John Thompson is a truth-teller. A Teacher’s Tale, his new book, honestly addresses the toughest issue in American education—how to improve urban schools impacted by concentrations of poor children.
Thompson worked in higher education and then did legislative lobbying until at the age of 39 he decided to become a teacher in an inner city area of Oklahoma City. He spent nearly two decades teaching high school social sciences. He loved teaching.
Thompson says that students taught him to teach, and that included the need to understand their problems. Some were in gangs; some feared gangs; some were involved with drugs; some had parents who were. Friends watched friends get shot and die. Amidst all this, Thompson respected his students, spent time visiting their homes, playing sports with the kids, taking them on excursions, and letting them vent in his classroom when necessary for their psychological well-being.
There is no doubt he cared, and cared deeply, about his students. Yet, he was physically assaulted many times. At the end of the book, he acknowledges that after several decades he was burned out. Just before he retired, he was hit so hard he fell to his knees and became semi-conscious. Thompson suggests that teachers leave inner city schools because of verbal and physical abuse, not because of the exhausting pressure and the low pay. He should know! But, he himself did not leave until retirement age, and then he asked to come back.
Thompson places heavy blame for the sorry state of many urban schools on the “reforms” of school choice and test-driven accountability. His school went from being a “run-of-the-mill inner city school into the type of brutal urban school that defies improvement,” as the book jacket explains.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act epitomized test-driven accountability. Teachers were pressured to raise student test scores, or face penalties. According to Thompson, this resulted in educators caring as much about raising scores by a few points as about the physical and mental well-being of students.
The choice movement promoted policies for parents to determine the public school that their child would attend, including newly created independent schools run by private corporations or non-profit organizations. In Oklahoma City, motivated parents moved their children from neighborhood schools to charter and magnet schools. Regular public schools were left with concentrations of traumatized kids having mental or physical problems and suffering from generations of poverty.
Based on these experiences, Thompson asserts that two fundamental elements must be present for improvement to occur in inner city schools enrolling concentrations of poor students. Ensuring safety and teaching social skills are these prerequisites.
Teachers must be able to take charge of their classrooms creating a secure and safe environment for students. School choice undercut that, according to Thompson, because regular school leaders would not suspend students who should have been sent home because they did not want their enrollments to look bad in the competition with charter and magnet schools. Another factor was that the federal rule limiting suspensions for certain children with disabilities meant that many of these students were immune to disciplinary measures.
The second necessity is to teach students the non-cognitive skills they do not learn at home. Their schooling must include the nurturing of social graces, communication skills, delayed gratification, conflict resolution, and teamwork.
Thompson argues that liberals must overcome their reluctance to address these family and character issues. An honest conversation must occur about how parents raise their children, as well as about the effects of racism on students and the hindrances resulting from a lack of money. The past and current misdeeds of students and their parents must be discussed and the ensuing trauma of students acknowledged.
Conservatives who for decades have demeaned the concept of public education as “communistic” and “godless” must be rebuked. Liberals who taunt inner city teachers for perpetuating “the bigotry of low expectations” by not trying hard enough must recognize the extreme stress of teaching in those schools. How many of these conservative and liberal critics have walked in John Thompson’s shoes?
Thompson emphasizes that improving urban schools is hard work, not a crusade, and a marathon, not a sprint. These problems were created by decades of racism, neglect, and condescension. They won’t disappear tomorrow.
As solutions to these deep-seated problems, Thompson offers several ideas, such as building on student strengths not emphasizing weaknesses. His main recommendation is to create community schools offering health and mental health services, social welfare support, and community engagement. Several existing community schools are described showing the benefits of such a comprehensive approach.
Truth-tellers should be accorded special respect, especially if their truth comes from deep personal experience. John Thompson makes sense. He knows a thing or two that I don’t. Needless to say, this man has few illusions about what it would take to educate youngsters in inner city schools, but he cares about them so much that he fought the odds to help them.
Billionaires, state governors, businessmen, and charitable foundation officials have had their say about school reform, and have created the school choice and test-driven accountability movements. Isn’t it time that experienced teachers—who actually know something about the topic–have a say about how to improve education?
John Thompson, A Teacher’s Tale: Living, Loving, and Listening to Our Kids, (Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing 2015).
This blog written by Jack Jennings first appeared in the Huffington Post on January 22, 2016