Sunday, December 2, 2012


I've been having some more health difficulties of late, and I blame myself for this. Specifically, I blame my lack of patience. I keep trying to declare myself healed before I really am, and then I overdo it, and then I relapse.

This is pretty common among teachers when they get sick, and I suspect it's common in other industries as well. Even though my parents have tried to counsel patience throughout my life, patience is not an American virtue. In schools, patience is at odds with the current fervor for results.

From one perspective, I can understand and even identify with the sense of urgency in public education. The students I am teaching right now cannot wait for changes that might be years or even decades in the making. But I certainly am getting tired of hearing this argument used in the name of radical, untested reforms like "performance" pay.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked one of my students-I-love-the-most how he would rate me, compared to his other teachers, on having patience with him. He gave me a 5 before I even had a chance to tell him which number meant "a lot of patience." (He is very impulsive.) But when I clarified, he said that he did, in fact, mean that I have a lot of patience. And some days I do. But some days I, like anyone, struggle to tolerate teenage boy behavior.

I do, however, feel as though I've grown more patient in the last ten years (the span of my adult professional life), and I also see it as a key measure of my personal growth in that time. The combination of two big milestones--ten years since I first began teaching and graduating with my doctorate--has given me this opportunity for large-scale reflection, and what I've realized is that I've grown up a lot since I started teaching.

When I started teaching, I had no patience for teenage boys.
When I started teaching, I felt frustrated because I wasn't as smart (knowledgeable) as other teachers I knew.
When I started teaching, I often thought I would never get better at it.
When I started teaching, I thought that my students needed to know everything that I knew, right away.

These same things happened when I started grad school: I felt frustrated and inferior because I didn't seem to know as much as everybody else. I thought I would never get better at it. I thought I would never reach a point in my life when I would be able to have the conversations I saw others having. Now I feel like I can hold my own. I still have a lot to learn, but I have also learned to be more patient with myself, and with others. I'm starting to learn to cut myself some slack, which people have been trying to tell me to do for most of my life. Cutting oneself slack requires patience.

In education, we need to have a little bit more patience. This is the basic claim of Charles Payne's wonderful book So Much Reform, So Little Change. It's hard to say this, because it feels a little bit like William Faulkner's advice to the Civil Rights reformers of the South: "go slow, now." To which Thurgood Marshall replied, "They don't mean 'go slow.' They mean 'don't go'." That's not what I mean. Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Rosa Parks--they would be astonished and disgusted by the state of American schools today. Jonathan Kozol is fond of pointing out that the schools named for these lions of the Civil Rights Movement are often 99% black or Latino. On the day the strike ended, the Chicago Tribune said that the CTU is "against the arc of history." Martin Luther King's legacy died a little bit on that day, as it does every time his name is used in ways that abuse his fundamental beliefs.

No reform is inevitable. And if we aren't careful about how we go about reform, we've already seen what can happen. We who are historians of the 60s know what happened when African Americans ran out of patience with the pace of change. But right now, we are living through an era of reform-in-the-name-of-urgency. And this "doing something is better than doing nothing" mentality is actually hurting children. So we would do well to slow it down a little--try to figure out what works, give pilot projects some time to pan out before abandoning them, let go of the things that "should" work, but don't. 

Real change takes time. The students of today have run out of time, but we shouldn't sacrifice the students of tomorrow in the name of urgency for its own sake.