Regretfully, extreme audio issues could not let us release our podcast for May 13th with Amy Fast Ed. D. Instead, we transcribed it for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
Michael: Hello and welcome to Things Fall Apart, the podcast here at the Human Restoration Project. Today we have Amy Fast on the podcast. Amy is a High School teacher turned assistant principal, advocate for progressive education, instructional coach, and author of It’s the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public Education. An absolutely excellent read. You can find Amy on Twitter @fastcrayon, posting a blizzard of consistently retweetable messages and insights. Amy, it’s great to have you on the podcast.
Amy: Thanks for having me here.
Michael: I’m very excited and I’m actually going to jump right into this book. When I got ahold of you via Twitter and you were down — I was so excited and I saw your book…in general, I try to read whatever a guest would put out. So I snagged yours and it was — I hate to start less humbly — but it was fantastic, I thought it was great. I mean that very much. Chris and I mean a great lot of books regarding education and when I read yours, I guess maybe it was personally what I was looking for in every regard — as far as the ideas behind it, your sort of momentum as a progressive movement. What Chris and I want to do is not just say “destroy all education” and start from scratch or go directly to the notion of SDL centers or homeschooling (even though they’re good ideas), but your book and mission is more of — let’s sink our teeth back into public education.
Amy: Yeah, that’s a good way to frame it. The idea of public education as an equalizer and a way to empower students, society, and it means a lot that you love my book. Mostly because I didn’t write it because I wanted to be an author — but I was in the classroom at the time — and the ideas were those that I was living everyday. And I think sometimes when books get written they happen at the end of someone’s career, and by that time they had been out of the classroom for years or even decades — and the reason this hits home for some is because it was written from the classroom.
Michael: That’s probably one of the most interesting things. I do think the book — and Chris would second this surely — it is so well researched. And a lot of education blogs, magazines, etc. — they lack. Not all — most but not all — it tends to be…and I mean this in the nicest way possible — it’s faddish, there’s a lot of trends. Rarely are there books that have any research behind them. Mostly it’s “hey — if you roll on the floor screaming, kids will pay attention more often.” But yeah, I’m sure that’s true for any situation. When we approached your book — in a good a way it was very collegiately written — almost textbook oriented — I could see it being used for teacher training.
Amy: There actually are some colleges that use it. One of the reasons why it’s so heavy on research is that it started as a part of my doctoral research. I had this burning question and I had to get my hands on enough research to help me answer that question. I needed to know for myself what the purpose of public education should be — and I sort of arrived at it while reading so much historical and current texts and research and ideas. So that’s why it’s fairly research heavy. Even the publisher said to take a lot out of it.
Michael: It’s that because of the way it would look — footnotes, quotes?
Amy: Exactly, it would be “dense.”
Michael: I guess I would be an advocate for the latter. It can’t not be dense. When Chris and I approach this stuff, when we were designing the Human Restoration Project — it is so hard to figure out where to start. I always think, “I have to go back further.” And I’m not sure what’s happening at a certain point. And I feel like and it can’t not be dense. It needs to be, we’re dealing with 100s of years of history and education and I don’t know….I don’t know why someone would see it as a vapid.
Amy: Exactly, and it’s a huge question. It would be egotistical for me to not look at everyone else’s ideas.
Michael: So early in this book, you mention the idea that many high school mandates — and I don’t know if I can intertwine this word — but mandates and mission statements. Many of those — while they are often good intentioned, are rarely good for our children — despite us always saying, “we must do what’s best for our kids.” Do you feel like we’ve simply repeated that phrase so often that we’ve rendered it meaningless — or do you think that many actually believe achieving higher test scores or compliance to standardization is what’s best for our kids.
Amy: I think both are correct. Definitely, it’s something we say often and some would say — it’s to get through what we’re working on — without having to apply anything. We question a lot. In that room, in that meeting — trying to get the bottom of what’s best for kids. And there’s not a simple answer for that question to begin with. And yes, I think I also think and maybe I’m overly naive — I do think that most missions are born from good intentions. I really think [people believe] that if students are doing well academically, then the tasks are a good measure of that — and therefore if they do well on the test, then they’re being well prepared for society.
It’s fearful for people to think of the alternative — to unpack that this might not be true. In large, people think knowledge is power — and so, and if we measure knowledge in reading and math scores — reading and math is therefore power. And those tests must be accurate measures of someone’s knowledge in those areas. Therefore, point A to point B, if they do well on assessments and standards, then they’re doing well. I don’t fault people for thinking this way. I used to get hung up on test scores — it was the measure. It’s easier to not having to reflect and unpack [test measurement.]
Michael: It’s so refreshing to see what could be seen as naivety — instead saying I’d rather see the positive. I’m going to hope that people believe this is what’s best for our kids. I think many progressive educators tend to dig into the negative so quickly. I lean that way often, I don’t trust people sometimes. I think what you’re saying is extremely true, slowly but surely our axium of “what’s best for our kids” has become misconstrued. Why don’t we measure artistic, kindness, generosity? Well, it’s because you can’t — because it’s complex. Or rather, it’s very hard to do. I can’t just give you a test — it’s very easy to assess a math skill based off “can you do these problems?” Once you truly need to assess a human being, you start to realize in-turn, I have no business doing that. Who am I?
Amy: Exactly, [when we get into] some kind of summative measure for a school or district performing — that’s a whole different ball game. All merit tends to fall into standardized testing as success.
Michael: We teach at a fairly progressive school — and we were just discussing the ideas of school grades and what determines it. And I saw something on Twitter — and it’s fairly true — about how there already is a number that determines a school’s grade — and that’s your zip code. And we were just thinking — as a school — how can we change that? I don’t want our students’ test scores to be the metric. And you’ve discussed the notion of expo nights — sharing the work with the public — saying “here’s what actually matters.” It’s extremely complex. I want to agree with you and I do truly hope that people have been blinded and stopped thinking deeply about this — man I get nervous about if people are trying to do what’s best for kids or the bottom line.
Amy: And that’s fair.
Michael: It’s tough to mull over. [So] …I’m fascinated by the quote you chose from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” — this quote speaks volumes about the necessity of wanting to learn or rather the why we should learn as opposed to consistently focusing on the how. As an administrator, how do you encourage such a frame of mind amongst educators?
Amy: Yeah, I don’t know if I could give practical strategies for how to bring that mindset. Every day, every minute — I’m finding the pieces of wood to build the ship. We take a lot of steps to make the bottom line. The prize is more than just a test score — or competition between schools. We try to have conversations with kids, keeping in mind what the real mission is and know that my mission is not necessarily the same as those [higher up]. I need to help remind students of their purpose.
Most people got into this field with a more noble purpose than just raising student scores. When we try to bring that purpose to all of our conversations and work, the work doesn’t feel so hard — not as taxing — it isn’t as much as a burden. I can’t take a bunch of teachers’ place — they’re already overworked — but I can at least inspire them to do what they do best.
Michael: I think it’s currently pinned on your Twitter feed. Yes, the kids are so important — that’s the whole point of this. They’re our customers — they’re our goal. But you often mention they’re extremely important, if we don’t treat our teachers well — give them mental breaks and rest — then it’s all for naught.
You seem like a very present administrator — you’re always around…an administrator who tries to make themselves available and “gets in there” with their teachers.
I would argue that not many schools lack a rather moving and powerful mission statement: usually something along the lines of preparing students for the 21st century or creating life-long learners. Either way, not many would argue against these sorts of mission statements. However, as you’ve stated, these mission statement will forever remain unsuccessful if all individuals involved are not “driving in the same direction.” These seems a common issue in many schools, that while yes, there is a mission statement, not everyone is abiding by it or potentially doesn’t fully understand it. How would you suggest schools go about ensuring that all individuals truly are driving in the “right” direction?
Amy: I don’t know if I have the “silver-bullet” answer. You mentioned mission statements and “21st century learners”, “life-long learners” — why wouldn’t we want those? They sound noble, but really they’re just a means to an end. Why do we want students to be engaged? Why do we want life-long learners? Sometimes we need to take a step back and question, why do we want that? You’re likely going to land on something that everyone wants.
Our mission statement, “ignite passions, pursue purpose, rise to your work.” And we talk about that all the time whenever we interact with students. When we’re dealing with discipline, STEM classes, choir — there’s all sorts of implications. We want students to be passionate — have a purpose for learning and being there. It’s really hard when someone doesn’t buy into that piece of it. Even though my ideal of having all educators driving in the same direction — I don’t know if that’s doable — but I think it’s irresponsible to not try to create that in society.
Right now we have a critical mass of educators who are demoralized by our current mission: because…what is it? College-career readiness? What’s the “why”? That’s like telling a second grade teacher is your mission in teaching is to get kids to the third grade. You know — it’s the next part of the ladder.
Michael: Technically that’s all they think they’re doing. It reminds me a lot of kids who ask around their junior, senior year: what is the point of what I’m doing? Is it always just to get to the next step?
I like that a common theme of your rhetoric is always looking back further. It’s less about moving the same direction, but why would we move in that direction to begin with? I wonder how many educators or administrators think to themselves: everything is passion drive, student-centered…but do they think about why? Because currently college-career readiness — what does that even mean? Why are we doing it? I guess I’ve never thought about.
Amy: And I know that’s kind of the big — existential — philosophical question. I know how emotional taxing it is. If you don’t have that kind of feeling in your work — that it truly matters - or is this a noble purpose. It’s so easy to burn out in this profession — so easy to take what’s handed to you and teach it to the best of your ability — and lose sight of your potential impact if you were able to invest in what in you think was best for students. I think it’s such hard work — if you don’t feel like it matters — we see it in our kids in our classes everyday: those who live in poverty, who are socially maladjusted — constantly looking for better math scores. Working to have students being better human beings does not need to be mutually exclusive. That’s what really demoralizes teachers, is continually aiming towards targets that feel arbitrary towards someone not in the classroom — when a human being in front of them needs so much more.
Michael: And I wonder oftentimes if you start telling teachers — especially those who have been there a long time — don’t forget we need to teach the whole child — we need to understand the impact of AI and robotics…trying to examine our mission and saying we need philosophical thinkers and innovators. I see those teachers who have been around a long time saying — they agree, but they wonder to themselves, is the bottom line dependent upon who can pass my class? Unless we federally agree on this mission on what school should be — it needs to be spoken about or nothing will be solved.
Amy: And that’s the thing. What I’m hoping for is not necessarily to arrive at something: but to allow ourselves to have this conversation and not be so fearful of it. Almost everything you do is a knee jerk reaction to what’s going in society at the time — usually based on the economy — we’re constantly using public schools to improve our economy, and that’s an oversimplsitic means to choose our practices and initiatives.
I’ve talked before about how we need people in the STEM industry. If we need more STEM jobs, more industry in that area, then we’re going to ask our public schools to invest more in math and science, then test them more, and that will fix the problems. But we don’t even look at …. it’s so overly simplistic … most STEM employees that are most successful have degrees in the arts and humanities. It’s not that math and science skills made them successful — it was their passion for what they do. We’re assuming that technical or academic skills leads to success. And that’s a gross oversimplification of success.
Michael: Absolutely, I’m fascinated with the AI field. There’s a multifaceted component to what you’re saying: not only are we oversimplifying heading towards an AI or automated society — but also people think they’re preparing their kids for the future. What future are you talking about? How can you prepare someone for the future when someone doesn’t know what it is? The fact that we think — so many schools — we’ll prepare our kids for the future. Who would argue against that? But in reality, we’re not. We’re preparing students for a future that was 5 years old.
Amy: We must assume that people who come up with these missions know something we don’t.
Michael: Exactly. Which is why when we talk about mission statements, when need to seek out help from the Illuminati. Or let Elon Musk do everything. The idea that we’re preparing kids for the future in STEM — not only is that oversimplifying — but it’s also completely dead wrong.
Alex Tegmark — I bring him up every podcast — who wrote Life 3.0, they’re saying that the worst thing you could do in school is making tougher math and science standards, because you’re only teaching the “how” but not the “why.” And they’re saying what kids need nowadays is humanities — people who can think freely, openly — the arts. Things that humans innately can do. And also, teachers — we can learn from the Internet, but it’s not as adaptive and entertaining as a human being.
In your book you narrate a well orchestrated and concise picture of the history of the traditional American school culture from the late 19th century to today. Why do you believe this is important for others to understand when discussing progressive education and revolutionizing the ultimate mission statement of a ubiquitous purpose of education?
Amy: I can’t — it feels irresponsible — to say what should happen in public education without looking at what’s been done. Our public schools are pretty young…I tried a lot of things. Contrary to popular belief — a lot of times it actually works. There’s a positive and negative each time. We need to look at what we’ve tried and what has worked, and what hasn’t in the past. We’ve never really tried anything for that long. We rode this pendulum back and forth over the course of American history. At some point, we need to get off and tap our own course for what we want in schools.
It’s interesting because I talk about the movement from progressivism to traditionalism — we keep trying to get “back on track” — we lean too far, we start feeling the burdens — so we go back too far in the other direction. I want to stop that pendulum from swinging — so we need to find out why it swings. Instead of trying to right some knee jerk reaction to fix problems now — throwing everything at our teachers — people are unhealthy, our economy needs improved, every new thing at teachers to fix what’s wrong with society. It would be nice to look at what’s best for our society by looking at what’s best for every individual student.
Even though I’m a social reconstructionist — which means I believe the purpose of public schools it to impact society at large. I believe the way to do that is through each individual student. I don’t think we’ll be able to create systems and program to solve that. I think that the work we haven’t tried in history is empowering our educators — and really focusing on the humanity in our professions. I’m a fan of Sir Ken Robinson — he talks about an organic and human endeavor to invest our energy to create humans that thrives, and in-turn society that thrives. No one wants to hear that answer because no one can just sign legislation and roll out a program that makes that work. It takes work “in the weeds” and it involves trusting educators through grassroots movements. Really digging into how teachers and students believe we can help everyone succeed. That’s something we haven’t yet tried as a country. It’s important to know where we’ve been to determine the best way to move forward.
Michael: I wonder, as a side note: do you ever feel like a major issue with current education practices is the “powers that be” tend to be reactionary, rather than “letting things marinate” — so to speak?
Amy: Yes, I’m pretty guilty of that as well. I like trying things and I can be extremely impatient. We don’t let anything simmer long enough in public schools to see if they’re effective. Certainly not the entire length of K-12. We really don’t know what’s worked for individual students — they haven’t experienced these initiatives K-12.
Michael: Understanding that history is so important — it’s in your book and it makes so much sense. It is so necessary. There are so many parents, of course — when I start talking about progressivism — I am probably one of the most annoying people in our school — always wanting to push limits — and I feel like no one everyone disagrees with what I’m saying. It’s usually met with hesitance, “why would I ever do this stuff?” I feel like if more people could have a concise understanding of how we got to how we are today — if they read the ideas of Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn, Ted Dintersmith, High Tech High — very openly and creative ideas — they would realize these ideas are so akin to those in the late 19th century.
I think your pendulum idea is perfect. It swung one way, and so quickly — Horace Mann swung it so far the other way to industrialize — get this factory line going. If more parents and administrators saw that — the “why” would materialize. This is why we need to be different — because we’re treating our children the same as when we had to make our own paper.
Amy: Right, it’s this whole notion. People say all the time, “history repeats itself.” It’s not like we’re in a different spot we haven’t been before. We tried this before. We’ve experimented in this way — and it’s already proven that there’s certain repercussions.
Michael: Yeah, absolutely — I really do believe there’s something extremely valuable to understand that history. Less people would say, “well it worked for me! Look, I’m doing fine!”
Amy: It’s sort of short-sighted when you don’t have the historical context. When you don’t have the evidence to back it up. The theme of this chat — you do work in the much bigger picture. I was a little worried that that part of the book would bore people — I tried to keep it concise.
Michael: When Chris and I were looking to create a basic version of this — a picture book idea — you could easily write a tome.
Amy: It was really hard trying to synthesize all of that. It’s so intricate of an institution. It’s tricky.
Michael: In reality, what I want to say is…everyone shut up — you’re wrong. What is one saying, “what does it matter if children are happy?” Like — look at the history of how we got here. It’s disgusting. I feel like after the historical portion of the book, you don’t need the rest of it. Why are we teaching the way that we’re teaching….about 95 years ago — a guy was like, “hey, if we control everyone, then they’ll work for us for little pay.” And it’s not a conspiracy.
Amy: It’s actuality.
Michael: We used to teach Native Americans and make sure they’re assimilated. Some of the quotes — paraphrased — destroy the Indian, save the man — we need to beat the culture out of these people. That’s how we got here! This is why the history is important. Everyone is so wrong — there’s no goodness to a lot of this. Prove that it’s right. Look at the vast history. It was funded by industrialists, the Prussian model — one that said that our citizens don’t agree with us — so let’s make them compliant and obedient.
So now this is all down and in your book, and people read it, and people are like, “yeah, but it worked for me!” So what is your threshold for “it worked”? Because you’re not dead or in jail? That’s why it worked?
Amy: Right, and I guess that’s a great thing writing about history. I’m no longer handpicking research that supports me. History is history — you can look it up yourself. I think it speaks for itself.
Michael: A part of me is then like — well it’s history, so someone had to have seen it — but people don’t know, “why do we have bells.”
So to change this topic: you talk about the need for and importance of mental and physical health of our teachers. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of advocacy for that — I’m sure there is — when you get on your PLNs or Facebook, the Internet — it tends to be mostly, “kids kids kids kids kids.” And that’s true, but I do like a huge platform for you is mental and physical health of teachers. So, what suggestions, thoughts or plans would you have for other schools looking to bolster or put into practice tomorrow?
Amy: Well — your virtual self is always better than your actual self. I’m probably the worst person to answer this question. I self-medicate by drinking so much — I work myself to exhaustion and so…I don’t know if I have credibility to answer this question. And yet, I don’t know if this is being a woman or just how I lean as an educator — I do try to take care of the people I work with. We work hard at our school to A) recognize teachers and the work that they do. Even though it’s not taking anything off of your plate, when you feel validated, you feel inspired and the work matters. It doesn’t feel as debilitating. And B) it’s important to treat our teachers the way we want them to treat their students. Give them a break when they’re experiencing high levels of stress. Or allow them to be human when they need to be — they can’t be heroes everyday.
This profession is too important to not bring your A-game. And I wholeheartedly believe that. And I think a part of bringing your A-game is we need to allow ourselves to be fully-human, and vulnerable, and if you need to put a movie in on Monday because you’re about to lose your shit, then do it! You know what I mean? And maybe your kids need that too. The best thing I can do as an administrator is to keep it real with me about their needs and when they’re struggling. When they don’t want to do this work anymore — when they’re going through the motions — I want them to tell me “I’ve lost that passion, Amy.” I want them to feel like they’re not going to be in trouble for thinking that way.
We do a lot at our school to promote wellness, and a lot of it is grassroots that teachers start. Creating a culture — having administrators that create a culture — to keep it real, to be human, to be vulnerable — to talk about what they need at any given time.
Michael: I feel like that’s so absolutely invaluable information and advice. How often the idea of the teacher on a pedestal — or the infallible teacher — how often we feel like if a kid asks me a question I don’t know — if claims that I’m wrong — you feel defensive. Or as you just said — if I don’t have my A-game, or put on a fake persona, then I’m not going to be a perfect whatever I am. Chris and I always talk about bringing vulnerably into your classroom, and if kids see that, it’s an instantaneous 180 — the trust levels that you build, the rapport that will happen when a kid sees and says, “you look realllly tired.” You know — like you said as well — but when an administrator (and I’m thinking of a closed-office administrator) decides to take a walk around — and you’re showing a movie. You jump and exclaim, “oh god! I’m not engaging everyone right now!” and differentiating ALL my instructions — it’s horrific to think a teacher or human needs to think that way.
The idea of knowing you’re a person is okay.
Michael: Believe it or not, I think that is a silver bullet.
Amy: I think I’ve been able to loosen-up, I’m a more is more person. Not a less is more person. I know I’m going to have some seasons when I have 5 hours of sleep a night, work too hard, eat crap food — I know that will follow by a season of life when work takes a back-burner for a second. Where I need a break. I need to fully be engaged in whatever season of life I’m in, knowing not just to stay there — where I am stagnant in place. That helps me — if I have to continually strive for balance everyday, I will never be balanced,
Michael: That’s great advice. Tomorrow’s going to be a new day.
This question may be unanswerable — or tends to be — and side note: I’ve only touched on iceberg-ish or only a small section of this book — maybe the first chapter — later on you mention the need for alternative education that brings humanity into the classroom — straying from the “one size fits all” and moving toward a more “multifaceted and personal process.” Why do you believe many find this transition difficult or potentially not worth making?
Amy: You know I think it’s tricky because we want to know that the work is doable and when we adapt the mindset: it’s a new horizon and we don’t know if we can control it. As a legislator, administrator, superintendent, I can’t control or easily measure that work. And so that is investing a lot of trust in educators and that’s an initiative we’ve never tried. We want to, even me, if I can implement a system that feels more doable — more control — something that’s easy — a silver bullet — but it’s not simple.
I think it’s Danny Steele who said, “no program or system in a school will ever exceed the passion of the people implementing it.” We put all our eggs in a systemic basket at the expense of those who implement it. I think that’s why people shy away from investing in humanistic work — because it’s hard, tricky to wrap your head around, you cannot control it. I think it’s worth the risk because of the historical context, and what do we have to lose?
Michael: I agree completely — I feel the same way when I talk to you as when I read your book — “Yeah, I love it!” but then also, “Why is it not like this?” It’s a double-edged sword. To wrap this up — people should follow you @fastcrayon…I think the school you work for must be very lucky to have you there, and your book is of utmost importance. I look forward to talking more people about touching this ethereal construct on what it means to have a ubiquitous mission that isn’t simply test scores being high — something that’s more valuable and why. So again, I appreciate you so much for coming on and sharing these ideas.
Amy: Thank you.