Shameful Betsy DeVos can't say what most human beings can say with ease

Here is the Secretary of Education for the United States of America, the caretaker of our public schools, the protector of our children's future, and also a person who has never taught in a school, never worked in a public school, and never sent her children to a public school, trying her hardest to avoid saying that children in her charter school program won't be discriminated based upon race or LGBTQ status.

It's remarkable. She is asked, rather simply, if discrimination will be forbidden in these schools based upon religion and LGBTQ status, and she refuses to say it.

It's shameful and disgusting. 

No one who works in education should have this much difficulty standing against the discrimination of children for any reason. No educator who I have ever known would struggle with this question like Betsy DeVos does. 

Then again, she is not an educator. She doesn't understand education. She knows nothing about the American public school student. She is literally the child of one billionaire and the wife of another. A wealthy, white woman who was sent to elite private schools for her entire life and never had to fear for her future. She has never known want or need or hunger.

And now she is the steward of our public schools. Teachers and children are depending upon her for their support, and she can't say, "No child will be discriminated against in these charter schools, for race, religion, LGBTQ status, or any other reason." 

School lunch shaming needs to stop. Simple solution: Adults need to stop acting despicable.

As a kid who received free breakfast and lunch for his entire childhood, I am keenly aware of the stigma, embarrassment, and shame associated with not having enough money to feed yourself.

As a child, teachers took the daily lunch count by asking us to raise our hand if we were:

Buying hot lunch
Buying cold lunch
Getting free hot lunch
Getting free cold lunch

Just writing those words brings me right back to the shame and embarrassment that every morning held for me.  

Later on, when I was homeless as an adult, I never looked into the possibility of soup kitchens or other programs to feed the homeless for the very same reasons:

I'd rather be hungry than humiliated.

I had thought that the system of requiring kids to raise their hands to indicate their economic status was a thing of the past. I assumed that it was a careless, thoughtless process that teachers and other school officials eventually recognized as wrongheaded and insensitive.    

Then I read about the food shaming that is currently going on in schools around the country.

From the New York Times:

"In Alabama, a child short on funds was stamped on the arm with “I Need Lunch Money.” In some schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt. Other schools require cafeteria workers to take a child’s hot food and throw it in the trash if he doesn’t have the money to pay for it."

In other towns, children were made to wear a wrist band or perform chores in exchange for a meal. Oftentimes an alternative meal is provided when a child is short on funds, signaling their family's financial difficulties to the rest of the student body.

It's disgusting. Worse, these policies are being enacted by adults who have been trusted to teach and protect children. How can any adult with even a shred of decency do this to kids?

I suspect that the reasons are many.

The desire for profits (school cafeterias are often separate businesses run inside the school)  

But I suspect the most common reason for this food shaming is an absence of empathy. A failure to understand the stigma and shame associated with being poor. A lack of contact with people in a different socioeconomic class. 

Recently, I was debating a point with my cohost on our podcast, Boy vs. Girl, when she argued that my experiences with poverty (the removal of all parental support at the age of 18, my struggles with poverty and hunger, and my eventual homelessness) were not normal.  

I pushed back - perhaps not hard enough - on this idea. While hunger, homelessness, and poverty may be unusual experiences for people in the socioeconomic circles that I now occupy, these conditions are unusual at all for people in a lower socioeconomic classes. Food insecurity, lapses in adequate housing, and even homelessness are not uncommon. When I was poor, I knew many people who spent months and even years couch surfing, squatting, living in cars, living in tents, and trapped in the eviction cycle.

I had family members who were homeless for a time.

I think it's easy to forget about these people when we don't see them everyday. It's easy to underestimate their numbers when they don't occupy our social circles. It's especially easy to forget about them when they try like hell to disguise their poverty in an effort to preserve their dignity, as so many do.

As I did. 

48 million Americans - including 13 million children - live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. As a result, they struggle with hunger at some time during the year. 

These people exist. They exist in large numbers. 

It's hard enough to be poor. It's terrible to be hungry as a child. The last thing these kids need is their school highlighting their poverty with these despicable, stupid, insensitive acts of cruelty.  

Adults should know better. 

Earlier this month, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance and puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children.

I was happy to see a state taking action against these terrible practices, but I was also saddened to learn that action was required. 

Even if you've never experienced poverty, and even if you don't know someone who is impoverished personally, it doesn't make much effort or imagination to understand how traumatic food shaming can be for a child. 

So use some effort and imagination, damn it. Stop embarrassing yourself and humanity. Don't be a despicable, disgusting adult.  

If the teacher tells you that your child is not gifted, it’s more likely that it’s the teacher who is not gifted.

The most common response to a piece I wrote last month entitled 12 Things Teachers Think But Can’t Always Say to Parents was a suggested addition to the list. It was phrased in many ways, oftentimes sarcastically, and it generally went something like this:

Your child is not as gifted as you think he or she is.

There was a reason I left this particular item off my list:

It’s stupid. It’s shortsighted and narrow minded. It’s unproductive. It’s adversarial. It’s not true.

This is not to say that I haven’t heard this sentiment expressed many times in my 17 years as a teacher. But whenever I hear a teacher express this idea, I push back immediately, and I push back hard, for three reasons.

1. Parents are supposed to think that their child is gifted.

It’s only natural for them to think more highly of their child than the rest of the world does. Their child is the most important thing in their life. They will invest more time, money, and energy into their child than anyone or anything before or after. It makes sense for them to believe that the person who they love the most in the world is gifted in some way.

And we all deserve to have someone in our lives who believes in us above all others. It should be our parents. They should be our champions. To think that parents should feel differently is short sighted and stupid.

2. Wouldn’t it be a better world if every teacher thought like parents and assumed that every student in their class was gifted in some way?

I’ve taught about 350 students in my 17 years as a teacher, and I have yet to meet a kid who I didn’t believe was gifted in one way or another.

In fact, some of my most accomplished students were the ones for whom learning came the hardest. Their gift was not intellect but effort -  a willingness to do whatever it took to succeed.

Give me a student gifted in effort over a student gifted in intellect any day. 

I assume that every one of my students is gifted, and this assumption has served me well. When a teacher sets remarkably high expectations and demands more from his students than ever before, students perform better. The research on this is irrefutable. 

Yet history is littered with presumptuous, ignorant,  and arrogant educators who assumed that their students wouldn’t amount to much and were later proven wrong.

Albert Einstein. Helen Keller. Robert Strenberg. Thomas Edison. Louis Pasteur. Enrico Caruso. Ludwig Beethoven. Leo Tolstoy. Louisa May Alcott.

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Many more. Too numerous to count. Myself included.  

Each of these men and women were told by teachers that they were hopeless, half-witted, and doomed to a lives of mediocrity.

It turns out that it was the teachers who were hopeless, half-witted, and mediocre.

As a teacher, why not err on the side of gifted? Why not assume the best? Expect the best. Demand the best. Give students the chance to shine by assuming that they can and will shine.   

3. Why promote an adversarial relationship with parents?

If a parent thinks that their child is gifted, and you – for whatever reason – disagree, why not find some middle ground?

Yes, it’s entirely possible that your child is gifted, and if he begins working to his fullest potential, we may start to see more evidence of that. Let’s find a way to make that happen.

There’s no reason to quash a parent’s hopes and dreams for their child. The teacher-parent relationship is one of the best tools available in my teaching arsenal. When it is strong and trusting, learning increases. Behavior improves. But that relationship only exists because I understand how parents feel about their children, and I embrace those feelings.  

Yes, your child is gifted. I’m not sure about the scope of that giftedness, but let’s get your child working as hard as possible and find out together.

That strikes me as a more productive and respectful position than the smarmy “You’re child isn’t as gifted as you think” response that so many teachers who responded to my initial piece seemed to default to.  

Every child in my classroom is someone else’s whole world. I try to remember this at all times. When I do, it’s never too hard to see every child in my classroom as gifted in some way.

Four things to consider before dating a coworker: An office romance with my future wife.

Jackie Zimmerman of Time’s Money section writes about four things to consider before dating a coworker.

The last coworker who I dated was my wife. When we started dating back in March of 2004, she was teaching in a classroom one door down from mine. A friend and colleague now teaches in Elysha’s old classroom, and though Elysha’s been gone from that classroom for more than five years now, I still think of it as ‘Elysha’s room.”

I still leave school almost everyday through that classroom’s outer door, even though it often means going out of my way to do so. Before I push that door open and step out onto a wooden ramp, I always pause and purposefully recall something about those days long ago when Elysha and I worked together and spent so much of our time side by side.

I remember so I won’t forget. I remember because I was one of the best times of my life. I remember because it makes me smile every time even though is also often makes me sad, too.   

Some couples could never work together. Many couples, perhaps. Elysha and I loved working together. It made my days brighter and better. I’m always hopeful that someday, we may be able to work together again.


In reading through Zimmerman’s four suggestions, it looks like Elysha and I did well when we dated (and married) as coworkers.

1.  Avoid Getting Involved with the Wrong Person

Zimmerman’s suggestion pertains to dating people in positions higher up the corporate ladder. Though I always thought of Elysha as unattainable in every sense of the word, we were both teachers when we started dating, with no power over each other.  

2.  Know Your Company’s Policy Before the First Date

Before I dated Elysha, I had dated another colleague at the school and had already checked with my principal to be certain that there were no policies against it. He told me to make sure that if things didn’t work out, we ended our relationship amicably.

Not exactly a policy, but a good suggestion.

Thankfully, I have always been highly skilled at ending relationships. I’m friendly with almost all of my ex-girlfriends. In fact, the colleague who I dated before Elysha remains friends with me to this day, and in July, I will be the DJ at her wedding.

Still, I thought it was important to keep my principal informed when I was dating someone at work, so on April 1, 2004, as he crossed through the school auditorium, I told him that I was dating Elysha.

“Ha ha,” he said. “April Fools.”

“No, we’re really dating,” I said. “I’m serious.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, walking across the auditorium and out the door. “You and Elysha dating. Right.”

I have no idea when he realized that I wasn’t joking, but he was the person who married us two years later.   

3.  Consider the Worst-Case Scenario

Zimmerman suggests that you take careful stock of the person you are considering dating. If you break up, is this someone you can trust? Someone who you want potentially influencing your career? Could you still work together afterwards?

Honestly, this wasn’t even a consideration when Elysha and I began dating. She practically moved into my apartment immediately, and three months later, we had an apartment of our own.

Six months after that, we were engaged.

Even before we started dating, on one of those late night phone calls that people who are falling in love tend to have, she told me that if we ever started dating, she knew that we would never break up. 

A bold move, I thought at the time. And my heart soared.

I had also known Elysha for almost two years before we started dating. We began as colleagues and eventually became friends. Close friends. So I knew her well. I knew we would never break up, but I also knew that if the unthinkable happened. we could remain friends.   

4.  Remember that During Business Hours, Work Comes First

Despite one lunatic claim that this wasn’t the case, Elysha and I always took our jobs seriously and never placed our relationship ahead of our responsibilities. When you’re a teacher dealing with students and their futures, this is not hard to do.

That said, it doesn’t mean that our romance didn’t find ways into the workplace. I purchased her engagement ring online with a committee of fellow teachers after work one day in a first grade classroom. I plotted my proposal with a colleague in the office of our curriculum specialist. I was known to leave her notes on her desk during my lunch hour, and at least once, I sent three dozen roses to her classroom.

One dozen per hour for three hours.

We kept our relationship a secret from our students for quite a while, but one day, after Elysha’s students saw a fairly innocuous note from me on some chart paper, one of them asked, “Are you and Mr. Dicks dating?”

She admitted it. Happily. Over the course of a school year, your students become as close to you as any of your friends or family. At least that’s the way it’s always been for us. Letting them in on our secret was so much fun.