Cook: A note to educators: A note to start the school year

Cook: A note to educators: A note to start the school year

August 4th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

POLL: Are you ready for school to start?


Most years, as you well know, there’s always that one student in every class. That — one — student.

Obstinate. As pleasant as bursitis. Thick-headed. Disruptive. Gets under your skin worse than sumac.

No matter how hard you try, how many come-to-Jesus talks you have, how many umpteen different ways you try to explain things, this kid just won’t get it.

Guess what? This new school year, all of you have to deal with the same makes-it-hard-on-everybody troublemaker.

His name is Kevin Huffman.

And he’s in charge of public education in Tennessee.

Or what’s left of it.

“For a very long time, the public school system has been dumping data bits into students’ heads and calling it ‘education,’” the wonderful educator Parker Palmer tells The Sun magazine. “The kind of learning that goes deeper and lasts longer comes from engagement and interaction.”

Huffman, like an addict, continues to go all-in with his testing-based system. Weeks, if not months, of each school year are devoted to the rigidity of testing, turning the lollapalooza of the classroom experience into factory work.

If we could draw this system, it would look like one large ax, chopping off all the mystery and egalitarian beauty of teaching and learning into something mundane, rusty and malicious.

(But of course, there is no time for drawing anymore. It’s not part of The Test.)

The whole system is like a beheading: the act of removing the heart and soul from the work of acquiring knowledge. Over-testing tills up the stones that you teachers put down to reach the interior world of your students.

For the art of teaching and the act of learning reside not solely in the brain, but equally in the heart.

“Teaching a kid to pass a test is a piece of cake compared to educating a child,” Palmer continues.

(We have the ACT and SAT. Colleges accept them. The results are universally measurable. Use those, scrap the rest.)

Each year, teachers re-enact the gospel story of Lazarus, the dead man called forth from the grave. In the classroom of a good teacher, students emerge from a slumber — alive we are! — reanimated to the world around them.

“I’ll bet that not one of the 150 to 200 students that I have taught per year for the past 33 years will remember one thing that we crammed for a standardized test,” one teacher told me.

“What they will remember is the passion of a discussion on the evils of war, reading Romantic poetry on a blanket in the grass, studying primary source documents about the conditions at Treblinka, interviewing and writing a personal narrative about their grandpa: all of which teach upper-level thinking and writing skills more than a standardized test,” she said.

Teaching like this is an act of defiance, a refusal to allow the flotsam and jetsam of cultural ignorance to infiltrate a child’s life. You, the life raft. You, the bridge to the other side.

Why on earth don’t policymakers see this?

“Teachers are handy scapegoats for problems that the rest of us don’t have the wit or the will to solve,” Palmer says. “So politicians draft legislation that creates the illusion of improving our educational system, when in fact the system is being dragged down by policies that are punitive and anti-educational.”

So what do we do about that troublemaker Huffman?

Opt-out movements have begun (see the Facebook group Stop the TN Testing Madness) across the state. Thousands of teachers are furious. Some are organizing. Parents are becoming more vocal.

(For more inspiration, go find your nearest history teacher; ask her about all the stories of American social movements that led to dramatic change.)

In Nashville, school board members and state legislators met with parents this summer and listened to their concerns over mandated testing, which has now weaseled its way into classrooms as early as kindergarten.

Even top officials are growing doubtful.

“I don’t want to put young kids through testing just to find a score to attach to a teacher,” Dr. Jesse Register, former Hamilton County schools superintendent and now head of Nashville metro schools, told The Tennessean.

Maybe, just maybe, in the long view of things, Huffman and his policies, which are so insulting to the automony and majesty of students, have already been defeated.

Teaching is an act of faith, like planting a seed that may not bloom for years. The act of teaching has inherent integrity; it is never wasted, never lost, even though the knuckleheaded student (or policymakers) may make it seem so.

Huffman and his tests are finite and forgettable. Like dinosaurs, dictators and stomach bugs, they don’t last forever.

Good teaching does.

<em>Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.</em>