Remarks to Oregon PTA Convention, introducing Teacher of the Year

PTA Convention, April 15, 2011

Imagine that it’s now April of 2016, 5 years from now. Imagine that things have gone pretty well in the education world. I’m not talking about a totally rosy picture, but about 85% positive. Now look around and what do you see?

Describe the student body. What are they doing, both during class time and with the rest of their time? How about their health, nutrition, physical activity?

Describe our graduates. What are our recent graduates doing? Not just for work, but in their lives and in their communities.

Describe the relationship between the public school district and its public.

Describe our buildings.

What about resources?

Outcomes? How are we measuring them?

You get the idea. This is the conversation we should be having. This is the conversation that would lead to a plan to build the future we always say we aspire to.

Now imagine again that it’s February of 2016. Imagine this time that things have gone badly. Not worldwide cataclysm badly, but most things in the education world have broken the wrong direction, I mean about 85% badly. Now look around again and what do you see?

This is the conversation we are having. Again. It’s the same one we’ve been having for the past 20 years. It’s painful, it’s ugly, and it’s a dead end in terms of planning.


If I could name just one goal it would be to get out of defensive mode and start building. We’ve been slaying dragons so long we hardly have a chance to build castles. We need an agenda, one that lays out want we want to build and the steps required to do it.

I believe in governing by answering these questions: How will this make life better and for whom? Will it make life worse for anyone? I am really tired of the focus on: How bad will this be?

At the same time, I can’t make budget commitments out of context; I don’t believe in making deals on the side, and that’s why I had to vote the way I did on the budget a few days ago. I get asked just about every day to commit to save some particular program or to approach budgeting in a particular way. I know this budget will require us to eliminate things that are good, that matter to good people. If the budget is an expression of our values and priorities, well, this is disturbing. How long can we pretend that we hold values and priorities that we can’t put into a budget?

I’m going to quote the remarks I made on the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday, following the vote on the K-12 budget:

The K-12 budget we just approved is a stark representation of Oregon's disinvestment in public institutions, particularly education, over the past two decades.

 It is also a stark illustration of the real threat to educational "choice." We keep hearing about "choice" as a good thing, and it is. Choice of appropriate curriculum should be available to every child in every school.

No child should have to leave their school and go to another one to find music, or to find science, or to find art, or any of the other richness of human knowledge that we've lost in our schools via the combination of unconscionable financial disinvestment, contempt for the profession of teaching and a dumbed down testing culture that fails to recognize the richness of human knowledge.

And no, we can't claim to value education while we fail to value teachers, while we cite their salaries, benefits and retirements as "the problem." That is simply a diversion.

Any country in the world that truly values education shows how it values teachers both in professional esteem and in financial compensation.  My own son is making quite a bit more money as a teacher in Japan than he could make here, by the way. They are respected in the community and that's reflected by political leaders and their decisions.

I have spent the last 20 years telling students that I aim to make things better for them… That I want them smart, wealthy, safe and happy. That I want them to remember that I was on their side. After all, someday they may choose a nursing home for me. But of course I can't make it happen alone.

I voted for this bill as the best we can do, under the circumstances, but with a sense that I am participating in an unfolding tragedy.  Colleagues, we have to change the circumstances.  We have spent 20 years dismantling the very institutions that make us a community.

We are in this situation not because of a force of nature or act of God. Our budget woes come from decisions made by human beings, some of them with benevolent intent, and some of them in a quest for power. I can only keep going every day because I continue to believe we can do better.

Now, I want to thank you for this soapbox, because the window I have into the thinking of the anti-community crowd is a window I’d like everybody to peer through. We have all heard the Grover Norquist line, that they want to make government small enough to “drown it in a bathtub.” I have seen how excited they get when they think they are getting close to that. It’s actually kind of creepy.

Now, there may be, in this room, a variety of opinions about some of the particular policy proposals that have come up this year, and I’d love to have a longer conversation about some of them. But here is how I see it the larger picture:

For two decades, we have disinvested in our public institutions, especially schools. The way it works is that first comes the disinvestment, sometimes screened with patently false disclaimers, such as the Measure 5 campaign claim that it would “hold schools harmless,” which was the equivalent of “ignore the man behind the curtain.”

As those institutions are increasingly unable to do what we expect of them due to crazy-making restrictions on their resources, they are told to “innovate” and “do more with less.” Sometimes I think “innovation” is invoked as some kind of magic word, a diversion. Oh, we can cut taxes and budgets indefinitely because innovation will solve everything. It’s too bad, because innovation is a good thing, but it’s become the emperor’s clothes of public policy.

Pit natural allies against each other, make them compete for resources. Should we fund schools or seniors, public safety or health? These are crazy choices.

An important step in this process is to denigrate the professionals in the field. Anybody can teach, anybody can run a school, we should do this as cheaply as possible, and public employees are just “feeding at the public trough.” Nobody seems to ask whose trough the top 0.1% of the economy is feeding at, but that’s another story.

And we demand continual upheaval and restructuring, often without making a case as to why, so that turmoil is a constant. I think I’ve lost count of the educational initiatives that have been started and aborted since I’ve been paying attention.

And then, when we’ve used up our reliance on the good will of overworked employees, when we’ve restructured and rethought and redesigned, and we still can’t run the operation on a shoestring, we get proposals to privatize the system, a bit at a time. They are brought without evidence of money saving and without evidence of increased effectiveness. They are portrayed as “innovative” and “thinking outside the box,” whether they are or not. In some cases they are coupled with demands for decreased regulation of private providers, at the same time that we demand increased “accountability” on the part of public agencies.

And of course they are justified because of the shortcomings of the public system. In some cases they are proposed without evidence that they are better, but with an argument that anything different would have to be better. I am not saying that public systems are perfect or that they shouldn’t continually be rethought and improved. I am not even saying that there isn’t a place for partnership; actually public/private partnership pretty much makes the world go around. I am saying that a large proportion of the shortcomings that plague us now are manufactured. 

I am also saying that true innovation does not thrive in this environment. Poverty is not cost-effective, and we have impoverished the commons. Folks, that’s us.

So if I can leave you with one thought, it is this: What is the plan, and who will lead? I hope you will ask yourselves whether the PTA might just be the organization that can drive a better agenda. If the answer is Yes, know that you will have an ally in the House of Representatives.

In a minute I get to introduce Oregon’s 2010-2011 Teacher of the Year. The Teacher of the Year selection includes a cash award; thank you to Intel for that. But first I have to get back on my soapbox for a minute here: We are incredibly fortunate that our teachers are not, by and large, motivated the way some of our leaders believe they should be, that they get their rewards, their motivation, every day, in the small and large successes in the students in front of them. Because, if they were motivated primarily by cash, we’d be in trouble. I mean, in our upside-down world, the executives at Transocean, the firm that ran the now defunct Deepwater Horizon rig, got “safety bonuses” for 2010, and this was reported about a week before our House vote on the K-12 budget I described as an unfolding tragedy. All of our teachers should be getting a cash award, as well as our daily gratitude.

But tonight I have the happy honor of introducing Colleen Works, Oregon’s 2010-11 Teacher of the Year.

She teaches social science at Corvallis High School. Her superintendent says her classroom “moves students from discovery and learning to application and problem solving so seamlessly that her learners are driven to engage in projects that take them well beyond the walls of the classroom.” And she herself has cited this reach into the community as her proudest achievement.

She’s a professional example. She’s a golden resource to students whose intellects and values are in their most critical formative years. And she embodies some of our best cultural values. That kind of teaching takes knowledge, (of course), skill, (of course), high expectations… well it takes a lot of things. But it also takes a generous spirit. On behalf of your students and the community, thank you, Colleen.

Teacher of the Year: Colleen Works.


PTA Presentation, April 15, 2011, Colleen Works, Teacher of the Year

Good evening!  Thank you so much for your invitation to talk with you tonight.  When I see you all – parents and teachers together, and I think of all my students’ parents have done for my students and for me, including nominating me for this award, I know it is no cliché to say that I stand on the shoulders of giants.  I am so grateful for parents who take the time to talk with their children’s teachers, who have the interest to follow the issues of public education, and who make the time to be active participants in their children’s education.  You are the public in public education, and without you and your avid support, our task would be impossible.  I cannot thank you enough.  My greatest pleasure in being teacher of the year is these opportunities to talk about teaching with people who care as much as I do about public education.  Aside from your children, you are my inspiration!

As for my teaching colleagues out there, fellow sloggers through the myriad ups and downs, ins and outs, forwards and backwards of public education and public education policy, I feel incredibly fortunate to be standing here tonight representing all that you do.  I am so proud of my profession, and I feel humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to talk about how hard we all work to create safe, engaging places for children to learn and grow.  Your presence here shows that you are the teacher-leaders in Oregon education – involved, committed, and seeking continual growth and improvement.  I feel so honored to be here with you.

Students often ask me why I chose teaching as a profession, and I give them two reasons: One, I’m a bit of an adventure-junkie. For me, there is no greater evil than being bored.  I absolutely despise being bored!  And this job is never boring!  It is frustrating, aggravating, overwhelming, fatiguing, inspiring, infuriating, challenging, trying, energizing, funny, exasperating, rewarding… but never boring.  Each decade, each year, each day, and each hour brings new challenges, new conundrums, and new excitement.  It is work that requires that I bring my all and my best to it every day.  What could be better?

My second reason, really my primary reason, is that I truly believe teaching is one of the most important jobs, if not the very most important job in the world.  As directly as any occupation and much more directly than most, we touch the future. We cannot become stale because every day we see a glimpse of tomorrow.  Every day we see the potential, the possibilities, and the aspirations of America.  Teachers are rocket scientists.  We are architects, we are electricians and landscapers, we are physicians and clerks because we work every day to pull to very best out of the children who will grow to join these professions.  In our classrooms each day we touch the future.  Again, what could be better?

So, we are here tonight to talk about education, to talk about teaching.  It is a rich and critically important conversation.  What constitutes good teaching?  What defines a good teacher?  President Obama said in his State of the Union address that we “want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”  Okay, that’s easy…  We can all agree to that.  So how do we decide which is which?  I always tell students that I’m thrilled with the idea of merit pay as long as I get to decide who’s meritorious.  So, the key question is: how do we define a good teacher?

On a cabinet in my classroom stands a dear gift from Nick, a former student: a coffee mug.  Okay, I know we all, parents and teachers alike, have received scores of mugs offered as trophies for our lives of dedication.  Still, this one I prize above others because it gives the definition of a teacher: someone who makes sure that when kids grow up, they have the basic math and writing skills to criticize the education budget and write angry letters to the school board.  I find that definition so astute.  This is my job.  It is my life’s work to teach students critical thinking and research skills so successfully, that students are going to challenge my thinking and assumptions with their own carefully considered conclusions.  It is my job to teach them how to evaluate what I do. 

So, I ask again:  What defines a good teacher?  What constitutes good teaching? These are the quintessential question of this decade.  They are the essence of most political debate around public schooling and the topic many talking heads use to build their reputations. These are the key questions of teachers and administrators as they try to improve education in their schools.  What makes a good teacher? So, reflect on a time in school where as a student you felt truly successful.  Think back to a strong memory you have from your student years – preferably two: one from your early years and one from your secondary years, and reflect on why that is a time or event you particularly remember.  Take a minute to reflect and remember. ‘Got your memory?  Now, share it with someone sitting close to you.

Did you hear that buzz?  Did you hear the warmth and the laughter?  I wish I were hearing your individual stories, too.  I’m sure some memories are difficult, but the noise in the room told me that most are good, maybe even exciting.  I imagine that many of those memories are about friends, or teachers, or fieldtrips, or mastery.  Raise your hand if your memory was about passing a test. Not many of you?  I didn’t think so. And yet, the conversation that is most prominent in education currently, the one drowning out much of the rest of the conversation about teaching, learning, and schooling, is all about testing.  My dear colleagues in this journey to improve public education, I think on a national scale, we’re having the wrong conversation. 

The current trend for public policy -makers and politicos is to define good teaching based on student test scores.  This testing is often represented as “student achievement” or “student performance” standards, but in truth they are talking about measuring good teaching based on a few limited tests of students’ skills and knowledge. To me that is intensely distressing because it takes such a minimalist approach to what learning is and what good teaching does.  When you searched your memories about your education, almost none of you went to memories of testing.  When I talk with students and parents about school and learning, they are seeking a much broader context for education – more complex skills, deeper content, and crucial dispositions to learning – than are measured by our current testing structures. True education is so much bigger than testing.

It is one of my proudest achievements as a teacher that many former students stay in touch and that they have significant memories about their time in my classroom.  However, I have never once had a student return to talk about how well he or she did on a particular test.  They talk about projects we did, they talk about class discussion we had, they talk about information they learned that gave them a new outlook on the world or allowed them new independence in life.  They talk about voting, and the uprisings in the Middle East.  They talk about their successes and challenges in life after high school.  They talk about their relationship with their peers in my class.  They talk about what my classroom offered that was meaningful to them as they moved into their futures.  But they almost never talk about passing a test.  On the whole students do not see their growth and learning in terms of test scores.  They understand that test scores are single frames taken out of a full length feature film.  They take a much broader look at what a good education means to them.  We need to do the same.

Measuring good teaching, or good education, by very limited testing, does significant injustice to educationAll of us want students to progress in skills and knowledge, but to reduce the conversation of education and teaching to a conversation of testing is to discuss a child’s growth only by measuring his weight.  So many other critical factors are being ignored.  Like all of you, and every educator I know, I am desperate for public education to do well by its students.  Like the policy-makers and politicians, I believe it is not okay to leave even one child behind.  I believe that no student should spend a year with a less than stellar teacher.  This is why I teach.  I believe that a strong education is the path to personal fulfillment, lifetime productivity, and the future of democracy.  I believe in good teaching, and I believe in effective, fantastic public education.  But I also believe that in today’s educational debate, we are often discussing the wrong topics and asking the wrong questions if we truly want to improve public education.

The national conversation is all about student testing when it needs to be about student learning.  It’s about quantifying learning when it needs to be about qualitatively preparing students for life.  It’s about teachers not doing their jobs well, when it needs to be about the conditions in schools and teaching that are driving new teachers out of the profession at an astounding rate, and are making it difficult for students to learn. It’s about how teachers are failing when it needs to be about how our nation is failing to provide for our children and our families.

Please do not misunderstand me; I welcome new measures of accountability for schools. I want every single student to leave high school with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions to allow them first to envision all the great things they can do and, secondly, to be successful in whatever way they choose to better the nation and the world.  But I am deeply concerned that we are talking about and planning new coursework and strategies for how to help students pass the reading test, when we ought to be talking about how to help students learn to read.  We are engaged in the wrong conversation.  Our discussion cannot be about why Johnny can’t pass the reading test; it must be about how much Johnny desires to read and how we can meet that desire with appropriate strategies to assist him in reaching his goal.  Johnny would be really upset if as a senior in high school he kicked a soccer ball with the same competency he had as a 10 year old.  He would be concerned and likely angry if he ran at the same pace, had the same relationships with his friends, or knew the same amount about popular music.  Why, then, is Johnny less than frantic that he has the same reading competence he had as a 10 year-old?

Good teaching must be about opening doors and encouraging mastery.  It must be about students’ hopes and dreams and aspirations and lives.  Students do not learn to pass tests; they learn when they perceive a need to know.  They learn when they can see how the learning is a passage to their independence and their futures.  If Johnny can picture himself as a successful adult, and he knows that reading, writing, and math are the keys to bringing that picture to reality, and he has a skilled teacher sitting beside him, almost nothing can keep Johnny from learning to read.  I am far less concerned that Johnny can’t pass the reading test than I am concerned that Johnny doesn’t feel compelled to become a highly competent reader.

The national conversation about education must be centered not on whether Johnny can pass the reading, writing, math, science or any other test but on whether Johnny or Bridget or Lisbet or Shopeng is ready to assume a productive, successful, and fulfilling adult role in our world. Surely to do so, these children must gain basic skills and knowledge, but that should be an early step in a long journey of becoming critical consumers of information, analytic thinkers, and life-long learners.  We must broaden the conversation about good public schools and good teaching. That conversation must include the conditions in schools, the messages our society is giving our students about the importance of public education, the workload of our teachers, and most importantly the joy of learning.

To refocus the national conversation requires all of us working together. 

First of all, we all must through media and our social groups stand up for public education, for teachers, and for a much broader and more multifaceted conversation.  We, in this room, need to help the rest of the nation understand the incredible complexity of what teachers do and the overwhelming and ever increasing demands of the teaching profession. We understand the enormous and important work that schools and teachers are being asked to do.  We need to speak up when the national conversation describes teachers as working few days and short hours.  We need to share our stories and insights with our neighbors, our representatives in government, our school boards and administrators, and most critically – with each other.  Teachers need parents’ perspective and analysis to improve education and improve schools.  Parents, we need to know what you perceive works with your children and what doesn’t.  We all need to assess what’s essential in public schools and what can be let go.  We need you to believe in and speak up for true breadth in public education.

Next – parents, we need your continued support in our schools.  Parent volunteers and parent input are irreplaceable in the day-to-day operations of our schools.  We would be lost without you!  You bring invaluable insight, critical support, and the kind word that carries many of us through the day and the week.  You are a fresh breeze when the atmosphere seems stuffy, a leg up when the task seems insurmountable, and an outside perspective when new solutions are difficult to see.  I have done my best teaching with parent volunteers in my classroom, assisting both the students and me to wring the most out of every vital minute.  I have felt my greatest support from parents who saw the workings of my classroom and the impact of my teaching on their children.  I have seen the greatest influence in improving education stem from comments of parents who have seen the inside story of our schools.

Most importantly, we all need to be strong voices in letting teachers teach.  In our current environment teachers are drawn in so many directions, it is difficult to focus on teaching.  If we are to be the stellar teachers we all want in public schools, we need to be able to concentrate on teaching.  Teachers currently have too many jobs: we are administrators, social workers, custodians, nurses, paper flow managers, data collectors, counselors, mediators, community liaisons, marketing specialists, politicians…  We need to be able to teach.

Principally, we, as teachers, need time to teach ourselves.  In this world of rich and voluminous data and theories, we need time to learn and think.  For many new teachers, after the workload, the most shocking aspect of the profession is its pace.  Once you are out of college and into the actual work of teaching, there is little, if any, time for self-education.  Teachers need time to research – to learn and assess the new educational ideas, strategies, and thinking that emerge daily.  We need time for curriculum planning and for thoughtful innovation.  I cannot tell you how many lesson plans I write in the shower or driving to work!  Because the minute I hit the door of the school, I am assailed from all sides by people with needs.  There will be almost no time for thinking. 

If I am to do my best work, I need adequate time to consider my students’ arc of learning, specific needs, and possibilities for motivation and engagement.  I need to be able to self-educate about the best possible assessments and how I will use them to craft stronger lessons and reteach concepts and skills more effectively. I need time to reflect on my own practice, on what research shows as best practice, and on how I can ensure that each individual in my classroom has teaching sculpted to meet his or her specific needs.  Planning good teaching is time-consuming, and teachers who are struggling in the classroom need time more than anyone.

Secondly, if we are to improve education, teachers need time to teach each other.  Even the best teachers fall into comfortable patterns, and we need interaction with each other to challenge us and re-inspire us.  Creativity burgeons with outside input, and we need opportunities to meet together to create that synergy that fills us with multiple ideas and helps us hone them to our individual circumstances.  When we share our successes and make concerted efforts to solve our problems, we are motivated through affirmation of our progress, we are educated about the many diverse options for effective teaching, and we are challenged to improve our individual practice.  Furthermore, when we teach and challenge each other, we create grassroots enthusiasm that pushes us ahead of mandates and directives.

Thirdly, we need to be able to teach our policy-makers.  Most of the current decision-making is done by people who are not in the classroom.  Though they have valuable perspectives, they cannot fully understand the impact of their decisions.  Yet, in many facets of education teachers’ expertise is overlooked.  Rarely have others asked me what I need to do my job better, and yet I often hear what others think I need. Theories on top of programs on top of curricula offered by people not actually in the classroom are handed to teachers as the next great vehicles of change. In education we need to listen more to our practitioners. We need to trust our teachers’ expertise and listen to what teachers have to say, and to what they say they need. 

Teachers need to be invited to the table to discuss educational policy and improvement.   Teachers must be able to have conversations with our policy-makers to infuse their discussions of schools and teaching with the reality of daily life in the classroom.  From an outside viewpoint, it is easy to believe one knows what schools need to do to improve – what needs to be added, subtracted, and reformed.  From the outside it seems easy to assess the school system.  True education, however, is intensely personal.  From inside a specific school, classroom, or curriculum, the options take on much greater nuance and complexity.  Policy-makers need teachers to teach them about that complexity and why simple answers only create bigger problems.

Lastly and of course most significantly, teachers need to be allowed to focus on teaching our students.  After all, that is why schools exist.  Students are our future; they will direct the world.  They must be taught to be learners in an age of information.  They must know more than mere content and skills; they must be creative thinkers and innovators.  Schools must adapt to be more fluid and personal.  The technology age of our students allows them great personalization. They are accustomed to unprecedented independence in driving their own lives.  They live in a world of constant options for individualization: they can friend and unfriend, customize information flow and delete it as desired, prioritize their contacts and message them at any time of the day or night.  Today’s world offers them choices. They no longer buy albums; they buy songs.  School lessons that require all students to do the same things at the same pace regardless of their personal abilities and inclinations must seem quaint and obsolete in their vastly personalized world.  Schools and teaching must move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to education and create vectors for students to individualize their learning. 

Lastly, in this era when indescribable amounts of content are available in almost every arena at the touch of a button, students must be allowed to become experts and teach each other.  Teachers need opportunities to design new lessons that reach the learners of this new era.  It requires an immensely different approach to teaching, and teachers must create new avenues both in their classrooms and for the educational system that can be customized to meet the needs of 21st century students.  Teachers must be allowed to focus on teaching.

So, with all these considerations, the quintessential question still remains: what constitutes good teaching? I would posit that the answer is joy.  Good teaching is that which brings excitement and joy into the classroom and the learning process. Humans inherently love to learn.  We begin our lives driven to understand and interact with the world around us.  In our first year we accomplish incredible learning, and we are thrilled with our progress. Watch a baby’s first smile; see her take her first steps. Learning is almost pure joy! Therefore teaching is also almost pure joy.  To watch students grasp a concept, begin to apply it to their own lives, begin to analyze how it plays out in the broader world, and step into that world with fresh eyes – that’s a joyful experience.  It is that moment of enlightenment, that spark that erupts into a flame, that rush of new understanding and emotion that draws us repeatedly to the work we do.  Teachers press on, often in the face of overwhelming obstacles, because we know that that moment of pure joy is just behind the next door, in the next face, and in the next whoop of satisfaction from a student celebrating his most recent achievement.  Good teachers love to teach.  They bask in the joy of learning.

One of my favorite conversations of this school year was with one of my seniors, a lovely young woman named Arely. In one after-school chat she said, “Your classes have been my favorites because my relatives all get together and my uncles start spouting off.  So now I jump in and tell them where they’re wrong, and they ask me, ‘How do you know that?  Where did you hear it?’  I tell them, ‘In sociology and government class…’ and now they let me talk with them.”  Pure joy.

So, what constitutes good teaching?  Good teaching is about the memories of your times as a student that you shared at your tables.  Good teaching is not about students passing tests, it is about creating joy in the process of learning.  It is about getting students to want to know what we think they need to know.  Teaching is by nature an act of hope and vision.  It is intrinsically about the future.  It is about maximizing current resources and creating new possibilities.  It is hugely significant work. 

Together we must refocus the national conversation.  We must make sure that we’re having the right conversation.  It must be a conversation of teaching and learning, not of testing and failure.  We must talk about the opportunities and strategies that make students want to learn, and how to continue to make education a joyful experience.  In a recent NPR interview, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, spoke about his unlikely rise from welfare recipient and inner city student to second term governor.  He said that that the key difference for him was that he had hope for a better future, given to him by his mother, grandparents, neighborhood adults and most of all teachers, some of whom became his mentors.   He recalled, “It was [my] teachers who were affectionate, and outwardly expressive about that, and encouraging."  Good teaching offers more than knowledge and skills.  It’s so much bigger.  It offers enthusiasm, hope, and a vision of a bright tomorrow.  As Governor Patrick noted, good teaching changes lives.  Let’s have that be our national education conversation.

Thank you.