A Failure of Imagination – Jonah Lehrer is “Nothing more than a schoolteacher”

I have followed with morbid fascination the downfall of Jonah Lehrer. I’ll admit to really enjoying Proust was a Neuroscientist, as well as How We Decide. I still see value in each of these books, and I will continue to assign the chapter on vision and Paul Cezanne, because it is a wonderful introduction to how the science of perception can interact with the world of visual art. The problem of vision scientists in explaining how the eye works are sometimes remarkably similar to the challenges of artists in depicting a realistic world. But I also had misgivings about some of his neuro-reductionism, well before his more public integrity problems. Here are a few of those criticisms which came out before the scandal: a particularly harsh one from Isaac Chotiner, a dialogue with Christopher Chabris, and another harsh one from Steven Poole.

I thought that the recent summative piece in New York Magazine, by Boris Kachka, did a very good job of tying all the strands of this story together. It’s long, but worth it. But one little throwaway line really stuck with me, and I thought I would share it with you. It is right before Michael Moynihan, a reporter originally sympathetic to Lehrer, published his critical expose of Lehrer’s outright fabrications, further documenting that Lehrer’s crimes reached well past journalistic misdemeanors.

The next morning, a desperate Lehrer finally managed to reach Moynihan. Didn’t he realize, Lehrer pleaded, that if Moynihan went forward, he would never write again—would end up nothing more than a schoolteacher?

Boris Kachka – “Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist, Neither Was Jonah Lehrer

“Nothing more than a schoolteacher?” With that, I am sure Lehrer lost the last bit of sympathy he had with many of his former defenders. I too was disappointed with this, but not terribly surprised, because this attitude is not nearly as rare as it should be.

Poke the anxiety of many ambitious academics and intellectuals, whether Ph.D.’s on the job market, or even practicing research scientists, and you find that when they imagine themselves in front of a high school classroom they imagine nothing but shame and failure.

To me, this is not just, as science writer extraordinaire Ed Yong put it, awful snobbery, but fundamentally a failure of imagination. Which is ironic, not just because “Imagine” is the title of the book that began Lehrer’s end, but because Lehrer has shown, for both good and bad, that he has a wonderfully active imagination.

This failure of imagination is a failure to see beyond the overwhelmed schoolteacher caricature. The effects of this caricature in this case reflect Lehrer’s impending sense of shame and disgrace, but also reflect other myths of K-12 education. I am going to pick on Ed here, because I think his response is well-meaning but incomplete. He tweeted:

Yes, education is daunting and difficult, but that is not the problem with Lehrer’s quote. Cleaning the elephant cage at the zoo is also daunting and difficult. Teaching is important, (and in fairness, so is cleaning the elephant house, at the very least to the elephants) and Lehrer’s words do diminish teaching as unimportant. But ultimately, I think Ed’s view leans too far in the other direction, towards a mythology of teachers as noble saints, doing noble yet difficult, daunting drudgery. To me, the tragedy of what Lehrer misses, as well as the tragedy of most popular depictions of teaching, is that they miss the intellectual challenges and rewards of teaching students of any age.

Yes, teaching can be intellectually rewarding to a Rhodes Scholar. Yes, teaching can be rewarding to a bench scientist. Yes, teaching can be rewarding to a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Probing the minds of high school students (and even kindergardeners) can be immensely challenging and rewarding, not just in a “woohoo! I got these crazy kids to sit down and look like they are paying attention!” but in a “wow, real learning and engagement is difficult with many students, but when it happens it is magical.”

It can require extensive background knowledge, sophisticated problem-solving and yes, even creativity. One of my high school psychology teacher friends chimed in:

another college prof remembered his great high school science classes

I could go on and on about this, but for a curious, open mind, teaching at any age can be a fascinating intellectual exercise. This past summer I taught 6 and 7 year old’s chess in 3 hour sessions (ok, there was lunch, and art breaks, but still, even chess for 1 hour for 17 six-year-olds is kind of a big deal). And it was really interesting to me to consider their process of learning. Why is it so hard to learn how a knight moves? What is going on as they decide to move their rook pawns first? Why are some moves more interesting to them than others? Later on, over a long fascinating dinner conversation with the other instructors, the camp director, International Grandmaster Maurice Ashley was talking about the interesting math of the chess board, for example, that “distance” on the chess board, while we may see it, does not really exist in the rules of the game. For example, for a rook, one move may mean moving 1 square or 7 squares. In the rules of the game, these are “equidistant.”  Anyways, considering both this advanced math, as well as what are the steps to best convey this advanced, struck me as an immense intellectual challenge. The same could hold of reading, or chemistry.

BUT…

Here’s the big caveat to all of the above. Teaching is not just an intellectual challenge, there is also discipline and some other crap. Many of those 6-year-olds didn’t want to sit still for twenty minutes, much less an hour, to learn the game of chess. I had to hold their attention, recognize when it was beyond holding, separate kids who couldn’t keep their hands off each other, tell them not to treat the chess pieces as weapons or toothpicks. Schoolteachers do have to control the discipline of the classroom. At any age, you can’t just interact with a student’s mind, but you have to convince them you are addressing their hearts too (which are sometimes sitting in a toxic vat of hormones). Some of this is unavoidable, but some of the other crap that teachers have to deal with is not in the nature of teaching, but rather a particular and often arbitrary circumstance of our current system.

Yes, dealing with discipline in their classroom is an unavoidable part of any teacher’s job. Dealing with discipline in the lunchroom is not. Advising students on how to deal with math-related frustrations is part of the job of every math teacher. Advising students on how to deal with other frustrations need not be. Every time a teacher has to do test prep for a test they don’t believe helps learning, or endure a BS professional development seminar on dubious neurobabble, it can saps their energy and resolve for the other challenges they want to face.

Which brings us to my (not-so) modest proposal. For those who think we should seek to improve education by improving teacher quality, or teacher talent, by somehow selecting better teachers, I ask them to consider Lehrer’s quote. Instead of aiming to fire ineffective teachers, I think a great way to recruit and maintain a more intellectually engaged teacher corps would to emphasize and encourage the things that creative nerds like Lehrer (and me) value; intellectual freedom and independence, challenge, creativity. Here is a great post fleshing out what helps draw and keep great thoughtful teachers in the profession. At its heart, teaching is a set of marvelous, challenging but workable intellectual puzzles. The more we acknowledge this and move towards it, the better for the profession.

Despite the constraints and shortcomings of our current system, I still have many teacher heroes who shared reflected joy in introducing me to the marvelous world of ideas.  And I gather more as my kids continue in their schooling. I bet Lehrer would make a fantastic high school biology teacher. He might even enjoy moving beyond the page and seeing the light in people’s eyes when his words spark a latent wonder. What’s standing in his way is his own imagination.

About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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29 Responses to A Failure of Imagination – Jonah Lehrer is “Nothing more than a schoolteacher”

  1. Jay says:

    I’m a high school physics teacher and I followed your tweets the other day after I too raised my eyebrows at Lehrer’s “just a teacher” statement. I’m proud of what I do and it gets lonely and tiresome for all the reasons that you say here – Tuesday I have to sit through a mind-numbing professional development day full of psychobabble. Administration values test scores and pretty much nothing else as long as the kids aren’t climbing the walls. But is there good teaching? Is there engagement? Are the students learning? It seems that I’m the only who cares one way or another. I want to be a good teacher – like all those who you describe – and it is rewarding in and of itself, but it seems not to make a difference one way or another to anyone else in the building.

  2. Cedar Riener says:

    @Jay I am truly sorry to hear that, I hope you know that you make a difference to your students, even if they don’t acknowledge it at the time. One of the things I ask my college students, when they find a college class unexpectedly smooth, or their performance surprisingly high, is “Did you have a lot of practice doing this in high school?” “Did you have a good high school class in X?” When they inevitably say yes, I say, “Go back and tell them, they’ll appreciate it.” I hope that happens for you enough to make it worth it to stay.

  3. Thanks, Cedar, for sticking up for the intellectual rigor of teaching. It is bad enough that the general public misunderstands the real work of teaching, but even worse when “academics” malign the field.

  4. segmation says:

    I am getting tired of heraing about Lehrer. Isn’t there anything else to write about?

  5. Megan says:

    I’m a high school English teacher. I appreciate you standing up for yourself and other teachers and highlighting the intellectual rigor, creativity, and discipline (to discipline and to create demanding, engaging lesson plans). Kudos! Oh, and yes, we do appreciate it when students come back and tell us they got something out of our class, so thanks for encouraging your students to do that.

  6. manderson says:

    Cedar. Great post and thank you for advocating against denigration of the teaching profession. It is indeed a worthy intellectual challenge, not to mention spiritual, emotional, and physical challenge. I view it as the ultimate challenge in “leadership,” as an all encompassing term. It’s one thing to lead and manage adults, especially ones that can be fired. It’s a wholly different challenge to lead students in a classroom.

    I only have one minor quibble with the following statements in your post: “Advising students on how to deal with math-related frustrations is part of the job of every math teacher. Advising students on how to deal with other frustrations need not be.” I understand your intent here, which is to advocate for having adequate and competent counseling staff in a school (and with which I strongly agree), but I would disagree with the reality of what goes on in a classroom. It is part and parcel of a teacher’s job, particularly in earlier grades and particularly in teaching students with disabilities or who are living in toxic living situations, to help students cope with nonacademic factors and develop perseverance and self-control. Another way of saying this is that a teacher’s job is not solely to deliver an academic curriculum, but furthermore to model and build character. Children are learning how to cope with stressors and need guidance in the context that their outbursts arise. Teachers must be willing and able to provide that guidance.

    This is why teaching in K-12 can indeed be, as Ed Yong put it “daunting” and “difficult,” but furthermore intellectually rewarding as you have argued so well here.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Good points, Mark, and thanks for reading (and sharing) as always. I struggled with that section, and I agree with you that it is not quite right as I left it. I totally agree that it is a teacher’s role to model and build character, but I think that problems arise if we expect teachers to do too much beyond the academic curriculum. While any learning necessarily has an emotional component, each teacher can’t be expected to be therapist and social worker. In other words, I think our schools should actually have psychologists, counselors, social workers, etc. To some extent it is unavoidable that the teacher acts in these roles, but when there is no support for teachers in those “extra” roles, I think that can be overwhelming and lead to early burnout.

  7. Cheri L. says:

    An insightful, intelligent take on many of the real issues in education today. It is sad and scary that so many legislators don’t understand the things you’ve pointed out here. Sadder still that many administrators, who used to BE teachers don’t see it. (High school English teacher. Love the students. Wish I could say the same for other aspects of the profession.)

  8. Intellectual ability is only part of teaching; you also need teachers who can communicate – i.e., actually teach. Teaching is its own profession, with its own unique skill-set; it’s not something that it’s appropriate to have as a fall-back position for when you fail to make it as whatever your first choice was.

    This post makes me think of something my grandmother once told me; she and my grandfather were both teachers, and they used to travel to Russia regularly, when it was behind the iron curtain. Speaking to one of the Russians they met, they were discussing how the teaching profession was valued, and the fact that in the UK, it wasn’t, particularly. The answer they received was “Here in the USSR, teachers are valued highly. After all, without teachers there would be no doctors and no scientists.”

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Well said. Theophania. It is interesting to me that this disrespect (or at least misunderstanding) of teachers seems well ingrained in our culture, but it doesn’t have to be that way, as the example of other cultures show. I am sure one part of it is a gender issue; teaching has been regarded as a “woman’s profession” here and thereby often considered lower status. But I really wonder what it would take to turn this image around. I think we’d all be better off if we were more Russian, at least in this way :)

      • Over here (UK), teaching isn’t regarded as a woman’s profession – in fact, originally it was a man’s profession; women tended to teach ‘dame schools’ (hence the name), teaching little children. The grammar school teachers were all men.

        To go back to my grandparents, when my grandmother was teaching, it was routinely accepted that male teachers were paid more than female teachers for doing the same job. Women would also resign when they were due to marry, so that they ended their contract the day before the wedding – only later did it become socially acceptable for a married woman to work.

        I wonder if it’s a wider cultural thing – our attitude to education and clever people in general, rather than a gender issue (it’s always easy to assume gender issues whenever women are involved, but it isn’t always accurate). For instance, we are the culture that has the saying “Too clever by half”, and “So sharp you’ll cut yourself” and “Too clever for your own good.” If you look back through history, you see a disrespect for education in the upper classes from well before women’s role in the workplace ever became an issue, and certainly while boys were almost always taught by men, at least after the age of ten or eleven.

        Interesting, though.

  9. Tina Amirtha says:

    Interpreting and communicating how science impacts you and society has just as much impact as when it is done to a group of students or when written out in a feature or a book. You are right, our attitudes toward teachers need to change.

  10. marieschulak says:

    Solid. Solid response to a public “misfit” and to a general misconception of the teaching profession. The best line, I submit, is “At any age, you can’t just interact with a student’s mind, but you have to convince them you are addressing their hearts too (which are sometimes sitting in a toxic vat of hormones)” As a high school teacher, this couldn’t be more true. Thank you for the post!

  11. We have a very similar misconception of the teaching profession here in the UK. I teach 11-18 year olds and know that at least half the lesson isn’t the subject matter but the way in which you communicate it and make it as relevant as possible to the students. Thank you for a well-written and incisive post!

  12. DaveV says:

    Hi Cedar,
    As a former academic (four doors down from you at one point), a former tenured professor, and a current high school maths teacher, I’d like to agree with you and add one extra point. While it is indeed true that my current job is intellectually rewarding… that sentiment does not come close to capturing why I made the switch to do what I do. The the simple underlying truth is that I sincerely enjoy what I do. I wake up and like going to work. Ive had more than 20 jobs before this one, and that has never been the case for any of them. All of the philosophical discussion aside – I’ve learned that this should be the ONLY important criterion for judging a career choice. I am successful. Someone who hates their job is not successful. Period. Walter White is a failure not because he is a ‘mere’ chem teacher; he is a failure because he hates his job.

    Success, like beauty, should be judged internally, not externally. This is THE fundamental flaw in North American culture – the one that is root cause of many if not most of the social problems there.

    At least that’s my opinion.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Hey Dave! Thanks for stopping by. I’m really glad to hear that you are still enjoying teaching. I agree that enjoying what you do is paramount. But I don’t think that is necessarily the beginning and the end of the story. We should be asking why great teachers enjoy what they do, and trying to support and enhance that.
      You are right that too often Americans (even well-meaning “Let’s value great teachers more” Americans) see more money (or other external status indicators) as the best way of drawing more people to the profession. Instead, I think we’d make more progress if we asked “what do you love about teaching?” “what is standing in the way of that?” “What can we do to make it more enjoyable?”
      Certainly.fair compensation is part of that, but I think it is a far more limited part than anyone often acknowledges.
      Regarding Walter White, I agree, but part of my citation of him is that I think that too often our popular culture chooses to portray him (and his attitude) as a typical teacher, rather than someone like you.

  13. J M Naszady says:

    The act of teaching is often in direct opposition to the political forces that control it. Students are very aware of these politics (even primary aged students), and exploit them at every opportunity. Our system will be broken as long as the politics takes precidence over the craft of teaching.

    As for those who have a snobbish disdain for the art of teaching below a certain level, largely because the intellectual element appears to be lacking from their point of view, the intellectual element will also be driven by the popular view of how education is defined at each level. When standards and expectations are low, so is the intellectual engagement of both teacher and student.

  14. MikeW says:

    I haven’t followed what this man did and didn’t do, but it sounds like the ethical autism problem affecting so many men and women in so many professions and institutions now. When society scoffs at ethics and morality, what basis is there for trust?

    The education system is like The Matrix. The teachers are dreaming of teaching but are hooked up to a totalitarian bureaucracy machine. It pays and controls them but guts their mission in the name of funny educational ideologies with theories that sound like food additives and are about as nourishing, and the occasional threat of on campus terrorism. Neo and his friends are in the charter school ships, but even some of those are beginning to show signs of infiltration.

    The pessimistic economists prophesying unsustainable, exponential growth curves accelerating toward collapse in water, energy, agriculture, ecology, finance and population may well include public school bureaucratization in the congestive heart failure diagnosis that unsustainable largesse brings about in all things Earthly.

    The way out? A good math teacher could tell us. Simplify both sides of the equation to get all of the crap off of it, solving for the simple teacher and student-parent relationship. What is necessary? What should we scrap and start all over?

    Involve parents more. Let kids be kids with parental supervision at school more of the time, letting everyone be humbled by parental presence weekly. I think the classroom should mostly be the society children will be solving problems in and for. Let them be part of the work of society, applying what they learn as they go. Physical layouts in schools could be much reduced where students are out on learn-to-work-to-learn sites, or public schools could take on industrial production

    Somehow in the mix, lots of wasted funds need to be freed of bureaucracies and their physical plants, flowing into leaner, streamlined, well-trained student-teacher arrangements that form around the work, not necessarily around personalities, buildings, rooms, chairs, hallways, gyms, and other theaters of drama, posturing, violence, premature pregnancy or abortion (often out of boredom and imprisonment in the same walls with the other co-ed inmates). Schools need to be de-correctionalized.

    • MikeW says:

      Second to last para had a cut-off thought:

      ..or public schools could take on green industrial and agricultural production enterprises and make schools economic engines that self-fund while learning more than ever, motivated by the constant application…

  15. Guadalupe says:

    Cedar, I couldn’t agree more. I’m a molecular biologist and a few years ago I decided to become a high school biology teacher. The reason was simply that I liked it better. For me, teaching is creativity, challenge and absolute happiness when I see “the light in people’s eyes when (my) words spark a latent wonder”.
    When I read Lehrer’s “nothing but a schoolteacher” I wasn’t that surprised: a lot of my scientist friends saw my change of career as “going down the ladder”. That perception has to change if we, as a society, really want to improve education.
    Thank you very much for your post.

  16. Carrisa says:

    I teach high school AP Psychology (which is a lot of science and history) and IB Theory of Knowledge (a philosophy course). My time with the students is the highlight of my week. I love coming up with creative ways to keep them interested, and I am lucky to teach at a school with many great teachers. But the meetings, paperwork, and PD days just pull the energy right out of us. We go in hoping for some time to “get some work done,” only to find out that we will be busy all day. Sometimes it’s fun, but I understand why teachers leave the profession. Maybe what teachers really need is a planning/grading day, instead of PD. And in California, we need to have an easy path for Ph.D and Master’s level professionals to teach in public schools. The system is so prohibitive, it’s just not worth the effort.

  17. Pardon me, this is a long comment but public education is a sensitive issue for me and I want my voice to be heard.

    To understand teaching in the public schools (K-12), one should start teaching in the worst neighborhoods with the most challenging students. If a young idealistic teacher survives that reality for five years without burning out and losing his or her dedication to teach, then he or she is a survivor and may actually become successful as a teacher.

    But, statistics show that half of all new idealistic teachers leave teaching in the first three years and never return to education.

    I know what I’m talking about.

    I taught in the same school district in Southern California 1975 – 2005. My first full-time job (I substitute taught for the first two years) was a fifth-grade class. The regular teacher, a veteran, had a heart attack and eventually died in the hospital. I was the thirteenth substitute in thirteen days. Those fifth graders were tough and half of the boys were hyperactive with attention deficit disorder. The neighborhood was so dangerous that the school had coils of razor wire on the roofs to keep the gang kids off the roof at night and on the weekends. The teachers always arrived at least an hour before schools started so we saw the graffiti, and the bullet holes in the walls and doors that the custodians filled in and painted over before the kids arrived. We saw the broken glass littering the teacher parking lot —glass from the lights that lit the parking lot at night. The bulbs had been shot out too and had to be replaced. The district replaced those lights and the glass covers several times a year.

    I was called in because I had a reputation for being tough. In one of the other tough schools where I substitute taught, the 7th and 8th grade students called me the Sergeant and when kids saw me on campus in the mornings before the first class, they would ask me who I was subbing for. If they didn’t have me, they would be relieved.

    The next year, I moved up to the toughest middle school in the San Gabriel Valley (in the same district). Our principal, a Korean War Veteran, staffed the school with other war veterans. For example, I am a former US Marine and fought in Vietnam. There were several just like me—from Korea and Vietnam. The community that surrounded the school was so dangerous we were warned not to leave campus on foot to follow defiant students that fled from us.

    In that school district, every campus on the gang side of the freeway had its own campus police force and at lunch teachers and administrators were on duty in the quad to maintain discipline and deal with gang fights when they broke out, which were often. In addition, because campus cops could not carry pistols or shotguns (the school board wouldn’t allow it), the local Sheriff’s department assigned an officer to arrive on campus during lunch, drive on the quad and sit there in his squad car. Every kid on campus could see him sitting there with his dark glasses on and the shotgun attached to the dash. There were two lunch breaks because it was easier to control fifteen-hundred students instead of 3,000. If the rival street gangs on campus decided to riot and beat the daylight out of each other, the cop in the squad car called in reinforcements and soon police cars flooded the campus from three local towns. Later the teen gangsters identified as the perpetrators would be seen with handcuffs on being guided into squad cars for the trip to juvie and a judge.

    At the Middle Schools (1967 – 1989) and the high school (1989-2005) where I taught, some of my students were known as shooters because they had gunned down and killed rival gang members. Twice, I was a witness to drive by shootings as school let out. My first classroom at the high school was next to a busy street where parents often waited to pick up their children. The shootings took place during those times.

    I could have transferred to the other side of the freeway into a blue-collar middle class area where street gangs did not rule the streets at night. Instead, I stayed. And I had a reason. My older brother (from another father) Richard belonged to street gangs as a teen and he was illiterate to the day he died at age 64. He also spent fifteen years of his life in prison. My father and mother never graduated from high school because at 14 they had to drop out to survive during the Great Depression. The choice was to stay in school and starve or drop out and find a job. That wasn’t much of a choice.

    Fortunate for me, both were literate and avid readers of westerns/mysteries (father) and romances (mother). My dad also grew up as a street wise tough guy who used his fists to gain his own justice.

    Teaching in those schools nestled in that street gang infested barrio was an exhausting, daily challenge, but in every class there was a minority of students who learned but the majority of students were not there to learn. They were there because the law forced them to fill those seats and there was a general attitude that just sitting there was enough to earn a passing grade.

    Military style discipline was the key to maintaining a learning environment in the classroom and every day was a challenge to maintain that discipline. Every year some gang banger would ask me what I would do if they jumped me, because many of the teen gangsters resented the fact that I controlled the classroom and nothing would intimidate me to back down and let the mob rule the learning environment.

    I taught English, reading and journalism. Next door was a math teacher and she was a Vietnamese immigrant that probably did not weight even 100 pounds but the gangsters feared her and respected her and she was a great teacher. She did not play guitars and sing to her students to motivate them. She did not wear costumed and act as if she were on stage. She ruled her room with a dictator’s iron fist and her students learned as some of my students learned. We were teachers that did not sing or dance or play guitars to motivate our kids.

    And every year one or more of those teen gangsters would cross over, became a student and start to learn. Those were the sweetest victories.

    So, when NCLB arrived thanks to President G. W. Bush, that was the least of our worries at Nogales High School in La Puente in the Rowland Unified School District in Los Angeles County’s San Gabriel Valley.

    I’ve gone on too long already with this comment but I want to make it clear that there were students in every classroom taught by every teacher on that high school campus that went on to graduate from college and become doctors, scientist, accountant, engineers, lawyers, teachers, etc. Some went to Stanford, Berkeley, Cal Tech, MIT, etc. Those students were in the same high school classes with the failing, illiterate gangsters that made up the majority of students that were not there to learn. All were taught by the same teachers. The only difference was that a few were there to learn and it did not matter if the teacher was boring or not. Students that wanted to learn and were dedicated to learn to improve his or her life learned from the most incompetent teachers.

    This is true because that is what I told our daughter and this year she starts her third year in Stanford. I told her as a child in a public grade school that it didn’t matter if the teacher was boring, incompetent or great, it was still her responsibility to learn. She graduated from high school recognized as an award winning scholar athlete with a GPA of 4.65 and was the only student from her high school to be accepted to Stanford.

    And I’m another example. After Vietnam and the Marines, I went to college on the GI Bill and was a student that learned. During those college years, I discovered that many professors are boring as a bloodless rock, but I still learned and graduated with a BA in journalism and years later an MFA in writing. If you find errors in this comment, I only proofed this once. Because my father was an alcoholic, I grew up with severe dyslexia. In fact, when I was age seven, experts told my mother I would never learn to read or write, so she taught me at home with a wire clothes hanger as a swatting motivator. She didn’t do that for my older brother. She beat me to literacy—something teachers cannot do and I appreciate what she did to make sure I learned to read. She never physically beat me for anything else.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for coming by and sharing your story, Lloyd. It is amazing to hear how different the various journeys people take in our educational system truly are. From your’s, to your student’s, to your daughter’s, many found their own brand of success.

      • You are welcome.

        My experience has taught me that there is a formula for education, and that formula works best when all three elements are actively engaged in the process.

        It is simple: teach + learn + parenting = education

        1. The teacher teaches and he or she does not have to be a potential Academy Award winning actor or actress at the front of the room putting on a show to motivate students to be part of the equation.

        2. The students must accept responsibility for learn and that means coming to class read, paying attention, reading the assigned work, doing the assigned work, doing the homework and reading printed books, magazines and newspapers outside of school hours.

        3. The parents support both part 1 and part 2 of this equation. If the parents are not totally 110% involved, then the children of those parents are also not involved and resent being forced to go to school because it is a law.

        However, in today’s educational climate, the teacher is being held responsible for all three elements of the equation and blamed with Part 2 and 3 are not engaged. And so-called pontificating experts keep coming up with different teaching methodologies but never a way to fix broken parents.

        Simply, a student that does not pay attention, doesn’t do the class work, the homework, study or read in and out of school at least as much as he or she spends watching TV, listening to music, playing video games, social networking, etc. then that student is not engaged in the learning process and the parent is not engaged in being a parent.

        Explain how two students in the same class with the same teacher, me for example, end up following such diverse paths in life. One goes to Stanford on a full scholarship and goes into the sciences while the second one drop out of school illiterate before 12th grade and continues his life in a gang dealing in drugs, violence and murder.

        The reason I use myself as the example teacher is because I had students in the same class that made different choices and they grew up on the same street in the same barrio, went to the same schools and had many of the same teachers. The only difference was that they had different parents.

        Then there was the student who had me as her ninth grade English teacher and she listened when I told my students they had choices and if college seemed impossible due to lack of money and support at home, there was always the military.

        One day, years later, this former female student came to visit me. She was wearing an air-force uniform. She told me her story. To escape the barrio, she joined the air force right out of high school, bought a lap top and started working toward her BA in electrical engineering during the First Gulf War when she was stationed in Israel manning a Patriot missile battery. Her next tour was in Japan and the next one in South Korea. When she visited, she’d been in the active military for five years and she said she would stay in until she earned her master’s because the military paid all of her tuition. She picked a reputable state university in California that offered the program she wanted and every time she changed duty stations, she changed her job in the air-force to learn another high-tech skill. Smart girl. She had supportive parents but they were poor and came from a small rural village in Mexico where everyone was illiterate because there were no schools. They didn’t come to the US for the job opportunities. They came because they dreamed of their children going to school so they could break out of poverty.

        I could have just written, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.” Should we shoot the person leading the horse because it refused to drink? My brother refused to learn and my parents did not force him. However, my parents did not give me a choice. I had to learn or else. My brother’s failure taught them a painful lesson and they did not fail with me, which leads me to this truism, “Any idiot can be a parent.” And many Americans are blaming the teachers for those parents that are idiots.

        Have you ever heard of James Ellison? He taught an art class at the high school where I taught English and Journalism. His mother also made a difference in his life. As a young child, half of his brain was removed. I believe it was the left side.

        http://www.b17.com/ellison/biofile.htm

  18. Laura4NYC says:

    I also enjoyed Lehrer’s book “How we Decide” well before the scandal came out. I don’t care what he is accused of, to me he will always be the person who was down-to-earth enough to explain to us non-scientists how things work.

    Great work on illustrating your reaction to the school teacher comment!

  19. Joe Riener says:

    From the Tony-Award winning play, “Proof”, by David Auburn: [the character, Hal, a math professor, is talking about why math profs take speed] “They think math’s a young man’s game. Speed keeps them racing, makes them feel sharp. There’s this fear that your creativity peaks around twenty-three and it’s all downhill from there. Once you hit fifty it’s over, you might as well teach high school.”

  20. john kubie says:

    I’m enjoying the blog!
    Part of the “high school teacher” problem is the institutional gap between k-12 science education and college/university science. There are large institutional differences in training and attitudes that are, to say the least, counterr productive. To a first approximation, many/most college teachers with PhDs have never been taught to teach, while many/most high school science teachers have never done science. A simple example. A few years ago I thought of taking a semester off and working on developing parts of a high-school level curriculum in Neuroscience. I went to a ferw local high schools and discussed the project. Had great discussions, and people were encouraging. But there were serious obstacles, one being that I would not be allowed to speak in front of a group of students unsupervised unless I obtained certification. This would be true if I had a Nobel prize. I ended up doing a few projects, but much less than would have been done without the barriers. There seems to be insecurty and insularity on both sides of the k-12/college divide.

    • “But there were serious obstacles, one being that I would not be allowed to speak in front of a group of students unsupervised unless I obtained certification.”

      One reason for this is to make sure anyone that is in direct contact with students in the public schools, such as teachers, has gone through an FBI background check and been fingerprinted.

      This is a safeguard to keep”known” dangerous adults and “known” sex offenders off of school campuses and away from children.

      In addition, there are other laws at the state and federal laws (that the schools had nothing to do with) that make it very risky for a teacher to leave his or her students alone with another adult that is not certificated. The liability issues are draconian and can cause school districts and administrators to be taken to court by parents, get teachers fired, have teaching credentials cancelled and see teachers end up in jail and sued for every penny they have. In fact, teachers are the only profession where one may be tried for the same crime twice and if found innocent still lose his or her teaching credential.

      All of these laws and restrictions mostly came about due to law suits from parents against teachers and school districts.

      This is one reason why the US is known as the litigation nation.

  21. Vladimir Mishka says:

    Honestly, Are we all that pretentious that we get offended by an author or journalists words? Any Tom,Dick,and Harry with internet access can be a blogging journalist or reporter for that matter. If any profession should be looked down upon its the journalistic field with their one sided opinions and flagrant plagiarism. Remember what happened at the New York TImes with the Fake stories by one of their award winning journalists? Twice this has happened with big name newspapers and because an editorial comes out looking to discredit someone we get in an uproar for his comments about teachers? As a teacher I am hardened by the perception of others regarding the profession, However I dont live my life according to their rules, or perceptions. People talk and talk, and with the internet it is just more pronounced and in your face then ever before. So lets take it for what it is and move on. I dont need to rebuild my self esteem because someone dissed the teaching profession, instead I chose to stop buying Lehrer’s books and ebay the ones i own. How about that? I suggest you do the same and and hit em where it hurts, their pocketbook!

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