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Interview Of The Month — Larry Cuban

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As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, Larry Cuban, the well-known author, researcher, and former teacher, superintendent and professor, has agreed to answer a few question. Larry also writes a must-read blog at Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.

Can you share what led you to pursue a career in education, give a brief summary of the positions you’ve held, and tell us what has kept you in it after so many years?

I am the youngest of three sons of immigrant parents and the only one to attend college in my family. I needed to support myself in college and afterwards. Becoming a teacher of history combined to the performing part of teaching appealed to me so I began teaching in 1955. Since then, I taught high school history and social studies in big city schools for 14 years, directed a teacher education program that prepared returning Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools, and served seven years as a district superintendent. In all I spent 26 years working in urban public schools before going to Stanford University in 1981.

For two decades at Stanford, I taught courses in the methods of teaching social studies, the history of school reform, curriculum, and instruction, and leadership. I was faculty sponsor of the Stanford/Schools Collaborative and Stanford’s Teacher Education Program. While a professor I taught three times in local high schools semester-long courses in U.S. History and Economics. My major research interests focused on the history of curriculum and instruction, educational leadership, school reform and the uses of technology in classrooms.

In 2001, I became Professor Emeritus of Education. After leaving the faculty, I have taught one seminar a year at Stanford, written articles and books, and since 2009, became a blogger.

If you were going to offer teachers three key pieces of advice that you think might help them to stay in the profession longer and be more effective educators, what would they be?

1. Re-pot yourself every few years.

Teaching is energizing but also exhausting work. When teaching you spend the rich intellectual, physical, and emotional capital that you have accumulated over the years on students. Because of that draining of your capital, for yourself and your future students you need to re-invest in yourself by doing what expert gardeners do with favorite potted plants.

Because plants can become pot bound, that is, the roots of the plant become cramped and form a tightly packed mass that inhibits growth they need to be re-potted in different soil and larger pots so they can flourish. Yes, re-potting entails risks and often causes stress but staying potted in the same place means little growth, even death.

For teachers, re-potting may mean shifting to another grade, tossing out old lessons, introducing new ones, taking a short or long break from the classroom and doing something else that engages one’s passions.

Effectiveness in every people-serving occupation requires developing relationships with those served be they clients, patients, parishioners, or students. In teaching, the building and sustaining of relationships with children and youth prepare the soil for learning. Such work, over time, drains one’s energies and commitment. Renewal—repotting—is essential.

2. Take intellectual risks.

Because teaching is repetitive work—as is doctoring, lawyering, and engineering—a certain monotony creeps in over years. Sure, the students each year differ and they add the spice of unpredictability to what occurs in classrooms but inevitably daily routines become familiar and taken for granted. Altering predictable classroom routines, introducing new subject matter, experimenting with different time schedules for activities, trying out new technologies to enhance student learning—all are instances of taking risks. Yes, failure may occur but teaching well means accepting that from time to time falling on one’s face is not a tragedy but—you guessed it—an opportunity to learn how to do the task better next time around. Losing the will to take intellectual risks is a telltale sign that teaching fatigue has set in and the routines of teaching have triumphed.

2. Speak out.

There are so many reasons why teachers do not speak out about teaching, student learning, school procedures and district policies. From fear of retaliation to sheer exhaustion at the end of the day to working at another job or taking graduate courses to caring for family and friends to inexperience in writing or speaking publicly—all are reasons teachers give for letting others speak for them. What many teachers forget or underestimate is the credibility that they have with parents, voters, and students when they do speak out about teaching, learning, school policies, and leadership. I read many teacher blogs and applaud them for taking this avenue to express themselves. More teachers need to speak out on the issues and the daily life that they experience. Being union members is, of course, important but no teacher can depend upon a union or association to do all of their speaking for them.

So voicing publicly one’s thoughts about teaching, learning, school routines, policy struggles, and, yes, even school politics is a way of re-potting one’s self and taking intellectual risks.

And, speaking of three pieces of advice, what would suggest to many people in the school reform movement, such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee?

*Before recommending any reform policy or making a grant aimed at altering teacher behavior in classrooms, include an historical impact statement (no longer than two single-spaced pages) of earlier similar reforms (what happened to the reforms? Why did they succeed? Fail? What conditions were in place? Missing?)

*Recommend only those policies (and grants) aimed at changing teachers and classroom practices that you, as reformers, would want for the teachers of your children and grand-children.

*Dial back hyped policy talk about what a new policy will achieve for teachers, students, and the larger society (e.g., online instruction for K-12, Core Curriculum Standards, charter schools). Over-promising results while under-estimating the tough difficulties principals and teachers face in implementing new policies is the pattern that reformers have followed for over a century. Speaking honestly, directly, and publicly about what a new policy aimed at teachers can and cannot do would not only be refreshing but give credibility to proposed policies and grants.

*Publicly advertise the theory of change (or action) that is embedded in any recommended policy that is being pushed and funded.

What are the most hopeful things you are seeing in schools today?

*New and veteran teachers with tempered idealism working hard each day teaching.

*Small but increasing numbers of teachers who blog and speak out.

*Amid the policy churn over evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores and merit pay schemes to pay teachers and cascading criticism of teacher unions, public opinion polls show growing respect for teaching and teachers. To be sure respect for teachers in the U.S. remains below that in other nations such as China, Finland, and Canada. Nonetheless, the over-heated policy talk over the past five years about lousy teachers and firing bad ones has not altered the respect that parents and voters have for teachers—if these opinion polls are to be believed.

*The existence of good schools (as measured by parent/student/teacher satisfaction and multiple student outcomes) in big cities, suburbs, and rural districts that continue year after year seeking intellectual, physical, psychological, and emotional growth in children and youth.

What projects are you working on these days?

* Writing my next book. The working title is: “Inside the Black Box: Change without Reform in Classroom Practice.”

*Staying alive and healthy for my family and friends.

Thanks, Larry!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent interview; many thanks for publishing it. If I may, I’d like to use it as a discussion piece for a technology in education class that I’m currently teaching.

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