'Suited for teaching' after all

Michele Kerr, who comments here as “Cal,” has earned a master’s degree from Stanford’s Teacher Education Program (STEP), despite threats to declare her “unsuited” for teaching.  FIRE has the links.

. . . Stanford tried to revoke Kerr’s admission after she voiced disagreement with “progressive” views held by STEP administrators, but FIRE intervened and resolved the issue. Kerr also was blogging about her thoughts and experiences as a future certified teacher. Stanford School of Education administrators demanded the password to her private blog and threatened to expel her for her opinions and teaching philosophy.

Kerr was told that her problems had nothing to do with her views, that other students found her domineering and intimidating. In an e-mail, she told classmates that “you are all fantastic, passionate, committed people who I think will make outstanding teachers.” But:

. . . if you are sitting in class privately seething because you feel that I or anyone else is derailing a conversation that you wish to go in a different direction, then you should reconsider your own priorities and values as a novice educator.  SPEAK UP.

Fight for the education you want. And if you don’t feel you should have to, if you’d rather complain to the powers-that-be in the hopes that the power will take care of an interpersonal problem, then how on earth are you planning on going out in the far more ruthless world of public education and effect any change worth mentioning?

She was told the e-mail was “intimidating” in itself.

WashPost columnist Jay Mathews, often a target of Kerr’s caustic comments, wonders why academics can’t tolerate independent thinkers.

Though the education school has no blogging policy, Kerr was reprimanded for her blog, which mentioned Stanford but not the high school where she was student teaching.  She “took down the blog temporarily, renamed it, eliminated all references to Stanford, and gave it password protection so that only she and a few friends could read it,” Mathews writes. That didn’t help.

After filing a complaint, Kerr got a new supervisor with whom she got along very well. She completed the program and was hired by a high school in the area to teach algebra, geometry and humanities.

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Comments

  1. tim-10-ber says:

    I am thrilled to learn Michele Kerr succeeded!

    “WashPost columnist Jay Mathews, often a target of Kerr’s caustic comments, wonders why academics can’t tolerate independent thinkers.”

    I have wondered this before. Why are educators not open up to new ways of doing things? Why are they so determined to maintain the status quo even when it is a total failure?

    My thoughts? For the most part the vast majority of educators have been in education since they were in pre-school or kindergarten/first grade. They know nothing else.

    Change in any form and definitely radical change/criticism of their chosen field results in total fear and probably loss of control. The status quo is the safety net.

    In the real world, no I don’t think education is the real world, change is the only constant. If educators would embrace real change based on scientific evidence (and what they know in their heart works) I believe forced er compulsory schooling would thrive, overcome the fears of the industrialists and get back to creating the leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, thinkers, etc this country needs to once again be great and re-ignite the American dream that still attracts immigrants today!!!

    Without a radical change in forced schooling, I fear this country will continue its downward spiral that I believe was caused by the introduction of the failed prussian way of educating its citizens er people.

  2. Ponderosa says:

    Although a liberal in most regards, I am the outspoken conservative voice about education in our district. The LONE outspoken conservative voice. Ed schools have been extremely successful at preventing teachers from even realizing that there ARE legitimate alternatives to the progressive orthodoxy. My views usually encounter stupefied silence or shock. I think I would have been fired but for tenure and union protection. (Note to conservatives: tenure protects conservative views!)

  3. I can tell you why teachers are often not open to new ways Of doing things. 99% of the time, when someone comes in with something new, it’s a stupid idea from someone who doesn’t know their backside from a hole in the ground. This person then draws a very comfortable salary for essentially taking up space, while giving you more busywork and making your life harder.

    I’ve only been teaching for six years. But spending time in an urban district around money-sucking morons makes you cinical really quickly. I’m willing to try new things in my classroom. It’s the constant turmoil of outsiders throwing your school upside down that bugs me.

  4. sordidmess says:

    Interestingly, you have failed to include the most offensive part of her email (published on the FIRE website) to her fellow students, of whom “more than two, and less than sixty” (according to Kerr) complained about her conduct. I am including this portion below.

    As I think her own words and conduct make clear, she values speaking–speaking up, speaking out, speaking over–but not listening. Communications between Kerr and the program administrators say she was combative, aggressive, and impossible to hold a conversation with. She may be within her rights, but certainly is not within the acceptable parameters of professionalism, empathy, or ability to dialogue and consider multiple alternatives I would expect from a graduate of one of the most prestigious teaching programs in the country.
    ***
    From Michele Kerr’s email to her classmates:

    “However, if I despised one of you, hated what you said in class, held my breath and turned blue every time you opened your mouth, I wouldn’t even think of complaining to the instructor or Rachel. And if Rachel invited me to complain about any student, I’d have laughed in her face and told her to go find a whiner who actually thinks she should be running around guaranteeing her babies a safe and nurturing environment…

    2) If you can’t speak up in a STEP classroom to assert yourself and reach out for the education you’ve been paying for, if you are sitting in class privately seething because you feel that I or anyone else is derailing a conversation that you wish to go in a different direction, then you should reconsider your own priorities and values as a novice educator. SPEAK UP…

    3) For those of you who wish to continue requesting that you not sit with me in practicum, make sure you mention the reason so that Rachel can build her case for the next time we do our little dance. “Rachel, I do not want to sit next to Michele in practicum. It has nothing to do with her views; she’s just an domineering, overbearing bitch.” DOB. We could print up cards or something. Don’t Sit Me Next to the DOB!

    …I am being told that I’ll be expelled if I can’t figure out how to stop my classmates from complaining about me. That’s a valid standard for a fifth grader clique, but it’s not one I’ll accept in a graduate academic setting. I’ll continue being me, and those of you who feel uncomfortable can maybe learn how to speak up. Or not. Your call.”

  5. Parent2 says:

    Stanford’s in a dilemma, if they care about their moral stance. If they “…stand firmly in support of intellectual freedom and the right of all students to express their views”, then they can’t retain “the right to decide if a student is suited to teaching”.

    It really is that simple. The blackball provision STEP possesses can’t coexist with intellectual freedom.

    On a cynical note, I’d bet her GRE scores helped the school’s overall average of admitted students.

  6. Parent2 says:

    “…the acceptable parameters of professionalism, empathy, or ability to dialogue and consider multiple alternatives I would expect from a graduate of one of the most prestigious teaching programs in the country.”

    Let’s see, Kerr’s letter is offensive because she states that she expected _graduate_ students to behave like adults in a graduate program? Do you really want to state that? I have to tell you that I’m shocked to hear that graduate students at Stanford felt the need to complain to the teacher about another student.

    That may be why few leading universities have schools of education.

  7. Robert Wright says:

    What is it about STEP she disagreed with?

    What is her philosophy of education?

    Is she simply outspoken? Or is she obnoxious?

    Reading the links, I couldn’t tell.

  8. sordidmess,

    The email includes some unacceptable language and seems angry and immature, but it doesn’t fundamentally change my view on the situation. It’s not expulsion worthy.

    tim-10-ber,

    You’re responding to a different issue. Ed School professors and the real people who work in most public schools are two very different groups, in my experience. And Obi-Wandreas completely explains why the k-12 people resists change. It’s because we’re expected to embrace some new system every year practically and none yield betters results. The change is big enough to waste your time and negate a big section of your expertise and experience, but not actually revolutionary enough to threaten administrators or the county office.

  9. sordidmess says:

    @Parent2, just to clarify what is totally a valid concern: I agree that at first glance it sounds odd to speak with a superior rather than confronting a person whom one finds offensive or who is intimidating to the point that she stifles exploratory discussion vital to one’s own education.

    However, I think it is relatively standard protocol in adult institutions and workplaces all over the country–superiors are often called upon to mediate interpersonal conflicts among those they supervise, rather than having open confrontation.

    Therefore, I guess I didn’t find it that unusual that people would rather talk to an administrator than directly to the person they found intimidating. I included a portion of her email in my prior post just to give more context to the claim that she was intimidating. I am a pretty outspoken person, and I think I would be uncomfortable expressing my concerns to her given the tone of this email.

  10. School district administrators (and obviously education professors as well) do not like to be challenged by teachers. In my own district I was threatened with reprimand because I criticized my school district on a personal blog. Funny that all the rhetoric about critical thought and inquiry goes right out the window when people have a divergent thought.

  11. I’m glad I don’t have to put up with her. Stanford probably shouldn’t expel her, though. I don’t get to expel my most obnoxious students. Teachable moment in classroom management, I’d say.

  12. People constantly complained about me in grad school, too, and for the same reason; however, most of the time, when I got confrontational with my peers, it was because they were complaining about how stupid their freshmen were in the big, cubicleville GTA offices–while students were coming in for appointments with their instructors.

  13. Scrooge McDuck (fake name) says:

    I have seen her arguments over the years on this and other blogs. She is incensed by what she feels is progressive or liberal. Equity issues, for example, drive her up the wall. And while she raises good points, her sensitivity to these issues has sometimes blinded her to valid points that people are making that having nothing to do with equity or hippy-dippy progressivism. Once the knee jerk reflex has started, any such argument in the person’s defense is called “whining”, a term used often in the fine art of internet snarking.

    I’m happy for those who are impressed by her. But her violent vicious side is a liability and I would fear for my child if she were her teacher.

  14. Ponderosa says:

    The more complete Kerr email that sordidness posted complicates the picture for me. There is a difference between civil dissent (which should be protected) and Fox News-style intellectual belligerence (which Stanford has a right to sanction, in my opinion).

  15. Fear for your child? Violent vicious side? Really?

    It seems to me that a lot of people who are internet jerks are okay in person and don’t attempt to abuse their authority.

  16. Well, Ponderosa, they might be right to sanction it if they are also sanctioning Keith Olbermann-intellectual style belligerence as well, but if it’s the ideology and not the belligerence, then, I’ve got a problem because they claim not to do that.

    And whether the conflict stems from her positions or from her complicated interpersonal behavior seems impossible to tell. If Stanford were a public institution, I’d be really uncomfortable with them sanctioning it, period, unless they were merely addressing it from a classroom management perspective. One person shouldn’t dominate a classroom discussion, regardless of ideology.

    But when they were going after the blog content, especially since it doesn’t seem to have contained information about particular student’s Kerr was teaching, makes me suspicious that it wasn’t just about what she did in class or her interactions as part of the program.

    Part of me wonders since Kerr is apparently kind of an internet commenting phenomenon, if Stanford was concerned that they would seem to be endorsing her generally by awarding her a teaching degree?

    I likely agree with some of Kerr’s political positions, but based on what I’ve read, unless she’s a hell of a math teacher, I wouldn’t be rushing to recruit her to my school. An ability to get along with people especially with whom you philosophically disagree does contribute to your fitness for teaching. It’s possible that Stanford was actually trying to address that and Kerr has spun it as more philosophical than it is.

    One more thing, I saw some comments elsewhere about how Kerr shouldn’t have enrolled in this program if she didn’t agree with its philosophy, which kind of ignores how hard it would be to find a education program without a progress liberal philosophical bent. Can anyone name one in the state of California?

  17. FuzzyRider says:

    The progressive mindset,which dominates most universities and public schools, carries with it a worldview (assumptions of what is true) which is essentially incompatible with the libertarian/conservative ideology. This in itself should not cause a problem, because each group can still benefit from the point of view of the other, provided their minds are open to new ideas. The real conflict comes about when one group is sufficiently powerful that it can effectively silence the other, and proceeds to do so, AND so indoctrinated in a single ideology that they can’t see any harm in doing this evil to others because their ideals are SO righteous.

    I do not care if this young lady was obnoxious or abrasive or ugly or had bad breath or whatever other ad hominem attack the leftists can contrive- it is her IDEAS which were the nexus of her problems with the university. It is interesting that in a college full of ‘intellectuals’ no attempt was made to try to refute her ideas- does this indicate that the progressive argument is too weak to defend? Or is it instead a sign of such extreme arrogance that regards any variance from the party line as too stupid to be worth considering? Neither explanation bodes well for academia.

    Incidentally, I believe this is less a problem caused by ideology than by human nature. Although I would like to believe that conservaive (and especially) libertarian ideology would never fall victim to this type of fascist behavior, I know what would happen if either group obtained sufficient power to become effectively tyranical- our only defense is to prevent one ideology from gaining a monopoly.

    If all of mankind, minus one, were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing the one than the one would be, if it were in his power, in silencing mankind. J. S. Mills

  18. Scrooge McDuck says:

    Fear for your child? Violent vicious side? Really?

    It seems to me that a lot of people who are internet jerks are okay in person and don’t attempt to abuse their authority.

    I likely agree with some of Kerr’s political positions, but based on what I’ve read, unless she’s a hell of a math teacher, I wouldn’t be rushing to recruit her to my school. An ability to get along with people especially with whom you philosophically disagree does contribute to your fitness for teaching. It’s possible that Stanford was actually trying to address that and Kerr has spun it as more philosophical than it is.

    Glad you agree.

  19. FuzzyRider says:

    “An ability to get along with people especially with whom you philosophically disagree does contribute to your fitness for teaching.”

    And so the people who complained about her are therefore more fit for teaching because…?

  20. Scrooge, I’m not sure that not rushing to work with someone is the same thing as “fearing” for a child and regarding someone as “violent and vicious”. Your claims are still pretty unsubstantiated. And the possibility does exist that she is a hell of a math teacher, which would go a long way in getting me over her complicated personality with colleagues.

    Fuzzy, are we sure that A) there really are other teaching candidates who did complain about her and B) that they didn’t successfully get along with her in class? The email seems to suggest that Kerr doesn’t even know, assuming that there were people complaining, who they were. On the other hand, the email suggests that Kerr is going to have a hard time working with anyone in that class, but maybe she didn’t. It is interesting that she didn’t seem to be having trouble where she was student teaching.

    If you are referring to the professional staff at Stanford who couldn’t handle this without it becoming a national news story, then sure, I will go along with questioning their fitness.

    I don’t know what to think about Kerr or about having worked with unpleasant people who were great teachers. Some people are good enough with the kids that the institutional harm is worth it; others aren’t. I think it’s probably like that in every field.

  21. “In every successful organization there is one boss who does not like people, does not help them, does not get along with them. Cold, unpleasant, demanding, he often teaches and develops more men than anyone else. He commands more respect than the most likeable man ever could. He demands exacting workmanship of himself as well as of his men. He sets high standards and expects that they will be lived up to. He considers only what is right and never who is right. And, though usually himself a man of brilliance, he never rates intellectual brilliance above integrity in others.”

    –Peter Drucker

    Is there a place for people of the type Prof Drucker describes in education? Should there be?

  22. Maybe they don’t bring up her views because they really aren’t the issue. If she’s a brow beater, then she is going to have a very hard time being a teacher. That dog just won’t hunt. Some kid will get her number and that will be all she wrote, bay bee.

  23. FuzzyRider says:

    Is there a place for people of the type Prof Drucker describes in education? Should there be?

    There used to be… they were some of the best teachers I ever encountered. Anymore? Not many I was aware of when I was teaching. What a great loss…

  24. Richard Nieporent says:

    David, it would seem that Peter Drucker was describing Howard Roark.

  25. The type Peter Drucker describes can be a really effective teacher of some (maybe most) students, I think, and might even be a really effect assistant principal. The problem will be in terms of working with other teachers and in taking direction from superiors. He won’t have the authority to impose his perception of what’s right on others and likely won’t be able to persuade people either, if the first sentence of the description is to be believed. Teachers have to be bosses, colleagues, and underlings. I’m guessing this type only excels at the first.

  26. Ragnarok says:

    You can generally get a lot more done by being pleasant than by being abrasive.

    People who say they’re just “fatally truthful,” don’t seem to understand this.

    I think the way Stanford handled her was quite wrong; but from what I’ve seen of Kerr’s comments, she is often mean and unpleasant. Apparently Jay Mathews think so as well.

  27. Ragnarok says:

    Any large, successful entity will inevitable accumulate cruft, such as an Ed School. A good question to ask such people is, “What’s the sound of a solitary neuron firing?”

  28. linda seebach says:

    There’s a conversational dynamic that comes into play when one side in a debate is greatly outnumbered. Imagine a discussion group with a dozen people, of whom only one is conservative (or liberal; it’s not content dependent). How do you divide up the speaking turns? If everybody gets five minutes out of an hour, that’s fair in one obvious way, but it means 55 minutes of people presenting their shared liberal views and five minutes of someone presenting a conservative view. That’s unfair in a different way. But if the sides get equal time, then one person talks for half the hour and nobody feels that is right either. Nor does there seem to be any intermediate point where people are comfortable.

    I’ve recently had this experience with a current-events discussion group, about that size, in the senior residence where I live. It was so uncomfortable, and eventually quite hostile, that I just quit going. And I never had any trouble getting along with colleagues in the newsroom, although we seldom agreed on political issues.

  29. “Imagine a discussion group with a dozen people, of whom only one is conservative (or liberal; it’s not content dependent)”

    And in social situations, where each person’s views don’t HAVE to be shared unless they choose to, it accentuates the polarization.

    I’m a prosecutor: I went to lunch with about a dozen public defenders sometime last week. Many of these people are my friends, but some I know much less well. Somehow the topic of conversation shifted to politics, and not about specific policies, but more of the “Sarah Palin is retarded…all conservatives are retarded…wasn’t Obama such a gifted articulate wonderful genius at his press conference compared to that moron W?” variety. I could’ve chimed in with a differing view, but why the hell would I want to?

    And I know for certain there were others at the table who felt similarly and were much less outsiders to that group–not all PD’s are died-in-the-wool kneejerk lefties–but for much the same reasons couldn’t be bothered. Better for an enjoyable lunch to let the conversation take its course away to other things, even if meant letting others believe their views are shared by all reasonable and/or intelligent people, than to provoke a fight.

  30. A lot of good comments on both sides.

    But one thing I’m curious about is how her fellow students were “intimidated.”

    Maybe I’m just a crusty old vet of the innercity classroom, but it seems to me that if those teacher-trainees want to be ready to step up and be teachers, they need to get over being intimidated by pretty much anything.

    Could have been a teachable moment for those Ed professors…

  31. Scrooge McDuck says:

    Scrooge, I’m not sure that not rushing to work with someone is the same thing as “fearing” for a child and regarding someone as “violent and vicious”. Your claims are still pretty unsubstantiated.

    By “violent and vicious” I did not mean physically, but was referring to her contemptuous and abusive style of communicating. By “fearing” for my child, I meant I would not want someone who can be so verbally and mentally abusive teaching my child. I was basing my claims on her written comments which are extremely harsh and also from what I read about her behavior in class. I don’t much care for ed school philosophy either, but there are ways of disagreeing without insulting people–and there is also a time to realize when you aren’t going to change people.

  32. CA Teacher says:

    I’d probably agree with much of Ms. Kerr’s educational philosophy. However, I’ve read several of the threads on which she’s commented. Scrooge McDuck’s observation that her style is “contemptuous and abusive” is right on target. I’d also say it’s wildly unprofessional. If Stanford professors and classmates experienced that in the classroom, I’d have to side firmly with the Stanford program. A person who thinks it’s okay to speak to others in that hateful, abusive manner has no business in a classroom, where she could inflict emotional abuse on students. I would certainly not want my child in her classroom. And that opinion is based SOLELY on her manner of speech (or writing in this case), not on her intellect or views.

  33. Sadly, I think a lot of this sort of thing does happen in ed school programs. It doesn’t always have to do with politics; in my cohort it was targeted toward the older members of the cohort who’d a.) had parenting and teaching experience and b.) were questioning the stance of a popular behaviorist teacher. One of the drawbacks of the cohort method is that it does scapegoat those who are not completely one with the cohort. I’ve known several other older teacher candidates who have had similar experiences or have been washed out of the process–and some were politically progressive as well.

    In this case I have to agree with the other commenters about the unprofessional posting style of the person in question. OTOH, this might well mean that said person will make an excellent teacher working with difficult, challenging kids–or it could well mean that this is yet another burnout case on its way. I suspect that a few years of teaching will either take care of the lack of professionalism in her tone–or the person in question will find something else to do.

    And yeah, her cohort needs to get over itself and figure out how to stand up for themselves without the passive-aggressive behaviors. Won’t last, unless they’re headed for elementary school.

  34. Scrooge, I understand now. All I’ve seen to indicate that she was as unpleasant in real life as she was on the internet is the email to her program director and cohort. It’s possible that she wouldn’t be professional in the classroom and that she would act that way to the kids.

  35. Kirk Parker says:

    Scrooge,

    Ah, nice to see that by “violence” you didn’t actually mean “violence”. Do you have any other personal redefinitions of common words you would like to clue us in on?

  36. Large O says:

    vi?o?lence

    1. swift and intense force: the violence of a storm.
    2. rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment: to die by violence.
    3. an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws: to take over a government by violence.
    4. a violent act or proceeding.
    5. rough or immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language: the violence of his hatred.

    My guess is that Scrooge was using the fifth definition of violence. And I agree wholeheartedly with him.

  37. Who cares what her classmates thought/felt about her? So what? I think she’ll be far more likely to teach her students than her STEP fellows who only want to be a pal to those they’re supposed to teach.

    Or did they all pay $40K a year to sing Kumbayah around a cozy campfire, while unicorns with rainbow manes and tails swayed in harmony?