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The Heart and Soul of Education

Remember to focus on the power of learning and not the importance of school.

I was sitting in my 12th grade physics class, carving my initials into the top of my desk. It wasn't that I believed physics to be irrelevant; to the contrary, though I knew little about physics, I concluded that it had to be important. After all, you had to take lots of other science classes before you earned the right to take physics, and if you were college bound, your guidance counselor was sure to push you to take it.

That's why I experienced a sense of disequilibrium as I carved my initials into the desk. Here was an academic subject I believed to be important, yet the class in which I was supposed to be learning it was so non-engaging that I tuned it out in favor of desk-doodling. The teacher was not entirely to blame for my failure; I knew I had the primary responsibility for my own learning. Yet, I distinctly remember thinking that day that school could be better; that classroom learning ought to be as engaging and participatory as after-school sports. It's the first time I can remember thinking seriously about becoming a teacher.

Eventually I did. After earning an undergraduate degree in marketing, I completed a special graduate school program for aspiring teachers. Within months, I got my first teaching job, and since then, for more than 20 years, my full-time professional focus has been education-as teacher, coach, school-district administrator, consultant and publisher.

Until now. I'm reminiscing because for the first time since college I'm working mostly outside of education, at least for a while. I'll continue to participate through this magazine as editor-at-large, but since this month's column marks a significant change in my own professional life, I decided to take a moment to reflect.

Whether people agree or disagree with my views, I've consistently been praised for having a passion for education. That's gratifying, but it hasn't been hard to achieve. My passion comes from a genuine concern to confront desk-doodlers with the power of learning (not the importance of school). It's been easy to argue against the inadvertent practice of making students feel that high school graduation is just a meal ticket; that school is little more than an irrelevant, but required, chore to gain entry to college or the job market.

Remember the Students As a director of "at-risk" programs, I found data to back up this observation. For example, after interviewing more than 600 school dropouts, one colleague concluded that the No. 1 reason students drop out is that school doesn't teach what they need to know. It's not that curricula isn't well-intended or that curriculum planners don't care about kids, but when students believe a job at Micky D's is a better option than staying in school, our job is undone.

As a reader of this magazine you are most likely a district-level administrator who is not in the classroom everyday. That makes it easy to get caught in the subtle trappings of working for the system instead of working for the kids, not consciously or of direct inclination, but as a matter of pragmatism and a result of bureaucracy. Even when you're in the classroom everyday, it's easy to dismiss the desk-doodlers as malcontents who merely make your life difficult and aren't interested in or deserving of an education. When you're in central office, it's easy to function as if they don't exist.

With the pressure to promote the district and its successes (especially to the local newspaper), to successfully negotiate board of education politics, to promote parent involvement, and to fight for funding, it's understandable that you can't worry about every kid carving his initials into a desk. There are bigger problems to deal with.

Maybe, but don't forget the desk-doodlers. Most of them aren't that hard to reach. We just have to commit and recommit to putting students at the center of what we do. That can't just be our rhetoric; it has to be the heart and soul of our work in education.

Daniel E. Kinnaman,, is editor-at-large.