Tough Educators Just Say No

October 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

The education reformers often look back to see what lessons can be learned from the past in order to direct the future, and the recent article in The Wall Street Journal  “Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results” (9/27/2013) by Joanne Lipman integrates current research to the old-fashioned teaching techniques of her former music teacher, Jerry Kupchynsky. After creating a nostalgic portrait of a demanding educator, Lipman posed the questions, “What did Mr. K do right? What can we learn from a teacher whose methods fly in the face of everything we think we know about education today, but who was undeniably effective?“ She continued:

Comparing Mr. K’s methods with the latest findings in fields from music to math to medicine leads to a single, startling conclusion: It’s time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here’s the thing: It works.

In responding to her own questions, Lipman listed out the eight factors that were the hallmark of Kupchynsky’s teaching style, a style that Lipman admits would be controversial. She writes, “Today, he’d be fired.”

The tenets of Kupchynsky teaching method were summarized by Lipman as:

  • 1. A little pain is good for you.
  • 2. Drill, baby, (kill and) drill.
  • 3. Failure is an option.
  • 4. Strict is better than nice.
  • 5. Creativity can be learned.
  • 6. Grit trumps talent.
  • 7. Praise makes you weak…
  • 8.…while stress makes you strong.

I also grew nostalgic reading the article. I doubt Kupchynsky ever had to mention his objective. He never was mandated to place the Common Core Teaching Standards in a visible location at all times or worry about collecting data from formative assessments to inform his instruction. This was a man who knew his discipline and was disciplined in his teaching. The evidence was in the success of his students:

Some were musicians, but most had distinguished themselves in other fields, like law, academia and medicine. Research tells us that there is a positive correlation between music education and academic achievement.

This story about Jerry Kupchynsky’s teaching came to mind when I heard Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project  (TCRWP) Director Lucy Calkins speak this past Saturday at Columbia University at the 85th Reunion (10/19/2013).

Calkins offered an afternoon session about “Leading From Within: Turning Schools into Places Where Everyone’s Learning Curve Is Sky High” and her opening wry comment, “This session could be titled ‘Staying Alive in a Toxic World’,” was met with appreciative laughter by the audience of educators jammed into the large meeting room.

Calkins immediately addressed the reform efforts, teacher evaluation programs, and the Common Core State Standards.  “We cannot control what happens to us,” she stated clearly, “but we can control our reactions.”

She discussed how her acceptance of the Common Core, detailed in her book Pathways to the Common Core, has put her on the outs with many education reformers, and she acknowledged with some frustration that the “350 billion on tests and technology…nothing left for support for teachers and kids,” angers many educators.

Against these controversies, she asked, “Is there a way for us to move students/our work forward?”  and she explained that in trying to find that way, many opportunities have been presented to TCRWP, and that the pressures in this environment, “Can lead you to do really problematic things.”

She paused for a moment and then said, “Sometimes to say ‘no’ is good.”

The room was quiet as the teachers in the crowded room considered what Calkins meant.

“The ‘nos’ protect your brand,” she said emphatically, “the ‘nos’ define your brand. If you do not say no, then you have no brand…but we must be evidence based when we say ‘no’.”

Lipman’s music teacher Kupchynsky had a brand.  I imagine he said “no” quite a bit. Consider how easily “no” fits into seven of the eight ways his brand was defined. For example, “no pain, no gain” is the same as “a little pain is good for you.” Even the idea that “creativity can be learned” refutes the commonly held belief that people are born with creativity or they are not.

The Kupchynsky model worked because he knew his discipline and the direction he wanted for his students; he had a brand.

The Calkins model works because she knows her discipline and the direction she takes as she pushes the teacher leaders at the TCRWP; she has a brand.

noThe toughest teacher in the room, however, does not have to employ the Kupchynsky methods of teaching; given today’s climate, the behaviors detailed in the article could lead to a dismissal.  The toughest teacher in the room can be quiet and unassuming, yet someone who is passionate and skilled in a discipline.

The toughest teacher in the room has a brand, and like all brands, one that is defined by “nos”. The toughest teacher in the room says “no” to excuses from any stakeholder that stops student achievement in the classroom.  The result can be a brand of teaching that possesses the “unyielding demands” like those made by Kupchynsky, the brand of teaching that provides evidence reported in a newspaper article some twenty years later by a former student.

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