The books shown on the left are by Hank Warren. Click on the cover to order.
This interview was conducted by Douglas R. Cobb on June 20, 2010.
It Simply Must Be Said by author and educator Hank Warren, subtitled A View of American Public Education from the Trenches of Teaching, is an insightful and eye-opening book. It's an examination of how, in many respects, America's public educational system is being "left behind," much like our children are, contrary to the supposed goal of George W. Bush's NCLB (No Child Left Behind) plan to reform our public educational system. I and the entire staff here are honored that Mr. Hank Warren has agreed to do a short interview with us to discuss his book, the problems America's educational system is facing, the day-to-day struggles our teachers go through, and some of the ways our public educational system can be changed for the better.
Without any further ado, let's get on to the questions!
Douglas R. Cobb: First off, Hank, let's give our readers a little background about yourself, how long you've been teaching, and the grade levels, if you don't mind.
Hank Warren: I started teaching in 1975, fresh out of college, having just turned 22 years old. Because my first job was at the high school level, the fact that there was only a four to five year difference in age between me and the students I was teaching proved to be an incredible challenge. I easily fell into the trap of thinking I was going to be really “hip” and able to relate to them on a personal level, only to suffer the immediate shock of teaching reality: Sustained resistance to nearly everything. Because I had yet to develop any classroom management, behavioral, or control skills, the kids were constantly challenging my every directive. As I discuss in my chapter entitled “Learning to Swim by Drowning,” this is where so many new teachers fail—they can’t get past this initial “shock and awe.” However, I was most fortunate to have a broad certification which allowed me the unique opportunity to teach at all levels, kindergarten through 12th grade, which I wisely took advantage of during my first ten years. As a result, I was able settle on the age level to which I feel most innately suited: pre-adolescence.
Douglas R. Cobb: Teaching is a very noble profession. You and your wife are both teachers--I have also been one, and my oldest brother and his wife were, but are now retired, and my mother was a teacher, as well. I know people certainly don't get into teaching for the money they can make, but generally it's rather for the good they'd like to contribute to society through educating the next generation of our youth.
But, it can be an arduous and thankless job, and one of the biggest difficulties teachers face is motivating their students. This is one of the topics you deal with early on in your book.
Could you please give our readers perhaps an illustration of the importance that the motivation of students is to their learning the subjects the teachers are trying to teach, and suggest a couple of examples of ways teachers can reach unmotivated students?
Hank Warren: Students must be actively engaged in order for learning to occur. All teachers use basic tactics such as grades, phone calls home, etc., but two larger concepts that I like to employ concern self-respect and making the most of each day. My school administration hangs slogans throughout the building concerning the need for students to respect each other, teachers, property, etc., but they never address self-respect. If you don’t have self-respect, how can you possibly give respect? Choosing not to make the most of your capabilities and do your best displays the ultimate lack of self-respect. One of my favorite topics for discussion concerns the question of self-like. It’s something few of us ever honestly think about. If there are things you don’t like about yourself, only you can change them. You can’t expect others to like and respect you if you don’t like and respect yourself. Directly tied to this is the importance of making the most of each day. What you are doing with your life is what you are doing today—not some far off time in the future. I explain to students that, even though they have very little control over most of what occurs in the course of the school day, the one thing they can be in charge of is how they react and interact with each circumstance. I regularly point out that there is no such thing as a bad day. There may be a bad moment or occurrence, but that only becomes a “bad day” if you allow it to. You have the power to restart your day at any moment; fifty times if necessary. By making the most of today, you are making the most of your life.
Douglas R. Cobb: You write in your book that the public at large seems to have the misconception that teaching and being a teacher is an easy profession to get into, and it's something actors and other professionals mention as a job they'd likely had had if it weren't for their current success.
Why is it that you think the general public often has this strange view, and feels that being a teacher is something any bozo off the streets could probably be successful at doing? What is the actual reality that the public all too often ignores?
Hank Warren: The hardest thing about teaching is the fact that you have to be “on” all day long; controlling the class, interacting with scores of students, and dealing with the numerous instantaneous decisions that each moment brings. The pressure is enormous. And then you have to teach! It doesn’t matter if you had a bad night’s sleep, or a fight with your spouse, or your kid is making your life miserable; you are expected to be upbeat and positive and do your absolute best to create a positive learning environment. Teaching is total selflessness. Unfortunately, the only way one can discover this is by getting up in front of a class and actually attempting to teach. If every adult member of society had to spend a day teaching, respect for teachers would skyrocket!
Douglas R. Cobb: What is the "innovative administrative process," you discuss called the "Inverted Pyramid," in which you and other teachers participated during a workshop? What were its goals, and what actually ended up being the result?
Hank Warren: The theory behind the “Inverted Pyramid” was to turn the traditional top-down administrative process on its head. Because teachers do the actual educating, administrators would listen to need of teachers and work to implement policies that they designed. Unfortunately, like so much of what is foisted on the public as “educational reform,” this was another initiative that looked great on paper but was never enacted with any semblance to how it was designed. In the final analysis, the administration listened to input from the teachers and then went out and did whatever they were planning to do in the first place. Because the educational bureaucracy rarely addresses the needs of teachers, classroom conditions never change. Despite years of governmental mandates and school reform initiatives, the standard classroom still consists of 25 students, seated at desks, in rooms that are often too small, under the direction of an individual teacher. And the public is led to believe that we are adapting to the requirements of “21st century learning.”
Douglas R. Cobb: In your chapter "No Hope of Parole," you equate the years children spend in school to doing time in jail, with no hope of parole. Even under the best of circumstances, in which kids might have the best imaginable teachers, are motivated to learn, and enjoy participating in class, etc., there is still the mandate that they spend a certain amount of years in school, and they know that. As you write: "If you want to get a high school diploma you have to do your time. This fact is as etched in stone as if Moses brought it down from the mount, and it is the one thing that absolutely must be changed about public school."
Would you please tell our readers a little about some things that might be done to correct this very real problem with our public educational system?
Hank Warren: My use of the term “No Hope of Parole” is a “tongue-in-cheek” inference to the fact that, unlike prison where model inmates can get “paroled” via reduced sentences, model students in school have no such opportunity. They’re stuck for the full 13 years (Kindergarten through 12th grade) come hell or high water! Most importantly, however, chapter 12 is where I present most of my core recommendations for improving public school. It ultimately boils down to class size. The bureaucracy stresses the importance of addressing each child’s individual learning needs, but how is this possible when one teacher is assigned to a class of 25 students; especially now that each class consists of the entire spectrum of scholastic ability from the severely “special needs” to the brightest one-percent? In a nutshell, we need to get classes down to ten students working with a properly paid professional and enable students to progress through the curriculum at their own pace. We need to eliminate the constraints of grade leveling and allow students to graduate with a high school diploma at whatever point they complete the curriculum requirements. The current system of forcing everyone to move at the same pace, day after day, year after year, is the ultimate disincentive for individual students to strive to achieve their best.
Douglas R. Cobb: How can giving our children a quality education help lower the nation's incarceration rate?
I've heard of and been fascinated by the horrendous fates of the Women of Juarez for several years now. Could you tell us when you first heard about them, and what made you decide to write about them?
Hank Warren: With one in every one-hundred citizens in prison, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Every statistic shows that the vast majority of our inmate population is severely lacking in education. I know a retired teacher who now works 16 hours per week in a state penitentiary teaching pre-GED classes. This means that these prisoners lack sufficient basic skills to even start working on their high school equivalency degree. He says that most of his “students” are reading at a 3rd grade level or lower. Currently, the national average “per-pupil” expenditure is around $7,000 per year, yet we spend $35,000 per year to keep a prisoner in jail. If we truly believe that education is the pathway to a better life, which is a better use of taxpayer dollars?
Douglas R. Cobb: What would be the benefits of eliminating some of the "multitude of general education course" at the college level? What's the benefit of making college accessible to younger students?
Hank Warren: This question brings us back to the core recommendations presented in the “No Hope of Parole” chapter. If we were to allow students to move through the curriculum at their own pace and obtain a high school diploma at whatever age they completed the requirements, whether 14, 16 or 18, colleges would need to start accepting younger students. It all boils down to the fact that the rigidity of the entire college format needs revamping. When President Obama talks about making college accessible to more students, it’s not just a matter of providing greater access to student loans. The outrageous cost of obtaining an undergraduate degree needs to be reduced. If a high school diploma signifies that a student has achieved a quality basic education, why should they be required to repeat the process by completing two years of “general education” requirements in college? Students could obtain a college diploma in two years if undergraduate study consisted solely of the core degree classes. At the same time that this would drastically reduce individual student costs, colleges would be able to accept more students to fill the space vacated by the elimination of general education classes. In addition, if colleges are currently allowing more of the course work for master’s and doctoral degrees to be done “on-line,” why can’t these same cost-effective measures be employed for undergraduate degrees?
Douglas R. Cobb: What are some of the impacts of lawsuits on how educational policies are implemented?
Hank Warren: Lawsuits determine the manner in which legislative mandates concerning “special education/special needs” students are implemented in our public schools. As a result, a disproportionate amount of our limited federal, state and local educational dollars go a specific population of “identified” students. While I am not by any means minimizing the need to properly educate these most unfortunate and deserving children, we need to offer the same individualized instructional opportunity to all of America’s public school students. In addition, lawsuits have resulted in the removal of playground equipment and, in some cases, the elimination of recess and/or physical education classes in many school systems.
Douglas R. Cobb: How would limit class sizes to ten students, as you suggest, and offering more individualized instruction help students?
Hank Warren: Dividing a teacher’s time amongst 10 students instead of 25 ensures far greater individualized attention for each child. In addition, education in the 21st century is not just a matter of disseminating information to students. Schools are increasingly responsible for all aspects of a child’s growth: social, emotional, physical and moral. Many schools are now teaching classes in basic life skills. Whatever the cause, as more of the traditional parental responsibilities are being shifted to the schools, the teacher/student dynamic needs to become more individualized.
Douglas R. Cobb: In the best possible world, all parents would be supportive of their children's teacher and communicate openly in a respectful manner with him/her. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen, and when it doesn't, teachers can feel, as you term it, "blindsided," by their sometimes hostile and rude speech and actions.
And, I can give one sort of peculiar example I had of dealing with a father I called on the phone to discuss his child's progress in my class--it was around nine at night, and the father sounded like he was drunk. He asked me if I'd seen his child since the end of the school day, because he hadn't. His child had not come home after school. I couldn't help but think maybe it was because the father got drunk all of the time.
It's great to be able to work with parents who are supportive, Hank, but could you please get into a little bit more about what being "blindsided" can be like for a teacher, especially a novice one?
Hank Warren: I have come to believe that, just like the ministry, teaching is a “calling.” It’s a deep-seated conviction that you are going to make a significant contribution to the lives of all of your students. Given this dynamic, I don’t think I will ever understand how some parents can feel entitled to treat teachers so disrespectfully. We are doing everything possible to treat our students with fairness, dignity, and respect. The nature of our job requires us to be attuned to the fragility of the human psyche. Because the “calling” is at the root of who we are, rude, disrespectful parents can cut us to the core. Denigrating us as teacher is synonymous with denigrating us as individuals. This is especially true for novice teachers who are consuming their lives trying to master the basics of quality teaching.
Douglas R. Cobb: One thing you wrote about in the chapter "NCLB" (No Child Left Behind) in your book was the part where you wrote about how football would be different if the requirements of NCLB were applied to it. I really liked it from the very first LOL rule:
1. All teams must make the state playoffs and all MUST win the championship. If a team does not win the championship, they will be placed on probation until they are the champions, and coaches will be held accountable. If, after two years, they will have not achieved their goal, their footballs and equipment will be taken away until they win the championship.
Why is it not good for NCLB to rely heavily on standardized testing? What would it be like if NCLB's requirements were used to judge dentists in rural areas plagued with a high incidence of tooth decay?
Hank Warren: Students are living, breathing human beings that need to be nurtured; not only intellectually, but in all aspects of their social, emotional, and physical growth—crucial developmental characteristics that are virtually impossible to measure through standardized tests. While these tests may assess a specific knowledge base, it is the evaluation from a teacher who is intimately aware of each child’s learning traits, skills, and overall development as a unique individual that is certainly of equal value. Most importantly, the recipe for student success is equal parts teacher, student and parents. Unfortunately, NCLB places the entire responsibility on the schools, a fact that is so perfectly parodied by the dentist story. Regardless of the qualifications, training, or diligence of the dentist, success in meeting increased standards in dental health depends mostly on what happens at home. In addition to insufficient brushing, flossing, etc., if the child is eating inordinate amounts of candy and similar high sugar content foods, no matter how outstanding the quality of care provided by the dentist, oral health will not improve. The same is true for education. If, by following the provisions of NCLB, the home is to be completely exonerated from any responsibility for the success of a child’s education, we might as well start transforming all public educational institutions into boarding schools.
Douglas R. Cobb: Why are some schools eliminating recess? What is important about children getting play time during the school day?
Hank Warren: As mentioned earlier, lawsuits are playing a huge role in the elimination of recess, but equally important is the hell-bent rush for more instructional time. The advent of “play dates” and the proliferation of organized youth sports leagues, coupled with all of the safety fears permeating America, have caused for the virtual disappearance of free outdoor play time at home. Therefore, it is left to school recess to fill the void. It has become the last holdout for kids to hone the true cooperative learning and conflict resolution skills that come from playing together independent of adult coordination! In addition, study after study has shown the importance of exercise, not just for physical health, but for overall emotional and mental well-being. The simple fact is that students who are physically active do better in school. Regardless, school system after school system is eliminating recess. And yet we have the audacity to decry America’s burgeoning obesity epidemic and declining scholastic achievement.
Douglas R. Cobb: There are many more questions I'd like to ask you, but I'll make this combo question the last one, Hank.
Why is it unfair to compare America's public educational system with those of other countries, like Japan? Also, if there were three ways you could change America's public educational system for the better, what would they be?
Hank Warren: In America, we subject our teachers to countless “non-teaching” assignments such as monitorial duties, web-site design and maintenance, loading grades into parentally accessible computer programs, and a never-ending stream of mundane clerical tasks. In Japan, teachers instruct class during the morning and the remainder of their day is devoted to lesson planning, extra help, research, etc. Here’s what needs to be done if America honestly wants to recruit and retain good teachers and improve the quality of educational opportunity for all of America’s public school students: 1) Immediately double salaries. No if, ands or buts; 2) Significantly reduce class sizes. Ten students per class is ideal; and 3) Get every teacher a full time clerical assistant/aide to handle the superfluous paperwork, monitorial duties, and electronic media demands that permeate teachers’ lives. Let’s try enabling teachers to do what they are supposed to be doing with all of that education and training: planning good lessons, working with students, keeping current in their subject matter/instructional pedagogy, and vibrantly and enthusiastically teaching!
Douglas R. Cobb: Once again, thank you very much, Mr. Hank Warren, for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview with me. Your answers were very insightful, and hopefully, your book and others like it will help lead America's public educational system to make progress in becoming better.
Read Our Review of It Simply Must Be Said by Hank Warren