16 November 2011

Teachable moment

I attended Eureka High School, Community Unit School District 140, in Eureka, Illinois from 1982 to 1986. My best subjects were math, French, art, history, and music, but there's one thing I learned while I was there that has stuck with me more than any other piece of knowledge: there was a door on the far left of the front of the building that, if you pulled on the handle firmly and gave the base a swift kick, would pop open every time, allowing you entry after the building was closed at 4:00.

On its own, this piece of information was not that useful—after all, who wanted to be in the school any more than you had to? But with the knowledge of this exploit came a host of implications. The person who showed me this trick was a dedicated student, a good kid. So I learned that good people break rules. If you were going to use this technique you still had to do it in plain sight. So I learned that you can get away with things if you act like you're supposed to be doing them. As time went on, I slowly came to learn that nearly everyone knew about the door, probably even most of the teachers. So I learned what an open secret was, and how all communities have them.

In academic circles the phrase for this sort of thing is a "teachable moment." Often the most important educational moments are unplanned. They arise organically from life experience and deal with large issues: How do you deal with failure? With adversity? Where do you draw a moral line? What's the right thing to do?

I thought about this yesterday when my brother, who also attended Eureka High School and who now writes for the Daily Show, Facebooked a link to a story about a teacher at EHS being suspended for showing segments of Jon Stewart's show to his government and law class. It's unclear what specifically happened because the article is so awful, but I suspect that the teacher warned his students against Googling "Santorum" and some of the district's parents—those lacking a sense of humor—were upset. That piece of information might have been helpful for readers trying to understand the the article, but the Pantagraph reporter did, however, note the teacher's salary, so we could all be incensed by what a boondoggle public education is.

Amidst the predictable comments on the article pages supporting freedom of expression and deploring the teacher's alleged bias, this one, from "teach78" stood out:
Spin it anyway you want; there is no educational "value" in the Daily Show.
teach78 is probably right about this, but there is plenty of educational value in how District 140 dealt with the situation. The best way to handle things is not through private negotiations but through public fiat. A parent's sense of indignation is more important than a man's occupation. Pick the right side or you will be dealt with. These are the lessons that Eureka students will take from this event, and they might stick with them longer than a faulty door.


  1. No educational value in the Daily Show? Couldn't disagree more with teach78. Like some of the other similar programs (Real Time on HBO, The Colbert Report), the Daily Show often says what many of us are thinking, but are afraid to say about issues in the political environment. There is educational value through the use of humor, because truths are brought to light. In fact, I consider these programs to have considerably less spin than, oh say, all of Fox News. If I want to watch something with no educational value, I would watch primetime on one of the major networks (which I don't). Seems that Eureka education is still pretty backwards on some levels. Thank goodness our best thinkers shake the dust of that town off their feet once they graduate. Even the quote on the marquee in the photo speaks volumes - "Sit down, you're rocking the boat." If no one rocked the boat, great things would never happen. Then again, given the most likely strong Republican base in Eureka, this corporate mantra seems apropos.

  2. I should add that I speak from experience; I attended EHS from 1979 to 1983. As one reader in the Pantagraph discussion thread said, maybe the EHS administration should concentrate on teaching other methods of birth control other than abstinence, dealing with the drug/alchohol problem, bullying (which was rampant in my day), etc, instead of witch-hunting teachers that are paid garbage. I feel sorry by the way for the teacher; did the Pantagraph really have to print his salary? Isn't that just slightly above poverty level?

  3. Spin it anyway you want; very few teachers provide any more educational "value" than a book alone could.

  4. BarrettJ, I couldn't disagree more. Any chance you received a public education? =D