The Universal Notebook: Those who can, teach

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Nancie Atwell, founder of the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, has received the first Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, the $1 million award that is being called the Nobel Prize of Teaching. Maine should be proud that a teacher being held up as one of the best in the world is from Maine.

Maine should also be concerned that she does not teach in Maine public schools.

In fact, Atwell left the Boothbay Harbor school system back in 1987 both because it would not grant her maternity leave and because some School Board members “wanted to dictate not only what the children learned, but what the teachers learned as well.”

“It is untenable to work with people who are disrespectful to teachers,” Atwell told me back in 1993, when I visited the Center for Teaching and Learning to write an article for Maine Times.

Atwell’s concern about a lack of respect for teachers on the part of some elected officials is only amplified 22 years later in a state where the governor has told the world you can’t get a good education in the public schools.

Atwell, author of the bestselling literacy book “In The Middle,” is a champion of small, local schools with reading and writing as their focus. What she advocates are alternatives to the factory model of education that has been inflicted on public schools. The public school system we have today – one-size-fits-all learning results, standardized curricula, high-stakes testing, huge consolidated school districts – was created not by teachers, but by politicians and business leaders.

“I have never seen any mandated federal or state initiative have any lasting impact on education,” Atwell told me. “Teachers will do what teachers believe in.”

Some of the things Atwell believes in are small classes (16-18 students, only eight or nine in kindergarten); dedicated professionals with a genuine love for their students; time to read and write every day; bright, art-filled learning environments; schools safe from bullying; full-day kindergarten; never raising your voice to a child, and no standardized tests.

My visit with Atwell back in 1993 was part of a personal learning experience that included writing about the teacher-backed reforms being proposed at the time – more authentic assessment tools than letter or number grades, individualized instruction, honoring different forms of intelligence. I was horrified, therefore, when politicians and businessmen co-opted the school reform movement and pushed standardization and consolidation on us. I served on the Yarmouth School Committee for six years, 1995-2001, in large part to help protect Yarmouth schools from the misguided dictates of the state.

One of the few things I tend to agree with social conservatives about is that Common Core is a huge mistake.

It’s not that I see the attempt to establish a universal set of education standards as a nefarious United Nations one-world plot to control the minds and lives of young people, as some critics seem to believe. It’s just that, once you’ve mastered reading, writing and elementary mathematics, not everyone needs to know the same things and certainly not at the same time.

And I don’t want government officials, politicians and business people running our schools. I want teachers running them. And I don’t want teachers spending time teaching to a standardized test. Education is not a business. Outcomes cannot and should not be measured in numbers.

It’s ironic, of course, that Atwell, proponent of small, local, teacher-run schools, should have been invited to Dubai to receive the Global Teacher Prize from billionaire tycoon Sunny Varkey, whose GEMS Education is the largest operator of private K-12 schools in the world. But, hey, the Nobel Peace Prize was established by an arms merchant who made his fortune in dynamite.

GEMS Education is a global corporation selling education to 142,000 students in 151 countries. Atwell represents the antithesis of GEMS, a critique of cookie-cutter schools.

“Teachers in the schools need to run the schools,” she said back in 1993. “You can’t have a model of collegiality imposed from outside, even by a nice, well-meaning person like myself. … The model is small, strong, stable communities to which students and teachers belong. Our cause here is exploring the edges of what’s possible for students and teachers in schools. It’s about a different way to be with each other and to be with kids.”

A different way and a better way.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.