Asilomar #4: Friday Keynote

Session Title

“‘Don’t Smile Until Christmas’ and Other Teaching Myths”


Gary Tsuruda. Retired Teacher, Palo Alto USD. Finalist, Presidential Teaching Award for Mathematics and Science.


Didn’t do much for me but from the standpoint of a conference organizer it was probably perfectly selected.

We were all piled into a middle school auditorium – beginners, veterans, math degrees, multiple-subject credentials, high school, elementary – so Tsuruda had to pitch the talk straight down the middle, no curve whatsoever.

The myths cited, then, were either obvious (turns out you can smile before Christmas), pandering (turns out teachers don’t have it easy), or plainly false (turns out creativity and NCLB are mutually exclusive).

Lots of cheering, lots of quotes from historical/literary figures (I probably should’ve recognized) affirming the nobility and self-sacrifice of the teacher, standing ovation at the end, all kinda highlighting what, as of this posting, no longer surprises me: I just don’t get these people.

Presentation Notes

PowerPoint. (The giveaways, incidentally, are: white drop shadows, a limited color palette, a general flatness.) I’m really surprised by a particular innovation I’ve seen in two presentations here:

If the presenter has three bullet points (for example) she makes three identical slides but sets the text color of each bullet point that doesn’t matter to the background color leaving only a drop-shadow “ghost.” The result pulls your eyes to the current bullet point without fully erasing the rest.


  • I addressed this idea that constraints are the enemy of creativity back when the University of Chicago asked its applicants for four static PowerPoint slides. To a vast extent, the opposite is true.
  • While Tsuruda spoke of our saintliness for accepting low pay, one woman in front of me whispered to another, “well we want to make sure people go into teaching for the right reasons.”

    I really don’t have words to describe how weird that attitude makes me feel. It gives me grounds to make a guarantee, though:

    If you expect people to get into teaching sacrificially, to begin and persist in this job for the passion and the joy of working with students, you will get workers who resent administrator observations, who eschew professional standards, who cling to tenure, and who promote this job as art.

    You won’t get teachers who embrace this job as a measurable, reproducible science, who believe that a teacher’s worth correlates strongly to her students’ achievement, or who recommend promoting and demoting teachers accordingly.

    America: you’ve gotta decide. If you want workers from category #2 (like me – there, I said it) you’ll have to give them a reason to begin, persist, and innovate in teaching beyond the joy of the job. If you want workers from category #1, it doesn’t seem sporting at all to treat them like they work in category #2.

For Your Consideration:

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I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Interesting comparison you make there between Teacher Types #1 and #2. You definitely make a good point. If you want to draw the best and brightest people to the education field, how can you not entice them with financial rewards?

    While it is a very noble thing to enter the realm of education to make a difference and for the sense of pride that comes with shaping the future of the nation, you can’t buy a car or pay off a mortgage with a sense of pride.

    It might sound cynical, but it comes down to simple economics. In this market economy, most people cannot afford to be idealists, they must be practical and must go where the money is.

  2. Jay – it’s not just the money, but the lack of recognition that doing this job really well requires inordinate talent and drive. A freelance war zone journalist may or may not get paid well, but stating this as your occupation does not make listeners conclude that you just wanted those summers off. Being a graduate science student at UC Berkeley is poorly paid and may involve 70-80 hour weeks and all-nighters in the lab, but no-one will conclude that you just weren’t smart enough to do anything better. Better salaries may well be an effective means toward attracting more talent and harder workers – but I doubt that low pay in and of itself is the reason why a young person who is intelligent, creative and driven will generally not see teaching as an obvious choice of profession. A success of Teach for America is that the organization has made it possible for recent college graduates – young people who still really need confirmation that they are talented and desirable as employees – to go into teaching without risking being branded as unimaginative slackers. But what can be done to change the perception that staying in the profession involves stagnation and lack of better options?

  3. I’ve never understood this concept either. We certainly don’t feel that doctors should be paid less so that we can be sure they’ve gone into the profession ‘for the right reasons’.

    I do have to agree with H that public perception of teachers is as much or more of an issue as salary. It’s a job that is difficult to completely comprehend unless you’ve actually done it.

    Loving the posts about each of the sessions. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Spot On! If America wishes to have a corp of professional, highly qualified, teachers, than the system must change. I left for the corporate world 2 years ago. I hated my administration. I felt more like a student than an educator. I spent four years in biochemistry and another two earning my certification, for what. To be told I must speak word for word from the text given to us by the curriculum Nazis. That and knowing no matter how good I was, how many hours I put in or how much of a difference I make, I’ll pull down the same or probably much less than the slacker across the hall, in at 8:00 out at 3:00 and using the same lessons since ’82. Hi honey, let’s plan our budget, this is what I’ll make 10 years from now, see it’s all about tenure and nothing to do with talent. I had one teacher tell me recently that blogs and wikis were the 2 must horrible things to have ever happened to the world of education. I smiled, made sure she new she was at a technology conference and got her information to ensure my kids never go to her school.

  5. Hey that article’s a bummer. It means a lot to see levelheaded folk like Lori J. pop in and suggest that young malcontents like me really oughtta move on to different pastures. It just scares me, though, that they think the teaching corps can sustain itself (even while the job becomes harder) on people who are strictly motivated by their love of their kids.

    Maybe I’ll step into that fray. You seem to have absorbed all available abuse, though.

  6. It’s weird, entering that “world.” You have to deconstruct huge fortifications of thought to get to your point. You have to make these verbal hurdles, like, not this, not this, not this, of course that, and now this is what I actually think. I wonder how dynamic, effective instruction correlates with unabashed chest-thumping about the glorious teacher-martyr. Are you doing the latter, because you can’t get propr for the former? Maybe that’s not fair.

  7. Lori Jablonski

    December 5, 2007 - 6:58 pm -

    Oh Dan,

    Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear over at NYC’s place. I certainly don’t think you “oughtta” move on (and never would I call you a malcontent). But, we work in the public realm (I just read Chris L’s excellent characterization of our world as an externality in a capitalist is indeed); the incentives and structures that define the system are entirely different than the world of work and investment for private profit. Those considering a long and successful life in public education should at least think about what that means in terms of career expectations and trajectory and what they personally need when it comes to motivation and fulfillment (Chris L again says this much better: “I also don’t feel the need to place or define my job in the market forces of today…”). I certainly did–long and hard–before I decided to leave the private sector and begin life as a public school teacher. And I didn’t have to embrace a self-image of glorious martyrdom to find happiness and success in the classroom. I do have a handful of wonderful colleagues who I co-plan with, observe other teachers as often as possible and invite my teacher pals to sit in my class whenever they want. We are constantly experimenting, revising, throwing out and bringing new stuff in. We’ve never had an efficient formal structure teaching us how to do this…we just do it and as a result I have never felt isolated or stagnant—anything but. Maybe I’m lucky, but I also think how I view my job and my colleagues goes a long way too.

    None of this means I am complacent about what the system needs to better value our work and the needs or our students. I could argue for days on these issues and often do (I am quite visible around these parts on state and local issues—the value I place on political action and active citizenship is but one reason I would fight tooth and nail to preserve tenure).

    But given the realities of the public system we have chosen to work in (not to mention the huge political and economic reckoning we’re facing on both the state and federal levels, which will severely constrain the scope of future ed reform efforts) it is up to you and you alone to consider whether it is one that gives you whatever you need to continue.

    I for one would love to work with you or at the very least share a beer to decompress.

  8. I think that no matter where I work, I’d be foolish to abdicate too much of my motivation to extrinsically motivating forces. I realize happiness has largely gotta come from within, whether you’re a day-trader, a doctor, or a math teacher.

    I don’t know how much happiness I expected the public school system to provide me but I know I never anticipated I’d find success and frustration tied so tightly together. The better I get at this job the more I feel displaced.

    I don’t know what that means but I’m trying as much as possible not to think about it.

  9. I’m late in finding your site and am reading through the archives. Great stuff and your last comment here really hits home. A teacher that tries new things or a different approach is often looked down upon. I’m always amazed at the elitism shown by the teachers who have been doing it for 20 years.

    I wish I had a picture of their room from when they started, just so they could compare it to today’s classroom. Do you think that might help some of them understand that changing up some of those lessons might be a good idea?