On Secondary Education: Why It is Broken

I am sitting in one of the dark classrooms at one of the schools I teach at in Riga, Latvia pondering why one of my students said that they would like to see the school burn down.

What are we doing to make high school students feel so demotivated and even angry at the system? I saw this in America, and I am seeing it here as well. I was hoping that traveling 8000 miles might show me some difference in public education, but it has only opened my eyes wider to the problems I already knew existed.

I am also teaching at a university, and this is where I see some kind of light for public education and the secondary school system that we high school educators are all but trapped in right now.

At every high school I have taught in, I have felt constrained as a professional. I have my own ideas about what to teach and how to teach them, but these ideas must conform to some standard curriculum to prepare for some tests to make sure our students are ”successful”. Some schools have been more strict, others less, but the feeling of conformity was always present.

At the two colleges I have taught at, I was given a standard curriculum to teach, but then I was pretty much left alone to figure out how to teach. At the university here in Latvia, I was told to take liberties within the classroom and to just make students better. How awesome is that?

My question always has been and continues to be why do we torture younger students and reward college students? Why does education and teaching get easier and more liberating the higher we go? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? When I got my Masters degree, I felt like going to class was fun. The projects were challenging, but always interesting to me, and I felt like what I was learning was useful and purposeful. Most of high school feels like regurgitation (for both teacher and student). Students have this look on their face like, “We’ve done this all before, so many times.”

And we PILE ON THE HOMEWORK! These poor kids here in the IB program are swamped. At Westside it was AP students burning the candle at both ends with so much work for every class that they were just struggling every day to keep up. Why is it this way? What are we trying to prove exactly by making students suffer like this?

I do not have all the answers, but I just ask for common sense reform. If colleges and universities can successfully teach students by trusting their teachers to be professionals and focusing on a curriculum without micromanaging day to day activity, why can’t high schools work the same way? Why did secondary schools become this strange place where everything has to be standardized and meeting these standards for these arbitrary tests to the point of nausea is the norm instead of letting students learn how to learn and enjoy learning for the sake of learning? Shouldn’t they be more exploratory and creative when they are younger moving toward more and more discipline as they advance in their studies?

I want to write more about this, but more important, I want to start a dialogue with other teachers, administrators and educational professionals. I know I am not alone in feeling this way, so the ultimate question is that if everyone knows the system is broken, why are we all continuing to support it? Why aren’t we making big, deliberate changes in the fundamental way we approach education now? Change will not come just because we sit here and wait for it. It needs to happen sooner than later, before the schools all metaphorically or literally burn down.


We Got a Cat



This is just a quick post to let everyone know that we fulfilled Anna’s dream and got a cat. Rita happened to know someone who knew someone who had a farm and there were some kittens who needed a home, so we decided to help him out.

Jacques Balzam arrived in the early afternoon on Tuesday, and I think we decided that his birthday is July 30th. He (we think he is a he) is a good boy. However, within the first ten minutes of his arrival, he lost one of his lives and almost gave me a heart attack.

When we moved in, we decided that our spare room would one day become the “Cat Room”, so Anna and I situated the litter box and food in that room all ready for little Jacques. He was, as kittens are, terrified when we first brought him home. He was meowing and looking for a place to hide. He found one.

I was in the kitchen, adjacent to the little room, and Anna went to do whatever teenagers do. I was cooking, and the little kitty was meowing at me, and I was meowing back. It was adorable. Then, I noticed that the meowing just stopped. At first, I thought nothing of it, but then I had that serious “uh oh” moment.

I jumped into the room, and I couldn’t find Jacques. I looked and saw two little tiny eyes poking out from under the radiator. He had wedged himself partially under it and behind it, and he could not move. I thought he might not be able to breathe, and might already have died. That’s how scared I was. “Anna! Anna!” I called, and she came in and freaked out almost as much as I did.

Death Trap?

We both struggled to carefully dislodge him, but we were afraid of hurting him, and the space was so tight, that I could barely reach my hands behind there. We both compared this to a breach birth, where Jacques was all twisted, and we were reaching blindly to try to turn him around and pull him out. He was struggling a bit, which was a good sign, but there was no way he could get out on his own with his little legs up high, and his head down low.

Anna got me some oil, and I covered my hands with it, and then worked to dislodge his head from between the radiator fins. I manged to squeeze him out, but it still felt hopeless. I pushed, and pulled, and I couldn’t stop thinking about all my other pet failures and human failures. I felt like an E.R. doctor from some nightime drama… ‘Live, dammit, Live!’

I pulled his back legs up with one arm, and twisted his head free. Then, I slowly was able to slide his body to one side, and with Anna’s help, we pulled him out. I just prayed that he could walk, nothing was broken or damaged. Thank god kittens are kind of rubbery. We put him down, and he slowly got up, shaken, and stumbled away. Other than the grease all over his fur, he was just fine.

Heart attack and despair averted, but I will never look at that radiator the same way again.

Ultimately, little Jacques Balzam is just fine! He has already learned to use the litter box, and I think his only accident was when he was trapped behind the radiator. He is getting used to us, and his natural curiosity is just refreshing. He looks at himself in the mirror and is already crazy for the laser-chase game.

Enjoy some cat photos!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Side note: The Chest X-Ray

This has nothing to do with the cat, but maybe I have your attention because of the cat photos. To teach in Latvia, I discovered that I need to have a little health book that shows my personal profile. In order to complete the book (which cost 7 euros), I needed a chest x-ray. My wonderful family doctor got me a little slip of paper and showed me where in Riga I needed to go for the procedure.

Why do I need an x-ray? Because they do not want teachers to have tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is bad.

Sorry, I just went on this 20 minute diversion into what TB looks like. You see, I went to the x-ray place, and paid 3 Euros for the procedure. There was no line. The total time spent there was about 10 minutes. I took a number, paid the fee, showed them my papers, and that was it. The radiologist was a bit concerned about my runny nose, but I think (hope) I am okay.

He gave me a little slip of paper with a website and login information. The x-ray was immediately available for me to view and to share with my family doctor. The radiologist results will be there on Monday. This is socialized medicine in action.

Seriously. I was concerned that I had to have the x-ray in the first place, but the whole thing only cost 10 Euros and a long ride on a yellow van to Ķekava.