Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Killing them Softly IV: Unnecessarily Stressed to the Max

In April of 2007, MIT Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones, resigned after evidence came forward that she had lied on her resume 28 years prior. This Sunday, I listened as Ms. Jones discussed her experience, examined the act of lying and the pressures she feels led to it, and lamented about how the college admissions process is setting our students up to either crush themselves while adolescents or lie to achieve admission.

I teach high school. I taught middle school for seven years. At the middle school level, we taught students that responsibility was very important when they got to high school and that they needed to practice that responsibility while they had the support of the middle school model. Now that I am teaching high school, that message seems like a lie. The students I work with in high school need that support more than ever, but are left to contend with their own survival in an environment that pretends to have all of the answers about a world separated from them by large brick walls.

There is a systematic problem with what we communicate about the real world to our students and our children. I do not know where it originates, but this is an attempt to find some line of reasoning that pressures us into destroying the psyches of our youth. Yes, some thrive in the environment I am about to present, much like some bacteria thrive in the harshest of places. The real question lies in whether we want to create educational environments and philosophies focused on the success of extremophiles while crushing our other students.

Whether it is reality or not, students I have taught both as eighth-graders and juniors paint an interesting picture of what they think is required of them to get to college. Some might argue that their perception doesn't always meet reality, but please remember that it is their reality based upon information they receive from teachers, administrators, and parents.

They feel that they need the following to be accepted into college:
-Stacked AP courses with high scores on AP tests
-Higher than 4.0 GPA
-Multiple extra-curricular athletic activities
-Multiple extra-curricular non-athletic activities
-Participation in leadership roles in the school
-Multiple community service experiences
-Occupational experiences
-High scores on high stakes tests
-Others to include portfolios and evidence for all above

We as adults can look at this on paper and believe that all of these are great opportunities to create a well-rounded individual who will succeed in a globally competitive market. We also ignore what it is doing to them and instead focus on teaching them to deal with the stress involved. At some point, we have to look at the cause of the problem instead of which bandage we use to cover it.

Consider, for example, all of the time spent to meet the criteria laid out above. If a student is taking four or even five AP courses, it is likely that each of those classes come with at least an hour of homework. That doesn't seem like a lot on the surface, but based on yesterday's post, how many people reading now are willing to add another five hours of work related to what you did at a desk for seven or eight hours? Now, add that to the time spent at swimming practice or basketball practice, debate, volunteer tutoring, time in churches, working a coffee stand, online classes, ACT/SAT prep, and the added responsibilities of chores from parents and family obligations. It seems so easy to assign an hour of homework as a single teacher, but rarely are all of these areas considered when thinking of the small pool of time available to these students. It again forces us to question the true purpose of education.

The act of writing the paragraph above spiked my adrenaline and heart rate; I cannot imagine living it while negotiating the unavoidable social expectations that adolescents must deal with simply due to the natural activity in their bodies and brains.

This is the part where parents and teachers (adults nostalgic about their own experiences) point out that this is merely a path certain students choose and that they should be ready for the stress. I would argue that the very students who choose this path would do just as well in their careers and lives if they dropped the AP courses, forgot about the added criteria, and played outside for three or four hours a day. However, as people who have reinforced our dominance upon children for their entire lives, we tell them daily that their futures matter more than their present. Most believe us, and we harshly punish those who don't.

I hate to be redundant, so I will link a different story from a different perspective which restates a message from yesterday. Our children don't have to attend top schools to be successful! In fact, the stress related to getting there could do more damage than the education they would receive is worth.

That was just the stress side of this evil coin. Let's move onto what we are teaching our children, and what they learn from this environment.

Meeting the list above does not teach our children how to learn, give back, belong, or fulfill their basic and advanced needs. The criteria, the lack of time to meet it, and the stress it creates do nothing more than train our children how to anxiously accomplish simple tasks. That is the only way to manage all of the data and all of the experiences needed for what we call high school success. We are teaching them how to go through the motions. We are teaching them to submit to a system that will work them to the very break of their emotional core in order to fulfill a false mythology of success being measured by where one went to school and how large their wallet is.

It cuts even deeper when we look at the reality of our nation at this time in history and truly deal with the fact that we are putting our children through this stress so they may fight each other and their own health to grab at the copper coins falling from the purses of the incredibly wealthy. It doesn't matter what political ideology we prescribe to, the numbers are undeniable.

Our nation has an ever-increasing acceptance of anxiety and depression in our lives. Through our current perspective on education, higher education, and career decisions, we are passing this legacy onto our children at even higher rates.

What I do not understand is our willingness to ignore the data. The information is here. It is not hidden. We know what is good and bad for the organism. We know that the best situation for our nation's economy is to be a powerhouse of creative ideas, yet we continue to perpetuate a system that trains our children not to think through problems and understand concepts with deep, abstract understanding supported by concrete experiences. We instead force mountains of time-consuming busy work upon them which teaches that education and learning is hard, mundane, and about three decades behind what they want to be doing in their garage, like building and programing robots.

Is it any wonder they would rather check out and play a game? Is it any wonder they would look for meaning in social media? What do we have to offer them? Is it any wonder half of them spite us, a quarter of them fear us, and the rest play the game perfectly because they realize it's a game? They are smart, in their own way.

We are, in essence, telling our adolescents that all of their activities as teens are only as valuable as they look on a resume. This discounts the very benefits we tell them they have as teenagers with no real responsibilities. I cannot imagine living with that confusion.

Check back in tomorrow. I will discuss the actions we take and the money we spend to simply counter a problem we have created by adding this stress on our students. Feel free to comment, email me at, or friend/follow me on Facebook or Twitter or google+.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Killing Them Softly, Episode Three: Revenge of the Hierarchy

Did you all do your homework?  Perhaps you needed a shorter version.

Of course you didn't, and if you did it was because the topic interested you. In no way would watching one of these two videos or reading 21 pages about human needs better your income level or satisfaction with life when Frank Underwood was available at the click of a button or tap of a finger.  I don't blame you. Why then would I blame my students?

Let's run a quick set of scenarios to get this party started.

A well-adjusted adult, let's call him Arthur, wakes up in the morning to the sound of an aggressive alarm. He then spends twenty-some minutes preparing himself for a day at work. Due to traffic, he takes a piece of toast for the road or waits twenty-some more minutes in line for coffee and a stale pastry. Upon entering work, Arthur sits at his desk for seven to ten hours, moving papers from one side of the desk to the other. Sometimes he puts them into new folders, does a math problem with a ten-key on his computer, makes some copies, and organizes his paperclips. He also takes several brain breaks by checking his social media account, losing a game of Trivia Crack, or complaining about the amount of work he still has to finish. When the work day is over, Arthur feels drained. He and his working partner travel home to face the challenges of cooking, cleaning, taking care of the needs of their family, and organizing bits of paper needing signatures so that their money can transfer into the hands of others to ensure that he and his family are warm and fed. Now it is time for Arthur to do his homework.

Depending on Arthur's financial status, this reality splits into two.

If Arthur makes enough money that his family is fed, his house is comfortable, and he is ultimately happy with his place in life and society, Arthur's homework may be learning to play guitar, or to paint. Maybe he will tinker with a Raspberry Pi with his children in the garage. Arthur's homework will be based on either gaining new information he is excited about, or creating beauty with his own hands. Maybe Arthur hikes or gardens, because he loves the outdoors. Perhaps he coaches a children's basketball league with a group of friends for the camaraderie, exercise, and a sense of community. None of this homework will better his life financially, nor will it make him safer or more valuable to his employer. His basic needs have been met. If we told this Arthur that he had to complete a course of really boring material that holds no interest for him and offers no benefit to his near future, he would look at his life, look at us like we were crazy, and go back to his guitar.

Now, let's say Arthur's financial situation is less than he would like. Arthur is taking online courses to get more education and a large piece of paper that states he is more valuable and should therefor be paid more for the work he accomplishes. His basic needs are not met. As he pours over screens of data and videos of slide shows with a voice reading the same words on the screen, he ignores his own social needs. As he takes online quizzes in one window while finding the answers using a google search in a accompanying tab, he blatantly disregards his higher order needs of morality for the quick pencil-whip to benefit his more basic needs. He crunches through hours of work each night in the hopes that it will better his situation financially in order to provide safety and stability for him and his family. He barely internalizes any of the information he encounters; he doesn't grow. The screens in front of him are no more than the papers he moves from one side of his desk to the other. The stress of knowing that people are depending on him causes his diet to fall apart. The acidity in his stomach leads to ulcers which he ignores due to the cost of going to a doctor. Hell, does anyone know how much these classes are costing him?

These two scenarios are incredibly close to what the reality our adolescents encounter every day, and the biggest difference is that the work they do for those seven hours at a desk doesn't pay them a dime. They also have the added stress of their own mutinous brains telling them to focus on social needs above all others. Some students, whose needs are being met, see no need in the busy work that doesn't seem to benefit them or challenge them intellectually. Sure, they complete the worksheet, but only by looking at the first example and mimicking it throughout the rest. Reading directions has been a dead art form for a couple of decades. How many of you try to fix your sink after watching a youtube video, rather than reading a manual or calling a plumber?

A large portion of our students live in situations where their most basic needs are not met, so their minds are not poised on the benefits of learning the differences between Italian and Elizabethan sonnets or how to avoid dangling modifiers. Don't get me wrong, those are great to learn, but I am not sure it is the skill we are teaching when we examine how we teach, but that will be in episode four.

This is where the nostalgic adult in all of us jumps in with a reminder that completing homework from school will earn students good grades (their pay?) and opportunities to attend better schools, which will ultimately provide a stronger financial base (our pay?) so these foolish children can grow up responsibly and enjoy life when they are old, like us.

Yes, we see that timeline because we have all lived it and mucked about in it for years. We have adult brains and the experiences that help to develop those brains; kids don't. In fact, the adolescent brain would have a hard time understanding any of the sentences found above for longer than it takes for them to smile and nod their heads to get us to walk away, feeling like we made a difference. They are smart, in their own way.

Now we have to ask what we want out of our public education system. We need to ignore the smoke of the politically popular arguments and discuss what we feel is the purpose of education. Do we as a nation still believe that public education is for the public good and that we want schools to be places that challenge future citizens to become self-actualized and intelligent participants in a democracy, or do we as a nation see public education as a place for students to learn the process of pushing paper from one side of a desk to another for financial benefit?

This is the moment where I, as a teacher, have to ask myself the purpose of every assignment I demand completed and every rule for which I demand compliance. This is where I have to question if learning and education are the same. This is also the point, as a teacher, where I have to ask what my department, building, district, state, and nation want from me. The answer to that question is not very clear.

We ask more from our students now than during any time in history and we do so with the knowledge that they come to the table at different levels of met needs. As a society, do we build and value a system that meets students at their needs, or perpetuate a system that expects them to be at the same level of learning readiness based on date of manufacture?

Tomorrow, we will explore the insane expectations we currently put on our students that we would not take on as adults and how, as parents, we reinforce the very myth we see tearing our children apart.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read and think. I think the comments are working, but if not, feel free to email comments to or find me on Facebook. You can follow me on Twitter, and by all means, subscribe and share these posts if you like what you read. One sided discussions don't get very far.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Killing them Softly Part Deux: Confession of a Teaching Father

I apologize to my first-born every day.

My childhood was pockmarked with violence, swings from poverty to middle class and back, and an atmosphere of substance abuse within my family and the surrounding community. My oldest daughter, Jade, was eleven months old when I came home from Iraq and truly met her for the first time. It was my second deployment as an infantryman during my time in the Montana Army National Guard. With that type of past and the reality I learned from my latest year at war, I had made the decision that I would raise my daughter to be tough and independent so that she could survive when our world went to hell.

From the moment I met that beautiful girl, I worked to build her strength, her resilience, and her self-reliance. I made her toddlerhood about work and strength; every game we played was a lesson to be internalized and utilized as a tool for what I saw could only be a hard future. We rarely cuddled, hugged, talked nonsense, or played. During my first two years of teaching in one of the most diverse districts in the country, my wife would often comment that I pushed my four-year-old daughter harder than my eighth-grade students.

Jade had trouble in school; homework took hours and often led to tears. I would sit with her while she worked and wonder what I was doing wrong. Why was it so hard to complete a pile of worksheets? She rarely went outside to play and had few friends with whom she played outside of the school day. Her mother and I had both worked our way up from nothing and were both successful and somewhat intelligent people. What was going wrong?

I ignored that Jade was incredibly smart. She had figured out that if she made me mad enough, I would walk away to avoid reverting to the yelling and violence I had learned about parenting from my youth. When I stormed away, she would stop working and start drawing or daydreaming, something I saw no time for anymore, even though as a child I had often wandered in the plains and mountains of Montana while daydreaming.

I look at those moments now and have a profound respect for her ability to learn an intricate social pattern in my behavior and take complete advantage of it. In some ways, our children inherently know more about what they need than we do as teachers and parents.

I regret nearly every moment of that time.

It wasn't until her younger sister, Bella, was born that I realized how many mistakes I had made by trying to make her an emotional rock. I didn't know Jade as a baby, but I knew Bella. I knew the fragility, the fear, and the wonder. In Bella's first year of life, I learned more about teaching than I could have imagined. I truly understood learning for the first time as she would attempt and fail, only to get up and attempt again. Watching her taught me what scaffolding meant, and for the first time, allowed me to understand that pyramid graph that flashed across projectors and worksheets in college. Every perspective teacher, no matter what level, needs to work with very young children as a part of their own learning.

Jade is now ten. She and I have a tremendous relationship which is centered on a near-daily apology. I jokingly remind her that her younger sisters will have an easier time, because I have no parental training and she is my experiment. That sounds ludicrous from the perspective of many parents and teachers, but it has fostered the ability for us to discuss actions we both take and how they affect each other, the family, and others in our lives. She is happy, she plays, and she is a less anxious person who now loves going to school to learn, all because I came to the realization that the world wasn't going to hell, and I could chill out.

This confession serves two purposes. First, it is to highlight that we are not naturally born with all of the answers, and that our own experiences and backgrounds can confuse us on what is good for our own children and our students. It also serves as a reminder that as I pick apart a system we define as being for the public good, I am not left unstained by the mistakes we make on a daily basis.

Yesterday, I mentioned that we would discuss Maslow today. The above was supposed to be an introduction into an examination of Maslow's hierarchy and how it is often misused in our system as both educators and parents. I think most folks are done reading by this length and I won't delete it to make room for Maslow, because it serves a purpose as I move forward on the topic of what we do to our children both within in the system and how our understanding of that system affects us as parents. We will move on to the Maslow mistake tomorrow. If you are just joining this conversation, please feel free to comment, or send a message on Google+ to Lee Butterfield.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Killing them Softly: Expecting better-than-adult reactions from adolescents.

Last night, I had a visitor. A friend and former coworker, Thomas Gardiner, brought his young daughter over to the house to play with my two youngest criminal minds, while Thomas and I talked about work, old colleagues, and our children.

At some point, we began to rant about the problems we had with our own attempts at parenthood and how we negotiate the education system from the perspective of parents. We lamented our abilities to have patience with students in the school setting and expect our own children to not have the same brain patterns as the children we show so much empathy towards on a daily basis.  The very behaviors we take so much time to understand in a work setting are the behaviors we chastise and try to fix in the kids we are supposed to paternally love. It brought us to some interesting discussion which will be the focus of this blog for the near future. 

Thomas has escaped and now works  as the Recreation and Education Support Supervisor with AK Child and Family. Every day, he works at bringing play and learning to emotionally troubled youth. He tirelessly coordinates active and community-based experiences that help young people develop appropriate communication and social skills. As a non-profit in Alaska, his work also leads him to work with the community to secure funding for the programs to continue. Thomas finds a level of satisfaction in his work that many educators are missing, which is one of the catalysts for the conversation that ensued. 

I say Thomas escaped, because the current state of education in our nation is a draining mental and emotional prison for people who care about kids as people. That sounds nice and cheesy, but some of us actually acknowledge that kids are self-determining, conscious beings that deserve at least some level of respect, and yet, due to pressures we have no say in, we make decisions every day that completely counter that acknowledgement. The larger system and ideas about education tend to force us to view students and teens as two dimensional icons we need to push through a machine at a steady speed which will grind them into the three dimensional, logical thinkers we so nostalgically think should come out of the system. In our nostalgic blindness, we simply continue a system based on power structure and conformity rather than learning. 

This is usually the point where the blogger places blame. Some reformers blame old teachers or teacher unions. Some reactive teachers and union communications folks blame the testing culture brought on by over-zealous politicos and administrators. Some people, whose only interaction with the education system is their time as a student, make wild claims about the reality of education woes. Some on one side of the political spectrum claim that an atheistic, socialist plot is being hatched in dark rooms where educators are planning to reprogram our public education students into an army of globalist brown shirts. To find the page above, all one has to do is search "Common Core, Socialism" and find thousands of pages decrying the death of America by setting standards. On the other side of the political spectrum, we see fear that schools will become a place where science is ignored for political reasons. Again, I only place these here to see the discussions and blame that surround the act of teaching kids how to read, write, add, subtract, and reason. It is all smoke. It keeps us all distracted from the real fire which gorges itself on our children's childhoods. 

The blame game doesn't need to end, but instead must be turned into an introspective experience where we as a nation ask some simple, yet serious, questions about what we think is the point of public education and what we want from our students. 

The next post will focus on the misuse and misunderstanding of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (video explanation) in the current system and how parents, even ones who are also educators, are caught up in perpetuating a myth of human development. What should be a useful  tool to help guide discussions on learning has instead turned into a flashy graph placed on powerpoint presentations to give the illusion of understanding while being ignored in practice and in society. 

I must acknowledge that I do believe that most of the people involved in any part of this debate actually have the best of intentions. I just don't think the parts being debated on the public scene really matter. The problems with our system can only be fixed by discussions on what education means to us as a nation and what we want our youth to experience in childhood and adolescence and what they can manage as people, real people. The very problems we see with burnout in the greater American work place are the realities we put adolescents into every day and expect to handle better than top executive adults getting paid for their work.  

Out of respect for the digital audience's need for short blog entries, I will cut this discussion into smaller pieces. Please leave comments which will lead to a dialogue. I am not too worried. As I told Thomas, nobody will read what I have to say. I am only a teacher, which immediately disqualifies me from discussing education.