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02 Aug

It has indeed been a while since I last wrote. I know, I say that every time. I thought I would have MORE time north of the fifty year mark to devote to spouting my opinions. Alas, I was wrong.

Before I get started, quick shout out to fellow USNA Alumn Kristin Cronic ’11 for her artistic work. Check it out here. And another to CAPT Brett Crozier, USN (ret), USNA ’92 for his great book SURF WHEN YOU CAN. Always good to see the work of fellow alumni.

This wasn’t supposed to be that long of an essay, but I couldn’t stop. As always, fire away with comments, both good and bad…always love to hear from all seven of my fans!


After nine years as a professional educator, I have learned way more knowledge than I have imparted, I am sure.  Most of the preconceptions I had about teaching have long since been debunked, but many unexpected issues have become apparent, and we could and should do a better job of teaching our children.

That’s a mouthful.  Let’s back up…

I went to the US Naval Academy and graduated in 1994.  I then spent the next twenty years in the Navy, retiring as a Commander in 2014.  While on active duty, I was lucky enough to be able to experience teaching on a few levels.  First, when I was in a Seabee unit, I was in charge of the battalion’s education program, and found that I loved teaching our warfare qualification classes.  Second, while in Navy-funded graduate school for an engineering masters degree, I took “Intro to Education.”  This class, where I was almost as old as the teacher and by far the oldest student at thirty-one years old, had me in a sixth grade classroom one day a week for the semester.  While I learned that middle schoolers are a handful, once again I was happy to see that despite the challenges I really enjoyed the experience.  Finally, I was assigned to my alma mater for two years to teach in the Engineering Department.  In addition to my assigned classes, I sought additional teaching experiences in the Weapons Department and the Leadership Department.  This tour of duty only reinforced how much I loved being in front of a classroom.

When it came time to retire, a friend told me about the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program (JROTC).  This unique citizenship and leadership course is taught at the high school level in a military environment, with retired military officers and senior enlisted as the instructors.  The more I looked into it, the more I wanted to try it.  I would work with young people, I would be teaching, the hours were good, and the pay was good for the hours.  Win-win-win and win.

After nine years, I don’t regret that decision at all.  I absolutely love what I do.  Today’s high school youth are challenging, to be sure, but the reward is well worth the effort.  I work longer hours than I expected, but since I love it so much, it doesn’t always feel like work (though there are days!), and it is very rewarding to work so closely with young people.

Unlike a conventional high school teacher, who will see a student one period a day for one or two years out of four, JROTC instructors can have a much deeper connection with their students.  I see many of my cadets before school, in class, at break, at lunch, and after school for team practices.  The ones that really enjoy the program will stay with us for four years.  Two hours every day, plus weekend activities, over the course of four school years adds up to a lot more time than conventional teachers interact with their students. 

This unique opportunity, along with a different perspective that comes with our military backgrounds, gives JROTC instructors a unique insight into the overall education system.  I can’t speak for all instructors, but in my program I interact with all my cadets’ teachers and check all my cadets’ grades every month.  This has given me access to facets of the high school education process outside of my classroom, while also allowing me to track the overall progress of my cadets from start to finish.

There is plenty of good about our education system, at least from what I’ve seen (I’ve worked in two different schools on two different coasts).  There is an incredible amount of hard working teachers who absolutely have the best interest of their students at heart.  There are a lot of well-meaning parents as well, who are engaged with their students and want to work with the teachers to help their child reach their potential.  Finally, there are administrators (principals and the like) who work tirelessly to expand the opportunities and experiences available at their schools. 

And yet it seems that by most metrics the average American student is less capable of performing academic tasks, is more overweight, and is less resilient in the face of crisis than before and compared to a lot of the rest of the developed world. (Don’t take my word for it; search anything related to those three things and you will find plenty of reliable sources that back my statement.) 

So, with so many good things going for it, why are the results not so good, and getting worse?

Like with a lot of society’s ills, there is no one answer.  There are several things impacting our students and resulting in poor performance.

One is our functional approach to education.  We treat our children like eggs on an assembly line; units that were produced around the same time stay together all the way through the system.  This does not account for a student’s personal ability, aptitude, or maturity.  It slows up some students, who then become bored, and it leaves others behind, who then become frustrated.  Neither group gets close to its potential.  Why not instead group children by ability levels, or better yet by a set of standards to be mastered?  When those standards are achieved, they move to the next group, regardless of age.  This would give those that struggle more time with the material, and those who don’t more opportunities for challenge.  I realize this is a HUGE shift, and there are a ton of issues to be worked out, but it is at least worth considering.

Second is our psychological approach.  Plenty of students graduate high school without understanding the material, never mind mastering it.  Why does this happen?  Why is it tolerated?  School administrations and teachers are responsible for providing a safe and effective place to learn, but isn’t it still on the student to do the work?  And yet rather than hold those students and their parents accountable, and perhaps not advance them to the next grade, schools are forced to “cut deals” and offer extra credit to keep the student on track.  Arguably it is done to “protect the student,” but there is an underlying tone of protecting the school’s graduation rate.

Are we really protecting the student?  I have heard the argument that it would be damaging and embarrassing to leave the student behind.  Better to support them and push them through. Really?  I offer this.  Is it more damaging to pass them when they didn’t earn it, or teach them that if they don’t earn something they don’t get it?  What’s going to happen to that student we pushed along to keep them with the other eggs in their year group when they are released from the system and thrown out into the world?  How successful are they going to be with minimal skills and the idea that if they can’t do it someone will just make it easier for them?  It would make more sense to hold them back to learn the material, skills, and work ethic and then move them along.

Add to that a serious lack of discipline in many schools.  Again, why is this tolerated?  .  Either through lack of parental interaction, or due to COVID, or some other reason, many students lack the social skills and self-discipline to function in a cooperative environment that involves a certain degree of respect and decorum.  And because of the “rights of students” and our incredibly litigious society, school administrations and boards feel hamstrung to correct the problem in any effective way.  Discipline problems need to be addressed firmly and immediately, and a student who can not conform should not be allowed to degrade the educational environment of the rest of the school.

What does that look like?  Of course, it’s going to vary from school to school, but there are some basic tenets to consider.  Any naval officer (this one included) knows there are two types of punishment; positive and negative.  I will give you a tip; one size doesn’t fit all!  Some students need to feel some sort of inconvenience (as do their parents) when they are not performing according to the school behavior guidelines.  In short, it doesn’t stick if it doesn’t sting, especially for those students who have been passed through the system with only warnings,.  In-school suspensions, detention with a parent present (or it doesn’t count), working parties to pick up trash, these sorts of things could do a better job of getting our wayward students’ attention.  Yet none of these are used in the school where I currently work, and only one (in-school suspension) was used in my previous school.  Many schools have yet to crack the code on establishing a system of consequences that actually reduces negative behavior.

Previously, I mentioned graduations rates.  Schools must deal with the pressure to maintain high graduation rates; a low graduation rate draws negative attention to the school.  But should it? Couldn’t a low graduation rate also mean that the school is enforcing standards that today’s students have difficulty meeting?  Are we punishing the school, and those students that are meeting the standards, because they are enforcing those same standards and not graduating those that don’t deserve it right now?

Implementing the above changes, along with the continued use of evolving, hands-on teaching strategies will improve the end product; students with a baseline of knowledge and the critical thinking skills with which to apply it.

But there is still more to do.  I have only addressed academic performance.  Technology and other factors have allowed our students to rot on the couch without giving them an understanding of why to be healthy and how to do it.  Health and Physical Education classes are supposed to fill that void, but they don’t. 

I work at a school that provides free breakfast, lunch, and two snacks for every student enrolled every day.  Much of that goes to waste, as many of the students would prefer to visit the food trucks that line up on the curb every day at lunch.  Because we have an open campus (which I will save for a different rant) the students are free to eat at the food truck instead of the healthy (albeit bland) lunch provided by the school.  By the way, this is in a school that has at least 40% of the students qualifying for “free and reduced lunch” due to family incomes, but poor financial choices are another issue for another essay.

Back to the unhealthy eating.  They are young right?  They will just work off those calories in PE class, right?  Well, PE in my school mostly consists of the students walking around the track three or four days a week, in groups with their friends, at their own pace.  I asked one of the PE teachers why that was, and he said that because so few have the skills to play organized sports anymore (throw a ball, catch a ball, etc) or know the rules, they just don’t do it anymore.  He said it made some of the students self-conscious about how unathletic they were (oh no, an embarrassed student, for shame!). To be fair, in my previous school, the PE program was much more rigorous, which highlights just how much things can change from school to school.  But from looking at a lot of high school students over the years, more PE programs seem to be like my current school than the former.

So what? If they want to be unhealthy, that is their choice, and it doesn’t impact the rest of us.  Sorry, that just isn’t true, for at least two reasons.  First, overweight, unhealthy people cost the insurance companies more, and they have to make up that difference somewhere.  As our children’s weight goes up, our insurance premiums follow.  Second, in case you have missed it, we are running out of people physically qualified to do important jobs, like serve in the military.  Only about 30% of today’s applicable population can pass the physical fitness entrance exam, and that’s before you weed out the ones that don’t have any interest in serving.  Recruiting is down across all the services.  Sooner or later, that could really bite us. 

So, let’s group students by ability, hold them and their parents accountable for student performance, and force them to be a bit more active.  Problem solved, right?


We still have one more hurdle to get over.  Our kids are not resilient; they are not mentally tough.  In short, they give up too easily.

Why is that?  From what I’ve seen, there are a few things at play.  First, Mommy and/or Daddy have been fixing all of Junior’s problems his entire life, while at the same time taking care of all his needs and making sure that he doesn’t ever fail or even struggle.  Second, many children have always gotten a trophy or award or been passed through, even for substandard performance.  Third, life is just easier now; both my grandparents left school to work full time and support the family.  In contrast, I got pulled out of school only a few days to help at my father’s store.  My kids won’t have to work until at least college (although I will encourage them to get jobs in high school).   These three things all add up to a majority of students who have never failed, don’t know hardship, and don’t know how to really “suck it up.” 

This, along with the COVID pandemic, has created some serious mental health concerns among our children, concerns that are legitimate and may require professional assistance.  However, also in many cases what is required is a focus on working hard and earning rewards and achievements, not having them handed to you.  Struggle can be good, it makes us better.  LET them struggle with a homework problem before the parent jumps in.  MAKE them talk to the teacher to try to resolve an issue before Mommy and Daddy call.  DON’T bring them their lunch or gym clothes when they forget.  Let them experience failure, and pick them up when they do, so they know it isn’t the end of the world. 

There is a saying:  “Tough times produce tough people.  Tough people produce easier times.  Easier times produce soft people.  Soft people produce tough times.”

We are squarely in the middle of the last two sentences.  I would rather we collectively work to toughen the next generations before things devolve into a chaos that will do it for us. 

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