Friday, January 20, 2012

A Short Talk About Education (by a teacher, of all people)


Let's talk about education, shall we.

Today, I attended a meeting for a kid who needs a lot more help than our school can offer. Four women discussed him, asking me questions as they went. I'm his English teacher right now and had taken notes from his three other teachers. We all like him a lot, he's a sweet kid, but in 9th grade he is reading at about the 4th grade level, writing even lower than that, and he does math by counting on his fingers. Social Studies and science confound him to an almost unimaginable degree. He comes to school about half the time, which is a stark improvement on where he was last year. And he has had all sort of terrible stuff go down in his home life.

The meeting was all about one question: How do we help this kid become a productive and happy member of society? It's a tough question but one that we were all eager to dig into because, as I said, he's a good kid and he wants to do better in his life.

During the meeting we never talked about him meeting standards or passing tests (other than to all breathe a sigh of relief that his foreign language requirement had been waved). We weren't overly concerned with him graduating high school and weren't at all thinking about him being in college. Those things may become concerns later, but for now we simply want to help him learn to read, write, add, and communicate.

Here's the thing about education in America: these meetings happen every single day of the year in schools across the country. There are some important things to notice.

Lots of people really do give a damn about how kids do. We teachers aren't at all the people Governor Scott Walker and many on the right would like to paint us as. The basic mission of every single person I have ever worked with in school is to help kids learn. Some are much better at it than others, but I have yet to meet a teacher or administrator who wasn't interested in working to help kids learn. Never. Not once.

Another thing to notice is that this kid isn't a failure of the education system. On the contrary, he is a success. He's not a success of the kind that makes a good political ad, but he is a success nonetheless. He comes to school because he likes it there, he feels safe there, and he knows that he is cared for there. He comes to school because he does not want to drop out of school. He comes to school because he wants to succeed.

School isn't just about graduation rates, test scores, and suiting the demands of businesses. It's not about textbooks, standardized tests, or the common core standards. School is about kids being around adults who want to help them learn. School is about kids learning to become adults in society.

And school works a hell of a lot more than it doesn't.

Were I to post a sample of this kids work without context he would be perceived as a failure, a kid who is so far behind the curve that there is no hope. This is how we look at students and schools in this country: without context or a conception that there is a much bigger picture.

Today, after the meeting, I was imagining a school. Every morning, every single student would be greeted as they came in the door by at least one adult. There would be food and drink for them to enjoy and time to wake up and make the switch from home life to school life. Each student would be matched with one adult in particular who would be their friend and adviser. Classes would be founded on the ideas of compassion and individual learning plans. That is, teachers would be trained in compassion and work with kids to determine what each one needs to learn. In order to do this, the classes would have to be kept quite small and while there would be work in the usual core classes, school would emphasize arts (especially dance and exercise), bodily health (diet and checkups), and mental health (meditation and cognitive therapy). Kids would be involved in the school's design and discipline.

I know that all of this sounds like a pipe dream, especially in today's climate, but I saw the roots of this during that meeting today.

Right now, very few teachers are being asked how schools should run. Instead, business leaders, politicians, university professors, and everyone else seem to be at the wheel while the teachers are left to do the work but not trusted to come up with the plan. I think that that's going to change. I hope it does. The way education is now, I want out. But I'm staying in a bit longer, hoping for change, working for it in small ways, and waiting to see when the winds change and shift.

Until then, I write on.