Gian Paul Gonzalez is "Mr. G" in his Union City, N.J., world history classroom, where he stands at 6-foot-5 with "Truth or Die" dog chains hanging around his neck. In his class 9th-graders learn that history is more than memorizing facts and dates: It's also about learning that individual choices shape society and that individuals can make history. "My students want purpose," Gonzalez says, moving his hands as he speaks: "They want to know that their lives have value . . . that they mean something."
Like other public-school teachers around the country, Gonzalez faces off against crippling social norms such as teen pregnancy (his school has an on-campus nursery), drug use, and gangs. "Our most chronic problem is apathy towards school work and lack of motivation," explained guidance counselor Laura Marcos. Gonzalez echoes that observation: "Kids disregard caution or warning because [they feel] life doesn't matter that much."
Gonzalez contends that if students realize their life has purpose, they'll be less likely to throw it away-so he's using his history class to make that point. An example: His students read Marc Antony's eulogy of Julius Caesar and then wrote eulogies of their own, answering Gonzalez's question-How do you want to be remembered? They dressed in black, brought flowers, and one-by-one read their stories in class. One freshman girl wrote from the perspective of her 2-year-old daughter. Others told stories of greatness, of helping their community, of going to college.
"What are you doing right now to start that?" he asked his class, knowing he might not get an answer. Teaching, he says, is like watching a tree-"some days it doesn't seem to grow." But he's doing something right: Gonzalez was the José Martí Freshman Academy 2011 Teacher of the Year. And he has seen some of his students turn around-one former student visits him every day and runs an anti-drug campaign. "He gets it," Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez has walked the public-school halls for three years now, compelled there by his own sense of purpose. Invited to play in a summer pro league that was sometimes a steppingstone to the National Basketball Association, he chose to return home instead: "I remember writing in my journal one night that I don't want to be a person who is seen on TV. I want to be a person kids can see every day."
For him, becoming an athlete was a miracle. His mother contracted German measles during her pregnancy and doctors, suspecting her baby would be born deformed, urged abortion. His parents refused: Gian Paul turned out to be the strongest baby in the hospital.
He became a Christian in high school and during college realized basketball was not just a sport but a way of life and a linchpin for inner-city youth. He started one organization that brought basketball, friendship, and hope to incarcerated teenagers, and is now-along with teaching-running three others: a group that teaches young boys about mentorship and accountability, an intramural basketball team that encourages academic achievement, and a multi-media organization, "Truth or Die," that teaches about the influence of media.
The public schools have welcomed the abstinence messages of his organization. Although he isn't always able to speak explicitly about his faith, Gonzalez is hopeful: "The love of God . . . [is] something I want to share in all angles with others whether it's outright preaching . . . or staying after school with kids-that's preaching about Jesus with your time and body language."
This fall, he's taking on a new challenge: Instead of teaching history, he's writing and teaching a new class for the city's most at-risk students, 100 of them in all. The students, selected by their teachers, show academic, social, and emotional "growth problems," and school principal Joe Polinik hopes the new class will be a place where they learn how to "make better decisions."
The class will cover not only note-taking and goal-setting, but also conflict resolution and ways to refuse drugs and gangs. Gonzalez is asking his students to create well-researched multi-media projects for their school about how those problems hurt the community. He's hoping the projects will teach students to do more than resist: "If a student feels his life matters, [he's] willing to fight for it."
The headline of the Associated Press article read, "Atlanta Schools Created Culture of Cheating, Fear, Intimidation." The headline should have read, "Integrity Lacking in Atlanta Schools."
The article reads like a defense attorney's closing argument in a criminal case: Ten years of widespread cheating in 44 schools out of approximately 133 in the Atlanta Public School system. Teachers and principals intimidated and bullied into fabricating inflated test scores, but it's not their fault-the evil "No Child Left Behind Act" made them do it.
The article does not mention any lack of personal integrity! The article suggested that Congress enacted a law establishing unreasonable standards. The law's attractive rewards for good results purportedly forced "good" people to cheat to get the rewards. Administrators had to cheat to get needed money. Principals had to get results so funds and bonuses would come through. Teachers faced "mafia-like" pressure to meet the unreasonable goals and expectations of superiors.
Apparently, not one ethical administrator, teacher, principal, or parent uncovered this massive fraud. Did any teachers really care about students' learning? Did anyone ask what we are teaching the children by doing this? The lack of integrity over a long period of time is the real story.
Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall resigned days before the report of these violations went public, saying she did not know about the cheating. Plausible deniability? Hall either knew and encouraged the behavior, or did not want to know and willfully ignored 10 years of opportunities to discover this on her own. The principals and the teachers who kowtowed to this pattern of behavior should also be ashamed. If they had been honest, they might have had to resign and find another job. They might have been fired. Those alternatives must look good to some now who are facing criminal charges, jail time, and fines.
But there is more. The cheaters robbed thousands of students of a real education and real hope for a future. Their behavior was unethical but also irresponsible and selfish. Teachers and administrators who knew of the cheating and said nothing also share culpability. All their students learned lessons from their inaction.
This lack of integrity on such a massive scale shines a light on the culture that has developed within the "Education Establishment." This establishment now proposes "solutions": Either eliminate standards completely, or remove any incentives for genuine results. Both approaches lead to hopelessness. Politicians who propose one-size-fits-all solutions also deserve blame. The educational needs and solutions of the Bronx, San Bernardino, Boise, and Birmingham are very different.
No legislation will solve the ethical lack of integrity exhibited in Atlanta. Integrity is a heart issue. The heart of the matter is the human heart. Unless teachers, administrators, and principals believe integrity is more important than a job, a performance evaluation, or a bonus, this problem will continue. It may change form, it may change location, it may change symptoms, but addressing the heart is the solution, not changing laws, requirements, or incentives.
Solomon said the heart is the "wellspring of life." Unless we as a culture address heart issues with heart solutions, embarrassments will continue to pop up with ever-increasing regularity.