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Chapter One: Meet the Principles

from Educating for Human Greatness

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake.
—C. S. Lewis
As a veteran educator — ten years as a classroom teacher, and 25 years as an elementary school principal — I thought I'd seen everything. I had interacted with a great variety of children, parents, and teachers. With few exceptions most of them were delightful, and a joy to experience. Most of the teachers were hard working and very dedicated. A few were extraordinary and full of extra enthusiasm and creativity. Then into my life came a teacher who was so unusual she didn't fit any categories. Carolyn Larson was a puzzling enigma to me. She was both a pain and a pleasure — a teacher who fulfilled her calling with rare charm and grace.

Mrs. Larson taught fourth grade at G. Q. Knowlton Elementary School in Farmington, Utah. She passionately believed in providing hands-on experiences for children to stimulate their curiosity and a desire to read. One day she informed me that, since she had already used up her allotment of school busses for field trips, she had arranged for public transportation to take her class on an excursion to visit the legislature which was in session at the time. Using public transportation was strictly against school district policy because of the potential liability. Proper protocol was to at least notify the office when a class was leaving the school grounds, but to go against school board policy one needed special permission from the principal or someone higher up.

Mrs. Larson was wily as a fox. She knew I was also an advocate of hands-on learning and she had heard me say, "In a bureaucracy it's easier to get forgiveness than permission." Besides, how could I deny a trip that was so carefully planned and organized with several parents as escorts and each child equipped with a personal set of questions to pursue? It was already scheduled!

I was caught between the school board and a teacher who was fiercely determined to make a difference in the lives of children. The excursion went forward with my blessings, but also with a foreboding about possible mishaps. What else could I do? If something had gone wrong, it would have been my neck, not the teacher's.

Mrs. Larson was not the first teacher to test the limits of school board regulations and, in so doing, put my job as school administrator in a precarious position. She was, however, an ultimate example of a teacher who put the needs of children above everything else, no matter what. Whenever I visited her classroom I nearly always found children engaged in a variety of activities all at the same time. Some were reading; some constructing things with tools; some doing science experiments; some writing letters or authoring their own books; some doing illustrations for their own or someone else's book; some drawing, painting, or sculpting; and some working on a committee planning a future learning adventure. Others were in the school library doing research on a personal interest. On some of my visits I would find children teaching other children about their research findings. Other times I would find a parent sharing a hobby or a work skill. Children were kind and courteous to one another and to visitors. Above all, they seemed to be happy and totally engrossed in learning. Never did I see any evidence that children were all expected to learn the same things in lock step.

Even though Carolyn Larson kept me busy providing for her needs with unusual supplies, overcoming school board regulations, smoothing out the jealous feelings of other teachers, and giving many other kinds of support, she became the frosting on my cake. She became one of the reasons why I shifted from active duty as an educator to a new career as an author and consultant. In many ways it was not easy having a teacher like Mrs. Larson in my school, but it was an encounter that would help shape the content of this book. Carolyn Larson was not merely a teacher; she was a one-of-a-kind professional mentor who helped children aspire to fulfill their potential as valuable contributors to society. She was able to bend school board rules because she had such strong support from parents who were involved in her class activities.

Since my unforgettable experiences with Carolyn Larson, we have entered an era in which teachers are not allowed to practice their craft. In recent years teachers have been demoted from professionals serving the needs of children to subservient messengers whose job it is to serve the needs of politicians — to deliver the official state curriculum and thereby raise scores on standardized achievement tests. Teachers are no longer allowed to make important decisions about children. It is a hierarchical system wherein everyone serves the needs of those above them in the hierarchy. Students serve the needs of teachers who serve administrators, and who in turn, serve the needs of state and federal government officials.

Where is Mrs. Larson? She is now working in her son's dental office as a receptionist and dental technician. She quit teaching a year or two after I did because she refuses to work as a mindless slave to the bureaucracy. Her amazing creative gifts are no longer available to children in a classroom. I was saddened to learn that Carolyn and other great teachers have left the profession because they are not allowed to serve children as they did before. They have refused to be held accountable for doing the impossible — standardizing students. For them it is a matter of integrity.

How serious is the exodus of great teachers from public schools? You may have noticed newspaper headlines declaring that our public schools are facing a serious teacher shortage. In a 2001 article, "The Changing Teaching Environment," Hansel, Skinner, and Rotberg relate evidence that the high-stakes environment associated with the standards and accountability movement has contributed to the decisions of experienced teachers to leave the profession. Joel Spring, an historian of education, writes in his 1996 book, American Education, that

in recent years the satisfaction that teachers have gained from autonomous decision making and creativity has been threatened by expanding bureaucratic structures and attempts to control teacher behavior in the classroom.

What is to be done? Shall we continue to allow people far removed from classrooms to dictate teaching practices? What would schools be like if legislators were to stop imposing their needs on schools and decide to support parents and teachers in meeting the needs of individual children? In such a system who is to be held accountable for what? Is there a way to transform public education so all stakeholders will be winners?

There is a positive answer to these questions. In this book I will share a vision of schooling that may be outside the experience of most readers, but one that I hope you will see as a possible solution to the search for better education for our children. If you will open your heart and suspend judgment until the end, I feel you will join with me in a grand, exciting crusade.

I will speak the truth to the best of my ability. It is a personal truth I have painstakingly assembled over a period of more than fifty years of heavy involvement in public education, first as a student, then as a teacher, administrator, and now as a consultant. In relating my truths, some may say I have gone mad by biting the hand that fed me for so many years. It's not that I'm ungrateful. I haven't given up on public education, as so many have. It may initially appear that I'm trying to destroy a great school system, but although these words may sound critical, my intention is to build, not destroy. I just want to share what I believe is a golden opportunity to transform an institution that could do an immensely better job than it now does. The opportunity is lying there, like a fumbled football waiting for us to pick it up and score the winning touchdown against what will surely be great opposition.

I realize that I am taking a risk that public school teachers will turn against me. However, I only want teachers to discover their plight and resolve to stand up against forces that are squeezing the life out of their profession. I also want parents to realize what is happening and stand up for the welfare of their children.

Before introducing the principles, I would like to challenge you to ponder some thorny questions. If you will take time to meditate on each question before moving on to the next, you'll gain a better understanding of what I'm trying to do.

  • Why do we need to change public education?

  • What if you were to discover that students, teachers, and parents are all innocent victims of a false philosophy of education, and that all three of these groups promote this philosophy consciously or unconsciously?

  • What if you were to learn that standardized achievement tests are not a valid measure of student learning? Furthermore, what would you do if you found out these tests foster a kind of teaching that is anti-learning?

  • What if you were to discover that many of the brilliant, talented people wasting in jails may be there partly because our society failed to nurture each person's unique potentiality?

  • What would you say if I told you our public schools are not in the business of education?

  • What if you were to learn that millions of people have gone through the public system having only a very small percentage of their gifts, talents, and abilities developed?

  • What would you do if you found that public schools crush basic human rights?

  • Did you know that student inquiry is usually not encouraged in public schools — that imposed learning is the norm that results in shallow, temporary knowledge?

  • Do you know why public school teaching is not considered a profession?

  • Do you know why parents are prevented from becoming effectively involved in their children's school education?

I will show evidence that the implications of these questions are all true. The six pivotal principles that I shall describe are the result of my experiences in working with parents and teachers of two elementary schools that ultimately decided to employ an unusual idea. We found a way to view student achievement in curriculum, not as a goal, but as a means of accomplishing a higher, ultimate purpose: human greatness. This perspective allowed us to focus on the needs of individual learners rather than on the needs of politicians and business leaders.

Perhaps the most important outcome of a focus on nurturing human greatness was the change that began to unfold as teachers and parents discovered new roles. They came to realize that great human beings are a responsibility of both the home and the school, and that by working together much more can be accomplished than when each of these institutions works separately. By focusing on human greatness we make possible an unprecedented alliance between parents and teachers, an alliance that results in parents becoming full, equal partners with teachers. This new purpose for education makes a remarkable difference.

It is my desire that this book be a guidebook for individuals and small groups to begin a process of overcoming the well-meaning tyranny of legislatures trying to do a good thing with bad information. As you consider each principle you may be shocked and dismayed to discover the possibility that our present system of public education is pointed in the wrong direction. During the last few years our schools have been taken over by a political/corporate philosophy that threatens to damage our children and youth. I believe you will anguish, as I have, over the great mystery of how smart parents and teachers could allow themselves to get caught up in a movement that is so patently wrong.

As you examine and ponder each of the six principles, decide for yourself if it is true. Then ask yourself, is this as serious as it appears? If so, what am I going to do about it? Shall I sit on the sidelines and let the federal government and state legislatures continue to ravage the schools, or shall I become a powerful agent on behalf of children to change the course?

The Six Pivotal Principles

As you consider each principle, you may begin to feel uncomfortable. You may feel these principles are so obvious you will wonder why we haven't been following them all along. If you are a teacher, you may feel you are already following them. Or you may feel angry and frustrated because the bureaucratic, hierarchical system doesn't allow you to do what you know is best for children. Please understand that the brief introduction here is only a summary of each principle. The remaining chapters will provide what is needed for you to assimilate the principles and become a powerful change agent — both for yourself and for your community.

Value Positive Human Diversity

This is the foundation principle upon which the others are built. For many years the mission of public education has been that of standardizing students, of diligently trying to make children alike in knowledge and skills. I will show the value of taking the opposite approach — of nurturing each child as a special person to develop their unique gifts, talents, abilities, and skills that can be developed to benefit society.

Draw Forth Potential

This principle recognizes that each child is unique with a unique set of gifts and talents. These special assets can only be accessed through a process of loving interaction. It is a process of bringing out the best that is in each person. Drawing forth is the opposite of trying to fill students with information. It requires an entirely different set of skills. In contrast to traditional education, which focuses on helping children overcome deficits, this principle works on helping children build on their unique assets.

Respect Autonomy

In our traditional system students are not encouraged to be responsible for their own education. This principle recognizes that, regardless of what others do or say, each person ultimately decides for himself what information or influences s/he will use for growth. I will invite readers to respect the inalienable right of every person to be responsible for his or her own learning and behavior. When learners are freed from coercion and given responsibility for their own learning, amazing things happen.

Invite Inquiry

In Chapter Seven I show the difference between imposed, compulsory learning and education that is the result of personal inquiry. The first is shallow and temporary. The second is deep and enduring. When a synthetic, packaged curriculum is imposed on teachers to impose on students it often squelches personal inquiry. On the other hand, pursuing personal interests invites students to ask questions and seek knowledge and wisdom.

Support Professionalism

Teachers in public education are told what to teach and, often, even how to teach. In Chapter Eight we examine what happens when teachers are no longer treated as workers on an educational assembly line, but as creative professionals who know how to diagnose the needs of each child, work with parents, and nurture positive diversity. With this view teaching becomes a true profession and a delicate art, a sensitive, creative endeavor that responds to the special, striving needs of each child.

Unite as Partners

In Chapter Nine we look at what happens when parents and teachers become full partners to help children grow in greatness. The traditional role of parents as spectators on the educational sidelines can be changed to that of active team partners united with teachers to help children realize their amazing potential as valuable contributors to society.

Now, if you can at least accept the possibility that these principles are true, and hold them in mind, I would like to explain some of the reasons why public education got so badly off course. To change our system, it will help to know how we arrived at our present condition.

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