Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Anonymous Blogger Interviews Johnny Yen

Anonymous Blogger, the blogosphere's resident MacGuyver, is someone who impresses the hell out of everyone who reads her blog-- she's raising three kids on her own, tackling home projects most men would be afraid of, wrestling with the emergencies and crises that three children can bring you-- all while maintaining an interesting, well-written blog. Recently, she sent me five great questions.

1. Who has been the most influential person in your life? Why?

I would have to say it was my parents, equally.

When I was 3 or 4 years old, before I or my younger brothers could even read, my parents bought us a set of World Book Encyclopedias. Before we could read, my brothers and I would just sit and look through the encyclopedias for hours, examining the pictures. When we started school, we were eager to learn to read, in order to find out more about the things we saw in the encyclopedias.

It’s funny, because that’s actually what we educators use in the lower grades now to get kids reading—start with pictures and get them curious about the words connected to the pictures.

There were always discussions about politics and history at the dinner table. They encouraged us to read and our house was what an educator these days would call a “language rich environment”—it was full of books. I always had my nose in a book or a newspaper. I loved and still love newspapers.

It’s funny, because my son is the same way—he subscribes to both Chicago papers, and is now curious about the New York Times, which I subscribe to. And we have a World Book encyclopedia set at our house. Both of my kids love to read and both are very intellectually curious.

2. You have blogged reflecting about students that have marked you. You sound like you really ‘get it’ when it comes to teaching and leading. What are the main reasons that you went into teaching, and what are the key reasons you have decided to move away from the profession?

First off, thank you!

When I was a Political Science grad student at Eastern Illinois University, 1984/1985, I had to teach classes in the teachers’ absence, and I had to keep hours in the grad office to help students. One time, a group of students came to me for help. A professor I worked for was a great, brilliant guy, but his teaching technique was terrible. It was the end of the semester, and they felt totally confused. Since there were so many of them, I told them I’d hold a special session the next evening. Nearly the entire class showed up. I found out later that I had a reputation for taking complicated things and putting them in terms they could understand.

Later, that summer, as I was finishing up the written requirements for my Master’s in Political Science, I was rooming with Jim, now my best friend, and John, a friend of ours. One day John came home from the store and told me that he’d chatted with the cashier; it turned out she’d been one of my students. She had told him that I was a great teacher—that I’d taught the class better than the professor. I think that was the day the wheels started turning.

Flash forward three years. I had decided not to go to law school, and in the meantime was working full-time as a waiter. One night, I did something stupid and ended up with a cast on my leg for six weeks. I couldn’t work for six weeks.

Fortunately, my friends helped me out, but it was a big wake-up call that I needed a plan. I thought a lot about it—how could I follow my general leftist political beliefs and still make a living? Teaching seemed the thing to do.

As to why I’m leaving? There are a couple of reasons. I’m tired of dealing with administrators who become a principal or assistant principal and suddenly forget what it was like to be in a classroom—the realities we’re dealing with. Them getting their “Type 75” certifications through classwork has no bearing on whether they can do the job, as I’m sure the various bloggers who are teachers could tell you.

And bluntly, there are financial reasons: on a teacher’s salary, I simply cannot make enough to put my kids through college and make sure that my wife and I can retire comfortably.

3. If you could name your ‘dream teaching job’(if there is one), what would it be? (i.e., grade / ages, subject matter, type of school/environment, location)

I'd love to teach fourth grade. The kids that age are starting to get into some higher-intellect content, are ravenously curious and still a little in awe of their teachers. I like teaching all the subjects—I’m not real fond of teaching only one or two subjects. The ideal school would be diverse, with parents who are involved, but not “helicopter” parents, as you so aptly described them (I must have used that phrase 20 times since I read it in one of your responses!). I’d have a small class—19 students, tops, and the resources I need—books, the ability to have plenty of field trips, and administrators who weren’t constantly trying to make me put square pegs in round holes. Every kid learns differently, and the attempt to hold all to the same standards is ludicrous. No Child Left Behind is more of the same—trying to impose one system and set of standards on an amazingly diverse population.

There’s a book we had to read in the course of my teacher studies, The One Best System, by David Tyack. It’s a series of essays on this. On the cover, he used the famous cartoon where they follow the implementation of a tire swing—what was ordered and what they turned out. I think it sums up beautifully how our education system has become so dysfunctional despite pouring enormous amounts of money into it, and why teachers are leaving.

I would love to teach at the college level someday, too.

4. I believe you have mentioned that you were raised in a strictly Democrat family. In your life has there ever been a time that you considered or leaned in the direction of another political party? Why or why not? If you can compare/contrast aspects of the principal philosophies that drive your dedication to the Democratic party I would love reading it.

Actually, my parents’ politics have been all over the place. In the sixties, my father got involved with liberal and progressive politics; we were living in Lincoln Park, then the center of the counterculture in Chicago. We knew hippies and lefties and artists, and their politics rubbed off on my parents. We moved within Chicago and out to the suburbs. My father worked on the Eugene McCarthy campaign in 1968 and the McGovern in 1972. After we moved to the suburbs, my father’s politics started moving to the right. My mother’s stayed liberal. I know that he voted for Reagan and she for Carter in 1980, though he won't admit it.

Ironically, in the 1980 election, the first one I was eligible to vote in, I couldn’t vote: I’d moved to Salt Lake City, Utah just a few weeks before the election. I hadn’t been there long enough to register to vote. Had I voted, though, it would have been for independent candidate John Anderson, like my three roommates did (three college grad students). If I went back in a time machine, though, I’d vote for Carter. More on that another time.

During that time, I was exploring politics. I dabbled in Libertarianism— I liked their support of civil liberties, and the idea of less government. But once I started looking at their literature, I discovered it was mostly just businesspeople who didn’t want to pay taxes.

The first election I voted in, I also worked for a campaign—the 1984 election. I happily campaigned for and voted for Mondale, though I knew he was doomed. I never got the whole Reagan thing. I had a roommate at the time who was a heavy drug user and gay (though closeted—or so he thought), and loved Reagan. I was astounded. Reagan would lock this guy up in a minute for his drug use and was letting gay people die in droves through his failure to move on the AIDS epidemic. When I asked him why he liked Reagan, his reply was “He just makes me feel good.”

Later, I thought I should have replied “So does heroin. Does that make it good for you?”

And of course, over time, discovering what a financial mess Reagan and his cronies left the nation in, I should have added “Heroin is cheaper.”

But I digress. My politics are to the left of the Democratic Party's, in general, but after studying Political Science (Bachelor's, then Master's Degree), I came to realize that in an industrial democracy, a two or three party system is a reality. The parties absorb a range of interests, right and left. One can sit on one's moral high horse and be pure and say that a vote in the two-party system doesn't count, but the fact of the matter is that it does. If Al Gore had been elected in the 2000 elections, the blatant negligence that let 9/11 happen (for instance, the executive branch ignoring FBI agents frantically reporting on Middle Eastern guys taking flight lessons, but not wanting to learn take-offs and landings) and this awful, intractable war wouldn't have happened-- not to mention better environmental policies. There was a difference in the parties.

The fact of the matter is that a representative democracy (a republic) works best for a capitalist industrial society, and that you are, in the end, voting to make sure that those who produce the wealth get a fair share of it, without squelching the economic system that’s producing it, and protecting the rights of the minority from the majority, until the political and economic systems become more just. While I feel the Democratic Party has strayed from that mission at times, it does well when it’s actually fulfilling that mission.

I find it ironic that the Republican Party portrays itself as the fiscally responsible party, when under Reagan and Bush Lite (the current idiot) it’s been the wildly fiscally-irresponsible party. It was under a Democrat, Clinton, that the deficit was knocked off, and all that money that was being used to pay the interest on the money borrowed to finance deficit spending under his predecessors was suddenly available to borrow to open new businesses, buy homes and such.

The pack of idiots in office now are like a third world kleptocracy. And to paraphrase Reagan-- is your life better than it was eight years ago? For the average American, the answer's a resounding no!

A few days ago, Mario Cuomo’s speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention popped up on my itunes shuffle. I’d missed the speech when he originally gave it-- I think I was at work. My father cites that speech as one of the big things that led him back to being a Democrat. I listen to it once in a while to remind myself too.

Anyone who needs reminding, here it is:


5. What was the first music you ever acquired, about how old were you, how/where did you get it, what was the media, and where did you listen to it most?

When I was very young—maybe 4—my parents got ahold of a record player—remember those?—and gave it to my brothers and I. One of our favorite things to play on it was an lp version of “The Jungle Book” that some friend of theirs had given us. In particular, we loved the song “Monkeyshines.” We’d play it over and over again, laughing hysterically, dancing around our room.

The first record I got on purpose (my mother saw me looking at it at Sears and asked if I wanted it) was a collection of the Beatles’ earlier hits—the one with the red cover (there was one with their later hits that had a blue cover—both are on cd now). I just fell in love with the song “Eleanor Rigby” on that record. I loved everything about it—the melancholy imagery, the melody, the harmonies, the string quartet playing in a rock tune. I think that it was, in its way, a political song. And you know I'm all about politics!

Thanks for the great questions!


Anon. Blogger said...

What a great read! I thoroughly enjoyed. (I should, it is what I asked!)

I also learned.

Your responses inspired me for a number of posts. I hope I can get to all of them.

Regardless, I'm so glad I the opportunity to ask!!


Splotchy said...

Very nice Q&A.

As far as your teaching dream, some of my fondest educational experiences took place in 4th grade.

Sounds like a good place to be a teacher.

Natalie said...

That post made me rethink teaching at an elementary school level. HHUUMMM, might be more fun that i thought.

Kathy said...

Interesting interview. I'm glad to see A.B. asked you about your teaching, as I think you write excellent posts about the profession and about the kids you taught. It bums me out that good teachers leave the system for the reasons you cite.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Your dream job - "to teach the 4th grade" Wow.

We need more people like you.