When In the Course of Human Events…and Cheese

July 2021

As a self-proclaimed wordsmith, I appreciate the forensics involved in finding the roots of words, their backstory, if you will. When I can take a word or phrase and break it down, find its origins, and analyze how its meaning has changed throughout the course of history, I feel smarter somehow. 

Let’s take the phrase, “the course of history” for example. According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, there are five basic meanings for the word, course. It can be defined as: the act or action of moving in a path from point to point; the path over which something moves; an accustomed procedure or normal action; a number of lectures or other material dealing with a subject; or a part of a meal, served one at a time. My personal definition of the word  history is simple. History is the history of the past. 

As a teacher, my job is to present the stories of the past through multiple perspectives. I’m not there to teach my opinions. I’m there to help my students inform themselves and, in due course, form their own opinions. Being an American grants me the freedom to share my opinions out loud, but I try to keep my personal thoughts on some of the more divisive topics out of the classroom. In the classroom, my role is to support, engage, and facilitate learning and curiosity.

In Redefining the Role of Teacher: It’s a Multifaceted Profession, an article published in Edutopia‘s issue celebrating The George Lucas Educational Foundation, Judith Taack Lanier credits Mark Ulriksen in her discussion of how America is redefining my job.

In 1997, when this article was written, I was just beginning my career as a classroom teacher. Lanier writes that there were many teaching professionals at that time who were rethinking every part of their jobs. I wasn’t one of them.

In 1997, I was brand-new to the profession and trying to figure out how “the system” even worked. Back then, I didn’t have much history as a teacher, no timeline to reflect on or to learn from. I came to teaching from a marketing job in New York City, a job in what people refer to as “Big Business.” To me, working in education held the promise of a different life, tucked safely away from the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of Corporate America.

Today, twenty-four years after Lanier’s article was published, I most certainly am one of those teachers who is constantly re-thinking things. But today, teaching and I have a long history behind us. We had an amazing, change-the-world honeymoon period. It lasted for over a decade. The main course of middle-age, however, has now been served. And the food is getting cold. Education is Big Business, no matter where I am seated. And that fact is leaving a really bad taste in my mouth.

Looking back, my dream of putting the rat race behind me was quite naive. According to the Grammarist, the expression rat race refers to “a group of laboratory rats racing through a maze. In this case, the rats are at the mercy of the experimenter and the degree of difficulty designed into the maze.​​” 

I feel like that rat sometimes. And it seems like the people who designed the maze have never actually tried to find their way through it (I could definitely go off on a tangent about plexiglass right now, but I’ll choose not to).

At the end of the maze is the prize…the cheese. Good cheese is expensive, and it can take years to age and curate properly. It is aged in two main ways; by surface ripening, which focuses on treating the visible, outside surface of the cheese, and by interior ripening, aging the cheese from the outside in, so the magic is somehow processed through the cheese. Different aging processes, different cheese. 

Surprisingly, life at school has a lot in common with the art of making cheese. Like teachers, “Cheese-makers can make subtle tweaks to the aging process that have a big impact on the final flavor of their cheese.” Just ask the experts in Wisconsin. 

Maybe we need to start at the surface of Big Education and chart a new course. We can use the quantitative data presented to the pubic at its surface-level and meticulously analyze how all the money bookmarked for our children is actually being spent.

If I had the money to hire a forensics accountant years ago, when I was going through a divorce, I would have hired one. The top forensic accountants in New Jersey are paid about $55 an hour. The average teacher in New Jersey is paid between $16 and $21 an hour, depending on the number of years they’ve been teaching. I didn’t have that kind of  money to spend.

It seems public school systems are in a similar predicament. There is no money to pay for an objective analyst, an educational forensics accountant, to make sense of the flawed data. 

If we ever want to get out of this mess, we need to find creative, alternative solutions. Maybe starting at the surface is a good place to begin. And let’s get the kids involved. Let’s show them what a forensic accountant does in real life. They can earn college credits for their work in the field, and we won’t have to pay anybody $55 an hour!

The course materials will be free, consisting of unrestrained access to every single piece of documentation that reflects current school spending. Course materials will include, but are not limited to, all budgeting spreadsheets, bidding contracts, receipts for all accounts payable and receivable, copies of all written checks or on-line transactions and bank statements, philanthropic donation information, and printed versions of all public communications regarding the financial state of the school district or municipality in which the student is currently enrolled…and a calculator.

We can put S.T.E.A.M. into action, inviting state-run high schools, colleges, and universities, to offer all students access to this specialized, collaborative course in Educational Forensic Accounting 101. 

S ~ Forensics, the scientific analysis of physical evidence 

T ~ Access to on-line data, related articles, and latest research 

E ~ Application of science and mathematics in the design and manufacture of complex products (school systems are pretty complex!)

A ~ Artists of the everyday responding to trends or discrepancies found within course content

M ~ Do the numbers add up? Are there more fiscally responsible ways to spend tax dollars? 

It’s a simple idea on the surface. Money in. Money out.

Our students will enlarge their critical thinking skills, working collaboratively to identify some of the disparities and trends that are currently sucking the system dry. 

They won’t be paid to analyze and submit their final analysis of Big Education’s best practices. Our forensic accountants in training will earn credits as they use primary documents to dissect the current state of affairs. Maybe they could even earn dual credits from their school’s Criminal Justice Department if they discover anything that looks really questionable or is worth noting in the books.

Kids are quite amazing when they are given the chance. Perhaps they can help us navigate the maze, while simultaneously becoming vested in their own future. One thing’s for sure. The next generation would bring fresh eyes and a very different skill-set to the table. When in the course of human events, they are the ones who are uniquely qualified to see things more objectively, more creatively than whomever is currently in charge of checks and balances. 

Cheese needs to be aged properly. Big Education doesn’t make a habit of giving progress the time it needs to ripen. It just keeps changing the course of the maze.

It’s been almost a quarter of a century since Redefining the Role of Teacher: It’s a Multifaceted Profession was written. Where the hell is the cheese?

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