On the Continuance of Just Causes

On November 11, 1918—almost exactly one hundred years from this, my last year as Dean of our college — leaders of both sides of a terrible conflict met in Compiegne, France to sign the Armistice which signaled the cessation of WWI hostilities.  Thus ended —“forever”, thought many who survived the war, though that was not to be — a war of devastation and slaughter that precipitated killing on a  dreadfully efficient scale, with fearful effect.  WWI was the pivotal event of a  monumental hinge of history.

In lives devastated and lost, cultures cleaved, creative works unrealized,  populations dislocated, and in corruption of innocence, man’s  folly — and it  was MEN — was purchased at inexpressible cost.

In the aftermath of such Topheth, we seem always to have been able to rely  upon the most sentient among us — artists, poets, spiritual guides, composers, dancers — dream-couriers all, to offer solace to help offset the indignity of our  narcissistic indulgences.  One of the most widely-embraced of these efforts  begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row — on row,
That mark our place:
And in the sky, the larks —
Still bravely singing — fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Their offering: an image, a song, a story, an amen, or — as with Canadian  soldier, physician, and poet John McCrae’s  In  Flanders  Fields — a poem, for its  time and for eternity.   Every such narrative, or image, or performance, issues a  cautionary tale of humankind’s cruelty and mindlessness.

The message of each is a plea for the ascendancy of our noblest instincts — a  plea, and a reminder: that even within our most cultivated societies,  individuals succumb to self-possessiveness, and — for the sake of squeezing  power and wallowing in privilege — allow themselves to submit to their basest  inclinations: to marginalize others, to dominate others, and to persecute others  to the most extreme degree.

Sadly, there are consecrated sites in almost every nation — sites of official  mourning — stone edifices, rows of crosses in proud review — honoring those  who were tormented and swallowed by war’s malignant invoices.  More sadly  still is the presence of more desolate sites— raw sunken clefts, yawning holes,  crowded pits roughly scraped over — unsanctified by cross or prayer or crude  inscription: here the hearts of the innocents are buried. . . so many lost to  memory.

For the despair that WWI summoned, and for the carnage and the crimes  against humanity marshalled in by unrelenting failings of civilized societies in  the years since WWI, we continue to pay the butcher’s bill.

To the many questions one would have today’s students ponder, might be  added: “What is sacred when human life ceases to be?”

Without salvation offered by the human will and imagination, more species  than have already perished are destined to suffer extinction. . . fueled by the havocs of unabated environmental humiliation, a prospect that brings into  question the very relevancy of human morality.  As it has with war, human  evolution has wrought these dark threats too.

In the years since the end of WWI, societies the world over have experienced  more — not less— violence, instability, insecurity, and injustice.  Unchecked  diseases, water and air pollution, famine, and squandered natural surrounds  compound the un-kind toll.  In societies that have become increasingly hostile  to them, tens of millions of young people face a future that holds little hope for  them — young refugees from the ruin of humanity’s fondest dreams.

Reflecting on awareness that inspires our professional and personal civility today, it’s easy to imagine being visited by the spirits of our predecessors — kindred souls, whom we summon from across the ages to commune with us. . . time voyagers at our sides, whispering their approval of our efforts here in the college to help restore sustainable communities, to speak out for the dispossessed, and to help reclaim ravaged ecosystems.  Imagine them mingling quietly among us, encouraging us to stand fast against the enveloping darkness.

A prince among those who have passed whom we embrace as kindred spirits is Elie Wiesel, witness to history, messenger to humanity. . .  conscience of the  world, whose death in July 2016 we continue to mourn.  In spirit and in  memory, Elie Wiesel is still with us, as are all crusaders for righteous and  redemptive causes who have preceded us.

We are all linked together by our willingness to make overcoming injustice, indifference, and intolerance our civil religion.  We are poised here for one brief sigh of time. . .  toiling in congress with one another, bending shoulders to the  task of helping to resolve the most pressing challenges of our time.

In close communion, we share values and sentiments expressed by language  unspoken, inspired by dreams of lands and seas unspoiled, and emboldened by  spirits unbroken.

As we each began to frame the foundation of our professional expression, none of us set out in pursuit of the Divine.  For most of us it was simple  determination to speak out against incivility, and to take a stand against the  malevolence and insensitivity of others which we understood — if left  unchecked— would inflict more terrible injury on the planet (our Mother Earth)  and its inhabitants than ever before experienced.  Fortunately, we have been blessed by the presence here in our college of so many like-minded colleagues,  who have helped to sustain us on our own individual Roads to Damascus, and  who have helped us to refuel for the moral exertions that we will continue to  demand of ourselves, for as long as we are able. . .  for as long as it takes.

Along with many of you — an extraordinary band of crusaders, healers, and  sentinels — I trust that, some years hence, our calling will be felt by others —  adventurous youths, many not yet born — and that these new dreamers will  bear witness, and wonder, and believe, and dare. . .  and by daring, take up our  crusade and carry it closer to completion.  I trust also that when our actions are  examined down the corridor of time, the judgment of history will note that the  stars marched alongside us, that we found better songs to sing, and that the  beneficent consequences of our engagements left no occasion for self-reproach.

Colleagues and friends, trust that for all of this, the cause which binds us will neither flag nor yield, and that we shall all be more engaged, and more  improved — if still imperfect — selves, here as elsewhere, now and always.

Phil Wishon
November 2018

The Every Student Succeeds Acts (ESSA) and American Education’s “Scarlet Letters”

After it landed on President Obama’s desk in the wake of broad bipartisan support from the House and Senate, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law on December 10, 2015. Intended to be an update to the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which George W. Bush signed into law in 2002, ESSA significantly scales back the federal government’s authority to intervene in schools that were underperforming, falling short of meeting student achievement targets, and failing. Under ESSA, states will now have a lot more leeway to identify and fix struggling schools.

Many critics of NCLB lamented what they saw as a denaturing of educational practice as a humane, uplifting, and (historically anyway) noble endeavor and— citing its emphasis on teaching/testing a very narrow band of academic skills implemented with a high stakes “blame and punish” mentality—a diminishment of the art of teaching. Under pressure from NCLB mandates to reach specific achievement benchmarks, the educational enterprise in countless public school districts nationwide was reduced to little more than a scramble each year to make a certain quota of students who attained or exceeded a certain score on a standardized test set by decision-makers who were often far removed from classroom and neighborhood realities. Under the threat of punishment and censure, teaching and learning in thousands of our nation’s schools became a game of “chase the cut score”, or else. The “or else” included such possibilities as firing staff members, replacing the principal, and closing the school down.

The Progressive Network for Public Education and others say that the new bill still puts too much emphasis on testing—ESSA retains mandatory testing from third through eighth grade, for example—and concern remains that tests will continue to be misused and misapplied. Under ESSA however, automatic mandatory punishments would be detached from test results, and teachers would no longer be compelled to bow to the constant pressure and stress under which they operated and to the wrath that might befall them during their teacher evaluation reviews as a result of students performing poorly on narrowly-focused, standardized tests.

To its credit, NCLB did expose for the first time the staggering achievement gap between America’s poorest schools and schools located in more affluent communities, and between students from low-income families, English Language learning students or students with disabilities, and students from stable homes and families with adequate incomes. While ESSA is a much-welcomed step in the right direction, no law—whether administered at the federal or state (or local) level—will be effective in narrowing the shameful achievement gap (“AG”)— American Education’s scarlet letters—that now exists in our public schools, unless we are successful in our attempts to address underlying issues of broader concern (e.g. families living in poverty; ravages of crime and neighborhood violence; inequitable access to quality early childhood education; under-resourced schools; lack of access to quality health care; high incidence of under employment).

Unfortunately, not all students arrive at school every day well-rested, well-nourished, fit, emotionally secure, in good health, and ready to learn. To the critical needs of these students the foundational academic narrative of contemporary educational reform has been insufficiently responsive. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act provides us an opportunity to improve things by giving educators, parents, policy-makers, and members of allied professions the opportunity to decide—at the community level—what experiences and practices are best and that make sense for students in our communities.

While the task before us is not easy, it is essential. It includes assessment of what students need most based on a suite of measures, rather than on a single test score. It also includes embedding into our most challenged schools a cross-disciplinary, multi-faceted approach to student development and learning whereby teachers are much more closely supported by school counselors, nurses, social workers, bi-lingual interpreters, nurses, specialists in the varying domains of learning needs, etc.—whatever supports that any given school needs most urgently. In our poorest schools warm breakfast and lunch programs should be available, along with engaging after-school enrichment and learning-support programs. No, it’s not easy, and it’s not cheap. However, it does little good (and could do much harm) to continue hammering low-performing schools if we are not willing or able to provide the support (resources, professional development, incentives, etc.) and the technical capacity these schools need.

With ESSA we have a chance to institute measures that enable us to determine many of the important ways that individual students, their teachers and administers are improving. Again, analyzing what the evidence from multiple and varied assessment tools reveals about students’ and teachers’ accomplishments, consideration regarding changing things in the classroom or staying the course can be undertaken. In what areas is progress being made? In what areas are more support, effort, and resources indicated? In what ways might we better customize learning experiences that are effective for individual learners?
Lastly, with ESSA we also have a chance to acknowledge the importance of development and accomplishment of the whole child (e.g. students’ capacity for ethical decision-making; their artistic and self-expressive impulses; their passion for exploration and creativity; their interest in civic engagement and social justice, their pursuit of wondrous things), not just performance on a narrow band of academic skills. Our schools can do better, and hopefully ESSA provides us with a realistic chance this time around of rising more successfully to the challenge.

Phil Wishon
January, 2016

A Critical Focus of STEM-Related Studies

Engagement in deeply-absorbed searches for that which is just beyond our intellectual and emotional understanding is central to the core of our nature as humans. Through such journeys of discovery in which the generation and testing of ideas is emphasized, we learn to connect with our personal and shared humanity, experiencing in the process discovery of selves, of community, and eventually of all we survey.

As faculty members in teacher education programs throughout the Commonwealth continue to renew their focus on STEM-related fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) two primary themes are consistently emphasized: 1.) acknowledgement of the inherent value of freeing youthful minds for contemplating stirring imaginings—encouraging purpose-filled exploration of wondrous ideas, as Eleanor Duckworth might put it, and 2.) reinforcement of the importance of focusing our capacities for rich and incisive intellectual comprehension about “what is”, and breath-taking notions about “what could be” toward addressing those issues that most deeply vex us. In both contexts, our programs invite future teachers to contemplate the significance of instilling in students a willingness—an eagerness even—to make as intimate acquaintance as possible with all that the earth and the universe beyond has to offer.

STEM specialists in Virginia’s teacher education programs help aspiring and practicing teachers understand that in order for students in their classrooms to discover the many “incredible things waiting to be known” of which Carl Sagan encouraged us to dream, they must help liberate youthful spirits for questing and for discovering that which helps resolve, if even momentarily or incompletely, students’ countless wonder- and passion-filled inquiries about the “whys” and “what ifs” of their surroundings. As classroom teachers gradually master increasingly effective, researched-based strategies for helping their students experience engaging and memorable ways of observing and interacting with their surroundings, they inspire their students to explore fearlessly. In this fashion, errors, unknowns, and uncertainties become instructional stepping stones—constructive pathways by which students and teachers alike draw closer to greater insight, possibility, appreciation, and truth.

The most consequential contributions to our profession, to our communities, and to society will not be the new discoveries and innovative applications that future generations of teachers and their students will help develop, but in how their discoveries and accomplishments contribute to the attainment of a more ideal human condition. Humanity’s most worthy accomplishments will not be measured in terms of its most celebrated scientific achievements, but in terms of how it applies its knowledge to address the core issues of our time—waste and depletion of our natural resources, world hunger, scarcity of clean water, impure air, deaths from curable diseases, extreme poverty, and inequity of opportunity across gender and class. The good news: accelerating technologies—the defining and ongoing innovations of our age: biotechnology, the computer, nano-technology, the internet—afford opportunities like never before to help us address these issues.

This much can be said with certainty: The future of nations and of species is going to be dependent on the generation of bold ideas and on inventive application of STEM-related enterprises to the problems which most challenge humankind. Moreover, these are the enterprises that we will depend upon to continue providing the economic stimulus for the Commonwealth and for the nation. The lab-, field-, and classroom-based investigations, discoveries, and accomplishments of scientists, engineers, and educators are the hammer, plow, and steam-driven industries of tomorrow.

Along with our partners in P-12 schools, Virginia’s teacher educators stand in formation with our colleagues in business, science, health care, and industry in calling for a renewal of efforts to support exploration, education, and investment in science, mathematics, engineering, technology, and other domains that are critical to the knowledge economy—investments of intellectual and imaginative “currency” that will allow us to create and sustain the best possible prospects for the well-being of communities here in Virginia, across America, and in societies the world over.

Let our success and our reputation be judged a decade, a generation, or a hundred years hence on nothing so much as by how well we shall have joined forces to address the world’s most profound problems—on how successful, for example, we shall have been in addressing the needs of the lost, the left, and the least among us, and on how well we shall have treated people a world away with whom, as Bill Gates has noted, we have nothing in common but our humanity—that, and shared occupancy and tentative purchase on the surface of a small planet afloat on the cosmic sea.

Phil Wishon
July, 2015

Civic Engagement, Ethics and the Choices One Makes

Imagine that it is the fall of 1927 and that you are a student in a Biology class at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College). Imagine also that your lab partner is a young woman named Rachel Carson, just starting her junior year, a dedicated student eager to discuss with you her developing intellectual interests: marine life and the oceans. What are the chances that your exchanges with Rachel would be engaging in a way that would sustain her interest in science—an interest that would eventually lead her to publish Silent Spring, her landmark book about the vulnerability of the natural environment?

Jump ahead thirty years to the fall of 1957, the beginning of your senior year in high school. Let’s make it September 25 to be exact—and imagine yourself mingling among hundreds of other members of the student body outside of your school, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas as nine black students attempted for a second time to begin classes, escorted this time by troops from the 101st Airborne. What are the odds that you would have joined with a number of other students who had welcoming sentiments for the “Little Rock nine” or with the many students (and adults) who chose to express only hate?

As William Faulkner noted, History is not was, History is. While we don’t get to choose our moment in time, we do get to choose whether, in our time, we will speak out, take action, and help inform unfolding events—in other words, to become civically engaged—or whether we will remain silent by-standers to history. We are attached to this time and to the places that stretch before us, but how many of us will ever bond with our moment in history… claim it, act upon it? How many of us will, with more serious and humane intent, encourage others to join us in becoming active contributors to conversations related to the generation of possible solutions to the most vexing and consequential issues of our time?

In business and industry, in the trades and professions, in public service,—in all human affairs—questions about character, civic engagement, and ethical reasoning challenge us. In America alone, hundreds of thousands of families are burdened by poverty and its attendant social ills: crime, addictive behavior, and mental illness. In far too many American communities hatred, violence, and disregard for the rights of others prevails.

In the United States as elsewhere, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider than ever, and its consequences are mirrored in schools by declines in student interest, behavior, and performance. They are also mirrored in our neighborhoods and workplaces by inequality of opportunity, by disparate levels of income, and by inequitable access to gainful employment across gender, race, and culture. As they continue unabated or worsen, these disparities result in widespread individual and collective malaise and discontent.

In addition to helping future teachers and leaders learn to improve the intellectual capacities of their students, employees, colleagues, and comrades-in-arms, faculty members in our college’s educator and leadership preparation programs are also committed to engaging them in informed, thoughtful conversations about what type of communities they most desire and about the way they (and their students) ought to conduct their lives. We embrace the challenge of trying to raise not just the intellectual quotient of our candidates and the individuals whose lives they will help guide, but also the ethical, just, and moral quotient of professional practice, civic engagement, and personal choice.

Investment in character development, civic engagement, and ethical reasoning serves our nation’s economic agenda as well as its interest in social justice. Our responsibility as educators and leaders goes beyond merely transmitting whatever values happen to be in vogue in society but to question those understandings and—drawing upon the best that humankind has imagined—contemplate possibilities that promise to enrich the lives of all. To this end, we choose to engage our candidates in exploring how we might reach out with others in more consequential ways to offer hope to those who see little reason to feel hopeful; what more we might do together to appreciate and help uplift citizens of other regions and other nations different from us who struggle with their history-making; and how we might respond more effectively to a wounded planet in desperate need of healing. Ultimately, hope rests in the promise and possibility of students and young people in our schools and communities whose lives we will touch mainly through the teaching, mentorship, and leadership skills of our candidates.

Phil Wishon
March 2014

Reflections on the NCTQ Adventure

Several weeks ago the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its national review of education schools, published in a report as ratings in U.S. News & World Report. Incorporating a “research” approach that can be characterized as relying on nothing so much as threats, demands, and intimidation, NCTQ used an inputs-based documents-review process to evaluate 2,400 programs located in 1,130 higher education institutions against various configurations of standards. Each institution was then given a rating on a 4-star scale. Curiously, the vast majority of institutions that were rated received no request from NCTQ to conduct on-site visits of campuses or local schools, or to conduct personal interviews.

In the report, NCTQ admits that it did not have sufficient data for many institutions, yet it goes on to say that only four of the nation’s education schools were deserving of four stars (< 1%), and only an additional 105 programs (9%) were given three or more stars. Further, 164 programs were assigned no stars at all and labeled with a “Consumer Alert” designation. [NCTQ reviewed and rated only our Middle/Secondary Education program, giving it a modest 2 ½ stars based on an inaccurate and incomplete review of the data that we submitted.] Despite the often erroneous, inconsistent, and incomplete application of its standards, and the fact that only 10% of institutions fully participated in the review, NCTQ concludes that the vast majority of teacher preparation programs in the nation do not give aspiring teachers an adequate return on their investment.

We have and shall always welcome new voices that offer sincere and well-intended commentary about how we may continue to improve. But when any voice is shrill and raised in an attempt to exercise power or to gain political advantage we shall be wary of its true motives. As a counter-balance to the NCTQ stir, I have posted on our college webpage an extensive description of the multiple and diverse means by which the performance of our teacher education candidates and the quality of our teacher preparation programs are assessed.

Here at JMU we maintain a steadfast commitment toward continuous improvement in the quality of our teacher and other educator preparation programs. To determine the competencies of our candidates, we rely on more consequential indices than high school ranking, GPA, and GRE score. Likewise, to ascertain the quality of our programs, we rely on much more than review of syllabi and course requirements or on how and by whom clinical assignments are made. Our main concern here at JMU is on means and criteria that are related to successful teaching and learning. First and foremost we are concerned about outcomes— evidence indicating what our candidates know, what they value as emerging professionals, how they envision themselves as professional educators, and how they are able to apply their knowledge, skills, and dispositions as effective classroom teacher-leaders.

Since our start as the Normal and Industrial School for Women in 1908, JMU has been instrumental in helping to fulfill the Commonwealth’s growing demand for high quality teachers, administrators, and other school personnel. We take great pride in upholding the founding mission of our institution, and doing so while holding ourselves accountable for meeting and exceeding the most rigorous state and national standards of professional excellence. The history of our profession is the synthesis of endless stories of countless Madison-grounded educators—unsung heroes of the classroom and champions of our profession—who stepped forward in their moment in history to bring transcendence to youth and young learners, leaving a legacy of making positive differences in the process. Prior generations of Madison alums who swelled the ranks of P-12 educators in years past transmitted by their professional commitment a tradition of unflinching advocacy that leads derivative acclaim to the work we perform today.

This legacy of excellence and of making a difference in communities throughout our country that our ancestral colleagues forged continues to this day. Our program completers are in popular demand by education administrators throughout the region, and from their employers they routinely receive high compliments for their preparedness, skill, and dedication. Each year in the Commonwealth and surrounding region, scores of Madison-prepared educators are recognized by their schools and school divisions as teachers/administrators-of-the-year. As succeeding waves of newly-minted educators from Madison enter and assume leadership roles in our nation’s classrooms and schools, their professional devotion to helping all learners excel and their determination to upholding the respect of our profession will honor the work of previous generations of our sister and brother colleagues, and set a worthy example for their successors to emulate.

Over the past several years, JMU’s professional education unit has engaged in a years-long state and national accreditation and strategic planning process that focused in large measure on the development and assessment of a vision and set of goals which our professional education unit aspires to exceed. At the heart of this important exercise in self-reflection and analysis is the conviction that our programs should resonate in a distinctly civil and humane way; that we should dedicate ourselves to advancing a compassionate concept of schooling and of society.

Among many of our sister educator preparation programs across the country unwilling involvement in the entire NCTQ political and public relations adventure has darkened outlooks and dampened spirits. We shall not allow ourselves to be similarly affected, nor shall we permit our resolve to be shaken. Instead, we shall continue to emphasize the respect that our programs enjoy, and refocus the conversation on 1.) the many ways that we excel on GENUINE measures of program and candidate quality, and 2.) the extraordinarily positive impact that our faculty, our candidates, and our alums have on P-12 learners, on schools, and on the communities in which they reside.

In our educator and leadership preparation programs here at JMU, the belief prevails that American education should concern itself with the processes of acquiring, valuing, and transferring knowledge as well as with matters of conscience—ideas and beliefs that we value most deeply that bind us with other members of the human community and with the earth that sustains us. It is devotion to these ideals which animates our work here at JMU, not pursuit of acclaim or select rankings. As I indicated in my remarks on program assessment posted on our webpage, this is our professional address: not our zip code, but our professional code; not where we reside, but where we stand.
Phil Wishon, Dean
July – 2013

Remembering Mr. Rogers

With Fred Rogers’ death ten years ago this month at the age of 74, America’s families lost the best friend they ever had. Every parent and every child who bathed in the grace of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, if even for only an hour, benefited from his gentle and loving heart, and his soothing and unhurried disposition. Never preachy or condescending, Mister Rogers was a friendly neighbor from whom we could learn, with whom we could play, and in whom we could trust. When he told us that he likes us “just the way you are”, we somehow knew that he meant it; we cared about Mister Rogers because we felt keenly thathe cared for us.

For over thirty years, Fred Rogers was, quite simply, the most redemptive presence not just on television, but on the entire American popular scene. In the lives of millions of today’s young children, a comforting, hope-filled presence such as that which Fred Rogers offered would do wonders to help assuage the destabilizing effects of contemporary social experience. For countless young Americans violence has become the first language because it is such a dominating theme of so much of popular music, motion pictures, television programming, video games, and day-to-day discourse. With increasing frequency, we have been made witness to the incommunicable experience of fatal assaults within our schools—on students and teachers alike. While few school districts will ever have to deal with an episode of school violence as horrific as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Red Lake and Columbine High Schools, and others, most schools must deal with the numbing effects of poverty, family dysfunction, mental illness, gang violence, and bullying.

When he was approached in public, Fred Rogers would often deflect attention from himself by asking well-wishers to take a moment and think about the parents, teachers, and other loved ones and friends who had a positive influence on them. In tribute to him, we might do something similar—allow ourselves more time to think about those who have held, and who continue to hold, cherished places in our hearts.

There is a wonderful section in his book, The Mister Rogers Parenting Book, published the year before he died, where Fred Rogers talks about how to get your child to stay in bed at night. “Your child might find it comforting”, he writes, “to have something of yours to keep through the night, like a glove or a small scarf.” I sometimes think about how comforting it might be if each of us and every troubled child had one of those sweaters that Mister Rogers would slip on at the start of each program (In the thirty-plus years he was on television, his mother must have made about 300 million of them!). Wishful thinking, I suppose. Without the comfort of one of his sweaters, our fond memories of Fred Rogers will have to suffice; not bad in a pinch, for what imperishably warm memories he has left us! Perhaps passing along to every child in need some measure of Mister Rogers’ warmth and grace and encouragement is the best thing we can do in 2013 to hold him in fond remembrance.

February 2013

Reflections on Those Who Teach

In recent memory, academic testing and holding educators accountable for students meeting academic achievement standards has been the cardinal impulse of public schools. Teachers and administrators continue to face increasing pressure to respond to a high-stakes accountability movement that often forsakes much of what else (besides core academics) is worthwhile in the curriculum. Accountability policies so narrowly conceived and implemented so often with a “blame and punish” mentality, reduces the education enterprise to a process that, in many instances, has become mechanical and cold. Such a pressure-driven enterprise fails to appreciate the inequitable impact of schooling and society itself on increasingly diverse child and youth populations.

While it is necessary for schools to improve the academic achievement of students, necessity quickly becomes vanity when it threatens to deprive students of the ecstasy of the arts and the grace of civilized discourse; when the academic agenda is advanced in a climate in which there is little time or regard for matters of character, conscience, and interpersonal consequence.

In a perfect world, there may be little need for schools to address anything other than academic standards. Sadly however, incidences of violence, poverty, family dysfunction, and social injustice serve as constant reminders that it’s not a perfect world.

Nationwide, over 39 million youth live in poverty; almost a million American school children are homeless. Among western nations, America has the highest teen pregnancy, birth, and legal abortion rates. Three million American children are victims of abuse or neglect. Because it is such a dominating theme of so much of popular youth culture, music, motion pictures, television programming, and video games, violence has become a primary language of the current generation of young Americans. Bullying and gang activity has reached epidemic proportions, and nearly twenty million youth report having experimented with illegal drugs. The majority of adolescents who suffer serious emotional or behavioral problems receive no treatment—over a million of them enter the juvenile justice system yearly.

Simply put, not all students arrive at school every day well-rested, fit and well-nourished, emotionally secure, and ready to learn. With countless young people struggling to manage deprivation and stress in their lives, professional educators step forward to provide support and guidance, not because it’s on some performance test—caring isn’t tested—but because it’s the right thing to do. Simply put, teachers should be recognized for helping to raise children’s hopes as much as they are for helping to raise children’s test scores.

Teaching students representing richly diverse backgrounds and socio-economic circumstances is uniquely rewarding and challenging. Striving to connect in meaningful ways with every student, teachers perform small miracles every day. Surrogate parents to fifteen, twenty, twenty-five or more students, teachers coach, counsel, and console—whatever it takes to help instill in students the belief that contained within each of them is the power to join with others in helping to make positive differences in theirs and in others’ lives, to speak for those whose voices have been silenced, and to stand up on behalf of a cause or two worth fighting for.

Teachers make easy targets when one is looking for where to place blame for why every student isn’t meeting or exceeding academic standards. Teaching has become increasingly stressful as teachers bend to the weight of fresh concern about slashed budgets, insufficient resources, reductions in compensation, threats to contract status, and erosion in the level of respect they once received.

True, no teacher is perfect and some underperform. However, the small percentage of ineffective teachers should not indict the majority of educators, any more than the small percentage of ineffective employees in other professions, trades, or businesses should cast doubt on the vast majority of their peers. Persistently struggling teachers should be offered support with professional improvement. If adequate improvement is not demonstrated, a career transition plan should be implemented.

For one inclined to offer teachers a piece of one’s mind they’re easy enough to locate. When not in their classrooms or homes planning lessons or grading projects teachers can be spotted at the discount store spending personal funds on materials to supplement classroom resources. Look for them after school at the park and ball field supporting their students’ teams, or at the car wash helping with school fund-raisers. Locate them in the audience supporting students’ performances, or volunteering with afterschool clubs. In the evenings, on weekends, and in the summer they can be found attending workshops and classes polishing and renewing their professional skills.

Along with all that we demand of teachers, we should urge them to remain dedicated to helping to prepare students for a civic life in which they will engage with fellow citizens with differing views to develop policies and institutions that can advance shared aspirations. Just as we expect teachers to help students improve academically, we should encourage them to help students develop confidence and resiliency as well. Such a professional orientation enriches human experience, and is as good for business and the workplace as is command of any academic subject.

Seeking neither clamor nor acclaim for themselves, educators are devoted to helping students learn to harness their skills and to exert the power of deeply-held values and beliefs about the sort of community and society that they and their children would inhabit and help sustain. Extending teachers and other professional educators a little gratitude for their efforts in actualizing such devotion would be nice on occasion, but unfortunately of late, certainly not expected.
September 2012

Nightmare or Dream

As the shadow of the second decade of the new millennium continues to lengthen, the disparity between the advantaged in our society and those residing at the margins of American society is thrown into sharp relief. Burdened by poverty, poor health, neglect, bigotry, and emotional isolation, children at the margins may seldom count on the protection of healthy, knowledgeable, caring parents. For many of them—young refugees of the ruin of the American dream—violence has become their first language. One of the tragedies of contemporary American experience is that millions of young people are un-buoyed by societal advantage, facing a future that holds diminishing hope, unlikely to fulfill their promise. Because of inequities of wealth, opportunity and acceptance, and the deforming effects of our social history on the poor, on racial, ethnic, and other minorities, and on many young women, life is more tragedy than ecstasy. These greatly taxed and wounded youth will learn only with great difficulty what we would prefer that they learn, and they will learn much too easily what we would prefer they wouldn’t.

Eudora Welty, one of the most prominent American literary figures of the past century, devoted her life’s work to lifting the veil of indifference to each other’s human plight. To such a cause as hers—a call for conscience—American education may do well to re-dedicate itself. Matters of conscience prevail when human wellness, creative self-expression, wonder of the natural world, and intimacy among communities of learners and across cultures are elevated in the curriculum to positions of importance, not merely added on when time permits. The Commonwealth of Virginia—America herself— is best served by an education system that cares about who we are and what we value most deeply, at least as much as about what weknow.

Education should bind us—its beneficent effects should cut across class and cultural lines, racial lines, and gender lines. We must make concerns of the poor and those in whose lives respect and social justice have been rare commodities our concerns. Among the enduring expectations we should have of our program completers is that they imagine societies that are less oppressive and take whatever action they can to help make them more humane.

We must help candidates understand that the “three Rs” don’t make a life. As we help our candidates become increasingly literate in the fields of communication arts, mathematics, science, technology, and the social sciences, we must also help them learn to think critically, ethically, and creatively about events and circumstances that imperil our relationships with others, with other of the planet’s inhabitants, and with the planet itself.

Our place at center stage of human events is a transitory moment in the sweep of history, subject to untold influences that will change humanity for good or ill. A fundamental question before us is which of humankind’s impulses will we allow to hold dominion over others—those that civilize or those that savage? Nightmare or dream… we get to help decide. We must help decide. If there is to be harmony between our ambitions and the imperishable regard we must have for each other and the world, the decisions we make now regarding leadership, education, and the preparation of future community leaders and education practitioners will help make it so.

Destiny looks to us, our P-12 partners, and our critical business and agency friends—to help instill in our candidates the ability and will to think through what they care about most, to deepen their understanding of themselves as human beings, and to develop their capacity for moral deliberation and action. This cause is not provincial, not local, not moored to a particular time and place. This cause is timeless and placeless, and therefore free and enduring.

February 2011
From His VACTE Presidential Statement We are located on the first floor of Memorial Hall, Room number 3175.