The Prize

“Getting people to do the current thing is fine. Getting people to do the right thing is essential.”
 – Todd Whitaker

Flipped classrooms, teaching with Ipads, core curriculum, alternative assessment, global education, and social learning theory are just a handful of the fads bandied about in education today.  Although plenty of time and money are exhausted implementing these innovations, surely they will be gone faster than a donut in a teacher’s lounge. Show me a teacher with ten years in the classroom, and I’ll show you someone who has seen a concept come and go, then return again repackaged in glitter and bow at least once if not twice in her career.

Dr. Burt Bleke led several districts in West Michigan over the last 30-some years.  His work for the Grand Rapids Public Schools over a brief three year period still impresses. He transformed a rancorous  school board, a beleaguered teacher union,  and an anti-public school political climate into a vibrant, open community whose focus was kids.  I saw before my eyes a defensive union bargaining team and a hostile administration turn in to a round table of like minded co-workers. Dr. Bleke worked tirelessly in darkened hallways, hot sidewalks, church kitchens, and (no kidding) in classrooms* to convey his care for our mission of teaching children.

Dr. Bleke was once asked by a reporter if he was concerned with the poor results of the recent standardized test scores. He responded that our focus was not a test or scores, but the fundamental work of teaching. Creating a caring environment where students are invested in their learning results in  raised test scores, reading levels, graduation rates, etc. He truly believed that if we kept our eye on that prize, everything else would follow. He was right. During his reign several key indicators revealed gains throughout an otherwise challenged inner-city school district.

Todd Whitaker writes, “[Great teachers] do what is right, no matter what else is going on.” Great teachers don’t ignore change, nor are they insubordinate.  They simply get kids to care – they get them to “buy into” whatever is the challenge of the day. They put the children before the fad, innovation, and re-packaged programs. They touch student’s hearts so that they may teach.



*During his tenure as Superintendent in Grand Rapids, Dr. Bleke regularly tutored middle school students after school.

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