Wednesday, October 12, 2011

We're Still Not Quite Getting It Right

October 12, 2011

I spent this afternoon reading students' papers, and I came across a few that were somewhat disheartening--candid, honest, and a little eye-opening. Despite my misgivings about the 'hows' of the way those of we in education (and politics, as it turns out) sometimes go about doing the work of supporting and teaching the kids in our charge, I truly believe that most of us have the very best of intentions--the 'whys'-- at heart. But they're not all getting it. And honestly, I understand. In all our zeal to really reach every kid, to provide every kid with the tools to achieve proficiency and above so that they can move up and out to the next socially acceptable level--college--we are inadvertently sending the message that any other path is somehow inferior or unimportant.

Not that I don't believe that we can and should teach all kids, and not that I don't believe it's our responsibility to make sure every kid, should he or she choose the path, is ready to attend whatever college he or she chooses. But some of our students, kids who walk into our doors--my door--are feeling disenfranchised and dismissed. We talk about being prepared for college and the world beyond our doors, but the kids hear the subtext--college is the important goal, and anything else is second best. Critical thinking skills? Critical reading? Writing analysis? All incredibly important, no matter what the job, especially in this day and age. I talk about being a 'critical consumer of information' in my class. Whatever the text, whatever the information, we do ourselves a service to be able to discern intended audience, purpose, rhetorical strategies. Being able to sift through someone else's presentation of information, whether it be through a college textbook, a billboard, the evening news, a movie, a commercial, an instruction manual, an editorial, a television show, or a political campaign speech, is a skill that benefits anyone. But the kids think we are training them for higher education, and higher education alone. The institution has trained them to believe and to hear only college, and we're not doing a good enough job of showing them the importance of these skills in non-college bound paths. Why? Because as an institution, we pride ourselves on showing every single kid that he or she CAN go to college. Whether by design or by default, that has turned into every kid SHOULD go to college--or something is wrong.

So these are our kids, ones who feel unsuccessful and unimportant in the eyes of the school because the path that is calling them is not leading them to college--or at least not to college at this age in their lives. They feel they are just marking time, taking up space in classrooms not designed to meet their needs, until they can graduate and get on with their lives. They feel we don't care, or worse, that we only care about the fact that they take up our time, or bring down percentages on our standardized tests. That in fact, we only care about them insomuch as they reflect on us. And truth be told, there certainly might be some for whom that is true. But as I said at the beginning, I truly believe most of us have the right 'whys' at heart. I look at my motives, my reasons for being a teacher. I look at my colleague in the classroom to the left of me, and my colleague to the right of me, and the one across the hall--these are genuine, compassionate people who are in the business of teaching kids because they care about kids, not because they care about a number or a statistic that somehow validates their professional existence. They--we--care about who they are as human beings, with fears and hopes and dreams and ingenuity and individuality. They come to us with their own backgrounds and perspectives, and that's part of the privilege of getting to do what we do every day--interacting with all of these individuals, teaching them what we know, and learning from their perspectives at the same time.

And yet--they're not getting it. Many of them see us as a 'talking head', an obstacle to endure and hopefully overcome on their way to real life. They see us as wardens and overly-zealous power lords whose only objective is to orchestrate increasingly meaningless and difficult hoops for them to have to jump through for our own sadistic pleasure, especially the kids who have non-traditional aspirations that are not institutionally supported in their eyes. As one of my students wrote, "Why can't we learn things that are important to me? Changing your oil? That will save you money. Balancing a checkbook? Everyone needs to know how to do that. But we learn stuff that I will never need to know. This school is prejudiced toward the smartest kids. What about us kids who aren't as smart? Nobody is trying to help me."

It broke my heart. We're not making the connections clearly enough, and I don't mean just me in my classroom or my neighbor in his. I'm talking about the whole institution--the school, the district, the state, even the discussion of education at the federal level. It's not that we're not trying to help them; it's that we haven't figured out how to not just tell them, but show them that they are, each and every one of them, important. We are so narrowed in on statistics and data that the kids feel like that's what they've been reduced to.

One of my students asked me last week why I decided to become a teacher. How did I know that's what I wanted to do? I told her I became a high school teacher because I love kids, especially high school kids. I love the interaction, and I love to be able to share with them the things I love--reading and learning and writing. She said, "Huh. More teachers should become teachers because of that. I don't think most of them like kids."

Honestly, that hasn't been my experience at all. Most of the people I work with went into teaching for exactly those same reasons. Somehow, we just aren't getting the message out there. We're missing something, and everyone is going to end up losing. It's the kind of thing that's just not going to show up somewhere on a scantron test. There's no statistic or data that's going to fix that, so we'd better start looking somewhere else.


  1. This is awesome. You echo my feelings on teaching. One of my relatives asked me years ago why I wanted to teach younger kids. My undergrad degree is in English, and it would have been easier to get my teaching certificate for high school English. I told him that I preferred to teach the whole child over subject matter. Knowing that about myself led me to special education.
    The administrators in our district are pushing a new mission statement that says we should be preparing every child for college. It doesn't feel like the right message for my students. The statement alienates so many...
    Such a frustrating system. And the problem is so much larger than school - our culture is wonky.
    Great post. Thanks so much!!

  2. I love this post.

    I'm not sure I have anything useful to add, but I love how honest you are. It gives me hope.

  3. Movie sent me here, she knows I have not been about the blogs (mostly because I switched schools last year- lots more work- plus took a second job to make up the teacher pay cut).

    This is thoughtful and earnest. I also have friends outside of education that try and tell me about MY colleagues. You are right, most people would never go into teaching unless they liked kids and thought they could make a difference. It is just a lot more difficult than we expected given the parameters of the policy makers.

  4. Donna, I don't think it's the individuals. I think it's the system that's broken. And it's a shame that the system is discouraging to so many teachers -- and I respect you for keeping your hope and courage while swimming against the tide.

    In their book, Revolutionary Wealth, Alvin and Heidi Toffler explain how the current educational system is geared toward scientists getting jobs as scientists -- and, having entered the information age, the education system fails. In my words, the system is a machine that was designed in the Industrial Revolution for people work as cogs in a machine, and then it was tuned up for the Space Age, to develop scientists and engineers. Here, in the information age, we are still trying to use the old machine to crank out relevant workers in the information age. Try driving your car to the moon lately? How about on the Information Superhighway?

    There is more good info about the failing education system here:

    I don't care for conspiracy theories, so I'm not even going to go down the path of The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America, but when there is such systemic acknowledgement that education is failing, and nobody can do anything about it, there is definitely something wrong with the socio-economic system that lets us keep paying taxes for that non-working system! Would it be too cynical to believe that big business is profiting from our machine-that-leads-us-nowhere (e.g., NCLB)?

    Even with the prestigious education I was given, I also felt alienated and refused to apply to the ivy-league colleges that my peers eventually graduated from. Many years later, my kids are being "home-schooled" because I still don't think learning is as efficient in school as it can be out of it.


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