst rising and all he had to do was wait for the frustration to supersede their fear of answering in the way they figured he would want to hear. The fighters stalked each other and stared, neither wanting to throw another punch.

Finally, Bob said, “Why are all the teachers doing this? I hate listening to how this is going to effect my life.”

“Yeah,” said Millie. “Can’t we just take some notes and then the test. My mom says none of this will matter when I go to college anyway.”

Jack stepped around the desk, “Why do you think she says that?”

“I don’t know. She just says that we will probably forget what we learned in high school and then we’ll learn new stuff in college.”

Jack leaned towards Millie and lowered his voice to a loud whisper, “Your mom is wise. Go home and thank her.”

The class looked stunned as if a straight right had hit them right in the nose. They were trying to figure out if a teacher had just told them that school was a waste of time. This went against everything they had ever been told. Sensing their confusion, Jack knew this was the time to reconnect the circuits in their discombobulated minds.

“PIOUS is a strategy to help students make sense of what they are learning. It’s a scripted program that attempts to make connections between what you are learning and how it might be used in real life.”

Rodney asked, “Dr. Rice, when will I ever have an egg carton in my pocket to help me count change.”

Everyone laughed. It seemed that a math teacher had made a big deal of teaching money using egg cartons when this group was in elementary school. The lesson was not her most popular, but Jack saw a chance to go “gotcha” on his class.

“That was a pretty Disney trick, but it’s a teaching strategy that has some good qualities.”

“Like what?” asked Rodney.

“First, it helped to teach you about different values of money. The egg carton was just a way to help you sort the money so that you could see the amounts of change. Second, and I think this more important, it created a memory about school that each of you can share.”

“Memories aren’t tested, Doc,” said Bob.

“True, but memories are the basis for learning. Look, if you can remember the ridiculousness of that lesson and remember the reason that your teacher was using that trick, then you have committed your brain to making a connection. That is learning.”

Had they been in a ring, the students’ knees would have been buckling. They were ready for the knockout punch.

“PIOUS is just another trick. The key is you. What will you choose to remember? Will you see everything as stupid? Will you seek to make those connections so the content finds a connection to you. You will make those connections for no other reason other than because you have made it important. Then again, you may decide that some things are not important and the connections won’t be made.”

“Like my mom,” said Millie.

“Maybe, she may have just forgotten most of the stuff. She is getting old, you know. Oops, did I say that out loud. Each of you knows about forgetting in school. It’s like what happens when the bell rings and I don’t see you again for a couple of days. Many of you forget what we talked about in just that short time. What’s important is that you start finding the memories and asking yourself why you remember them. The connections will happen, then you won’t ever have to worry about egg cartons or PIOUS again.”

Several days passed and Jack received an email from Allen. The message was short and the tone was aggressive.

“SEE ME!”

Around 180 Days: The Monday After (#6)

Monday morning Jack got into his truck and cranked up Handel’s, Messiah for Jack knew this was going to be a rough day. All weekend long his phone had be blowing up with texts from his colleagues about how the retreat went. Jack was unsure of the rules for discussing the particulars of the retreat, but he was sure nothing would be taboo when it came to the interrogation he would receive at school. While he was no prophet, Jack felt enlightened by the music and calm once he got to school.

On normal days he would be the first of the bunch to arrive. It was obvious that today was not normal as the other three PE teachers were already in the parking lot. Jack called them “George C. Scott,” because of their names, George, Carol, and Scott. They were all about the same age, had passed their primes as athletes, and had been around long enough to see educational innovation come full circle. Standards, objectives, humanism, accountability, writing, math…they had been through it all and PIOUS was just another form of innovation acting new when in fact it was just a repackaged initiative with a healthy dose of researcher flimflam and excellent marketing.

“Well, he arrives later than usual, he must be sore from his weekend retreat,” said George. “Come on, Custer, let us hear the salacious details.”

“There’s not much to say. I gave my little speech about how great PIOUS is and that was it.”

Carol said, “Stop it. There’s more. Who did everyone talk to?”

“Hmmm, everyone was kind of mingling. I couldn’t say anyone was talking to anyone.”

Scott was about to say something, but George jumped in, “You mean to tell me there is nothing of significance you can tell us about this retreat. No robes? No oils? These are you’re new friends. We want to know.”

Jack had known George forever. There was a time when the two of them did not get along. Mostly that was because Jack took a route in teaching that sought to make physical education a “respected” subject. George went a different route where PE was more like recess than school. While neither approach was wrong, the two opposites defended their opinions without much care for the other. Somewhere both realized that they were teaching the same stuff, just with different ways. Jack softened his philosophy on being a gym teacher and it became obvious to both of them that they were similar.

“Nope, there was none of that slippery stuff, but I do feel a little dirty after being around all of those visionaries.”

“Why?” asked Scott.

“Well, I was asked by a board member to keep an eye on things and that they would be in touch to ask me questions about PIOUS.”

“Which one?” asked Carol.

“I’d rather not say.”

George said, “So let me see if I’m understanding. You went to the retreat one of us. Got there and spoke like one of them only to be asked to be a rat?”

“I prefer spy.”

“Either way,” said George. “Who would be in the best position to back you into a corner? Ralph Hanby.”

Jack only smiled, but it was the kind of smile that is more confession than “I just won the lottery.”

“Priceless,” said Carol.

“No, it comes with a price,” said Scott.

George said, “Oh, you’re Mr. Blackmail expert now?”

“Think about it, that whole thing went down a couple of years ago and Hanby feels like he has something over Jack. Now he brings him favor as a sign of “it’s all good.” What are you going to do, Jack?”

“I’m going to teach my classes. If they ask me questions, I guess I’ll answer them as I see it, but I won’t be the hatchet for anyone.”

“I wonder what they want,” said Carol.

“They are after someone,” said George.

Carol turned and headed into the girl’s locker room leaving the guys in the hallway. The school was quiet as the students had not yet begun to arrive. George’s mind was racing. He loved conspiracies and intrigue.

“Hanby, he doesn’t do anything without some motive. Be careful, Jack.”

“I will, but I bet it has something to do with Dr. Betty’s Mercedes.”

“She doesn’t have one,” said Scott.

“No? She drives one that looks just like Allen’s.”

There are moments when conversations go from wasting time to full-fledged productivity in the arena of gossip. Jack had just dropped enough information to take what was a bit of friendly verbal sparring to the brink of rumor shadowboxing.

Scott asked for guidance, “Are you saying that the superintendent and principal drive the same kind of car?”

Jack saw that he now had the upper hand and that dragging these two around all day would be the best measure of his productivity. He would treat them like ferns and let them wilt without any information and then he would announce that indeed the superintendent had a car just like the principal’s. In fact, it was the very same car. She drove him around.

He said, “I have made my debut as the observer of all that is education. As PIOUS is implemented, I will share more with the world.”

“You’ve lost it,” said George.

“Maybe, but it’s time we had some fun `round here.”

About 180 Days-The Dark Side (#5)

The inner sanctum turned out to be the last of the original houses on the Chickahominy River from the 1970s construction boom out on the Haven. The house was a simple ranch with a wobbling deck that extended into the river. Jack had gotten to the retreat a little early so he could scout out the scene. He was not prepared for what he would see.

First was the arrival of Betty and Allen. She drove and he got out of his car and hustled around his champagne colored Mercedes to open her door. She thanked him and touched him on the shoulder as she got out of the car. Allen played off her touch well by not acknowledging what had just happened and then shut the car door with a gentle push. “He must have been a valet,” thought Jack.

Jack also thought there must be something going on. He could not be sure, but it looked like Betty and Allen might be having a little something-something. The thought of the two of them together made perfect sense. He did whatever she said. She bossed him around in an overly dramatic way. It was all a ruse. This retreat house was a perfect metaphor for their relationship. They were shacking up.

“This is going to be something-something else,” thought Jack.

The other administrators and board members began arriving and the mingling began. As people introduced themselves to Jack, he pulled his classic move of acting like he was interested in meeting them. The truth was they were doing the same to him, no one cared what a gym teacher had to say about the district’s new instructional program. Finally, it was time for the retreat to begin.

Betty started, “I welcome you all to the retreat for the Willet School District. We are here to discuss the long range goals for the district, which includes the implementation of the PIOUS program. We think that this is the most appropriate solution for resolving the discrepancies of achievement between the various sub-groups of our diverse student population. Let’s start with PIOUS as we have Dr. Jack Rice, who is a teacher at our high school and has been invited to the retreat to share his views on PIOUS. We are fortunate to have him and are looking forward to hearing what he has to say.”

Jack heard a clear message from Betty. She made it clear that she was trusting Jack to do the right thing as she saw it. Jack was ready to play her game without going all Trump on the friendly audience that was sitting in a house decorated in the style of Dicker and Dicker of Beverly Hills. Sometimes it takes awhile for things in education to catch up.

“Thank you, Betty. And thank you to all of you for your kind greetings and the opportunity to share with you my excitement about PIOUS. As you are well aware, this is a program that helps teachers identify the most practical implications for the content being taught. By doing so, teachers can design lessons that will prepare students for the rigors of the world after their schooling ends.”

“The real world,” said Allen.

“No, Allen, I don’t think that is correct. By saying that you are implying the school is fake. If it’s fake, then why should the students take any interest in what they are doing now? School is their “real world” and we need to treat it as such.”

(Trump-1 and Jack-0.)

Allen looked at Betty and smiled. He kept the smile even as he turned and squinted at Jack. If looks could kill…

Jack continued, “This program has potential. Hopefully, you guys will have the patience to include it in the long range planning for the district. There will be problems. Students will tire of the routine of PIOUS and teachers will resist the idea that a canned program built on shaky research will know more about teaching than they do. But, if the district remains firm and allows the teachers to have an honest say in how PIOUS is implemented, it will benefit the students. That’s all I have.”

(More Clintonian this time…)

None of the other members of the retreat had any questions. Betty thanked Jack for his words and optimism. She let him know that she would be in touch and told Jack he was free to go. On his way out the door someone grabbed Jack’s arm from behind. It was a confrontational board member, Ralph Hanby who had once gone after Jack.

“Jack, do you have a moment.”

“Anything, for you, Mr. Hanby.”

“Ralph.”

(I feel like I could…)

“Jack, we’ve had our differences.”

“We have?”

“Ha, always the jokester. Honestly, my kids that you were a real ass.”

“That’s a compliment compared to what you have said about me.”

“Now, Jack, we are over that. Let’s talk about PIOUS. You don’t really believe that it is going to help kids do you?”

“I think it has a chance, Mr. Hanby.”

“Ralph. We have our concerns. Since you have put yourself out there, we on the Board, would like your input about how things are going with PIOUS and the general mood at the high school.”

Jack could see there was more than PIOUS involved in Mr. Ralph Hanby’s mission. “As long as you keep things professional, I would be glad to help you.”

“Good. We will be in touch.”

As Jack walked through a cloud of Chickahominay gnats he said, “I’m sure you will.”

About 180 Days: Back On the Radar (#4)

The radar is a difficult place to be on. When a boss sets the authoritative sights on a pleb, there is not much that can be done to escape the inevitable destruction. Jack walked towards The Commanders office with a sinking feeling that he had done something wrong. In all of his years, Jack had never been summoned to the principal’s office for anything good. In fact, in all of his years of being in school he remembered nothing but negativity associated with any principal’s office. He trudged through the maze of the open concept school thinking what he might like for his last supper.

“Maybe I’ll have a cocktail or smoothie made from arugula,” he thought. “I hope they use a flat paddle and not a round piece of bamboo for my flogging.” Negative thoughts were swirling as he stepped into the office suite.

Sitting at her desk was the matronly secretary to the principal, Mrs. Bell. She had been at her post through the tenure’s of four principals and there was a ritual to gaining access to the boss. She saw the door to her superior’s office as a gate to be protected at all costs and each visitor was corralled in a row of vintage office chairs that deigned to mimic mid-century modern furniture. She ran her homestead with absolute authority and any violation of the routine was cause for a time out and restriction of prompt access to the real boss.

“Hello, Mrs. Bell,” said Jack.

She continued checking boxes on some form and never looked up. Jack noticed sprouts of gray sneaking into her mysteriously black hair. Just as he was about to forgo appropriate convention and ask this very old women if her hair was “starting” to gray, Mrs. Bell pointed to the empty chairs and said, “He’ll be with you in a moment.”

After about ten minutes the door clicked and opened. The Commander had installed an electronic door opener so he could let people in without greeting them at the door. The Commander was a master at schmoozing his bosses and parents, but he was even better at keeping a distance between those he should have been serving, the teachers and students. Jack expected The Commander to be sitting behind his average desk with the props of man who had risen to the mean of his profession hanging on the wall behind him. Instead, he was greeted by The Commandress.

“Jack, welcome. We were just talking about you,” she said with all of the transparency of a woman running for President of the United States.

“Well, I hope some of it was good. Should I have representation with me?”

The Commander and Commandress looked at each other and laughed like they were actors in a sit-com.

“Of course not, we would have advised you as to the need for such had we thought it necessary,” said The Commander.

“No, Jack,” started The Commandress, “We were impressed by your message to the students. You understand exactly what we are hoping to achieve with PIOUS and we have a proposition for you.”

The years of battle for Jack had taught him to be wary of good things coming from above. He was more surprised to be offered something that sounded positive by these two than he would have been if either of them had come out as a transvestite. As a student of The Godfather, Jack knew that favors and proposals come with traps and he knew that if he did not listen to their offer he would be on the wrong radar. Jack was ready to be off that screen.

“Let’s hear it.”

“First, Jack, we were talking and both noticed that you never use names with us. Perhaps the time has come to remove the formalities from our relationship. I would be happy if you called me by my first name, Betty.”

“Boop,” thought Jack. “Alright, Betty it is.”

The Commander followed her lead with the drool coming from his mouth like a dog waiting for a treat. He added to the conversation, “We have had an unfortunate history, but I have always respected your abilities as a teacher…”

“Bull,” thought Jack.

“…I’d like it if we could start over, so please feel free to call me by my first name as well.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I know it,” said Jack as he ran through the Rolodex of nicknames the faculty had for The Commander.

“It’s Allen.” The Commander looked over to Betty and said, “What a great sense of humor he has.” She gave him a courtesy laugh.

Betty said, “Jack, we would like you to come to my house out on the Chickahominy River this weekend. The administration and board are having a retreat to discuss major changes to the district’s five-year plan. We think that you would have a great deal to offer the discussion. Will you come?”

Bam! Betty sprung a trap that left Jack no place in the district to hide. He could go rogue and say, “No,” but that would leave him in a pool of muck no matter where the rest of his career would take him.

“I’d be honored,” he said.

Betty gave him the address and the each exchanged pleasant good-byes. As Jack left the office thoughts of doom were churning in his head. He felt like a beetle just before the “Tims” come down a smashing. He went up the ramp and back to the PE office where the other teachers were eating lunch.

“What’s wrong with you? You look like you got punched in the solar plexus,” said Oliver.

“I just got a butt flossing with alpaca fibers,” said Jack.

“What do you mean?” asked Oliver.

“It’s too much for me to explain right now. I’m not sure what is happening, but I’ve been invited into the sanctum. I’ll be a river rat this weekend.”

“Oh, no. That’s not good for you my friend.”

The First Days of School (#3)

The first days of school have a lyrical quality. The students arrive with varying degrees of energy. There are those who are serious about school and have learned to play the game. There are others who have given up on the game and only come because they are compelled to attend. Still, there are others who think they are the game and do everything they can to make a mockery of what is happening. The first days are on homage to the frenetic pace with which learning must take place and a tribute to the every style of spoken word from socially conscious rap stylings to the laid back ballads of a country crooner.

Jack found that the best way to deal with the first few days was in embracing the energy and letting it take him wherever it went. He had learned that having an unassuming manner allowed the kids to find their place in his classes and gain the confidence they needed to fit into high school. All the while, though, he was a spy who was hacking their social status code and preparing to take them to places they probably did not want to go. Jack would go about his random storytelling creating the impression that his was a class that had little to do with actual learning. Just when the students would start to have a look of “where is this guy going,” Jack would drop a serious question on them that would require the students to relate the non-sense story to a concept that they had talked about in a lecture. The impact was predictable. The students would make faces and say that there was no connection, then Jack would lead them through a series of “What about” questions that guided students towards the realization that the story had a purpose.

The first few days of storytelling and questioning were often slow and combative. The students, who were not in school shape yet, had a hard time making connections to the stories. They would complain that the class did not matter or that they weren’t learning anything. Then, like every good song or poem, there would be a moment of insight. They would understand that the stories did relate to something. They would start to think about what they were hearing beyond the entertainment value and start looking for the messages of the stories. Before the end of the first marking period they would start asking for stories instead of PowerPoint lectures and canned educational instructional materials.

The beginning of the school year was no time for jamming the students with the prison like expectations of law and order learning. Jack had learned his lesson there. He had given up on the “my way” method of teaching and taken his classroom control to a different level of coercion. Instead of demanding that the students be the way he wanted, he taught them how the skills they were learning in class would help them be successful in all areas of their lives. He integrated the course expectations with course content so that the students could see the relevancy of his madness. He praised their successes and retaught whatever was necessary to help them understand that his class was about learning how to be successful and all the Health stuff was just a tool for their achieving success. There was no rush for all of this to happen because as Jack saw the calendar year, there was ample time for this methodical kind of learning.

Unfortunately, this year, Jack would not be afforded the freedom to teach as he had found was best for him. He was being given a program, PIOUS, that was marketed as a non-scripted design framework to improve student success. Fortunately, Jack was done resisting and trying to figure out what educational researchers and school power brokers were trying to do. He had become like the students who just come to school and get through it. His goal was to stay as true to himself as he could without ignoring the wants of the people who were developing the vision for the school district. The Commander was one of those people. His role as the principal seemed to be survival. He did that well, submissive to his superiors and aggressively dishonest to his subordinates. Perhaps the one thing that truly allowed him to stand out was his Trump-styled hair.

The Commander only answered to The Commandress. She was a longtime school administrator with a short time of teaching experience. Her background was in budgets, mostly spending the budget on canned programs with little relevancy to what students needed to learn. One year she spent thousands on math manipulatives so students could learn to do math in egg cartons. Another year she spent money on technology that did not have the ability to upgrade. There were few who questioned her judgement, though. She ruled with an iron will that was exercised through her principals and bevy of central office administrators. This year they were pushing PIOUS as the latest and greatest thing to hit education since real estate taxes.

The PIOUS model was a joke to many of the teachers at Wilnetsburg High School. They saw the program as dumbing down, an easing of standards, and a script that took away their professional judgment in the classroom. Jack listened to The Commander’s raggedy speech about demographics and achievement with the same survival instinct he could tell was being used to deliver the speech. He submitted to the will of The Commandress and a strange thing happened to Jack. He became happy and on the first days of school he felt no frustration as he spoke about the practical reasons for the students learning what they were. After all, PIOUS was no different than what he had been doing for nearly a quarter of a century. District policy was finally going to let Jack be Jack.

As usual, the students wrestled with the stories. They also complained that most of their teachers were practically teaching the same way and that school was really boring. Jack thought about how he would respond to his students’ concerns. As he was about to answer, The Commandress and her minion, The Commander, walked in for an informal observation.

“Ella, I’m not sure what the best way to answer your question is,” said Jack. He looked at his two bosses and continued, “Learning is a process. Let’s look at it this way, there are many ways to Richmond. Once you decide to go there, you have to figure out what you think is the best way. Hopefully, you’ll get there safely. The way were are teaching this year is one way to help you get wherever it is you want to go. However, you define success your success, whether it be AP tests, trade school, the military, or entering the workforce. That’s up to you. There are lots of ways to get there and we hope that this way will help you figure out where you are going. Your job is to take what we do and figure out how to make it make sense for you because without your acceptance, this program will not help you at all. But…there are many ways to Richmond, so don’t give up on learning because it takes many forms and is going to be important for wherever you decide to go.”

Jack looked at his bosses who had the expressionless look of administrators who walked into a class expecting to see one teacher and got someone totally different. He smiled with confidence and a puffy chested attitude that was true to himself, student centered, and educationally reasoned. The stone faced duo left and Jack continued with his class. Ten minutes later his computer dinged and let him know that he had a new email. It was from The Commander and all it said was, “Stop by my office after class.”

“Damn, back on the radar,” thought Jack.

The Kids Are Here (About 180 Days-#2)

Four days of inservice is the equivalent to forty years in the desert. The minutes pelt a psyche with the same frequency as grains of sand in a storm while wandering in search of a home. The pain of the days is tolerated so the mortgage can get paid and no teacher should ever feel ashamed for succumbing to positive constructive daydreaming. After all, survival is the name of our game and getting through the days before school builds a toughness that will serve teachers well over the next one hundred eighty days.

There were times during the meetings that Jack felt as if he was listening to Portuguese. He excused that away as subliminal influence from watching the Olympics in Rio. He was full of contradictions about this new year. His previous school year had been anything but traditional. The year had gone without incident. In fact, he was quite sure that the year had been his best year of teaching. After being an educator for nearly twenty five years, he was scared to think that he might have tapped into some kind of magic. His default feeling about the start of school had been programmed into him by a mentor just under a quarter century ago, “Don’t take the gorilla suit off. Once you do you can’t put it back on.” All the years of demanding respect and playing the tough guy had left Jack wondering why he ever got into teaching. The previous year he went about being singleminded. The goal was to have zero problems with students. He went against instinct in a way that could have had him hired by the New York Yankees given the right sit-com scenario. He tried to be nice from the start, which would have been forbidden under the old advice.

A strange thing happened as he pursued a “no conflict” professional life. He began liking work. The kids seemed nicer and more willing to try new things. Emails from The Commander, his principal, stopped filling his inbox. Life was good and the Frank Costanza theory of bliss and advancement proved to be real and not fiction. On this first day of the new school year, with PIOUS training in his tool box of teaching sorcery, Jack was ready to make all kinds of freestyle connections with kids.

An empty school is a sanctuary. They are so quiet and the light is so clean. Hallways pave the way with inspired directions. Benches in front of windows grant those fortunate enough to take a quiet moment of sitting the feeling of being on a chateau’s veranda. Jack loved getting to school before the first day’s mayhem. As he walked past a pigeon, he recognized it as a dove and felt as if his summer’s journey, even with its inservice shenanigans, was about to find security in learning’s house. Instead of being prescient, Jack was misguided by an expired coupon of hope. He ran into The Commander.

The Commander was an average man, neither fit nor fat, not smart or dumb, just average. He wore clothes long past their ability to hang properly. Jack thought of The Commander like a kid from high school, who was man enough to smoke a Swisher Sweet, but not so bold as to stay calm while riding in the backseat of a car that was racing around a tight curve on a dirt road in the dark of the night. He did excel in one area as a leader. He knew how to follow orders and wield the sword for his boss, The Commandress, so she would not get any blood on her bodice. The Commander was a master living life in a protective cocoon of Teflon where nothing stuck to him and everything was somebody else’s fault. Jack admired that quality, although he felt a bit disingenuous admitting it. When he saw The Commander, Jack felt the serenity leave him and he began humming that reaper song by Blue Oyster Cult.

“Good morning, Jack.”

“Good morning.”

“This is going to be a great year,” said The Commander.

“Yes, I think it will be, too.”

“Jack, I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should let the past go and start over. We are in this together and I think it would be beneficial if we could work together instead of being at odds with each other.”

“I don’t have a problem with you. I respect you as a boss.”

“Now, Jack, you know things that happened before were out of my control. I follow orders. I had to do what I had to do.”

“And you did. That’s in the past, like you said. I’m over it and looking forward to a PIOUS year and a continuation of what I started last year.”

“Really, you had a good year last year?”

“I did, so good that we never got the opportunity to speak to each other.”

The Commander did not know how to take that, “Uh, yeah, I guess we didn’t. Well, have a great year. I’m looking forward to not talking to you again this year. Hahahahaha.”

Jack smiled, “Me too.” He turned to his office and walked into nirvana. There was just enough light coming from the windows on the far side of the locker room to allow Jack to keep the lights off. He sat back into he chair and turned on Pandora which happened to be on the Dire Straits channel. Brother’s In Arms came on and Jack leaned back against the cool wall and took in every note of the song. Just as it ended, he could hear voices on the other side of his office wall. Students were walking to their homerooms. They talked, but Jack could not make out what they were saying. The tones of their voices suggested excitement, regret, and resignation about the start of the school year. Thoughts of The Commander were long gone, having been replaced by the peaceful energy Jack felt before he saw the average man.

Before leaving the office to assist lost freshmen, Jack wrote on a dry erase board, “We can all help people get better.”

About 180 Days (Day 1)

leave-board-hand-learn-54597

Photo Credit: pixababy.com via Pexels

There is a fine line between prison and school. Prisoners are given cells. Students are given desks. Prisoners get recreation time. Students have physical education classes and recess. Prisoners do time. Students meet hours. Both are told when to speak, how to act, and when they can go to the bathroom. Guards roam the cell blocks and halls to protect the sanctity of both environments to protect the individual missions. Prisoners are supposed to learn from their mistakes and take advantage of their sentences so that they may be reformed, thereby becoming productive members of society. Theoretically, students are allowed to learn from their mistakes in an effort to prepare them for the rigors of living as adults. Minus the bars and guns, prisoners and students have similar existences, although, the student experience is more lockdown than it was when Jack Allen was a student.

Jack grew up in an historic town just after court orders forced the school system to desegregate. His public school experience had been one that rode the energy of punk, disco, and classic rock music. He took away an appreciation for people and social justice instead of the book based lessons that seemed too limiting for his education. Thirty years after his graduation from high school and nearly ten years after getting a doctorate in education, Jack sat with the rest of his school’s colleagues in folding chairs that erased every bit of suppleness from their hips. They had been herded into the frigid gymnasium so they could taught the school district’s latest initiative, PIOUS, Practical Instruction Offered Uniquely System. The training began three hours earlier with batches of teachers talking about batches of students. Librarians were paired with English teachers, math teachers were grouped with foreign language teachers, and all of them talked about the relationship between poverty and language readiness as predictors of school success.

PIOUS was simple enough. The premise was that students learn better when the complexity of a concept is deconstructed into its essential parts. Jack found the discussion fascinating and sad. He was sad because he had become the old teacher that he swore he would never turn into. He remembered his first year of teaching when the initiative was to build academic vocabulary so that students would understand the key words in the directions of tests. Back in those brown haired days, Jack thought this to be enlightening, but nearly twenty-five years later, and under a full head of gray hair, he only wanted to push a button and go home to walk his dog. The PIOUS model promised to raise student achievement with a multitude of strategies that were gathered from lists of best practices and slickly packaged under an empirically tested model. Jack found that piece of marketing to be fascinating as the studies supporting PIOUS had been conducted by the same hucksters who were putting out the latest, greatest model of instruction and had been conducted under questionable research methods. Evidently, validity, reliability, and random sampling had no real place in educational research.

An administrator from the district office said, “Jack, what do you think about the relationship of the PIOUS framework to student success.”

Jack thought for a moment. On one hand, he knew that the correct answer was that PIOUS was the answer to helping close everything from achievement gaps to the problems of politicians who control public education funding diverting those funds to charter schools that are run by the very politicians setting educational policy. On the other hand, Jack, knew that the most important player in the educational process was being ignored by policy makers and educational opportunists everywhere. PIOUS removed all of the responsibility for learning from the students. The program while opportunistic removed the focus of education from the students to the teachers, thereby making learning an extrinsic proposition.

“If I might quote, Seneca, ‘You may, then, boldly declare that the highest good is singleness of mind: for where agreement and unity are; there must virtues be: it is the vices that are at war with another.’ I think PIOUS could be good if it promotes a singleness of mind.”

The administrator looked confused. “I don’t understand.”

Jack said, “The purpose of PIOUS is to strip the content down to the essential components of a lesson. In theory, this will allow students to develop a single minded view of what they are learning. Hopefully, they will be able to filter out all that noise that exists in childhood and see the importance of what they are learning. In that way, I think PIOUS is a tool to help students learn.”

“I hear a ‘but’ in your voice.”

Jack smiled because he knew that his answer would be received with the same appreciation as a rake being dragged over sunburnt skin, “The excerpt from Seneca suggests that vices compete with each other to interfere with finding virtue. If we are able to remember anything about our schooling, I bet we each had vices in the classroom. Maybe we didn’t like the teacher. Maybe the subject matter was boring or irrelevant to us at the time. Whatever they were, those vices competed with our ability to focus on what we were learning. It wasn’t until we were mature enough to give learning its due that we could allow school to become virtuous. We had to deal with our vices to find success in school.”

The administrator asked, “Are you suggesting that we bag PIOUS?”

“Not at all. I am suggesting that education, like prison, is not about what we do to them, it’s about what they come to realize while they are going to school. Prisoners who accept the opportunity of reform are able to survive outside of the walls. Students who become virtuous in an educational sense make the most of their school years. PIOUS is one tool that might be appropriate for a student. However, no matter how sincere we are in our belief that this is the best way to teach students, PIOUS is unlikely to fulfill its promise if the students don’t buy into the program.”

The meeting ended at its mutually agreed contractual time. As usual, little attention was given to the greater philosophical implications of why the current initiative was being chosen. There is a blind spot in education that is as vacuous as a cesspool. The assumption is that if a message is delivered with recommendations and data, it must be the best way. In the coming months, the virtues and vices of PIOUS would play out with Jack being the dutiful implementer and open-minded seeker of the capacities and abilities of this new program.