I’m On A [KGO] Radio

March 25th, 2005

I was on the radio last night with Gene Burns. This was the first time I ever called into a radio show and I was quite nervous. I am one to constantly question my expertise, even though I assert myself as confident and sure of my answers. Putting my ideas out there on the radio, impossible to edit, revise, or rethink, is a scary thing. What if I don’t get my ideas right? What if I completely lose my logic? Worst of all, what if I end up contradicting myself!?

Despite our differences in opinion, Mr. Burns was relatively fair and open to the debate in which we engaged. I have respect for Mr. Burns’s intellect and am honored to have kept up with him for 40 minutes (I’d say I did a pretty good job of it). Through reflection on the discussion, I’ve thought of several things. Would that I could have thought this eloquently last night.

Education: The Goal is Clear?
Mr. Burns believes that the goal of education is to teach the willing. That sounds great. If I had only the willing in my class, things would work much better for me and the students. However, I don’t think that is the goal of education at all. The goal of education is to create a literate society. Even the unwilling stand to benefit and it’s up to teachers to coerce the unwilling and at least make it easy for them to go along for the ride.

“The schools do teaching but they do a whole lot of other stuff” (Burns, Gene. KGO Radio. 24 Mar. 2005.). And Gene Burns would have you believe that’s a bad idea. In an ideal world, I’d agree with Gene. All parents would teach their kids how to behave and would enforce the importance of education; all students would understand how what they are learning now will benefit them in the future; education would flow like so much milk and honey. However, the society we live in doesn’t fit the model Gene wants.

Parents often abdicate the responsibility for raising their child to the school and quite often do not demonstrate for their children how important education is; students lack the ability to see how knowledge will help them in future life and are regularly unwilling to concede that adults might know a little better than they do; at times, education flows like so much molasses. We spend much more money on our prison systems than on education systems. The money spent on dealing with Johnny Bad Apple (the name Gene gives to the universal “deliquent” disrupting class) in the juvinille justice system (about $30,000 for a year in prision) is much higher than dealing with Johnny Bad Apple within the education system (about $6,500 for a year in school). As a way to keep young Johnny out of the justice system, education will help him out a great deal.

Never The Twain Shall Meet
Mr. Burns, while usually fairly lucid, sees the two systems of justice and education as separate and, when pressed, doesn’t want to talk about the justice system when discussing education. His idea is that those two systems are two different problems that ought not to be mixed (that even sounds like the way Mr. Burns would say it). To Gene, there’s no overlap in those two systems.

What he doesn’t face is the very real scenario: a student leaving one system (education) is simply entering another (justice). Not admitting that, in an effort to envision the perfect educational system in a vacuum, is folly. The decisions made in the educational system impact the decisions made in other facets of society. They are related and inextricably linked.

The Continuum of Life
With that thinking laid out, I propose that there is a continuum with education at one end and prison at the other. Perhaps that leads us to a different way of considering a better educational system, one that will work to keep students out of the other end of the spectrum. Gene would not like that idea, I suggest, since now there is no way to avoid seeing the way money is spent in the two systems as related. However, I believe that continuum is a very real assessment.

What Mr. Burns suggests is that, if a student decides to leave the educational system, we simply let that student go his way without trying our best to intercede on his behalf. Of course, we’d intercede because teenagers often make bad decisions about very life-altering choices. I do not suggest that we coddle them and make all the tough decisions for them, merely that we offer alternatives and experience as options.

One Size Fits All?
But, as Mr. Burns puts forth, instead of trying a different approach for that student who genuinely does not fit into the traditional system, something other than the model that has been practiced for well over 100 years, we simply write that student off as a lost cause. The possibility that teachers weren’t giving him the type of instruction he needed, that the student may need more independent study, that there’s another school model he would fit into, that maybe teachers with a soft spot for hard cases should work closely with him in an effort to give him an education, these things don’t seem to matter to Mr. Burns in the long run. Nope. Mr. Burns would turn that person over to society without any advisement. If that person is a success, Mr. Burns’s ideas have worked. If he’s a failure, Mr. Burns’s ideas have cost all taxpayers roughly 5 times as much money because, instead of dealing with that student at a cost of roughly $6,500 a year in school, that person must be dealt with at a cost of roughly $30,000 a year in prison.

“He went Ned Beatty on you!”
During the course of our conversation, at a moment when others said Gene “went Ned Beatty” on me (a reference to Beatty’s role in Network), Mr. Burns accused me and all teachers as being snotty “acolytes in the tower of education.” I asked that I not be given that title and he seemed quite willing to tell me what I really wanted instead of taking me at my word that that position is not what I propose at all. But I’m glad he brought that point up. In a way, he is correct. Shocking, eh? Let me explain.

There are things about teaching and the educational system which those not involved in it will never understand, just as there are things about every profession those not involved in it will never understand. Teaching is another job. A radio talk show host is another job. If I refered to Mr. Burns as “an acolyte in the tower of radio,” I’m sure he’d take offense to my suggestion that he is a know-it-all and is only willing to condescend to talk to those of us not involved in his profession. Likewise, I take offense at his similar suggestion of teachers. However, to some degree, we are experts in what we do and that does need to be acknowledged. Simply because someone went through the education system, has kids in that system now, or is highly educated does not make that person an expert on deciding exactly what a teacher’s job is.

You’re Not The Boss Of Me
If there’s one thing I am sick of, it’s people telling me what my job is and how I should to it better. Gene suggests that teachers only focus on their subject-area content. Others would suggest that we are there to encourage socialization of students. Still others would offer that we are keepers of society’s moral norms. And another task I often have laid at my feet is parent pro temp, with all the responsibilities pertaining thereto.

Teachers need to be called on for things they do wrong. Furthermore, I agree that the system is broken. The extent of those breaks is what concerns me, but that’s a subject of a different post. Teachers also need to be given credit for what they’ve done correctly, often in spite of instead of because of this system. And, finally, teachers need to not even enter the discussion sometimes. If students do well on standardized testing, that’s because the student has decided to do well, not because the teacher is adept. I take no credit for their success and I expect no blame for their failure. I deal with a student for roughly 1 hour a day. How am I to blame for their lack or acquisition of a skill set? There are so many things that impact a student in a given day. Teachers (that is, all 6 or 7 of them, depending on a student’s schedule) make up 6 of 24 hours. How much responsibility can we be given for the success or failure of a student?

All in all, I’m glad I called in to the show. I hope that Gene thinks of the conversation fondly, though he does this every night and I’m sure he’ll forget the moment rather quickly as another debate replaces it in his memory. I still think that many people are misinformed about education (standardized testing? teacher accountability? don’t get me started!) and I hope that I can do my part to set folks straight. In the meantime, I’ll revel in the semi-fame I had today at school as my peers patted me on the back for finally engaging in the public discussion about education.

One comment on “I’m On A [KGO] Radio”

  1. Tom Says:

    Great stuff. I think very lucid and effective discussion of a difficult topic. You show some guts getting on the air like that. I am nervous just posting to my blog and I can change that.

    To draw the parallel you made a little further-
    Virtually everyone has been to the doctor but that doesn’t mean they know how to be a doctor. Virtually everyone has listened to the radio that doesn’t mean they know how to be (or would be a good) a radio host.

    Doing a job for a living exposes you to nuances and truths that you would never know otherwise. It is a shame more people don’t realize that.

    I think they figure they’ve taught people things before. “I taught my child to tie their shoes.” I could be a teacher and so I am in the position to judge what they are doing. That is the equivalent of saying “I put a band-aid on a scrape the other day. I am ready to go fix that mess in arthroscopic surgery.”

    Teachers just don’t get much respect. I’m not sure why that is. It seems like teachers used to be respected and professors still are. I wonder what happened.

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