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TEACHER VOICES: Tony Johnston, #1

“Good Education”

Tony JohnstonEd. note: I had the tremendous fortune to teach and share a classroom with Tony Johnston at Leadership High School in San Francisco. In addition to always having my back, Tony pushes me to think about big ideas: Why do we do what we do? What’s the best way, and why? Now a professor at a college in Connecticut, Tony continues thinking about the good stuff with his students as they prepare to become the next generation of English teachers.

favicon Lately, I’ve wrestled with the complicated and contradictory terrain encompassing what is meant by the term, “good education.”

After a doctorate in education and 265 years of schooling, I’d like to have a sense of what this term should indicate.

But maybe that’s just the trouble. As a parent of two school-going children, a former high school teacher, a teacher of future teachers, an administrator seeking accreditation for a department, and an academic — I’m left weary and confused by the competing agendas and ideologies around this term.

In the name of providing a “good education,” I am working to gain accreditation for the program I direct at my school of education. I’ll spare you the details. But I will offer that this work is both at odds, and seemingly irrelevant, with the work I will do in my classes that evening. My aspiring secondary school teachers are asked to interrogate entrenched notions of teaching as the administering of tests, handing-out of worksheets, and management of classrooms.

The following day, in a faculty meeting, someone raises the point that school reform efforts have clouded what the work of teaching entails, while another optimistically chimes in, “But unlike current teachers who resist these efforts, our new teachers won’t know any better.”

As I head back to my office for an afternoon of reviewing the Common Core State Standards and aligning our syllabi to the standards, I wonder, “Shouldn’t our work be to teach them to know better?”

After we recently moved East, my children enrolled in “good” schools. I know the schools are good because the website GreatSchools.org tells me so. So do the fellow parents that nod knowingly to one another in the halls as we scramble from room to room during the frenetic open-house event, where the well-oiled machine of my son’s middle school churns impressively.

Veteran teachers wear matching shirts and matching smiling faces, classrooms are equipped with computers and Smart Boards, signs in the halls signal to me that “character counts” and remind me to “walk on the right side of the hall.” Structures, routines, practices and traditions that have produced strong students for decades dazzle. After the chaotic and unstable realities of his elementary school, I am heartened by the security this school will offer.

Yet my son does tedious homework assignments that take him hours, and he expresses little genuine interest in any of the courses he takes. He feels the teachers do not know him and that he is not allowed to ask for help.

I broach his early sense of alienation and struggles with adjustments to both middle school and being in a new state with the vice-principal — hoping he will reach out to the teachers and maybe to my son. He tells me, “Yes, I can see he is struggling because he has two Cs.” I fight the urge to tell him that my son is not a report card.

In one of the courses I teach, I shared with my students something I learned when I studied the works of Lev Vygotsky. The Russian language uses a word, obuchenie, for which English has no real equivalent. My limited understanding of this term is that it captures the dialectical relationship between teaching and learning – not as two separate acts, but rather as a joint activity. Implications for this vision of teaching/learning intrigue me. If teaching has occurred, and students have not learned, did teaching ever take place?

If students experience a “good education” after which their minds are full but their hearts are empty – was this education a “good” one? After a brief but provocative discussion of how this term could benefit education in America, an especially “good” student asks, “Will we be tested on this?” favicon


  1. Dave Keller

    It is great to read Mr. Johnston’s observations about education (Hey, Tony). I connected with the anecdotes about his son’s new school. But after teaching for 16 years I’ve come to different conclusions about educational reform. I agree with Tony that a key to learning is rooted in the relationship between student and teacher. I currently work with a History teacher that interacts with students using love, compassion, and humor. He gets to know kids very deeply. His method of teaching is based mostly in worksheets, hours of tedious homework, tests and readings. He is beloved, his students learn prodigiously and they love the study of History. However, this year he says his teaching is suffering. He is teaching 3 subjects, 6 classes – almost 170 students. From this I draw my conclusion about school reform: to improve education, relationships between students and teachers need to have a fighting chance. Smaller student to teacher ratios are the best way to foster those chances. In my high school, some classes are being co-taught which doubles the teacher presence in classrooms, every day. Other high schools in the area are reducing classes to 18 students and sometimes run classes with enrollments as low as 8 students. Re-thinking tests, worksheets and traditional education cannot be eliminated from the passionate teacher’s tool chest. However, creating the conditions for genuine obuchenie is the fastest and most effective way to improve our schools.

    • Tony

      Hi Dave! Thanks for your feedback – its great to hear from you. I’m not sure I’ve come to any conclusions myself, as my blog suggests, but rather I’m struck by the variable nature of what a “good education” constitutes depending on who is the speaker and what is the context.
      Passionate teachers who can develop great relationships with students is really where its at! I agree also that its getting more and more difficult to do this. Not only because of class size, as you mentioned, but also because teachers are consumed with more paperwork than at any time I can recall, are struggling with more demands upon them regarding what to teach and how to teach it, are increasingly vulnerable as teachers unions are attacked, and are daily reminded in the public media that they are to blame when schools “fail”.

  2. Heidi

    Hi Tony! I have been thinking about what factors create “good education”. My recent perception is that if most schools are in reality more “business” minded, then we must get continuous authentic feedback from all of the students and families on what is an isn’t working well. After all, this is what most successful corporations do. My favorite professional development days at Leadership were the student and family fishbowl discussions. I still carry those lessons with me.

Please share your brilliant insights!