Lessons learned from teaching

/ 4 June 2012 / jennifer

Michael Kennedy, Star Tribune, June 4, 2012 –

After 38 years of teaching in Vermont and Minnesota in a variety of schools and programs, I’ve decided to step away and retire from classroom teaching. I’ve cleaned out my classroom, graded all the papers and returned my library books. Now I need to clean out my head.

Here is my bucket list of 10 items that are useless and should be removed from schools, followed by 10 items that should be the center of every school system.


1. School systems larger than 5,000 students: I’ve worked for a huge, clumsy dinosaur. School systems need to be smaller, accessible, and in the trenches. Break up the massive systems and create smaller groups of educators. Why do you think people move to the suburbs? They want to be part of something and not on an anonymous mailing list.

2. Curriculum specialists: I was once a curriculum specialist. I taught half a day in a middle school and spent the afternoons in meetings. I call it my two years on the Dark Side. I went into that job thinking I was there to help teachers with what they needed. Instead, I was there to help promote the ideas of the administration. Lots of ego and little substance.

3. Experts: A Ph.D. degree doesn’t make a person some sort of guru. If they’re not working directly with the kids, they are the opposite of being an expert. They are all efficient, organized and completely out of the loop. Education is messy. Listen to the teachers. Listen to the people in the trenches.

4. Meetings longer than 10 minutes: Let’s not waste time. Say it and let us get back to our jobs. Oh, and ban all PowerPoint presentations. Nobody is paying attention anyway.

5. Blocking the Internet, YouTube, and so forth:This boils down to a trust issue. Plus, the kids all know how to get around it anyway. Where are we? China?

6. Classes larger than 25 students: This is a no-brainer. Class size does make a huge difference. Tell the “experts” what they can do with their “research.”

7. Cellphones in the schools: Nobody should have one of these in the buildings. They are toys and distractions.

8. Grades: You know it or you don’t, and a letter from the alphabet is not going to prove anything. Plus, these are such an obsession that they completely take away the real reason for education.

9. Standards: More nonsense from the experts. This is America. We’re all different. Let’s celebrate that difference rather than homogenize everyone.

10. Tests: Focus on the people, not the statistics.

* * *


1. Passion: Everyone should feel passionate about what they are doing in the schools. Nothing else matters if the passion isn’t there.

2. Imagination: This one scares people, but it’s absolutely essential. Get messy, take risks and go out on a limb.

3. Music, dance, drama and art in every school:This is like breathing. Without it you have nothing.

4. Everybody reads and reads and reads and reads: Turn off the television, pull the earplugs out and get a good book.

5. Write a lot: Not one paper a year or a semester, but dozens.

6. Debate with one another: Get kids arguing, learning how to defend a position and how to respect an opponent. Do the same for the adults, too.

7. Have some manners: If adults and kids can’t be kind and caring to each other, they should leave, and I don’t mean for a day. Get out until you know how to say “please” and “thank you.”

8. Don’t show up if you’re not prepared to work:Be present beyond simply occupying a desk. This goes for the adults as well.

9. When you do show up, show up on time: This goes along with item No. 8. If you can’t be there and be on time, don’t come.

10. Don’t fear failure: Get a thicker skin. We all learn best by messing it all up.


Michael Kennedy is the author of “Teacher to Teacher: An Off-The-Record Handbook for Teaching High School English by Mister Kennedy.”