The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Welcome to The Treasure Hunter, a blog by Joanne Yatvin

ButterflyJYThe purpose of this blog is to highlight the good things now happening or possible in public education.  Although I will write pieces as often as I can, I welcome contributions from others who are aware of positive happenings in schools  or have good ideas for change.  My hope is that this blog will become the loudest voice in support of our schools, teachers, and students.


How to Protect Schools in Times When They Are Popular Places to Get Revenge

Right after the tragic attack on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida I wrote about possible changes in schools to create greater safety for students and teachers. But at that time I was thinking about small schools like the ones where I had been the principal. Now, after reading more about the killer, Nicklas Cruz, the size of the high school he attacked, and the neglect of  the FBI and local police to do anything to avert the tragedy, I favor a different approach to the possibility of future attacks on schools.

In these times when so many people have guns and so many schools are vulnerable to attacks like the one in Florida, it seems clear to me that any large school needs a full time Security Guard. Such a guard is necessary not only to confront any invader, but also to be familiar with students and teachers and gain their trust.

The intelligence, persistence and likability of a Security Guard are extremely important. He or she would need those qualities to be the one who first hears about any threats to a school’s safety, investigates them, informs and advises the principal, and alerts the local police department. Yes, it is a big job, but he or she is the one most qualified to do it.

If you look at examples of school attacks over the years you will see that the attackers appeared to be ordinary people, but instead were deeply damaged and willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others who happened to be handy. In addition, most of them had hinted to friends or family members about what they sought to do, just as Nicolas Cruz did.

We should also understand why not all the school attackers are personally connected to a school.  It is the place they choose because it is most likely to provide a large number of potential victims, enclosed in a hard to escape place, and not likely to have any power to fight back.

In preparing to write about my views of a school tragedy and how it might best be averted in the future, I did some research about attacks on  schools in the past. The article that I  most appreciated described school shootings that took place over three centuries. Not only did it list how many people were killed or injured each time, it also made clear the shooters’ motivations and their willingness to die rather than “forgive and forget”. The title of the article is “List of School Shootings in the United States” and it can be found under:







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How to Help Teachers Improve and Become Masters of their Profession

Over the past week I’ve been trying to write about some teaching practices that are popular in many schools around the country today. The first one I tackled was”Growth Mindset, which claims to help students become smarter by exerting greater effort, and the second was using “coaches” to help classroom teachers become better at their job. Unfortunately, the task defeated me because I disagreed with the theories that generated both programs and mistrusted the reported positive results. In the end, I decided to spare my readers–and myself–and erased all I had written on those topics.

The good news is that I found something to publish today; a piece I wrote and posted more than a year ago about helping teachers to grow in their profession, and their ability to take on new responsibilities and create new programs. In addition, as I copied the old piece I remembered more events from the past and added them to my original essay.

Recently, there has been a lot of support for teacher collaboration as a way to develop better teaching and better learning.  Although I agree, I recognize that it is not easy to make collaboration happen. Today’s teachers have more than enough work to do in their planning, teaching and paperwork, plus adapting to new responsibilities fostered  by changes in national policies. There is little or no time for them to meet with their colleagues or teachers from other schools. I think that school administrators should be facilitators of teacher collaboration by scheduling teachers at the same level to have common planning time at least twice a week. But even they don’t have much freedom to enact change.

Back in “the good old days”, when I served as a principal at two very different elementary schools, one for twelve years and the other for sixteen years, I was able to construct daily schedules that gave same grade teachers common planning periods every day. Sometimes,I would join teachers in their planning time, but mostly I left them on their own to solve classroom problems, write new units, and even create new ways to work with struggling students.

At times, and with parents permission, same grade teachers were also able to exchange students who were not fitting well in their assigned classrooms, socially or academically. Teachers might also switch classes for a while when there was a topic in which one of them was exceptionally strong. But the best results I saw at both schools were improved teaching–especially by young teachers–less stress for all teachers, and the emergence of leadership through opportunities to create new classroom practices and teach others how to use them.

The idea of joint planning times had come to me a few years earlier when I was theEnglish Department Chair at a new high school.  There the principal gave me the freedom to set daily schedules for my teachers.  I made sure that those teaching at the same grade level had the same planing time every day, and that sometimes they were able to meet with teachers from other grades to assure coordination throughout our program.

Aside from teacher collaboration and growth, what I would like to see in schools today is teacher autonomy in all classrooms, plus leadership throughout a school.  What I never dreamed of when I set up grade level common planning times, was the emergence of leadership and creativity in so many teachers and their willingness to give extra time to the school without any pressure from me.

For instance, one teacher at my first elementary school volunteered to create and run a school store during the noon hour one day a week. Using more of her own time, she trained and supervised student store workers, and met with those who wanted help to plan for products they could make and sell.  Other teachers donated time for new projects over the years, especially our “Gifted program”, which was voluntary for all students to join.

At my second school one teacher offered to manage a middle school “Jobs Program” by interviewing and advising students who wanted to participate, keeping track of their work time, checking the quality and reliability of their performance, and planning end-of-the-year raffles to reward  students for the amount of time they had worked. Another teacher volunteered to manage students in our “Adopt-a-Road” cleanups.  But, perhaps the most active contributor was our school custodian, who helped by supervising student workers, and later created a school re-cycaling program that won an award for us.

Unfortunately, my memory is not good enough to honor all the teachers and school workers who donated so much time and bright ideas to make our schools better places for all of us and the students who participated in extra activities wholeheartedly because they liked being at our school.  I only wish today’s schools had the freedom for teachers, staff members, students, and principals to do what is needed to make learning a wonderful experience, instead of the drudgery it has become under state and national control today.


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Why Teachers Shouldn’t Carry Guns

Like many other people who have already spoken up, I am against the belief that teachers should carry guns and be ready to use them if the need arises. In this country too many times children have picked up guns that were carelessly left lying around the house thinking they were just toys. And angry or frightened adults have shot someone they cared about when they only meant to get his or her attention. I think those are pretty good reasons why children should not be introduced to guns in schools as if they were ordinary tools.

Can you imagine what a teacher with thirty students in her classroom would feel like if she just got a message from the school office telling her that a man with a rifle had stormed into the school and was on his way upstairs where her classroom was? Of course her students would have heard the message too, so most of them were up from their seats yelling to each other and trying to figure out if it would be better to hide in the classroom closet or make a break for the library down the hall, which was much bigger and had several closets.

The teacher called for everybody to be quiet and sit down as she fumbled with the desk drawer where her gun was stored for safety. Unfortunately, most of the students didn’t even look at her or listen to a word she was saying. About seven of them scrambled out the classroom door and headed for the library, while the others tried to hide under their  desks. Two boys who knew a lot about guns from hunting with their fathers stayed with the teacher and tried to help her open the desk drawer. They had seen her do it before in  practice sessions and felt that they knew the process better than she did.

Just then the classroom door swung open and a tall skinny boy with a large gun stepped in. “I thought you guys were in here” he said. “Remember me? You used to grab my lunch box in the cafeteria and eat all the good stuff. Have a taste of my bullets now”. Then he lifted his gun and swept it around the room letting the bullets fly everywhere. The teacher was the first to be hit because she was still standing at her desk. Several kids who were also standing fell to the floor. The shooter looked around the room, but no one else was standing or moving. “Goodbye kids and Miss Teacher. I’ve got more to do.” he yelled as he left the room and slammed the door behind him.

I imagined this gruesome scene because I was a teacher in several different schools. I think I know how I would have acted–and my students too– in a situation like the one I described.  I would have been so nervous that I couldn’t control my students or remember the combination to my desk drawer. Even if I had finally got the gun out, I can’t imagine holding it still and actually pulling the trigger.

Putting aside the discussion of the bad things that might happen in a school under attack and how best to handle them, I think it is more important for teachers, school officials, and parents to focus on making all schools safe all the time. Although the schools I have worked at or visited looked clean and neat, none of them had any supervision to keep outsiders from entering the building and walking around freely. If a person happened to be well dressed and act confident, he or she could roam the halls and peek in the classrooms for as long as he wanted without being questioned.

Moreover, the technology needed in schools’ main offices is old and unreliable or missing altogether. Not one school I’ve been in had a camera at the main entrance or a switch to lock its door automatically. In addition, systems to send messages to classrooms were often old and their messages were hard to understand. Worst of all, there were times, especially during the lunch hour, when the office was left open with no one inside to manage it.

What we Americans still believe, almost universally, is that local schools are a part of our  community and we are part of them.  After all, we pay taxes, vote, attend school meetings, contribute our time and money, and put our children under their care for several years.  What we have not yet figured out is that those schools and our children may be the targets of some very sick and angry person who wants to punish us for not treating him right. We have the same responsibility to protect our schools as we have for our homes and families.

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How Can We Make Schools Safer Without Putting Guns in the Hands of Teachers?

As I finished writing this piece I felt that there was so much more that others could say, depending on the particular needs of their community. I would really appreciate the opinions and new ideas of people who know schools from the inside out

While eating breakfast this morning I turned on the television to be entertained. But the channel I went to enlightened me instead. On the screen were about twenty people, half of them were teachers and half were high school students, all of them from a school in Florida where an angry student with a gun killed 17 children and teachers last week.

Only the students on the screen spoke to the audience, describing their fear while hiding during the time of the killings and their anger when they found out about the deaths of their friends.

All of the students spoke with power and conviction. On the day before their appearance they had visited the offices of local and state officials to find out what steps they could take to keep other schools from suffering similar attacks.  A couple of the officials were sympathetic and willing to take positive actions to protect schools better in the future, but others refused even to talk to them.

Every one of the students who spoke expressed a strong intention to keep putting pressure on local officials and to harass the National Rifle Association, government leaders, gun sellers, and gun owners; all of whom have been standing strong against any action to limit the selling or use of guns for a long time and getting away with it.

To be honest, I must admit that I am not optimistic about the power of students and parents to change the current gun policies. They will be bound to their families and the demands of their education. It seems unlikely that the students will get any action unless their parents and many other adults share their feelings and support them. It would also take a lot of time, money and adult supervision to make it possible for them to travel around the country

I wish I could be more optimistic, but I’m afraid that the rich and powerful gun lovers have more support on their side than the wounded children. There will have to be a countrywide rebellion to make guns harder to buy and get gun owners to give theirs up. The only hope for change I see is a big switch in government power in the next election,

On the other hand I feel there is a good chance to improve the safety in schools. Even if I’m wrong I think it’s worth advocating. There are too many old and rundown schools with kids confined to dilapidated classrooms that are not warm enough in the winter or cool enough in the summer.

What I think schools need the most are up-to-date internal communication systems that enable those in the school office to contact all classrooms quickly when it is necessary and to see anyone who is at the front door trying to get in. Other signals, such as ones for fire or a broken water pipe would have to be signaled differently from others so that teachers and students would recognize their meaning immediately. For any large school it would also be a good idea to have a full time guard walking the school halls regularly, talking to kids in their classrooms about personal safety, and being responsible to report any problems they see. The guard would also stand inside the school entrance during student entry and leaving times to make sure that no stranger is going in or out. The main idea is that the guard would provide safety to all kids, and be trusted by them.

When the time comes to build new schools it would be important to design them with more safety than most current schools have.  One thing to be considered is not putting in windows that someone could shoot or climb through from outside.  Perhaps having the entire main floor of a school for offices and storage would be a good idea.

There is so much to be said about what a modern school should be like that architects should consult principals, teachers, and students to find out what is needed in each place.  I also welcome the observations of readers on those points, hoping to get many good suggestions for school change. What we really need are the views people who have lived through good and bad experiences and now know what to do.




Let’s Think About Saving Our Children instead of the Gun Manufacturers

I  was not interested yesterday or today in writing about education.  All I’ve wanted for the past 48 hours is for Americans to get smart and save this country from the millions of guns that threaten our children and adults..  Although I am not accomplished enough to make the case for changing the Second Amendment I found an article by someone who is.  So I will repost an essay by Jeffrey Sachs, “Overcoming Delusions About the Second Amendment ” which originally appeared in  the Huffington Post.

The 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller shows definitively that the Second Amendment is about an archaic issue relevant to 1790, not to 2012. The Second Amendment reads as follows:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The purpose of the Second Amendment was to prevent the new Federal Government established in 1789 from disarming the state militias and replacing them with a Federal standing army. It was a concern that was relevant perhaps for a few years around the birth of the country. It is irrelevant today. Americans do not rely on state militias in 2012 for our freedom from the federal government.

Though Justice Antonin Scalia tried in the majority opinion to use the Second Amendment to defend gun rights, the many sources that he cited are clear that the purpose of the amendment was to protect state militias. One source, for example, declares, that the purpose of the Second Amendment is “to secure a well-armed militia… .” Another source Scalia cited indicates that the amendment covers only arms that “have some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”

Therefore, Scalia acknowledges that the Second Amendment — even in his pro-gun interpretation — only protects arms that would be used in a militia, not the weapons of a formal army. He makes clear that “M-16 rifles and the like” have no Second Amendment protection and may be banned.

There is thus no constitutional protection whatsoever for the semiautomatic rifle that killed the kids in Newtown. Even Scalia is explicit on that point.

The Second Amendment is a relic of the founding era more than two centuries ago. Its purpose is long past. As Justice John Paul Stevens argues persuasively, the amendment should not block the ability of society to keep itself safe through gun control legislation. That was never its intent. This amendment was about militias in the 1790s, and the fear of the anti-federalists of a federal army. Since that issue is long moot, we need not be governed in our national life by doctrines on now-extinct militias from the 18th century.

More basically, the idea that unregulated private gun ownership and trade protects us against tyranny, or that gun controls would threaten tyranny to us all, is baseless. Democracies around the world regulate guns, preserve their freedoms, and achieve firearm murder rates that are a tiny fraction of the rates suffered in the United States. Other countries, like Australia, have made themselves much safer from gun massacres. Only the U.S. has a political class, on the take from gun manufacturers owned by Wall Street, that stands by while the nation’s children are slaughtered. Yet perhaps the stench is getting even too great for some on Wall Street.

In the name of humanity let’s free our country from the trap of history and the greed of gun-manufacturers.


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