Monday, August 2, 2010

My Career in Education

My friend Bill Eyman and I took a day trip to the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, New York. We were going to see an exhibit of Cuban art and to celebrate Bill’s 70th birthday. At some point during the drive, we were discussing my blog and Bill said, “You should write about your career in education.” Since I have been an educator since I was 21 years old, 44 years and counting, it caught me by surprise that I had not thought of this myself. I keep a list of ideas I want to write about, and education was nowhere on the list.

However, Bill’s suggestion appealed to me. I work part-time as the arts coordinator of the East Bay Met School, an alternative High School in Newport, Rhode Island. I had just finished a summer painting tutorial with a couple of my favorite students. I met for eight afternoons with Kat Desrosier and Christian Pidru. We painted two, 5’ X 5’ canvases.
One of these big pictures we painted in a loose, gestural style. It is a busy, playful composition of elephants and monkeys that looks like an old time circus poster. We titled it “Los Monos Locos.” Christian was the driving force behind this one.
The second has a single image of a large, sensual flower imposed on a geometrically patterned background. Kat did most of the work on it.
The flower painting we plan to donate to a fundraising auction to support The Newport Art Museum. We have hopes of exhibiting the one with the monkeys in the storefront window at Annex Comics on Broadway.
During the eight afternoons I met with Kat and Christian, we discussed color, line, texture, pattern, scale, perspective, composition, transparency and opacity, spontaneity, planning, patience, art history, community arts, and the economics of art. We also goofed around, made a lot of silly jokes, gossiped about some of the students who graduated this year, and we went out for sushi.
I heard a lot about Kat and Christian’s life outside of school. I felt trusted. I taught them a lot about painting. I think my adult presence may have also given them some support as they deal with coming of age.

Painting with Kat and Christian this summer was one of those experiences that make me recognize what a privilege it is to be an educator.

I retired from the Coventry School Department in 2003. I had been employed in Coventry for twenty-eight years. I worked there as a school psychologist and special education administrator. I think I got out of public education just when the getting was good, just before the tail began to wag the dog.

The early part of my career in Coventry coincided with the passage of The Education of All Handicapped Children Act, also known as EHC and Public Law 94-142. This was a truly revolutionary piece of social policy that sought to expand the benefits of free, public education to all children regardless of their needs. Along with The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, 94-142, fundamentally changed the treatment of atypical students in our schools. How deeply challenging 94-142 was to the status quo can be measured by the amount of resistance and resentment it generated. It really shook public education up.
I am proud that for nearly three decades most of my work focused on making schools more inclusive, more appreciative of variation, more flexible, and more creative in meeting individual needs. Of course I also did a lot of mundane stuff, but over all the seventies, eighties, and nineties were a time in public education when you could go to work with a sense of purpose and mission.

In contrast, by the end of my career, American public education was dominated by No Child Left Behind, a reductionist, simple minded, political sound bite masquerading as social policy. Routinely referred to as No Child Left Untested by educators, this legislation posits that the value of education can by judged by how students score on reading and math tests. Period. End of discussion.

PL 94-142 sought to distribute the benefits of public education as broadly as possible so all students would have an equal chance of succeeding. At the core of this legislation is a generosity that I believe to be quintessentially American.

No Child Left Behind justifies high stakes testing as a way to make American students “competitive” so they can be better than students from other countries in pursuit of… of what? Economic gain? Power? How did we get to the point where the best we hope for from the process by which we help our young people come of age is that they can beat somebody else out of a job? That is a stingy, mean spirited, un-American way of viewing the world.

(It is no small irony that the same people who advocate “competitiveness” as a goal for education, sold American manufacturing out from under American workers, outsourcing our best jobs to the lowest bidders, typically to developing countries whose only “competitive” advantage was that they were so poor and uneducated they had to work for next to nothing.)

I am going to say some things that are heretical under No Child Left Behind. Sure, Kat and Christian need to have functional reading and math skills, but the life stories they live out will be little effected by their scores on standardized tests. No one out in the real world is ever going to ask them how they scored on National Assessment of Educational progress.
While it is way too early to know what these stories will entail, it is easy to envision Kat becoming an artist and arts educator. Maybe Christian will end up as a chef and restaurant manager. However, if they are like most people, the most important aspects of how they live will not be what they do for income. It is more likely that the quality of their lives will be determined by how they relate to other people in friendship, in partnership, in family, and in community. Further, making money will probably be of secondary importance to having a passion, something they care deeply about and would do even if they never made a dime off it.

It seems likely I’m going to die an educator. How fortunate then that late in my career I work at the Met School, that my job is making art and helping others make art, and that I get to know and offer guidance to some really wonderful kids.


  1. John,

    A beautiful big picture view of education and life. Before reading this, I didn't really know much about your background in education. This piece gave me a much broader scope of your life path. We are lucky to have you at the Met; the quiet wisdom is powerful guidance. My kids' lives have been enriched in so many ways through your work.

  2. yo, John! I may have figured out how to follow this hodge podge of reflection, art, poetry, and to post comments. I hope so. This blog opening up new world for me. First, the art is gorgeous. Makes my ol cardiovascular engine hum. Love the Utah Haiku - polygamist seagulls moisturizing the feet. And the 24 hour comic challenge. Sitting in necap with the 11th graders, and coincidentally read your comments as an educator about your career, and the contrast between the regulatory imperatives of inclusion, and those of NCLB, of which NECAP is a child. Helps to see it clearly reaspned put, passionately felt. See you later. Charlie