A commentary on the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview on PBS

September.16. 2011

Being a teacher is a thankless task.

Students have little respect for you, administration thinks you’re shirking your duties and are constantly evaluating you, and politicians use you as a punching bag.

Take the recent appearance of Michelle Rhee on Tavis Smiley.

Her basic message was simple:

If students are not doing well, blame the teachers (and their unions).

It’s the same old refrain that bureaucrats have been making for years. As a teacher, I’m frankly sick and tired of hearing it.

In all these debates about education, one point seems to be consistently missed.

Learning is a two way street between teacher and student.

It can only occur when the teacher is ready to impart knowledge and  the student receptive to that knowledge.

The great Bruce Lee used to tell a story about a learned man who went to a Zen teacher to learn about Zen. As the teacher began to explain things, the man interrupted him frequently with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too…”

Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured tea until the cup was full, and then kept pouring until it overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man interrupted, “The cup is full. No more can go into it!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher, “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

That sums up the teachers’ quandary.

To be able to impart knowledge to students, the student must be empty and open.

If the student has already closed his/her mind, no amount of coaxing, cajoling, and teaching gimmicks will make the student learn.

But these days, it’s fashionable to blame teachers for all the failings in our school systems.

When schools fail and test scores are low, blame the teachers. Fire them, make them jump through more hoops, subject them to endless evaluations, require them to keep copious records of students’ progress.

Most educators in the trenches know that this is just so much smoke and mirrors. Mere posturing and theater. Administrators trying to look busy and engaged in their jobs.

Because despite these fancy measures, standards have continued to decline.

I say it’s time for a new approach.

And that approach is to work on the receiving side – to open up students and make them more receptive to learning.  To take the lids off their cups so teachers can pour more tea of knowledge into them again.

Let me qualify that by saying that no, I’m not suggesting that all teachers are blameless. Good teachers are few and far in between, just as good doctors are few and far in between, just as good pastors are few and far in between. (Is there any profession or vocation that does not have their share of deadwood?)

But learning can take place even when the quality of the knowledge that is being poured into the cups is sub par (I can attest to that, having had my share of disengaged and disinterested teachers in my life), just as healing can take place even under mediocre doctors, perhaps just not as fast.

Andrei Aleinikov is a leading learning and creativity expert. In his book, Mega Creativity, he devoted a whole chapter on finding out the essence of things. Luckily for us, he’s helped us define the essence of learning.

Here’re the questions he asked to arrive at his definition. (I’m paraphrasing a little here.)

Will learning take place if we take away politicians and bureaucrats? The answer is yes, we don’t need bureaucrats and politicians for learning to tale place.

Will learning take place if we take away school buildings? The answer is yes, we don’t need buildings for learning to take place.

Will learning take place if we take away textbooks? The answer is yes, we don’t need textbooks for learning to take place.

Will learning take place if we take away computers and smart boards? The answer is yes, learning will take place without computers and other modern gadgetry.

Will learning take place if we take away teachers? The answer is no, learning will not take place if we take away teachers.

Will learning take place if we take away students? The answer is no, learning will not take place if we take away students.

So the essence of learning can be reduced to two things – students and teachers. Everything else is dispensable.

It’s time we get back to the basics of learning.

We don’t need more politicians to tell us what to do. We don’t need more bureaucrats to tell us how to teach. And yes, we don’t even need more computers and smart boards to help students learn better.

All we need are receptive students and for that, the responsibility lies squarely on the parents.

Parents have to get involved. They have to take an active interest in their children’s education. They have to encourage and motivate their children to learn, and provide a good environment at home for that learning to take place.

Until that happens, students will continue to be disinterested in learning and test scores will continue to be low.

To quote another old saying, “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” You can bring a child to school but you can’t make him/her learn.

Back to the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview.

Until October of 2010, Ms. Rhee was the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Soon after she left the school district, she formed a new student advocacy group, Students First.

One of the stated goals of the organization is to recruit one million members and raise $1 billion dollars in five years. (Yes, that’s $1 billion.)

This is an inordinately large amount which Tavis Smiley was quick to point out.

He asked her, does this amount suggest that she believes that lack of money is the problem for our schools?

To which Rhee provided a rather startling answer, the money is not going to schools or students. Instead, it will be used to pay lobbyists.

According to her, teachers’ unions and the AFT are spending $500 million a year on lobbyists, so if Students First wants to counteract their efforts, it has to spend at least $200 million a year on lobbyists too.

Brilliant solution! Only in America.

To put students first, pay $1 billion to lobbyists.

I’m sure test scores across the country will skyrocket with that bold and visionary move.

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One Response to “A commentary on the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview on PBS”


  1. […] « A commentary on the Tavis Smiley/Michelle Rhee interview on PBS […]


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