In his new book, a local middle school instructor advises that the best ideas for improving education come from teachers
As teacher strikes in Oklahoma made headlines earlier this month, a local middle school teacher and author was getting ready to publish a new book addressing some of the issues plaguing American public schools. David Michael Slater is an English teacher at Pine Middle School who’s written chapter books and novels for kids, teens and adults, and his newest book is We’re Doing it Wrong: 25 Ideas in Education That Just Don’t Work—And How to Fix Them.
Aside from the book, which has received advance orders from departments at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California, Los Angeles, Slater also produces a podcast of the same name focused on sharing submissions from teachers all over the country. The RN&R talked with him about his motivations behind the book and what some of the problems and solutions it addresses look like from inside the classroom.
What was the impetus behind writing this book?
It’s my first foray into nonfiction, so there was sort of an interest in giving that a try. When I sat and thought what I could write about, I thought I’d write about what I know: teaching.
When I was putting down these short chapters, I’m thinking, “This really just kind of feels like common sense to me, and I don’t know if anyone is going to want to read this.” Colleagues I’ve had my whole life share a lot of these opinions with me, so I started to share [the book] with some colleagues, and their reaction was extremely encouraging.
Nobody listens to teachers, so that’s one of the main messages of this book. Once I started to realize what it might be worth to people—especially educators—that became one of my main motivations. One of the main ideas at the beginning of the book is that bad ideas reach classrooms because nobody speaks to teachers, and the people who make these decisions have no training in education. So, in part, this book is my attempt to say, “Why don’t you talk to teachers? We have some good ideas.”
How long has this particular book been in the works now?
There’s a long delay in publishing, so I think I wrote it about two years ago.
So, before the current political climate that the country is facing?
Exactly. And I hope the timing is good because it’s definitely not written only for teachers. My other motivation is—I want the average citizen who cares about education to read it. I think people know that there’s something wrong with public schools, but they don’t really know what it is beyond soundbites and hashtags. So, this is my attempt to communicate to them what I think actually can be improved about public schools.
In the book you list 25 ideas that don’t work. What are some of those ideas?
My premise is that there are four reasons why these bad ideas reach classrooms, and those are, number one, the decision-makers have no training in education, I argue.
Number two, politics really forces teachers to pretend things are true when they just aren’t. For example, it doesn’t matter how many people you cram in their classroom—it should make no difference to them. These things are just not true, but teachers have to act like they’re true because that’s that political climate.
The third reason is this whole standardized testing craze contributes to the loss of our understanding that teaching is not just a science—of course it is a science—but we’ve sort of given up on the idea that it’s an art. The best teachers are artists, and those are the ones that are leaving the profession.
And, finally, the last idea is pretty simple: even if there are good ideas, teachers have no time to implement, so sometimes they implement an inferior version, or else they just won’t do it. Then I give 25 examples, and some of them would require dramatic change, but most of them not. For example, one that would require dramatic change is that it just does not make sense that we group kids by age. There is no pedagogical proof for it.
How actionable did you intend this book to be? Is this a call to action, or more of a philosophical offering?
No, in fact it’s meant to be extremely practical. I state the problem in two to three pages tops and then [the] solution. So all of them are actionable, and it’s been really gratifying that so many experts read this book, and [it’s] just brimming with awesome testimonials in the back. What a lot of people say is that this is common sense in the best possible way, and it’s distilled clearly, these issues, and it’s a road map for improvement.
How much, if any, of this book specifically references Nevada? You moved here from Beaverton, Oregon, in 2012, and Nevada has been consistently ranked at the bottom of national schooling standards for years.
I wrote this book drawing on all of my general experiences in education, and my conversations with people over all these years. Because, in fact, I love my job so much. I teach in the Gifted and Talented program at Pine Middle School, and it’s its own little world. Just about everything I argue against, I don’t actually have to put up with. I don’t feel like I’m complaining for myself. I feel like I’m complaining for my profession.
I find it interesting you wrote this book before the current presidential administration, but how many problems in the education system have a root in politics?
The biggest problem our schools have to deal with have nothing to do with school whatsoever, and that’s poverty and economic inequality. If that was fixed, we could just keep doing exactly what we’re doing with everything I have a problem with, and we’d be a thousand times more in shape. So, I do argue that if we really care about making schools better, there has to be a war on poverty.
If nothing else came out of this book, that’s another idea I’m banging the drum about, which is again, part of this idea that teaching is a science. If something works somewhere, it must work everywhere—I think that’s just absurd. There are no—and this is maybe bad marketing—but there are no hashtag-worthy, soundbite-worthy solutions to the problems in public schools.
And what influenced your decision to turn the book into a podcast?
I didn’t foresee anything beyond this book, actually, when I wrote it. I have to give credit to my colleague Joe Pazar. He came to Pine after surviving the shooting at Sparks [Middle School]. In part, that inspired him to just want to do more for teachers everywhere, anywhere. He’s like a podcast genius. He said, “Is there anyway we can work this together?” and I thought, “It’s perfect, maybe we can use this as a launching point.”
Obviously, I wouldn’t have written this down if I didn’t believe I have some good ideas, but I would be thrilled if teachers in general were just taken more seriously, as a result of this book. So, amplifying teachers’ voices was the idea behind taking this conversation from the book to our website. It’s a conversation. We’re getting awesome submissions from all over the country from people who feel like they have something to say.