published Sunday, August 4th, 2013

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

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.

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

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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medrep63 said...

Thanks once again David for standing up for teachers! You are so spot on with your opinion of Kevin Huffman..He's a total DB, and terrible for education...all of us who work in the trenches of public education thank you for consistently having our backs!!

August 4, 2013 at 5:34 p.m.
RShultz210 said...

I hope I can make a suggestion here that won't be taken the wrong way and get me flamed from half a dozen different directions including the author of this very true and very good editorial. I think I may have angered him at me already by SOMETHING I've said(I'm not sure what exactly) in a private e-mail as he has stopped answering my e-mails altogether, but I was thinking that the only people who haven't been asked or given a chance to help rid Tennessee of someone who does not care about actually educating the youth of this state, but only how our educational system (and his performance) looks in comparison to other states, are the students. And it seems to me that they are the ones being hurt the worst by this case of narcissistic personality disorder. Perhaps if somehow they were to be "accidently" informed of what they might say to the right people about this nonsense that some of the legislators that might be unaware of how much harm this is causing by stressing out the people who have to take this test as well as the people who have to prepare them for it at the expense of the quality of their general education. I see nothing wrong with allowing them to accidently get hold of certain legislators e-mail addresses and perhaps "finding" fliers describing what they COULD be doing if they weren't spending 25% of their time getting ready for these useless tests. After all, they are citizens and last time I checked the 1st amendment does not mention an age requirement for protecting their right to self expression. For all I know, there may be some excellent reason that I just don't see from where I sit why none of this would be practical, which is why I phrase it in the form of a suggestion.

Sincerest Respects, Rick Shultz

August 4, 2013 at 7:57 p.m.
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