Q & A With Justin Minkel, Part 1

Not long ago teacher leader Justin Minkel proposed that we have a conversation through our blogs. In the first round, I sent him some questions, the answers to which you’ll find below and in my next post. He’ll publish my answers to his questions later this month.

My first two questions were about teachers’ pedagogical belief systems and political associations.

Consider, Justin: The Cognitive Coaching Foundational Seminar Learning Guide discusses different belief systems that teachers adopt: 1) Transmitting knowledge, 2) Nurturing students, 3) Diagnosing needs and offering solutions, 4) Developing thinking skills, and 5) Creating an awareness of social and environmental issues to ensure the survival of society.

1) Given that there is a lot of overlap, which one do you most connect with?

Number 2 – Nurturing students. I think our job as teachers comes down to making our students’ lives better—happier, safer, more meaningful, and more fun. As an elementary teacher, I get to spend more of my students’ waking hours with them Monday through Friday than their parents get to. As a result, I witness how critical the focus on “the whole child” is.

If I’m going to help my 2nd graders become better thinkers, readers, writers, scientists, and mathematicians, I first need to build trust and create a classroom where mutual respect is foundational. Every morning, I give my students a fist bump, and every day when they head home, I give them a hug or a high-five. We also have one-on-one moments built into the day when a student reads to me or we have a conference during Writers’ Workshop. Those moments accumulate, gradual but substantial as snowfall. It usually hits me around December how much I have come to care about these 25 human beings in my class, and the feeling is usually mutual.

2) Do you think the belief systems are age or experience dependent (both the teacher’s and student’s?)  

For most new teachers, just imparting academic content while keeping order can be mentally and emotionally consuming. Once you get your feet under you, I think you can start “zooming out” to consider your students’ lives outside your classroom in a little more depth.

A few years ago I started a home library project because I realized most of my students had very few books at home. The project had a tremendous impact on family literacy, my students’ reading growth, and their love of books. My first few years of teaching, I was too preoccupied figuring out basics like how to do guided reading and running records to take on a family literacy project like this one.

As a new teacher, it’s easy to see everything in your students’ lives only through the prism of your classroom. When you become more experienced, you realize that what you do in class only matters to the extent that it makes students’ lives richer outside the classroom walls, too. I now teach my 2nd graders to play chess. It relates to some math standards like geometry, but the biggest benefit I see is that once they learn the game, they have a fun activity to do each night, weekend, and throughout the summer that builds critical thinking, spatial reasoning, and visualization in a way that watching TV doesn’t.

3) Do you think that any on the list aren’t really necessary?

I think they’re all necessary, but Number 1 (Transmitting knowledge) has waned dramatically in importance compared to a generation or even a decade ago. In the 1800’s, a blacksmith could pass on the tools of his trade to his apprentice and be reasonably sure they’d still be relevant a generation later. That’s no longer true.

I don’t know what the world will look like when my students graduate college in 2028. What jobs will exist? What technological tools will be essential to everyday life? Content matters far less, given that computers the size of marbles can store more data than human beings can memorize. What matters, and what will still be relevant in 2028, is teaching all those abilities that computers can’t yet do, like ingenuity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

4) Do you think any are missing from the list?

I don’t see explicit mention of non-cognitive skills like perseverance, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Richard Roberts presented some compelling research last summer that shows how important these non-cognitive skills are to academic success. 

I wrote about Roberts’ research in an early blog post, True Grit, including his takeaway that:

“Devoting class time to non-cognitive skills is a more effective way to increase academic achievement than spending all your time on the academic content itself. Even if you saw no value in teaching an ability like perseverance for its own sake, building in time for that focus ultimately accelerates academic growth in conventional subjects like reading and math.”

Consider: In my Stories from School Arizona blog I wrote, in Should I Join The Union?, that one often hears we need a profession that looks like America – a reference to gender and race. But, in general, the teaching profession, and unions in particular, don’t think like America – in terms of voting, gun control, abortion, immigration, and the like.  In my experience, conservative teachers quietly tolerate a lot of quasi-institutionalized disparagement, hostility, intolerance – not of themselves individually, necessarily, but of their values and opinions.

1) What’s your take on the Liberal/Conservative imbalance in education?

I don’t see such a liberal bent in our schools. I think if you surveyed the majority of elementary classrooms and school libraries, you would find not a single book portraying either gay and lesbian students or families with same-sex parents.  I also see heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. being stripped of their more contentious positions (like MLK’s opposition to war) and more controversial heroes like Malcolm X being largely omitted from the curriculum. Texas, because of its size, has a big impact on commercially produced materials for other states. That’s troubling, when you consider viewpoints that Texas Board of Education members have taken in opposition to the teaching of evolution or even the idea that critical thinking should be nurtured in our students.

2) What are the effects of the Union taking a stand on issues like gun control, immigration, and abortion? 

If we acknowledge that students are human beings whose entire selves matter, we can’t ignore the effects of gun violence at Sandy Hook, or the kick in the teeth to immigrants that has been enshrined in Alabama’s law requiring schools to inform on non-documented families for possible deportation.

We need to respect all students’ families, but that doesn’t mean catering to all their beliefs. I occasionally have students whose parents hold racist or homophobic views, or who believe that a fistfight is a good way to resolve a playground conflict with another child. I can’t tell these parents what to think or say at home, but I can create classroom policies that do not permit physical violence or hate speech.

I think Unions have the right, and maybe even the obligation to the students they indirectly represent, to take similar stands.

Thank you Justin, for challenging me to think deeper on these two questions that weigh so much on my mind.


In Part Two, Justin comments on why so many sincere efforts to solve problems go astray, a little book that made a big difference in his practice and shares his most embarassing and proudest moments.

In the meantime why not share your thoughts on these questions?


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  • BillIvey

    Okay – here are my thoughts! 🙂

    1.  I would also go with #2. I think it underlies the others. I also think teachers need to be judicious in what knowledge they “transfer,” and why. I’ll sometimes throw something I know into a discussion they kids are having if I think it will shake up their thinking or clarify a muddy point. But mostly, I’d rather they found their own knowledge. As a side note, as someone who works in a feminist school, I may view “nurturing” differently than do many people. Or not!

    2. I think age matters to belief systems in that it literally provides more time in which to have experiences and/or to learn from them. We also know different age groups tend to share, granted within a fairly wide range, similar developmental characteristics that may affect their belief systems – for one example, justice tends to matter to the average middle school kid more than at any other time in their life.

    3. I anticipated my response to this question above! 🙂

    4. I love Justin’s additions to the list. I would extend his examples to include empathy, the ability to understand multiple perspectives, resilience, self-knowledge, and an awareness of how to be truly, deeply, and completely yourself.


    1. To some extent, actually, I wonder how different the teaching profession really is from “America” on many of these issues – or, more to the point, whether we are as polarized in this country as it sometimes seems. Gun control? As I understand it, a strong majority of Americans favor some sort of registry and waiting period. Abortion? As I understand it, a majority of Americans want abortions to be as rare as possible and yet are uncomfortable with leaving pregnant women entirely without the ability to make their own choice. Immigration?  As I understand it, a strong majority of Americans want to enable people currently in the country to stay while tightening up procedures for immigration and/or borders as we look to the future. However, these are nuanced positions that only emerge in polls designed to allow for nuance, and that in my opinion get little air time as they don’t fit with the media’s general propensity for creating all-or-nothing clashes.

    That said, however, I do know conservative teachers who feel they are in a distinct minority in their schools and feel hurt when people sometimes make incorrect assumptions about them (directly or indirectly) – bearing in mind that I live in the most liberal region of Massachusetts. I also know there are liberal teachers in extremely conservative areas of the country who feel the exact same way. So again, I would suggest the situation is perhaps more nuanced than we often think.

    2. I’ll sit this one out as I’m not a union member (I don’t know of any independent schools that are unionized). I will say, though, that I think respect and dignity for all people should be a non-negotiable given of the human condition and present in all schools.

    Thanks, Sandy, for the great questions and for inviting the rest of us in. And thanks, Justin, for your thoughtful answers.


    • JustinMinkel

      What does a feminist school do differently?

      Bill, as Bill Ferriter or Renee Moore are to blogs, you are to comments. I’ve never read such substantive and thoughtful responses as several of yours that I have read.

      I responded to the main thrust of your points below, but I had a quick “aside” question:

      I’m intrigued by the idea of a feminist school and I wondered what you do differently in terms of policy or practice at a classroom/school level.

      I like the line that feminism is “the belief that women should hold equal political, social, and economic rights as men,” and I’ve always considered myself a feminist. I’d like to know if there is more I can be doing to act on that belief/identity not just in my classroom, but in my school as a whole.

      • BillIvey

        “A feminist school”

        Well, first, to be honest, like feminism itself, I think there are many definitions of what a feminist school is. Ours is a girls school, though, with an explicit mission that our students voices be heard, that they become their own best selves, and that they develop a global perspective. I have argued on the school’s blog, with general agreement, that we can’t meet the first two parts of our mission without becoming gender activists and/or feminists (I personally identify as a gender activist – long story) in the outside world. The topic came up once during a middle school parent meeting when a parent questioned the “confident that her voice will be heard” (italics mine) part of our mission statement, and we had a great discussion.

        All our classes are careful to be gender inclusive and/or to discuss why being gender inclusive in certain contexts (e.g. the history of women has not been written remotely as comprehensively as that of men) is not so easy. Feminism itself comes up relatively frequently in class discussions, and it’s cool to self-identify as a feminist (though – again – a range of definitions apply). And our school blog – which, granted, is about 90% written by me – deals with feminist and gender issues all the time. In the spirit of intersectionality, I also push the school, with increasing numbers of people hopping on board, to look beyond the gender binary, to consider the full range of sexualities (not just heterosexuality and LGB), to consider effects of racism, and (though admittedly less than I should) to consider the effects of classism. I try to do so in a way that respects a range of political and/or religious beliefs, mostly by focusing on respect for each and every person as an uncompromising goal. I think – I hope! – I succeed more often than not. Anyway…

        So when I talk about nurturing in a feminist school, I think of a place where we try (again, I’ll admit, with variable success) to distinguish supportive nurturing from coddling. Whatever strengthens our kids, encourages them to speak up and self-advocate, stretches them to understand more deeply and affirm more completely their developing sense of self, develops an internal sense of self-esteem and internal motivation, is good. I admit, that could (and arguably should) be happening at any school, whatever gender(s) are attending. But I do think it’s easier to develop a girl-positive atmosphere in a girls school and that makes is easier to accomplish all of the above goals with girls, and I think research points in that direction.

        Thank you so much for your kind words! I look forward to continuing this discussion. 🙂

        • JustinMinkel

          Feminist approach in co-ed schools

          Bill, deepest thanks for your wonderfully thoughtful and detailed answer to my question. These are great elements for any school with any demographics. I have always taught in co-ed schools, but I frequently form all-girl or all-boy after-school groups or guided reading groups, sometimes to talk explicitly about gender, but often just to do the work in a same-sex environment. It’s usually refreshing for the kids, and it impacts how they work with one another when they re-integrate into our usual co-ed class.

          Lee Ann Stephens, 2007 MN Teacher of the Year, talked at last year’s NNSTOY conference about her experiences teaching groups of all African-American males, with some remarkable results.

          Thanks for the insights and ideas.

          • BillIvey

            And thank you too!

            Hmm, this makes me think – are you attending the Why Gender Matters book club discussion on Tuesday, Feb. 25? You would have really important insights to offer.

            And so too, I’m betting, would anyone else who has been reading along with us. Just sayin’!  🙂

  • Sandy Merz

    Thanks Bill!

    I knew you would respond and that your response would make me think.  I definitely relate to conservative teachers who feel they are in a distinct minority in the profession.

    I think mistaken assumptions happen all the time.  Justin listed several examples of conservative actions that his schools have to deal with.  Fair enough.  I assumed that pretty much everyone would agree that conservative teachers are in the minority – and was wrong.  He assumes that conservative teachers always agree with what conservative legistlatures pass – and he was wrong.  Great point.

    Your summary of where America stands is exactly what I mean.  On those issues, and others, the country is divided. And no matter where an individual falls, about half the country is in opposition.  When the union takes a position, any position, on an issue, like gun control, they are confronting half the parents in the country.  And when they defend their position by saying they have to stand up of for what best protects kids they are at once claiming moral superiority over roughtly half their parents and condescendingly saying that they know better their parents what’s best for the kids.


    • BillIvey

      key quote

      “And when they defend their position by saying they have to stand up of for what best protects kids they are at once claiming moral superiority over roughtly half their parents and condescendingly saying that they know better their parents what’s best for the kids.” That statement seems key to me. Any time one political point of view not only expresses its opinion (totally fair) but also does so in a way that puts down others (not so cool), it drives me crazy. I see people across the political spectrum doing it, far too often for me to have the time and energy to call out every single instance though I do try to speak up from time to time. And if a union did that and someone asked me my opinion, I would say I couldn’t support that action whether or not my opinion on that particular point of policy happened to match the union.

      That said, though, sometimes there are things that “best protect kids” that are genuinely, factually, borne out by research, and there I would have no problem with a union – or anyone in education – advocating that practice. For example, there is pretty strong research showing merit pay has a negative effect on job performance, including within the teaching profession, and so I’d have no problem with a union pointing to that research and taking a position against merit pay.

      And I still think, even on the most contentious issues, there are select areas where the country is less divided. For example, you mention gun control. I checked online to verify my memory, and as of last April at any rate (when Congress was considering a gun control law which did not eventually pass), 86% of the country favoured laws mandating background checks. That was 90% of Democrats, 84% of Republicans, and 74% of NRA members. That may not be unanimous, but it’s a pretty strong majority. There’s also research suggesting that background checks reduce the risk of crimes involving firearms by 25-30%. Under those circumstances – and phrasing things very carefully – a union might advocate background checks on the dual grounds they might reduce the likelihood of another Sandy Hook and there is broad support throughout the country.

      Does all that make sense?

  • JustinMinkel

    Purple people

    Bill, I love your insights about the reality that most Americans share more than we think. Nuanced positions and moderation don’t make headlines. But you’re exactly right that most of us share a pragmatism on these “lightning rod” issues that is not shared by political leaders or talking heads on TV who need to suck the limited Oxygen out of their political/media spaces before their opponents can get any of it. Political maps of our states look all red or all blue, but most of us are purple.

    Sandy, I’m concerned that I’ve miscommunicated my views or misunderstood your point about conservative teachers feeling that they are a minority. I don’t assume that conservative teachers always agree with what conservative legislatures pass. One of my closest colleagues is very conservative, and I don’t see her any of the venom or opposition to critical thinking that I see from the Texas Board of Education used in the example I gave.

    My point is that I don’t agree that the climate in terms of policies in most American schools is “liberal.”

    So, two questions for you:

    1. What part of my response made it sound like I lump all conservative individuals with stances like those that conservative legislatures take?

    2. In what ways do you feel that sense of being a minority in schools where you’ve taught?

    I’m still struggling with and pondering your point on Unions. I understand that taking a stance because you think it’s in the best interest of kids can come across as morally superior. But don’t we all take stances every day with the claim that we do so out of what we believe is best for kids?

    I think the distinction is whether you think an issue like gun control is in the purview of a Union, or, put another way, whether issues like gun control or immigration have such a profound connection to students’ lives and education that a Union of professionals dedicated to teaching children can and should take a stance on them. It sounds like our disagreement there is that you don’t think the connection is compelling enough to merit a stance from the Union, while I think it is.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts–you’re definitely pushing my thinking with this conversation. It’s one thing to put out a “soliloquy” as a blog post and see what people say; it’s quite another to respond to the probing questions of a fellow teacher leader I greatly respect.

  • SandyMerz

    Finally, a moment to reply

    Thanks Justin and Bill for your comments, and sorry I’ve take so long to get back to you. This is mostly a reply to Justin’s last comment. I do think issues like gun control and immigration merit a union sponsored discussion, but who says it has to be a stance? Who says the union has to aid political causes. What would be lost if union explicitly soliceted and published, the best, most thoughtful and civil contributions from thinkers of a wide range of opinions? What if the union’s stance was – “Our aim is to present the most challenging points of views from all sides of an issue” instead of “These issues are so important in the lives of America’s youth that we will tell you the answer?” I predict that the first would result in a union that was more sensitive to the nuances in the issues that Bill enumerated and help create a more pragmatic/purple association.

    The part of your responses, Justin, that sounded like you lumped all conservatives together was that at first you wrote only about conservative legislative action. That opened my eyes and reminded me of an extremely liberal colleague who once told me that I was the only conservative he could talk to.  Well, dang, I was probably the only conservative he ever came across face to face. He read the New York Times, watched MSNBC, worked as a teacher – and get this – shhh – he was a musician!! No wonder his view of the right was so skewed.

    I in no sense feel a minority in the way that racial, ethnic, gender or other minorities must.  have never been discriminated against because of my views and have been actively recruited into most my professional networks by leaders whose politics are to the left of mine.

    I have seen that it is perfectly safe to say, in the faculty lounge or mail room, that the right wing is nothing but brown-shirted knuckle dragging thugs who just want to oppress people of color and make themselves rich. I haven’t seen comparable invective expressed against the left wing, even though it would be just as easy.

    I do think carefully about what I say, not out of fear, but as a strategy, assuming that if I expessed the conservative foundation upon which my opinion or solution was based on, it would be discounted by many out of hand. Ironically, expressed without the conservative label, there is often a lot of agreement to what I say,and the disagreement is constructive and enlightening. 

    Thanks again for your comments.  And by all means let’s keep the conversation going.







  • BillIvey

    Thanks, Sandy!

    Appreciate the (as always!) thoughtful response. Your idea about unions presenting coherent and well-reasoned perspectives from different angles on important issues is intriguing – essentially, the union would then be modeling good teaching techniques, no?!

    I’ve seen some pretty outrageous things said by the left about the right (among them the stereotype you mention above), and by the right about left (for which one stereotype is that they hate America and anyone who works hard). But I’ve also seen other people reaching out to make connections and explore nuance. It really comes down to assuming good intentions and offering/expecting respect.

    I’ve noticed that, in my classroom, the kids tend to be unanimous that girls and women experience discrimination and deserve equality. They are unanimously anti-racist and desire racial equality in our country as well. When we do get into other discussions of potentially divisive topics, then, they have that common bond of knowing they both desire respect and equality for all people.

    For example, potentially one of the most contentious topics, marriage equality, became a chance for them to genuinely hear each other when one girl said in a tone of simple curiosity, “I just don’t understand why there are Christians who don’t want gay people to marry.” and another, who came from a family that was deeply fundamentalist, said matter-of-factly, “Oh, it’s in the Bible.” There was some back and forth, other kids joined in, there were some questions and clarifications, and suddenly they were all talking (including both of the above kids) about how different extended family members hold radically different views on the topic and they tend to stay quiet in that context so as not to offend people on either side. I doubt anyone changed her opinion coming out of the discussion, and that’s okay with me. They were able to listen to and respect views different from their own, they got some insight into opinions they didn’t share, and they were always cognizant of the need to respect all people (both those within the room and those without) – one of the few values which I impose as a given in my classroom.

    Bringing that dynamic to adult life, alas, is not always as straightforward. So I try to be extra appreciative when I find it! 🙂

  • pwcrabtree

    Shades of gray…

    I am not sure where to start but I am intrigued by this conversation. 

    Bill, I really connected with your statement, “But I’ve also seen other people reaching out to make connections and explore nuance. It really comes down to assuming good intentions and offering/expecting respect.”

     While most of my closest friends are very conservative,  I am quite liberal. I seek out their opinions in order to challenge my own thinking. It is easy to point fingers and throw stones…but what we need more is for more folks to realize is that there are many shades of gray.    The “nuances” or gray areas cause internal conflict for those who feel the need to be right all the time… But I like to believe most Americans are more moderate than extreme. If we could focus on the gray matter, could we actually find ways to compromise and move forward? 

    Unions… I am not sure of other’s experiences, but I am an active member of my state and local National Education Association. Since 2003, I have worn many hats and played many roles at all levels of the association.  It is where I found my inner strength to speak up and advocate for my students, my colleagues, education, and myself.  I don’t agree with everything the association feels it needs a “stance” on, but I can promise you that the discussion on the floor of the NEA Representative Assembly is passionate and considers many angles.  The democratic body of 10,000 members votes on every belief statement, bylaw, and business item that is generated by members.  

    While I enjoy being part of the governing body, I believe there is much room for growth. I believe as the largest union we should be leading the charge in changing how Ed policy is made, how we train our teachers, and how we hold one another accountable for success of our students.  I would like to see the NEA move to a model where professionalism is the main focus of our association.  As educators, we should be shaping our profession and the union would be our way to set the bar… Instead of legislators controlling our work and the union defending it.  

    I think unions provide a coherent variety of perspectives on issues the affect our children, but should also facilitate the convèrsations that guide our profession.  Lawyers and doctors both have unions that set standards for their profession…why can’t ours? Just sayin’.