After two successful weeks on Romper Room (local franchise of the national TV pre-school), I entered first grade at Lynch View Elementary in September of 1960, as there was no public kindergarten in our area. Following high school I went to community college and then a state school to finish my degree.
Three months after graduating from college I was teaching in an elementary school in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Over the years I have been an involved parent and community member (including a failed school board run), taught at virtually every level from pre- to elementary to middle to high school, university, grad school and community education, and now I’m doing a bit of substitute teaching.
All of this leaves me with observations, strong opinions, respect, hopes, concerns and questions. Here is a random sampling of my thoughts surrounding schools and education.
1. There’s no such thing as compulsory education.
To put it simply, you can’t make anyone learn anything. You can build buildings, train and hire staff, set curriculum, establish programs and force attendance. But you can’t make anyone learn. I used to say that all adult learning is self-learning. But I have adjusted my view to say that all learning is self-learning. You can create opportunities for learning; you do things that make learning easier or more interesting. You can inform people of the values of learning and the dangers of not learning. At some point, each individual will make a choice when it comes to actual learning. I have watched kids sit in a daze for an hour and a half more content to exist in a near state of nothingness than to make an effort to participate in learning.
2. Some stereotypes are deserved.
I was recently in a high school history class being taught by a basketball coach. She was talking about the American political system and she referred to a fact in the federal election system related to presidential elections. She said a change happened around 1970. I cringed and looked it up. It was closer to 1800, which was the time I was thinking. I waited until class was over, thanked her for the time of being an observer in her room and mentioned she might want to check the facts in question. She gave me a not-too-subtle look letting me know she was the teacher and implying my day was long past. I hope she’s a good coach.
3. There is no level playing field.
Some kids are naturally smarter. Some have more self-determination. Some are easier to like and thereby get more attention or better grades. Some are hard to like and easy to ignore. Some have great parents and eat breakfast everyday. Some are hungry to learn or driven by the sense of accomplishment. Some stay up all night playing video games or listening to fighting adults. I challenge you to find an easy way to motivate and evaluate this small sample of the realities lived out in student’s lives in most any school setting.
4. School is as much about socialization than education.
Class sizes, schedule constraints, standardized testing and ever-fluctuating government regulation add to varied levels of interest, ability and participation and thereby impact learning. I watch kids in and out of the classrooms. From playgrounds to the campus commons, students take advantage of loose supervision to create, or at least discover, their emerging sense of community. Students have their methods of subverting teacher’s expectations and control. Conversations, whispers, looks and other creative forms of communication are discovered by each new generation of students. For better or worse, students are living into what they will become, especially in how they relate to others and live in community.
5. Grades are a conundrum.
Grades may do more to discourage learning than they do to encourage it. Grades often encourage learning and working a system more than mastering a subject. Grades ultimately tell how a specific teacher judges a singular student in a chosen moment. Period.
6. Good teachers are good teachers.
I do think teachers make a difference. Caring deeply makes a difference. Kids need it and know when it is real. Teachers who are self-aware and mature with a mixture of academic competence create a classroom that sets the best baseline for students to become interested in and open to learning. I will wrap up with memories of teachers who made a difference in my education, but much more in my life.
Mrs. Jones was my second grade teacher. She may have been tuned into the troubles I was experiencing on the home front. I remember her pulling me aside for brief conversations and the day she gave me a tropical fish to take home. I guess she knew we had an aquarium.
In upper elementary (we did not have middle or junior high school), there was Mr. Meyer and Mr. Barker. Mr. Meyer was the cool art teacher. He was single (cool) and his parents owned a (cool) drive in theater. He drove cool cars, had a cool haircut and wore cool clothes. But he was much more than image. He had a bit of aloofness toward the system and others’ expectations. He treated us like something more than little kids or simply students.
Mr. Barker taught eighth grade U.S. history, still my favorite class and subject. I remember the day he stood on his desk kicking books to the floor and imitating Mussolini for us. I was transfixed. He and I would talk of presidents from past days and events that shaped our heritage. He was fascinating, larger than life.
Mr. Lamb was our high school speech teacher. He had a reputation on the state and national level for the quality of students he coached in speech and debate competitions. I was not one of those students. I hung around with speech kids because I liked them and because I loved his classes. Often the hour would be filled with random stories about life and of far-ranging people and situations. Conversations with Mr. Lamb were rich, always about much more than the surface subject.
Miss Vincent was the other major influence in my high school days. She taught my freshman algebra class. It was not a class I liked. To be honest it was a brutal struggle. I do not know how or why but we stayed connected after I finished her class. We’d touch base when I would walk by her room or passing in the halls, lunchroom or some other school setting. I never excelled in algebra or any math that followed, but I valued the connection with her, the support she extended and the memories that still encourage me.
My advisor in college was Dr. Ferguson. There were stories of women who would leave her office crying. She would talk of needing to be tough to build a career and that she wanted to get rid of those who were not committed. And this was in elementary education. Once I got past her initial screening we developed a sense of trust and respect. She was a great support in completing my education and launching my career.
Observing what happens in school fascinates me. I am aware of how deeply the people and experiences of my school days have shaped me. I am intrigued to watch my grandkids make their way through the system and their parents support them along the way. I appreciate the relationships I have developed in schools as a student, a teacher and in other roles over so many years. And I hope I am still helping make schools something more, something better, in my corner of the world.