Autonomy is NOT for the weak of spirit.

In the final months of 2015 and beginning 2016, I learned how the word autonomy is often carelessly substituted for it’s  more distant cousin, tenure.  In the State of Iowa, educators at the K-12 level determined the use of the word autonomy  was a great way to cover many aspects of teacher professionalism, including stagnation.  I am sure autonomy was meant to reward teachers for persistent professional development and changes in their professional practice in much the way tenure is handed out. The problem is tenure and autonomy do not mean the same thing, do not convey the same entitlements and both are not a singular, crowning achievement. Both words are based upon concepts of good judgement,  efficacy and use of prudent thought- especially in the realm of education.  Autonomy does not mean ‘right to self govern’ by caveat and it is not an excuse for poor teaching practices.

Autonomy has now been bandied about in a number of  meetings I have attended at the bequest of parents for students who fall in the category of being entitled to a 504 ( ) or IEP (   It is the practice of misusing the term autonomy which has become an anathema to the education process. I have reason to believe administrators at the school, district, county and state levels inherently know the mis-appropriation of the word and yet have nothing else to use to cover what does not happen in the classroom.

Although I understood the context of how autonomy was being used, it took multiple school districts and situations for me to determine the consistency of the application of the word to get around students with different needs. The common practice  in Iowa seems to be identifying a behavioral problem instead of the learning issue/disability preventing the student from succeeding.  While it is disturbing to see so many students not receive appropriate services and disheartening to see it covered up by selective use of vocabulary, it does not change the fact – Iowa can and should do better.

In my brief experience(s) with local schools and districts, I have witnessed a pretty firm degree of  intractability and disengagement from teachers and administration. I can not help but wonder how things could be different if these self same people decided to work with students and parents.  I need to introduce the word fulcrum . Fulcrum is much more useful and seems to actually change situations.



When Parents Choose NOT to Conform and Help Their Children

When I was a classroom teacher there were always parents who could not or would not conform to the basic rudiments of organization and being a back up support to their child. Part of it was the parent lacked education and was disorganized in their own life, part of it was living a complicated life with multiple jobs and then there were the parent(s) who for whatever reason had the resources, where with all and time and refused to conform as if my asking them to play a role in their child’s education was one step too far (they brought them into this world – apparently this was their entire job in their world view).

Not amazingly, the most impoverished children had  parents who tried the hardest as they realized the difference an education would make for their child. These particular parents would have sold a kidney if it would help their child. The kids of these particular parents had the message loud and clear – you must achieve something more than your parents.

It was the middle class, upper middle class and upper class (oh yes, I taught at a private school in Santa Monica, CA) who could not be bothered with the drudgery of following through on assignments, making sure the child sought out help from the teacher, hired a tutor, etc. It was these self-same parents who became nag monsters when their child was doing poorly and they wanted me to fix the problem as apparently it would seem teachers are given magic wands with their diplomas.  These parents could not be bothered to attend Back to School night or contact some one for help navigating the on-line school website portal where student agendas and grades were located.

Now, many years later as a tutor, I continue to confront these same issues with the same cast of characters. When I attempt to impose order on chaos, I am right alongside with this year’s flu vaccine……you want the shot except you might be run down for a day, your arm might hurt, you have to schedule it and so forth so you don’t obtain the shot and get virulently (literally and figuratively) angry when you get the flu.  In today’s world, most teachers post assignments on-line and computers can be checked during the course of the day. Teachers are able to respond to e-mails instead of attempting phone tag. So many things are more efficient and yet the same small group of parents can not get it together.

Whether it is fear and/or arrogance, it does not benefit your child to make the choice of not conforming. It teaches your child (without any words) what one type of lazy behavior may be and allows them to follow suit. Trust me, kids know everything – even when you tell a fib.

As a teacher, I often had anywhere from 30-180 students depending on grade level and subjects taught. Following up on one student took all my time. Uncooperative parents meant I did not ever get to sleep as I had to respond to them.  As a tutor, I typically have 20 students at various ages and abilities over different subject areas. In my case, up to 50% of those students have an identified special need which can be ‘on the spectrum Autism’ to full-blown ADHD with missing executive function skills and lack of impulse control, severe dyslexia, visual or aural processing issues, etc.  If I have 10 of those students a week, this means I must rely on the parents of these children to do what I can not do when I am only there once or twice a week.

When the parents of these and my ‘regular’ children choose not to conform and be helpful, I am limited in what I can do. The school is limited in what it can do. Change is NOT what some one else does to your child, rather it is what you create/instill/demonstrate/work on with your child. You have it all backwards if you believe a tutor or teacher has that much control over outcomes for your singular child. You are the person who needs to support the teacher and tutor in making change occur.

Sometimes parenting is difficult. Life is not fair – ever. You may have to give up your favorite TV show or social activity so you can check your child’s homework and review on-line the assignment. You may need to actively engage in studying, which is not homework; Studying is what good students do above and beyond homework. You may need to go to bed late. You may not be able to over schedule your kid and need to think about what can be cut out for the time being to get things back on track. You might need to review Algebra on Khan Academy so you CAN have a conversation with your child about math.

Whatever it is which needs to be done – please do it! This is YOUR child. Help me help your child to learn, succeed and be a productive member of society. Help me achieve the goal of self efficacy for your child by pulling your part. I want to work WITH you…..not alone.

Logic Applied……nothing new under the sun.

I have thumbed through Drug Topics magazine forever. My father was a pharmacist; He read the magazine and left it lying around. It was something we discussed as he thought, when I was in high school, I might wish to try out the profession. My father suggested I join the Air Force (he had been drafted Army). All those years ago I just did not feel compelled to study so much chemistry, although in retrospect I wish I had. Biochemistry/biotechnology is the ‘new-new’ thing of my lifetime.

Despite my father trying to convince me of serving my country and obtaining a stellar education via the Air Force, I took a different path. I kept with the science and medicine type themes, earning a BA in Speech Pathology (after leaving nursing right at the beginning of clinicals). I so wanted and needed to see positive outcomes, I left speech pathology for education. My head and heart told me I could apply what I learned as an undergrad and help many students do well. Neuro, learning, behavioral outcomes and more were what motivated me. Watching people slowly be overtaken by declining health, descending into  the depths of hell with the many types of brain damage nature provides (organic and via car accidents, etc.), I had to leave speech pathology.  I went on to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

My father pursued an advanced  degree in public administration as he foresaw the Kaiser Permanente model to be the future. My father had worked for Kaiser way, way back. He re-invented himself and did things he loved, including working as a consulting pharmacist. He did chart reviews, he   spoke with community members and educated them on everything from how to read up on the medicines they were taking to understanding the difference between a cure and something which treats a symptom (antibiotics vs. other stuff). My father worked with the Red Cross. He wanted to be part of the re-trenching of pharmacy tech programs (more on this in following paragraphs) so he taught pharmacy tech with the INTENTION of getting students into pharmacy school – which he did accomplish with quite a few students.

Education was a great fit for me. I taught for many years – formally, informally, public, charter/public, private, corporate. Each day I always found one ah-ha and it sustained me. I left the classroom/corporate (formal setting) about eight years ago for tutoring and consulting work in ed-tech. The first four to five years were difficult. I was not willing to compete with the shills who promised all parents they could ‘brain train’, teach their child to read, etc. as it was not true. It took awhile to define myself (I was NOT a snake oil salesperson) and clarify there are times when some students do indeed have deficiencies which can not be overcome with what we know currently. I had to admit failure where failure was due, own it and move forward.   From this time period, I  learned how to write tight, effective IEP’s and 504’s. I learned how to have conversations with parents, teachers and admin which actually matter instead of being vague, noncommittal and wishy-washy. I have many accomplishments of which I am thrilled as I have, and continue to, change lives for students and families.

Simultaneously the Silicon Valley folks taught me something completely different – failure was absolutely necessary. Essentially Silicon Valley reiterated what I knew about scientific method. Failure was indeed the answer. Only through failing could you see what you needed to do differently and better.  In Silicon Valley, you are not worth much if you do not take a calculated risk and fail. Confirmation bias is quickly obliterated if you learn to work in and with people from Silicon Valley. I have, by complete accident, had the pleasure to work with some of the brightest talent in Silicon Valley who do and make things which matter. I take calculated risks regularly.

Along the way I obtained my Pharmacy Technician’s License. I did this as I love traveling and living abroad. It gave me hope to know between being a pharmacy tech and tutoring, I could travel, come back to the states, land on both feet and function. Not so. A pharmacy tech license is the equivalent of Gr 9-10 Algebra and chemistry/bio. Everyone told me to cold cock the test (including my father who stated I could do it with one eye covered and a hand behind my back). I was afraid. I took a course. Holy moly. I began to understand some major problems, the least of which is who takes responsibility for what.

Pharmacists created the pharmacy tech program and  never intended for it to be a pathway to pharmacy, dental, med or nursing school. It was meant to alleviate pharmacists of the non-thinking portion of their job. With this in mind, a pharmacy tech is little more sophisticated than working any other repetitive job as the pharmacist still carries the responsibility for the ‘final product’. I know as much about sanitation as I would working in a restaurant and learned more as a science teacher. Since the threshold to train pharmacy techs was so low and the pay little over minimum wage, it did not encourage the right kind of people to come into the program. More often than not, pharmacy techs are underutilized since the program (aside from how the military trains pharmacy techs) is deficient on so many levels.

It could be said the pharmacy tech program in the U.S. is an abysmal failure of everything from logic to creativity to improving healthcare. It failed at launch and has slid downhill ever since.  It was created by pharmacists and  should be re-configured into something valuable, useful and appropriate.

All of this led me to wonder about the article by Jim Plagakis in Drug Topics from September 2014. He addresses the issue of legacy pharmacists, those who are highly paid with no more room to go upward without a career change or pursuing something different. If pharmacists are worried about losing their prestigious place in the dog pile, they should be doing something more akin to what Dr. Atul Gawande does outside the surgical suite. Even though Dr. Gawande has stated over and over he is near or at the top of his game, he finds something new to pursue with excellence on behalf of patients.

Pharmacists have reached the point in time where they need to drop the stance of having ‘earned their keep’ (the equivalent of tenure for teachers) and actually do something above and beyond. Find out what is happening in Silicon Valley regarding ACA (don’t be afraid – there is this amazing place with a med school called Stanford and another place called UCSF with a pharmacy school in the area). Along the way, it would be great if pharmacists thought about improving the pharmacy tech program so they could actually train responsible people looking to pursue a medical career. Create a step-ladder for people to go to pharmacy, medical, nursing and dental school. I would imagine a pre-med student who  worked as a compounding pharmacy tech and was intellectually engaged by the pharmacists would be a shoe in for an outstanding medical program and/or biotech.  According to everything I hear on NPR, we are desperately short of doctors.

Comparing  ‘legacy’ pharmacists to tenured teachers  not only weakens the argument, it begins a strange comparison which benefits neither teachers nor pharmacists. Using the word legacy does nothing to change the connotation. Very few professions in todays 21st Century stay constant. Stagnation or inertia is when some one chooses not to move.

The legacy my father left was very genuine and real. Education was seen not as a mere accomplishment, rather a continuous expectation. One did not stop learning by being ‘done with school’.  He earned the Governor’s Award for Volunteering in IA while he was cycling through various cancer treatments . He volunteered regularly on an exhibit (Iowa Roots, Global Impact: The Life and Legacy of George Washington Carver) which he felt could re-invigorate scientific thinking. Most of all he helped me embrace change as real, necessary and of the utmost importance for succeeding in life.

Balance on the See-Saw of Life

Science teachers have never had it easy in the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Century – teach about the real world, which mainly exists outside the classroom BUT DO IT WITH A TEXTBOOK AND SOME STUFF YOUR BROUGHT INTO THE CLASSROOM.  It is amazing that the subject which most lends itself to being outside was ever brought in although I am sure it had something to do with educational change.

Over the years I have been fortunate to teach near a beach (less than 1 K meters), near a chaparral/mountain area (on school grounds), with a pond, with an outdoor garden including a compost pile and worms and have a mini-zoo experience in a large classroom.  Finding these jobs was difficult as taking children off campus and having them adequately supervised is a challenge; creating a garden takes time and energy; other teachers are scared/threatened by doing something so drastically different (what, the text-book stays in the room??) and so many other dilemmas.  What I found though was these jobs were awesome – my students often did as much physical activity in science (walking, running, skipping, hiking, carrying, schlepping….)as in physical education and they did not complain about it.

I glommed on to Sara Stein The Evolution Book, used Peace Corps experiences and harnessed many parents to make these outings normal, routine and incredibly valuable.  Many students did not know it could be ‘that quiet’ in a park (NYC Central Park) until they were taught how to calm down, find their pulse and relax.

All the while I kind of wondered about the problem of students not seeing enough nature but it was not until Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods that it dawned on me the world was really different and not my imagination as a crazy science teacher with issues about being inside.  Not only was it poor education practice to not have students interact with the real world, it seemed to me there was a true disconnect about using ones senses.  I did not have data other than some test scores which only demonstrate the standards yet there was this underlying feeling that if children were not active outside, not only was education effected, ones state of mind and state of physical health would be also troubled.  It just seemed logical if you never knew what the smell of a fresh orange was or how magical a full moon on the desert floor could be, you would not know what you were missing and could not crave it.

Apparently I was right and the insight was not far off from reality.  The greatest advantage to the research above is that not only can it help effect change in child health, it can improve science education. I would like to think it is never too late to make this planet one worth living on.

The Measure of a Father

My father passed away on 11 March 2011. While death is one of the most difficult subjects to discuss with anyone, it is an opportunity to reflect on a good life and the measure of what one leaves behind in ways of values, ideals, good deeds and meaningfulness.  Death allows us each to reflect on the past, improve the future and find the bits and pieces which best demonstrate how to do good, live well and be the change we wish to see in the world.

Frugality is one of the many words  explaining my father; He did not own much in possessions which most other people would consider important – he had books and experiences, a few pieces of art. My father valued being learned, having literacy and the capacity for compassion/empathy.  He believed in experiences, supporting causes and being positive about the possibilities ahead  and this was a wonderful legacy to pass on.  Very few people knew he was even ill.  He treated his cancer as an inconvenience to his living…..

Frugality meant using the library, having all the money you desired for books, magazines, models to build to help you understand math, science, history – it meant being wise about money and using it in a purposeful manner.  There was no greater goal than to be educated as this led to self efficacy and a keen responsibility to others.  Frugality meant not having everything handed to me – I had to work to earn things, even though I did receive dispensation along the way (allowance, college tuition as an undergrad, used car….I paid the insurance, gas, repairs!).  Frugality meant saving money from the time I probably first understood what a quarter was and that 2/3 of the value should be put away for some future need or endeavor and not wasted on a moment of abandon.

Becoming a life long learner did not happen by accident, rather it happened by choice (my father’s). The capacity for questioning/discovering, finding things interesting and knowing the world was my  oyster is the best thing any parent can instill – EVER.  As I went through the book-case (my father was a pharmacist and a teacher) I realized my father very much lived his values. I had been through the book-case many times to select something to read and this time it was to evaluate what was near and dear to my father’s heart.

Frugality meant finding things of value at second-hand stores and not always needing the most expensive, immediately advertised gizmo (we were often not early adopters 🙂  .   Despite frugality, I always had a sense of abundance as many things of value can be experienced on a shoe string budget.  My father was a first generation American from parents who survived the craziness of Poland/Russia for the craziness of the American Depression Era.  This man passed along a greater value than a large house and ‘stuff’ – he passed along the value of a quality life, which is substantially different.

As I walked through his apartment, I noticed all the magazines he loved – everything from The New Yorker and Smithsonian to Kiplinger, Road Scholar, anything about pharmacy and science, etc. He just wanted to be aware and in the know of the world.    Friends came by and the most important thing they wished for as remembrance were books…..books my dad had found at garage sales, books from library give away bins, books handed over to him for some type of safe keeping.  His friends wanted books because that was what they really knew of my father, besides friendship was his endorsement of reading and learning. So, I gave away the bridge, chess, finance books – things I don’t really have an interest in, and when I do, will obtain books on these subjects.  I gave away history books to my aunt for her son.  I gave away book ends to another.  It was so interesting how each person truly valued these gifts (these were not books of high value due to age) and knew this would keep the memory of my father alive.  Each time I gave something away, yet another person stated how they had enjoyed discussing subject x,y, and z with my father as he loved to learn.  I truly felt I was giving away both a memory and a very special gift.

Different books had book marks in them – some merely scraps of paper with notes he wrote to himself about this page or that, some tidbit of knowledge to be learned well and share with others.  My father was left-handed so sometimes this scribbles were not the easiest to decipher.

There were coins saved in a container called ‘sunsets’, apparently for a future time where he  might have wanted one more book at the end of the day.   There were notes, cartoons (humor enthusiast would not cover it all), no TV (it was not an object of value or something to covet even, except maybe for Washington Week and 60 Minutes), no gorgeous furniture – just simple things. I found a mechanical watch which was interesting for the ‘mechanism’ being exposed,  a slide rule (really old school math!) and so forth. These treasures are what will keep my father alive in my memory.

I have not finished (nor will I ever, most likely) processing his death, what it means to me in entirety or how he lived.  What I have done is find a tradition to pass down and pass on – the value and power of learning.  I have found a best cause for my endeavors and know, being a teacher myself, the gift of reading and knowledge is more than the sum of its parts.

It has been 10 days since my father died.  He is constantly on my mind as I miss our chats about politics, world events, stupidity in humans….you name it.  Most of all, I miss the philosophical discussions which would have allowed both of us to discuss the following article.  Even better was that my dad did not have a number’ in mind….he just lived.  ‘