Thursday, March 25, 2010

I moved my blog over to Here's the link:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sober Up and Grow Up: Time to Get to Work Americans

I encountered a couple expressions of opinion lately that annoyed me enough to want to write. My rather crazily busy lifestyle of late has made this a rare thing (though I am profoundly grateful a job plays into the activity level). Generally, I avoid most of the media because popular news sources often fail to provide relevant information in a cogent manner, instead opting for bombastic carnival barking (to borrow a phrase from Cornell West). But the the most popular opinion among those barkers was represented by a patient I worked with, and then was reiterated by a CNN poll result released today. I must say something.

My patient was a man who required constant care due to extreme chemical withdrawal symptoms. When questioned by staff in an effort to assess his mental status, he responded immediately that the president of the United States was Obama and used a descriptive phrase involving misplaced genitals. The suffering patient struggled to remember where and when he was, but was immediately able to pull up not only accurate information from the brutally punished neural networks of his brain, but his opinion about said leader! This man had some powerful feelings about Obama.

Obama is the kind of leader who inspires strong feelings for many reasons. CNN is reporting that 52% of Americans currently believe Obama does not deserve a second term. The fevered pitch ringing out from the Republican party (you remember those guys- the neigh sayers to affordable health insurance, healthy economies, ethical wars, truth) seems to have caught on as a national anthem.

It's been twelve months- gosh darn it- why isn't our ailing economy, idiotic (at best)health care system, and military misadventures fixed?! Sure Obama told us these problems were all decades, in fact generations in the making, and that we would have to work hard and creatively together over years to fix them, but somehow millions of American feel betrayed anyway. They don't remember the call to duty and responsibility Obama rang out over the microphones. They only remember the word "hope."

Unfortunately for Obama, and therefore for the rest of us, when many Americans heard the word "hope," they likely associated it with religious ideas. Hope being hope in a miracle, which can only be bestowed by a god and fixes everything for us mere mortals without any effort on our part other than a plea. Time to grow up. This is not how sustained good happens in the world, and it is not how sustained good happens in our lives.

Perhaps I found the negative comments of my patient so poignant because he had, through his choices, developed a life that required huge efforts to save. He was taking a lot out of our system and had taken a lot out of the people closest to him. The mental obsession and physical decay of addiction is horrendous. I have compared overcoming addiction to taking on a grizzly bear. Those who overcome and live meaningful, good lives frequently find the strength to do so by devoting time daily to helping other people. Healing for addicts generally involves addressing the harm they've caused, and work to balance the cosmic scales. Healing is found through compassionate deeds.

My patient may have had a good amount of work in front of him to balance those cosmic scales. The speed and certainty with which he launched a personal insult at Obama, a leader who is gaunt and gray with constant exertion, was astonishing. It is very easy to criticize and insult our leaders, it is quite another matter to get involved politically, read up on history and current events,and engage intelligently with our fellow citizens towards finding solutions to our national and local problems.

To debate and question public policy is fair, necessary and good for our country. But that is not what has been happening in Washington, and I do not believe that we have taken up the work necessary on local levels, either. If our country is to heal and grow strong again, it will be a result of a dance between national and local efforts. Change starts and is sustained by our apparently humble community projects.

No perfect political leader is going to be dropped from the heavens to fulfill our "hopes" for the relief of suffering by enacting the miracles of God. The arch of human history cannot be contained in a ninety minute movie with a punchy, simple resolution. Obama, himself, warned us about reality repeatedly while campaigning and now as our president.

Time to sober up, folks, and start working in our own lives to balance the scales. Obama is not the miracle worker millions expected and he's not the uppity Black(I shutter even writing the term- but there is a strongly racist tenor to the criticisms of Obama) millions of others secretly consider him. He is the same intelligent, flexible, hardworking man we elected to the presidency a little over a year ago. If we expected too much of him, then there is evidence he overestimated our sophistication as citizens, as well. In the clear-eyed moment of the next morning, we see that there are no easy and instant solutions to our national problems.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What makes a good teacher makes a good human

I enjoyed "What Makes a Great Teacher," an article in this month's The Atlantic magazine last night. It reported on findings by Teach for America that were collected, analyzed and implemented in order to be used to maximize the efficacy of its new teachers. If selected (a huge "if" because there are far fewer positions than applicants) new grads join the program and work in low-income school districts for two years. The data set on these teachers' performance as correlated with student performance outstrips any collected elsewhere. The findings have been used to improve their own teacher preparation and, incidentally or otherwise, also appear to have informed the new standards being used by the Obama administration to improve the nation's schools.

What they have found is great teachers get great results from their students independent of available resources. As long as these people have a room, light, something to write on and children to teach, the test subject competence of the students tends to go up, way up. (Incidentally, the article reported a backlash against these new standards by the national teacher's union. Lovers of education may need to contend with some educators when improvement is on the line).

The question then becomes, "What makes a great teacher?" There are several answers, one central being what researchers termed "grit." Those individuals who have the internal resources to overcome difficulties in their own lives tended to inspire the same in their students. These were the teachers who engaged in a constant and recursive cycle of self-improvement. When contacted by researchers to be observed, they often reported their classrooms were a mess because they had torn up their curriculum and were trying something new. They wanted to do better and were acutely aware when one or more students weren't understanding the lessons.

These teachers contacted the parents and made themselves available. They were always prepared for class and did not make excuses for themselves or their students. They believed in their own possibilities through self-improvement and believed the same of their students. One analysis found grade school students in low-income communities who were given the opportunity to be taught by these kinds of teachers would perform as well as students in wealthy suburbs by high school.

In contrast, one interviewed teacher cited the poor conditions of the communities, homes and schools as reason for poor student performance. This teacher also had very poorly performing students- worse after a year with her. Perhaps those who make excuses for their students may be making excuses for their own lack of efficacy.

I argue that the attributes of the excellent teachers are the attributes of all effective people. Hard work, "grit," and a belief that things can and will be better are the central concepts behind the best of American culture. The very best of who we are as a culture and country lies in the beliefs in limitless possibilities as per our ability and willingness to work towards these possibilities.

The problems that face our nation and our globe are problems of matter, of form. They are problems of written law, cast off waste, in short, human behavior. And human behavior can be changed over time and through perseverance.

What most people need is leadership, to be shown how to do this. Not ever person fights their way out of a difficult situation depending almost entirely on internal resources. These people are exceptional and uncommon. However, all people can learn and all people can change. We do not need every person to lead, we need a few and then country, community and family to be savvy enough to identify these people and follow their lead.

The last year in our national politics has been a sobering moment for those of us drunk from the possibilities made visible by last year's election. We had our blissful moment of inspiration. The moment we have now calls for the very thing the successful teachers from Teach for America demonstrated, GRIT. If we want to have an exceptional country created by what is exceptional in us all we have to downshift into low gear and trudge forward through the mire of corruption, callousness, and ambivalence. Time to get to work.