Putting Context Into Context

CBS News January 22 1973

I used to be a radio news reporter and talk show host. I worked on Cape Cod in the mid 1970s. Walter Cronkite once sent me a fan letter. He would listen to me while he sailed in the waters off his summer home in Martha’s Vineyard.

Getting a fan letter from Walter Cronkite was, as you might imagine, pretty heady stuff for a twenty-two year old who grew up watching him nearly every evening.

As nice a place as Cape Cod is, it is a small radio market; I was not making much money even though my talk show had fantastic ratings. I would regularly apply for jobs in bigger markets. I would get invited to send in tapes of my broadcasts and, if the station were nearby, I’d get invited for a visit and interview.

I never got hired.

I had a hard time figuring out why not. After all, I was good. Walter Cronkite was a fan. WALTER CRONKITE! He was MY FAN!

Of course I never mentioned that in the job interviews, but this thought always popped into my mind when I got the rejection letters.

“If I’m good enough for Walter Cronkite, how can I not be good enough for this job?”

What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that I was a fantastic radio news reporter, anchor and talk show host on WCOD-FM in Hyannis. That was my most favorable context and that’s where Mr. Cronkite was my fan. I apparently was not as good in Framingham, Boston or Worcester, Massachusetts, Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh or all the other contexts I hoped to move into.

Cut to about ten years later.

Walter Cronkite and his wife, Betsy, sit down at the bar I manage. He orders a single malt whisky; I forget what Mrs. Cronkite ordered. I introduce myself and told him how much I treasure the letter he’d sent me. He asks me what station I’m on and I tell him I am the manager of the bar. We chuckle, I introduce my wife and he his, and I leave them to enjoy their drink.

I managed that bar for eighteen years before it closed.

I had a sterling reputation in the business so I got offers. I worked in one place for four months, the next for three and the last for a bit over two.

I was a creative and enlightened manager of North Star Pub for 18 years. That was the right context for me. I was the wrong person for the three jobs that followed, and they were the wrong jobs for me.

The students I teach are labeled hyperactive, learning disabled, behavior challenged, emotionally disabled.

But the more time I spend with these students I see that, in most cases, there’s not really anything wrong with them; they are intelligent, talented, creative and, mostly, articulate, just not in the ways compatible with the context in which they have to function.

Because of that contextual incompatibility they are called lazy, made to feel stupid, led to think of themselves as damaged in some way that separates them from other students their age.

I wish I could tell them to change their surroundings, change their context. Unfortunately, their context is called school, and attendance is mandatory.

So I make a promise to my students. I promise them that if they can manage to get through school they will have the tools to find the context that is right for them.

I know it is true. I wish they believed me.

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14 Responses to Putting Context Into Context

  1. Kelly Hines says:

    You do an excellent job of weaving these stories of your own life into an analogy of what so many of our students struggle with on a daily basis. Great job!

  2. Deven Black says:

    Thank you, Kelly. The more I write the more I see aspects of my students in myself; its a revelation I did not anticipate.

  3. Lucia Meyerson says:

    Of all your blogs so far, think I’ve read almost all of them, this is my favorite! I’ve learned so much about you, your passions and your convictions. If context validates us, how can we (children especially) be recognized if we are not fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive context? It’s an issue that shapes who we are, who we become.
    The Cronkite video was one of a kind. Thanks.

  4. Ira Socol says:

    It’s funny. I was a great NYPD cop, except if I had ever been asked to work in uniform in Manhattan. There I would have been expected to wear the right tie, the right shoes, a hat! – and perhaps carry legit ammunition. And I would have needed to be polite to people all the time. Now in north Brooklyn, or The Bronx, or undercover, or even in an office creating crime tracking databases, I could be who I was AND be successful in my career.

    In my current “role” – I am good at everything except at playing the academic game and functioning within the semester context. Does this mean I don’t have the knowledge for a PhD?

    Everybody has places and contexts which work for them or against them. Those that make the rules about the contexts – rich, white, Protestant, typically-abled, text-preferring, straight-line thinking in the school context – can not understand how others of us struggle simply because of arbitrary structures.

    But if I ask Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel to perform their next news conference as an interpretive dance – only Rahm will be OK. Duncan will fail and will think he’s been wronged. Unfortunately, Duncan still won’t get it.

  5. nancylstewart says:

    Deven-As you know, I am on vacation so I will not respond as thoroughly as I’d like. But this post really strikes a chord with me as a special ed teacher and a parent of a non-traditional learner (as well as a very tradional one.) The question it begs: How do we change the context for students who do not learn in the traditional (current school) way? Do we really have to tell them to just push through till they get out so it will be better? I’d like to think of a better way. -Nancy

    • Deven Black says:

      One of my great frustrations with charter schools and other so-called education reforms is that they offer a relatively minor contextual nudge where a major change of context is required. Small thinking begets small results.

      • Ira Socol says:

        So much energy is wasted on changing management rather than on changing our idea of what school is. Charter advocates, “system reformers,” all miss the point.

  6. Paula Naugle says:

    It is sad that the best we can offer your students and so many others in this country is the promise that better days lie ahead if they can just manage to stay the course and graduate from school.

    Those of us who believe we are innovative educators are still having to work within the framework of standards, benchmarks, and grade level expectations. We are trying to keep our students more engaged by integrating technology. Is that the best we can offer? I truly hope that all of my students can find they context.

    By the way, I shed quite a few tears this weekend as I watched several tributes to Walter Cronkite. I grew up with him visiting our living room each night. He is linked to all the big news events that happened in my childhood and young adult years. And that’s the way is was.

    Thank you for keeping me thinking about how I can make my classroom the “context” for all of my students.

  7. Michael J says:


    Imagine if you managed a classroom the way you managed a bar. Make everyone comfortable, listen to the stories, keep an eye out for potential disruptions and intervene quickly and effectively without threatening the warm feelings in the room.

    Be ready to intervene, only if necessary, when a heated dispute about politics or sports or whatever threatens to get out of hand.

    As a teacher the difference might by as simple as active moderating in the service of new learning, instead of in the service of keeping people coming back to the bar.

    The reality is that most education designed by “professionals” doesn’t work at the bottom of the pyramid. It never did. It probably never will. It’s certainly not venality or stupidity or laziness. It’s a mindset that no longer explains the world.

    If “professional” economists have gotten everything wrong, why should one accord respect and status to education “professionals” who, based on the evidence have gotten it all wrong on education.

    To Ira, what might it mean to manage a classroom using the same principles as managing a community? As I understand it, a great policeman knows his/her community. Understands how to intervene quickly and quietly at the first sense of trouble, so that everyone can have a day without fear.

    Consider the fear in the heart of the bottom of the pyramid kid. How can they be expected to learn when they are afraid.

    What exactly does a PhD mean when the PhD informed education system clearly does not work at the bottom of the pyramid.

    Blame the kids. Blame the customers. Blame the parents. Blame the community. Blame the government. It’s much easier to blame someone than to be able to admit that all the certificates and learned mindsets are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    • Deven Black says:

      Interesting comment about managing my classroom as I managed the bar. Whenever I get asked how I deal with teaching the students I do I respond,”I used to manage a bar. Its almost the same except that no matter how crazy my students may get, they are sober.”

      Of course, it is not that simple. While I do try to run my classroom using many of the same skills as managing the bar, while I try to create a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, and while I try to shelter my students from the pressures put on them elsewhere, I do have to function in a typical urban middle school. The students do take the standardized high-pressure high-stakes exams, do get grades, and do have to apply to high schools.

      The other major difference is one I alluded to in the post; my customers could come and go at will, my students can’t.

      While I understand the reasons why school is mandatory, and am aware that for many students school is the safest, most supportive location in their lives, I increasingly realize that for some students it is that sense of having no other choice that interferes with their learning. There are far too many similarities between school and juvenile detention facilities for some of my students to be comfortable.

      While I am not impressed with anyone’s PhD and have resisted advice that I pursue one, I do not believe certificates and degrees or the people who have them as the main force interfering with the reconceptualization of our education system. The barrier is far more widespread. It is that the vast majority of Americans went to schools like we have today and emerged thinking they were well educated or, if not, it was their own fault for goofing off or something.

      If people believe that they type of system that educated them is good enough for their children, the response to difficulties in education is to tweak the system, not trash it and start over. The result is precisely the type of education discussion going on today, one that is focused on individual teachers, the least powerful unit of the education juggernaut.

      • Michael J says:

        I think you you’ve got it just right when you say ” my customers could come and go at will, my students can’t.” and “There are far too many similarities between school and juvenile detention facilities.”

        Since I retired I’m focused on the “attendance” problem at the bottom of the pyramid high schools.

        I think that the most productive way to frame the problem is that the kids are in fact voting with their feet. They don’t show up.

        If you indulge this metaphor, it turns the problem upside down. Why is one bar successful and another not successful? What is the difference between WalMart and the family owned business?

        To be clear, I’m not on the side of what has been mischaracterized as the “touchy feely” approach. In a bar at the end of the day there has to be money in the till. In a school at the end of the day the kids have to be on the road to being life long learners and good citizens.

        The necessary, but not sufficient, condition for life long learners or a profitable business is that the students/customers have to show up. If they don’t nothing else is going to help.

        Some kids show up because they look forward to school. There is very little a teacher can do to stop them from learning. Some kids show up because it’s the cultural norm maintained by their parents and family culture. Those can often find things that are interesting and get themselves on the right path.

        But the 50% of students who don’t graduate from our high schools, don’t show up and when they do their minds are someplace else. Since learning has to be voluntary, almost any intervention is only going to work in very rare cases.

      • Deven Black says:

        The following immediately came to mind when I read your comments.

        In my second year of teaching the special education director at the elementary school in which I was working called me in for a conference and made the following startling statement:

        “You’re too intelligent to be an elementary school special education teacher.”

        She went on to say that I should probably be working in a high school and that the advantage of doing so is that,

        “The only students who show up are the ones who want to be there to learn.”

        I am one of what seems to be the few teachers who understand that people, especially young people, are constantly learning whether or not they’re in school. The difference between learning inside school and learning outside school is that in school someone else sets the priorities and there is deliberate focused instruction. Learning outside of school is likely to be more arbitrary or deliberate but idiosyncratic, having the freedom to explore tangents at will. Once school is no longer mandatory, such as in high school, the only reason to show up is that the value of the learning and interactions you have there is higher than the value of the learning and interactions you would have if you weren’t in school.

        My own high school record will testify that I’m one of those who found far more value out of school than in it. While my education was more haphazard it was not totally without direction, and it allowed me to synthesize and make evaluations in ways I could not if I were in a classroom.

        To continue your analogy between teaching school and a bar or restaurant, it is important to note that potential customers of a restaurant have many other options for a meal, including other restaurants, the hot dog stand on the corner, eating at home and not eating at all. Until a student reaches high school age he does not have any options. His parents may decide to send him to a public, private, parochial or home school, but the student usually has little say in the decision. The mandatory attendance requirement of school makes the restaurant analogy invalid except that a student can be happy about attending if he feels doing so has value and is worthwhile.

        Once the student has choice he, as you say, can vote with his feet. We try to teach students high-level thinking skills like evaluation, and then we ignore what they are telling us when they do so. That so many vote to go somewhere other than school is strong testimony that our schools are not providing the value to students they once were. This is why making school mandatory to a higher age will not solve the problem it seeks to. Forcing someone to go to school when they don’t want to does not create an atmosphere conducive to focused learning.

        I don’t necessarily see the failure to attend high school as a problem, though I suppose it is if the goal is to keep youths off the streets. School has always had a warehousing role. Even so, it might be more valuable to think of the failure to attend high school as an opportunity to change school to make it more valuable to students while, at the same time, acknowledging that the number and types of opportunities for learning outside of school also needs to be assessed, discussed and modified to refine the lessons available.

        Of course, being 55 years old, I have absolutely no idea how to make high schools more valuable to teenage children. You will have to ask them.

  8. The Goldfish says:

    This is a excellent post! No brain to say more than that.

  9. Michael J says:

    We agree. And what you describe is consistent with what I think I’ve seen in bottom of the pyramid high schools.

    For some context:
    I’m 62. Spent 35 years running a small family printing business. Like you I learned how to maintain focus on the customer’s needs because that was the only way you can stay in business.

    I think the way it works is that formal education was never designed to teach “problem” kids. Formal education was designed first to time and obedience train an unruly agricultural workforce. The rigid structure is not an accident. The system evolved to do it’s job very well. If learning happened within the time and power constraints that was an additional benefit.

    IQ tests, grades and good attendance identified the ones that would probably succeed as intellect workers.
    The others, once they had been time and power trained would fit into most blue collar and small business jobs.

    Now that the economy has changed and the needs of the bottom of the pyramid kids has been brought to the fore, that evolved model is broken. Blue collar jobs in the developed countries have disappearing. The requirements for a small business are much higher. Being an intellect worker for middle management is now disappearing.

    So teachers are being asked to do something that the school system is not organized to do. That, in my opinion, is the key to understanding why improvements don’t scale. There are so many examples of great teachers doing amazing things. But somehow it doesn’t percolate up.

    The advantage of business is that we had immediate feedback on what is working and what has to be fixed until it does work. But in a formal school situation there is no feedback. The slower the feedback, the slower the learning.

    The problem is compounded by adminstrators who haven’t been able to make the transition for sorting to making learning happen. Since they have been judged a success for an entire career for doing exactly what they were trained to do. It’s very similar to the problems faced by the top executives at Bear Stern or AIG.

    The opportunity is that if attendance is seen as a proximate indicator of the learning experience as seen from the kid’s/customer’s point of view, it will give the teachers and admins at least one blunt, but real time indicator of the success in a classroom.

    But, if attendance keeps being framed as the student’s problem instead of the school’s problem, it’s going to be harder and harder to separate what works from what doesn’t. Innovation will continue to happen. But the costs in terms of teacher time is too high to be able to move quickly through the system.

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