Oh the irony. It's Teacher Appreciation Week and a video of a Texas teen blasting his teacher for not teaching him and his classmates goes viral.
On Tuesday Duncanville High School sophomore Jeff Bliss went off on his world history teacher, Ms. Phung, and it was all surreptitiously filmed by a classmate who promptly uploaded it onto YouTube. From there it made it to the front page of Reddit, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Watching the video and looking at Bliss' classroom, everything that's wrong with public education is on display: a sterile classroom, a teacher seated behind her desk, students sitting behind desks that are lined up in straight rows, and everyone looks beyond bored. I sat in plenty of those kinds of classes growing up. You probably sat in your share, and too many kids nowadays have the same experience. No doubt, those kinds of classes are akin to being in all of Dante's circles of hell simultaneously.
It's easy to empathize with Bliss, because how bad must it be for a kid to get to the point where he lashes out in this way? It's like he watched the film Network and took its most famous line, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" to heart.
"You want kids to come in your class, you want them to get excited for this," yells Bliss to Ms. Phung. "You gotta come in here and make 'em excited." He goes on to tell the teacher that if she wants a student to learn, "you gotta touch his freakin' heart" because "this is my country's future and my education."
Plenty of progressive educators are saying the same thing. Last fall, Chris Thinnes, the head of the Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School in Los Angeles, spearheaded a conference and movement focused on transforming the way we approach teaching and learning so that they build a student's ability to be "compassionate, cooperative, creative, critically thinking, and curious"—exactly what Bliss is calling for. However, says Thinnes, public schools "are prevented from making transformative changes because of their obligations to high-stakes testing and accountability policies."
Indeed's what's not seen in the video is what happened to set Bliss off. In an interview with Dallas/Fort Worth's Fox 4, Bliss acknowledges that standardized tests catalyzed his outburst. "My question was, why we don't get the same amount of time to take the test as the rest of her classes," Bliss told the station.
Is Ms. Phung the world's worst teacher? Is she just thinking about her paycheck, as Bliss alleges she told the class? It's hard to judge from a two-minute clip like this, but I'd bet good money that Ms. Phung didn't decide to become a teacher because she was dreaming of passing out test prep worksheet packets. Bliss wants Ms. Phung to stand up and interact with the students, but Ms. Phung probably wanted that kind of classroom when she decided to become a teacher.
When she starts out, every teacher pictures herself as Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, up on the desk with kids calling out "O Captain! My Captain!" That creative, unorthodox spirit gets squashed by top-down policies that restrict a teacher's freedom to meet the needs of students. It gets shut down by administrators who walk from room to room making sure teachers are on the exact same page of a scripted program that's been proven to help kids score high on the state test. And it gets shut down when teachers realize that the purpose of education is no longer to help children develop their passions and talents, but is instead all about churning out a workforce that will help the U.S. economy beat China's. As education writer Nancy Flanagan recently noted, "There is almost no education policy in America written to support the creation of genuinely excellent, innovative, place-based teaching practice."
That said, what Ms. Phung—and all the other educators who've given up and given in to boring test prep packets—must understand is what education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson so brilliantly articulates:
"If you are a school principal, you are the education system for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are the education system for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice—if you change your way of thinking—you change the world for those students. You change the education system.
And if enough people change, and they're connected in the way they change, that's a movement. And when enough people are moving, that's a revolution. On the whole, revolutions begin from the ground up—and then, if politicians are sensitive, politicians will embrace it and say it was their own idea."
Bliss is demanding change—more power to him and all the other students who are fed up with a system that's broken. Every teacher worth her salt should applaud what he's clamoring for. And then we need Ms. Phung and all the other fed-up teachers out there to rise up, speak up, and demand change, too.
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