Hi, I’m Dan, and teach in Seattle Public Schools. This blog emerged from my desire to give some insight into the realities of education in the U.S. today that we rarely get to hear because of the cacophony of confusion from the left, right, center, and media of all forms.
Few people but those who actually work in schools really understand how classrooms work, the roles of teachers and administrators, and how students learn. Just because a person went to school does not qualify them to opine about education. It looks very different from the perspective and expertise of the instructor. We are professionals.
The first step to facing the education problems in this country is to admit you don’t know the answers. The second step is to be suspicious of anyone who claims they do. And finally, if you can get through those (which is very, very hard for a lot of people), the third step is to open your mind and consider the perspectives of people who actually do the work.
That said, not just any teacher is qualified to write about this either. For example, a teacher with 20 years experience who has only taught one or two courses the whole time will have a much narrower perspective than someone who has taught multiple subjects or in different schools.
So, why should you listen to me? Because if you want to know the truth about education, you won’t find it listening to Bill Gates, or Michelle Rhee, or the governor, or the president, or the CEO of a major non-profit that tries to influence educational policy. You won’t find it from students or parents either, because they only see things through the lens of their own experience (except for a few parents who get involved at a deeper level, perhaps, but even then they have little in common with full-time teachers). Those perspectives matter, and can be informative. But apart from teachers, they alone cannot offer what we can, and what I can, especially.
So, if you’re wondering, “Who is this guy, and why should I listen to him?”, consider the following:
- I have been teaching in Seattle Public Schools since 2001. Currently, that puts me in my twelfth year. Around half of teachers leave the profession before reaching ten years, so I’m already in the top half in terms of years of experience. In addition, many administrators, even those claiming to have taught, often only did so for a few years. There is a big difference between teaching for three years, six years, and ten years. At some point a teacher faces the burnout battle. Leaving the work before that happens removes the ability for that person to relate to the teachers who have forged through it. This is a major distinction, often completely overlooked, between many policy makers and teachers.
- I have taught nine different courses in that time–five math and four science. I spent my first five years teaching math, and science (mostly chemistry) since then. That was long enough to get a good sense of the issues facing math teachers in our district, and I am now at that same point in science.
- Within those nine courses, I’ve taught the fullest possible range, from AP chemistry down to 9th grade math for students not ready for high school courses like algebra (sometimes called “remedial”, a euphemism for “hard to teach”). Within math, I taught Honors pre-calculus for three years. During my math tenure, our district used a since-abandoned “integrated” math curriculum, where in theory students would learn algebra and geometry each year, but all intertwined (it didn’t work so well in practice). I taught Integrated 2 and Integrated 3, which is the course right before pre-calculus in the sequence. Within science, I’ve taught three different chemistry courses and 9th grade physical science.
- I also taught as a substitute my first two months in the district. In that time, I subbed in middle schools and high schools, in classes ranging from math to science to social studies to special education.
- In addition to my breadth of course experience, I served on a school tech committee for two years, and three on our Building Leadership Team. I’ve participated in several district professional development programs that enhanced my math, physics, and chemistry instructional approaches, and have also been trained in the use of Socratic Seminars, Structured Academic Controversies, Reading Apprenticeship, and Critical Friends Groups.
- Finally, I teach at a very diverse school. We are diverse economically (some students come from very wealthy families, and over half our population is eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches). We are diverse ethnically, with about 55% Asian students, 30% African-American, and 15% white, Latino, Native, African, and Islanders. Within the overly broad “Asian” category, we have large populations of Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, and Filipino students, as well as smaller numbers from other Asian countries. The differences between these groups is often as great as those between black and white. And we are diverse politically, with students from all ends of the political spectrum expressing their voices at various points in my time here.
But all this is to say that I have a pretty unique combination of experiences. I have seen all kinds of behaviors, ranging from superb, responsible, motivated, college-ready students to future criminals. I’ve seen students work for hours on assignments and projects, asking great questions and producing great work. And I’ve seen students barely lift a head or a pencil, and swear at me when I dare them to give some effort. I’ve worked with kids with extreme special needs (from physical handicaps to behavioral problems), and with kids who just need me to point them in a direction, and they do all the rest. I’ve been called a great teacher by some students, and been insulted, sworn at, and maligned in public and private by others.
I have not been sitting in some kind of sheltered perch, only serving students from excellent homes, year after year of “honors” and AP courses, with all one race. Nor have I spent all my time with students who need to have their hands held every time they lift a pencil and try to do some work.
I am not a great teacher. I am not a bad teacher. I’m a competent teacher and enjoy my job (most of the time), and have had a lot of great students over the years. I have a B.S. in chemistry from Oregon State (the real OSU), and wanted to teach in an urban high school since my college days.
I am not great enough to think I know all the answers. But I know enough to recognize that many, many people are not asking the right questions. And many more are providing the wrong answers to those questions.
This blog is about breaking down what you often read in the news and hear on TV regarding education. It’s about telling things as they really are. It’s about countering the often disjointed, misinformed, speculative musings that get most of the air time.
So I hope you’ll get something out of my blog and those of other teachers like me. I would love to hear from you, so feel free to comment on any post and interact with me. Feel free to disagree with me, because as I said, I don’t have all the answers either.
Thank you for visiting, and I hope you come back and subscribe.
P.S. As for my writing credentials, I've been published three times in The Seattle Times with op-eds.
On August 20th, 2010, I wrote about teacher accountability as it relates to the film The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock
That can be found here:
I most recently, on March 11th, 2013, had an op-ed published on school discipline and that challenging students can have huge effects on the rest of the class. This led to an interview on the Michael Medved show on 3/19. That column is here:
My third op-ed was on the overly broad influence of money and people who are not qualified to lead in this industry, yet who nevertheless do, affectionately called the "meddlers." That column is here: