Friday, March 27, 2009

Feelin' like a proud papa!

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about a former player of mine, T.J. Oshie, and then I re-posted it last year. T.J. is probably the most enjoyable player to coach that I've ever worked with. His work ethic was incredible, and he brought a joy to the game (and practices) that was contagious. Last summer, T.J. signed a contract with the St. Louis Blues of the NHL, so this year I have been following the progress of his team religiously.

The Blues are in the middle of a playoff battle, so I checked their website first thing this morning, and was treated to this article and this video.

The title of the article is "Oshie Scores One for the Highlight Reel," and I found (as if I didn't already know) that the Blues see the same things in T.J. as we did when he was in high school.

“He’s unbelievable. He’s so tenacious, just the awareness and his hockey sense is unbelievable,” said goalie Chris Mason, who stopped 21 shots for his first career victory over the Canucks. “He’s part of what this team is all about. He never quits, he’s such a hard worker…he’s a great player.”

"He’s energetic, he’s fresh out there, just doing it all,” Backes added. “Hopefully (management) locks him up for 20 years here.”

Blues’ Head Coach Andy Murray, who typically refrains from praising individual players for a more team-first approach, had rave reviews for his rookie forward.

“I think what people appreciate about our whole team, and T.J. is a pretty good example of this, is hard work,” Murray said. “It’s great to see the nice moves and things like that, but I think (the fans) like his level of determination and they appreciate that.”

In some ways, success can be more difficult to deal with than failure, and I worry about that with T.J., just as I would with anyone. Having 20,000 people chanting "Osh-ie! Osh-ie!" over and over again is heady stuff, and it would make it tough for anyone to maintain their humility. But if anyone can do it, T.J. can. An incident I had personally with T.J. speaks volumes about the type of person he is. The 2005 hockey team that T.J. helped lead to a state championship went undefeated, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do. The year after T.J. graduated, he came to one of our practices, and after it was over, I said to him, "I don't know if you guys fully appreciate what you accomplished last year." T.J. held up his hand to stop me, and said, "Coach, it's not what 'you guys' accomplished; it's what 'we accomplished.'"

I hope you'll excuse my gushiness, but right now I'm feeling like a proud papa. I can only imagine what T.J.'s dad, Tim, feels like.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bullying: The state legislature to the rescue

The Star/Tribune reports that a controversy has developed in the Minnesota State Legislature regarding a bill dealing with bullying in schools.
The proposed state legislation passed its last committee today and is headed for a floor vote. Its author, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, has said current state law, which provides a model policy for school boards to adopt, is vague and has led to inconsistent standards in dealing with the problem.

While the current law covers race, gender and religion, the bill would add other categories, including sexual orientation, national origin and disability. School boards would need to adopt a written policy to enact the language by Jan. 1. Several groups are backing the bill, including OutFront Minnesota, a GLBT advocacy organization, and Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union. But others, such as the Minnesota Family Council, say current anti-bullying statutes are sufficient.

"Any time you elevate particular groups or statuses, it's problematic," said Tom Prichard, head of the council. "I think you keep a general policy across the board, verbal or behavioral, whether it's a gay student who clearly is picked on or beat up or someone who is overweight or for their political persuasion."

Conservatives also believe that a new law might be used to push a certain political agenda.
Three parents with children at Minneapolis' Hale Elementary School spoke about a program called "Welcoming Schools," which they said is not being used to educate against bullying but to promote same-sex marriage and a pro-gay agenda. The Family Council said the program is an example of how anti-bullying legislation can morph into social engineering.

Finally, apparently some of the proponents of the bullying bill aren't completely adverse to bullying themselves.
Parent Lesley Chaudhry said that, as a Muslim, she felt uncomfortable with the content after learning of the program but was chastised by school officials at a parent meeting and her home was hit with graffiti and her children called racial epithets.

I have to admit that anytime our politicians come up with something to tell us how to handle things in our schools, I get nervous. Bullying is a problem, but I think school personnel have become very aware of it, and I don't think anyone puts up with it when they see it. I know that our school district has put a very real emphasis on bullying over the last few years. Sometimes, I actually wonder if there hasn't been too much emphasis on it.

I say that because there is value in kids learning to handle their own affairs without adult intervention. If a teacher is expected to step in every time one kid makes fun of another kid, that is not a good thing. I can remember one situation when a boy was harassing a girl, and she turned on him with a verbal assault that left the young man feeling about two feet tall. End of problem! That would not have happened if I had stuck my nose in. Had I had to worry about a lawsuit if I didn't intervene in a timely manner, I'm sure I would have. I know there is a concern that bullying still happens, but there will always be some things going on in schools that teachers and other school personnel aren't aware of. No matter how many laws are passed, that isn't going to change.

Finally, this is going to sound harsh, but it's true. Most of the bullying that I've seen has not been a result of race, gender, religion, or even that all-time favorite, sexual orientation. In fact, most of the kids I've known who have been victims of "bullying" have done much to bring it on themselves. There are some kids whose social skills are so poor and behavior is so obnoxious that they might as well walk around with sandwich boards that say, "Pick on me!" That is not to say that real bullying of them should be tolerated--it definitely shouldn't. But if they are bailed out every time they complain that someone is being mean to them, we end up encouraging their obnoxious behavior and discouraging their growing up.

Bullying is a bad thing, and it is definitely something that teachers and everyone else in a school should be aware of and try to prevent. I had "the Fermoyle smalls" all through my junior and senior high school years, and I remember spending two days when I was in eighth grade living in fear of a bigger and stronger kid who wanted to beat me up. At the end of the second day, he did just that. So I know how it feels to be bullied, and we should try to prevent that from happening in our schools. But please, let's just be aware that it is possible to go too far.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Needed: good principals with real power

I checked out Eduwonk the other day and came upon an interesting topic. Eduwonk featured a post by Daniel Willingham about how teachers can get more respect. Willingham argues that one of the biggest obstacles to this is the protection of bad teachers. That reminded me of a conversation I had with a former teacher turned school board chairman a few years ago. He said that teachers will never get the respect they deserve as long as they have tenure and seniority systems. I agree.

There has been a lot of talk in the last several years about the need to reward good teachers and get rid of bad ones. I think there is a relatively simple solution to this--give principals the power to do both things. A couple of years ago, I posted my plan for paying and retaining teachers. Here is that plan:

We start with a normal salary schedule. For anyone who doesn't know what I'm talking about, in most places, teachers are put on a salary schedule according to the number of years they have been in their district. Their first year in a school, they are on step zero, and their fourth year, they are on step three. The higher the step, the higher the salary. In our school, the highest step is 16. In every step, there are lanes for the amount of graduate credits that teachers have had since attaining their bachelors degrees. In the schools where I've worked, it has gone by increments of 15. For example, if someone is on step four, there would be lane for Step 4 + 0 credits, Step 4 + 15 credits, all the way up to Step 4 with a Masters + 45 credits. The farther a teacher is along on lanes, the more they get paid within that step. So in other words, a teacher who is just out of college with no graduate credits might get paid something like $28,000, and a teacher who is at the highest step with a Masters + 45 credits might get paid something like $56,000.

My idea is to start with this schedule, but to allow a principal to move teachers up an down the steps. So if a school got a great new teacher, at the end of a year, the principal would be able to move her from step one all the way to step five, six or even higher if he wanted to. No teacher would object to being moved up, but many would object to being moved down, and I would also allow principals to do that. In those cases, I would set up an appeal process with a panel consisting of something like one school board member, one teacher, and one respected citizen from the community--perhaps a parent or a retired teacher. Both the teacher who had been moved down and the principal could bring witnesses and give evidence, but there would be no lawyers allowed.

Although having graduate credits or a Master's degree doesn't necessarily make one a better teacher than one who doesn't, there is value in earning them, so I would continue to have lanes within the steps in order to encourage continuing education.

In most places, when cuts need to made, teachers are laid off strictly by seniority. The least senior teachers get cut. Since, in my system, the people who the principal believed were the best teachers would be the highest on salary schedule, I would use a system similar to this. But rather than using strict seniority, teachers would be laid off according to is lowest on the salary schedule in the departments that are being cut. As things are now, a teacher in an area being cut, social studies for example, can "bump" a teacher with less seniority in a different area, like math, that isn't being cut. I would allow the principal to use his or her discretion to do this type of thing by having a teacher that is higher on the salary schedule bump one who is lower. Obviously, if a principal did this, it should be because the principal believed the "bumping" teacher was better.

One problem with my idea, that was pointed out when I originally posted this idea, is that I am looking at this from the point of view of a teacher who works in a relatively small school. In large schools principals might not know all their teachers very will. So let me amend my plan this way: the decisions I'm talking about should be made by someone in a managerial position.

I know there are teachers who think I am nuts on this because they have lousy principals. I'm afraid that is true a lot more often than it should be in America. As it is now, rather than principals and other administrators coming from the body of teachers who do the best jobs, as I think they should, they come from the body of teachers who most want to make more money. It's not that wanting to earn more money necessarily makes one a bad teacher, but it sure doesn't necessarily mean he's a good one. If we are ever going to give principals the power I'm talking about, that is a system that needs to change.

Monday, March 16, 2009


I checked out Joanne Jacobs site recently and found she had a couple of pieces dealing with vouchers. In the first one that I read I learned that Congress had killed a voucher program in Washington, D.C..

Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends.

Now, I have no first hand experience with the D.C. school system, so if I am off base on this, I hope someone will shoot me down. But my understanding is that the D.C. school system is pretty bad. When I say that, I have no idea how good or bad the teachers and administrators are, and this is certainly not meant as an indictment of them. My assumption is that they are dealing with a lot of kids from rough neighborhoods with a lot of social problems.

I am no fan of vouchers, but if a school system is really bad, I think they are appropriate. I'm convinced that the most common cause of a bad school is not bad teaching or bad administration, but a high number of kids in the classrooms who can ruin learning for those kids who do want an education. I don't know how any union, any political party, or anyone who cares about education can in good conscience argue that kids who want an education should be stuck in those classrooms.

I believe that the best solution would be for the teacher to be given the power to remove those kids who ruin the educational environment, but neither Arne Duncan or Barack Obama have called me lately, so I don't expect my solution to be enacted anytime soon. That being the case, having vouchers is one way that students who want to learn can move into decent educational environments.

The second piece I saw on Joanne's blog promoted a full-scale voucher program for the United States. That I completely disagree with. While enough bad students can ruin an educational environment, good students are essential for it. Remove enough good students from a classroom, and a great learning environment can become a mediocre one. A full-scale voucher system would threaten to do this to public school classrooms across our nation.

The good thing about vouchers is that it allows kids with parents who care about their kids' education to move their kids to a place where they can learn. The big problem with that is that there are other kids who care about their education or have the potential to care with parents who don't give a rip. Those parent are probably not going to bother with vouchers. Get those kids together with good students, and they might be wonderful students themselves. Remove the good students, and their situation becomes hopeless. In a public school system that is already hopeless, that's acceptable. In any other situation it's not.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

There's no joy in Mudville!

This is a painful one, but I promised to keep people informed. The Warriors went down to the Breck Mustangs yesterday 7-3. The score is somewhat misleading, however, because we outshot the Mustangs 36-24, and their last two goals were empty net goals after we had pulled our goalie in an effort to tie the game. Our kids really were Warriors right up until the final buzzer, and we couldn't be prouder of them. Somebody's gotta win; somebody's gotta lose.

Friday, March 13, 2009

State Championship game tomorrow!

The Warroad Warriors knocked off St. Cloud Cathedral 5-3 in a barnburner today to avenge an earlier loss and advance to the State Class A Championship game tomorrow. We will be facing the Breck Mustangs, a powerful private school from the Twin Cities who looked like a machine in throttling the number one cede and previously unbeaten Little Falls Flyers 6-1. Why can't it ever be easy?

Why won't Obama's stimulus plan work?

Joanne Jacobs had a post yesterday that brought to mind a subject I've been meaning to address for a while now. I threw a comment in on her post, but I wanted to address it on my own blog, too.

I teach Economics as an elective for high school juniors and seniors, but the subject is so complicated that I consider myself anything but an expert on it. I also teach American History, and we recently finished up on the Great Depression and started on World War II. We spent $320 billion dollars during the war, which might seem like small potatoes now, but at that time it was twice the amount we had spent during our entire history up to that time. I have always understood that World War II is what got us out of the Great Depression because of the massive government spending that was required. That is what I have always taught, and I believe that is standard across the nation.

When I first heard about President Obama's plan for an $800 billion stimulus package for what is being called the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I was very concerned about its effect on our already huge federal deficits and national debt, but the logic made sense to me. If it was massive government spending that got us out of the Great Depression, wouldn't massive government spending be a reasonable thing to do to deal with our situation today?

But when I've watched the talking heads on TV news shows, I've never really seen that discussed. I've seen several analysts say that the stimulus is terrible and that it will never work, but none of them have ever explained why the connection that I see between the way World War II got us out of the Great Depression and our situation today isn't there. I've never heard anyone say, "Look, the spending for World War II got us out of the Depression because....., but the spending Obama is proposing won't get us out of this mess because......"

If any of you are more expert on the subject of economics than I am--and that includes a lot of people--I would love to learn your thoughts on this.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Warriors move on to the semis

The Warroad Warriors defeated the Hutchinson Tigers 7-1 yesterday in a Minnesota Class A match-up. We have the day off today while the AA schools have their quarterfinal games, then tomorrow we meet St. Cloud Cathedral in the semi-finals. St. Cloud Cathedral was one of the two teams who beat us during the regular season, but it was a great game, and we're looking for another one tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Barack Obama and Colin Powell on education

Yesterday, President Obama gave a major speech on education policy. So far, I like him a lot. Who knows whether or not he will have a successful presidency, but he seems to have the potential for greatness. His plan to improve education in America, however, does not inspire me.

It's not that I'm disappointed by the things Obama is proposing; it's exactly what I would expect from a good politician who does not really understand what happens in a classroom. It's not that I think the things he is proposing are necessarily bad things. I just don't think any of them are going to significantly improve education in America.

President Obama is endorsing merit pay, that's not a bad thing, but I think it is greatly overrated by its proponents. It might help a little, and I am all for doing whatever it takes to make sure we keep our best teachers, regardless of seniority, and get rid of our worst ones. There are some occupations that react more to pay than others, however. It is all important to many people in sales and business, but teachers react to it less than almost anyone. Speaking for myself, I do care what I get paid, but the time and effort I put into my job are not based on it at all.

America's teachers are often portrayed by our media and elites as being incompetent. This is unfair. There are some lousy teachers out there--no one can deny that--and we should get rid of them. But much of the so-called "bad teaching" is being done by teachers who have been put into impossible classroom situations. Once in a blue moon you might find an incredible teacher who can go into one of those classrooms and turn things around. Those teachers, however, are very rare. If anyone thinks that enough of them can be found to turn around those impossible classroom situations in large cities throughout the nation, they are dreaming. Something has to be done about those classroom situations, and Obama's policies don't.

Much is being made of President Obama's endorsement of charter schools. Once again, some good might come of that. There are some good charter schools, and some good ideas have come from them. The fact is, however, that the great majority of kids in our country attend public schools, and that is not going to change in the foreseeable future. The greatest benefit that I can see from charter schools is that is allows parents who care about education to move their kids into classrooms with other kids whose parents also care about education. That does absolutely nothing for the kids who are left behind, however, and it might make their situation even worse.

On the same day that President Obama gave his education speech, CNN ran an interview with Colin Powell. The former general and secretary of state addressed the real problems in American education by directing his remarks to students and parents. He said American students need to start attending classes regularly, listen to their teachers, mind their manners, and perform. He basically told parents that they need to stop accepting their kids' excuses and demand that they work hard in school. Barack Obama has said things like this in the past, and it is music to any teacher's ears.

As wonderful as it is to hear words like these from prominent people in our country, it won't do very much unless it is somehow converted into policy. That means that teachers and schools have to be able to demand that students behavior and effort are in line with Colin Powell's words. And it's not just a matter of saying, "We demand it!" or "We have high expectations for you!" It's wonderful for a president and a former secretary of state to urge students to toe the line, but what if they don't? Are we going to do anything about it? Because if we don't, education in America will never improve very much.

In the late 1960s the Supreme Court ruled that education is a property right that cannot be taken away from students without due process of law. In the early 1970s they ruled that a school official could be sued if some judge decided that his attempt at discipline deprived a student of that right, regardless of how obnoxious the student's behavior was. That began a deterioration in the behavior of students in public schools, and test scores have remained flat ever since, despite all of the "innovative" programs that have been tried. That is the problem, and that is what needs to be addressed.

So to policy makers, I would say this. If you want to make a little bit of difference, and if you want to look like you're doing something, go ahead--throw in your merit pay, make the school day longer, make the school year longer, and encourage more charter schools and other kinds of choice. None of that will make a very big difference, but you'll look like a real reformer, and you can pretend you're doing something significant. But if you really want to improve education in America, you'll have to do something so that those "high expectations" you want schools and teachers to have will be something more than just words.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Back to the state tournament!

Warroad 3 Thief River Falls 2. We scored the winner with 1:53 left in the game, in what was obviously a nail-biter. I've got an idea or two for other posts, but I won't be getting to them over the weekend. I'm headed off this morning for my father-in-laws visitation and memorial service, then we'll drive back here on Sunday, then I'll be off with the team for the Twin Cities again on Monday. I think we've got a legitimate shot at winning the tournament, but we are definitely not the favorite, and it's the strongest Class A field I've ever seen. My gray hair just keeps getting grayer.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Heaven has gained another good carpenter

Over a year ago, I wrote a post about the sudden illness of my father-in-law, John Engberg. My wife and I were called to come down to the Twin Cities for what we believed were going to be his very last days, and we both brought clothes for the funeral. But Big John, never one to go down easy, made an amazing comeback, and I was able to bring my suit back unworn. This morning at 11:30, John finally succumbed to the cancer that he had been battling for the last year.

My wife had been able to spend this last weekend with him, and had just arrived back in Warroad fifteen minutes before we got the word that John had passed away. Although he was clearly fading, my wife says he continued to pepper her with questions about our high school hockey team. In fact, his last words to me when I talked to him on the phone a week ago were, "Bring home a winner!" Although it was wrenching to see the pain and discomfort he had to go through during the last year, I can only be grateful for the extra time we had with him. I said this in my original post and I will say it again: John Engberg is the most thoroughly decent man I've ever known. He has been a role model for me ever since I met him 37 years ago. I hope that I can be half the man that he was.

Back in the section finals

This morning I am entering my most nervous week of the year. On Thursday our high school hockey team beat Kittson County Central 11-0, and then last night we beat Crookston 9-1 to earn a birth in the Section 8A Championship game. On Monday night Thief River Falls and Bemidji will play to determine who our opponent will be. Whoever wins the section championship will enter the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament in St. Paul the following week.

This will be the thirteenth section final that I've been a part of, but I didn't get to my first one until my twentieth year of coaching. I was also involved in two as a player in the late 1960s. The anxiety going into this game is like nothing else I've ever experienced. Win, and you've earned a week in St. Paul, and your season is considered at least somewhat of a success. Lose, and you're done. I'll let you know on Friday how we came out.