This is what I did on my first morning of freedom from the classroom after completing the 2012-2013 school year; I spent three hours composing a response to a thought-provoking blog post by David Warlick.
School ended yesterday, and it was a difficult but rewarding year. Reading 2¢ Worth provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my teaching philosophy and frustrations. I hope my heartfelt response is taken in the spirit in which it is intended, with an eye toward helping our struggling public schools during a time of rapid social and technological change.
I feel that teachers, administrators and parents must unite in an attempt to save our schools from ill-informed politicians and greedy business people who seek to make personal gains and profits from the field of education, rather than to help chart a course based on decisions that advocate for and assist students.
Personalized learning in public schools is a JOKE because children (even up to high school age in many cases) have no interest in reflecting or conversing about learning activities.* They would rather be fishing : ) Or playing video games or walking around the mall or daydreaming or doing just about anything else besides talking about learning activities. That is why teachers have jobs. What public school teachers do, for those bureaucrats who don’t have a clue, is reflect and converse about relevant and interesting activities that will engage and inspire our students (while sneakily teaching them a few basics about communication that will empower them to become educated, competent citizens. AND THEN, we plan, organize, purchase supplies for, and DO these activities from September to June with large, socially-diverse groups of distracted, behaviorally-challenged, needy children.
An example of what I’m trying to say:
My son (a teenager, a good kid, a smart boy) would rather eat peanut butter m&m’s and Oreos for breakfast everyday. It’s my job as a mom to gently guide him in another direction and try to teach him why. Then hopefully when he is an adult he will make good choices about breakfast. But if he doesn’t, at least he will be an adult, responsible for his own decisions, good or bad. If I let my son eat m&m’s and Oreos in the morning without at least trying to acquaint him with the virtues of oatmeal and fruit, then I am doing him a great disservice.
It is the responsibility of parents and teachers to protect children from their underdeveloped decision-making abilities. It’s not always easy. They resist. But it is our job.
In school (I teach fifth grade) my students want to learn about football plays, video games, One Direction, Family Guy, antique cars, fashion trends, and just about any topic that doesn’t seem remotely educational. They will absorb information and learn about those things on their own without my assistance. Will they, however, choose to broaden their horizons, of their own free will, by reading a poem by Carl Sandburg or Maya Angelou or historical fiction about the Revolutionary War or a Chinese folktale that reinforces the concepts of patience and persistence?
Do fifth graders really care about multiplication facts or estimating subtraction with decimals, until they’re standing in a checkout line on their own, wondering if the $10 bill in their pocket is enough to purchase three packs of Yugioh cards for $3.42 each? They don’t necessarily care about these things now, but I see it as my job to expose them to a wide variety of literary, mathematical, scientific and historical topics during a time in their lives when they are exploring, questioning, and growing as individuals. Children ARE underdeveloped, and the job of parents and teachers is to nurture and encourage them to be the best they can be!
Now, imagine assembling a group of 20+ children, most who would rather be somewhere else, many who have difficulty socializing and making good choices about their behavior,** some who are neglected, hungry, or poor, but being responsible for providing each of them, in the same room, with significant personalized learning experiences, with few quality resources and dwindling support from overworked administrators. Add to that pressure from state and federal agencies to improve student performance or risk losing your job or precious funding for your district. This is what takes place in public schools in this country everyday.
Believe it or not, it is do-able! But it is a much easier, more enjoyable endeavor for dedicated, professional educators when we are not being criticized, condemned, and constantly forced to document and justify our worth using well-meaning but misguided measures created by people who have never spent time in a classroom.
One of the challenges of teaching is to provide the perfect balance of just enough structure and just enough free choice. Again, a good life provides the same balance. Effective teachers make this look easy, 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, 180 days a year. (Then they spend another 17 hours a day, 2 days a week, 186 days a year reflecting on and conversing about how to do this. Yes, we reflect and converse in our sleep, and every year is a leap year for teachers!!!) It IS Exhausting, and it IS Worth it!
Teachers have a job to do, and most very much wish they had adequate time to do it, without all the outside distractions of teacher evaluation paperwork and political debates about education reform. There is an efficient system in place for training, certifying, and hiring passionate and enthusiastic teachers. The people who don’t trust teachers to do this job of reflecting, conversing, planning, organizing, and implementing engaging activities for students should homeschool their children and do all these things themselves.
* I still do it with them, mind you, but it’s not their choice; it is mine.
** Largely because of cutbacks to counseling and social services and increased spending on standardized testing and other irrelevant initiatives.