REMEMBERING A TEACHER WITH AN UNCOMMON CORE
Liviing in Dialogue Blog/ Education Week- June 20, 2013
A Boston-area college recently asked if I would like to blog about the Common Core, the national curriculum standards soon to be implemented in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Supposedly the brainchild of the nation’s governors, the Common Core represents the latest approach to reforming our educational system and ensuring equal opportunity for all American children. The goal is a national curriculum based on uniformly high standards.
While always happy to share my opinion, I demurred, feeling I should actually know something about the Common Core before rendering judgment. I confess I had grown a bit weary of the panaceas whizzing by me on the ed reform superhighway. I also had to cop to cynical preconceptions that the Common Core approach would quite similar to the “MCAS” version of education reform we’ve been suffering under in this state since 1993. The tyranny of high stakes, standardized tests, the narrowed curriculum, the test prep in place of teaching, and the teacher evaluations based on data points–these predictable and lamentable consequences were familiar to me. Long ago, the instrument created to assess curriculum and pedagogy became the tool that dictated them. More or less state-wide, the tail has been wagging the dog, but this is hardly news.
So I checked out the Common Core and found that my baseless preconceptions had a pretty strong basis after all. Just a reshuffling of the deck. More exams for the rapacious testing industry. New textbooks for the publishers. Slightly different data points with which to evaluate students and teachers. Continued denial concerning the role of poverty in disadvantaging millions of our students. More disparaging of what we all know education can be–and which we saw realized in many public schools long before the testing madness descended on us. In short: same old, same old.
It was just after this depressing research into the Common Core that I received word that a former colleague of mine at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S., Tom Hooper, had died at age 70. Tom retired from L-S in 2000 after thirty-plus years service and went on to become an adjunct professor of English at Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College. There, as at the high school, he took a special interest in working with poor and minority students, using literature to push them to a more profound consideration of our deepest social and moral issues. He was a character and curmudgeon. He came out of Harvard. He wore khakis and penny loafers. And his students loved him.
I taught in the L-S history department, but came to know Tom in the 1970s and 80s largely through faculty meetings. No, I don’t mean the kind where the faculty assembles and listens to speakers chosen by the administration. In those days, we actually had real “faculty meetings” where teachers debated issues of curriculum, scheduling, pedagogy, and helped shape school policies. We had an unusually progressive school back then, with electives, alternate programs, free time, but no bells, honor rolls or gpa’s. We also had minimal tracking and no AP courses, because the electives we designed ourselves were more challenging and popular. The watchword was “Love of Learning.” (Pieces of this have survived). There was passion aplenty among the faculty, and when it came to debating issues no one looked at the clock. We were too involved, which is kind of what happens when teachers are allowed to participate. Now Tom could be difficult. Stubborn. He argued for his educational vision and insisted on it for his classroom. Above all, he wanted the academic freedom to encourage students to think for themselves. He wanted this for everyone. He also pushed us to acknowledge the reality of “multiple intelligences.” Whether you agreed or disagreed with Tom on this issue or that, colleagues had to acknowledge his undeniable integrity and commitment to an education outside the bubble. I wasn’t too surprised when a Google search turned up a reference to Tom in an old Christian Science Monitor story where he was helping to lead the charge against standardized testing in the early days of “reform.”
Tom stood inside himself. He exemplified what Kerouac meant by “the unspeakable vision of the individual,” and he inspired me. Now retired, I spend a portion of my time supervising student-teachers. When I look at these wonderful, idealistic young people, I can’t help but feel grateful that I was able to teach at a time when no one put a script in my hand or evaluated me according to pseudo-scientific metrics.
In all the reams and reams of education reform drivel pouring out of universities and foundations, in what academic journal or press release can M.A.T. candidates read that one of the most important qualities a great teacher must have is courage. Yes, you heard me right: the courage to insist that all children have the kind of deep and thoughtful education that nurtures the spirit, ignites curiosity, and encourages the capacity to think. Teachers must have the courage to fight for that, and to never stop fighting.
Today, and often, I remember my colleague Tom Hooper, a man with an uncommon core. Now there, friends, was a teacher.
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S.
History Dept./ retired