John Thompson is an Oklahoma City educator who hates education reform, loves children, isn’t afraid to acknowledge his own shortcomings, and is more than willing to point out yours. All of which makes his new book, “A Teacher’s Tale,” both inspiring and, if you happen to support reform, somewhat tiring.
Every one of the book’s 400 pages drips with disdain for test-based accountability. Thompson is especially hostile to teacher evaluation if it includes student test scores, which he believes pervert the purpose of public education. He blames modern-day reform for much of what is wrong with schools today and gives it no credit for anything that is right. He thinks reformers would do well to listen more to teachers.
Thompson’s tale is heavy on anecdote and personal experience, which is considerable. He became a high school teacher in his late thirties during the late 1980s and taught full-time until 2010. He now does a little teaching but spends most of his time researching, writing, blogging and sparring on Twitter. I am one of his favorite targets though he is respectful and avoids personal attacks. Instead, he cheerfully and relentlessly encourages reformers to simply come to their senses and abandon our wrong-headed reforms. He wears me down.
The most compelling parts of his book are his stories about the poor and mostly minority students he taught. Thompson shares story after story of troubled kids desperate for respect, recognition and empathy and insists that they are prerequisites to learning.
He recounts painful conversations with students who, in a matter of hours, were killed or committed murders that landed them in prison. He can no longer remember all of his students who died violently. He seems to spend as much time working and playing with troubled kids outside the classroom as teaching them in the classroom.
He is especially candid about the situation facing inner-city teachers trying to control classrooms filled with traumatized students in a permanent state of fear and anxiety from gangs, drugs, and broken families. His school district is a national leader in suspensions, though he insists that unruly students are not what strikes fear in a teacher’s heart. Rather it’s the knock on the door from management.
While I rarely agree with John, I respect his views and his experience and I came away from the book with even greater appreciation for the extraordinary sacrifice of teachers like him. Teachers in inner-city schools can feel like they are under siege from angry students, burned out peers, crazed parents, overwhelmed administrators and—occasionally—misguided reformers. Adding high-stakes testing and accountability into these difficult circumstances can demoralize teachers like him who are literally bleeding for their students. Whether you agree with his conclusions, he clearly cares and that counts for a lot.