Pardon the soap box, but this is a topic I am passionate about. The education system is a mess. Much like our economy, we got into this mess together and it will take all of us to clean it up.
I have been an active volunteer in our school district ever since my youngest entered kindergarten 14 years ago, and after 15 years and 3 children, I will finally be done with elementary school next year! My volunteer participation has run the gamut. I’ve been a PTA member, a volunteer coordinator, a class room helper (and pain in the ass too, I’m sure). I’ve served on SAAC at the elementary, middle and high school levels. I’ve served on numerous district committees. I’ve been a guest author in my son’s class, I helped out in my daughter’s high school biology class on dissection day and I have choreographed songs in my other daughter’s high school show choir. So last summer, I figured, “Why not sub? Can’t be much harder than everything I’ve already got myself into. And, I’ll get paid for it. Besides, it would be good for me to see all of this from the inside.”
Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad! I did get paid (sort of) and it was definitely good for me to see things from the inside. As for the difficulty level… I loved all the new challenges and doing something different every time. I even loved working with the “students that will give you trouble.” The difficulty was deciding to either accept the mediocrity I was confronted with, or make a conscious decision to expect more. Of course, I opted for the latter.
For those of you who have never had the experience of teaching in a public school, allow me to enlighten you to a few things you don’t read in the papers! 1) In some of the elementary schools, the kids get breakfast in the classroom. It is a wonderful and necessary thing to provide but it takes up a good chunk of time when you are trying to get the day started. 2) In a middle school, I approached an 8th grader who was trying to hold back his tears in the lunch room because while he was putting ketchup on his burger, someone stole the rest of his lunch. This was no little guy being picked on either – he was football player size. While I was shocked to hear what had happened, I was very impressed with how it was handled by the school. During lunch, they have a teacher circulate the lunch room with a paper shopping bag. Any unopened food on a tray that a student does not intend to eat can be placed in the bag for redistribution to someone else. My poor 8th grader had 1 pudding and 1 milk taken and ended up with 2 puddings and 1 milk! 3) There really are teachers in our schools who give every kid an A regardless of ability or effort. These same teachers expect nothing from their students, do not have any respect in the classroom, and have set many kids up to believe they are not capable of learning. 4) There really are teachers who consistently go above and beyond everything they are paid to do because they honestly want to make a difference in the life of a student. These teachers are hard to find because they do it out of a true passion for their work and don’t look for or expect any recognition for their accomplishments.
After subbing in a very few number of classrooms, the first thing I figured out was this – just like the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, I can tell you all I really need to know about a classroom is in the style of the lesson plans left for me. It never failed, a teacher who felt it necessary to leave me an entire page about classroom discipline, bribery and trouble makers meant I would have a hell of a time getting any respect in the classroom and I would be hard pressed to actually have the opportunity to teach at all. However, when I was left with brief notes about the classroom in general and details about the subject matter to be covered, I looked forward to learning with a new group of students.
Now to get back to my conscious decision. Sadly, one thing I noticed in all classes, across all grade levels, regardless of notes left for me, is that we seem to expect less than we should of students. I couldn’t believe how many times I heard, “I can’t do this. I’m stupid.” Or how many teachers left me notes about specific kids not keeping up or letting me know not to worry if I didn’t get through everything because the class just can’t do it. The most heartbreaking and inspiring day, though, was the day that began with a boy telling me I should just yell at him and send him to the office now because that’s what always happens. I told him we would just wait and see how things went. At the end of the class period, not only was he still there, but he had actually participated in the work for the day. When I pointed out to him the simple fact he was still there, his face lit up and he said, “Yeah, I did it.” I guess my decision to expect more comes from the fact that I know most kids can do it if others believe in them and assist them.
We cannot have the luxury of blaming the students, the parents, the teachers or the administrators. We all need to step up and do anything and everything we possibly can to encourage success for all children – the challenged, the gifted, the average – every single one of them deserves the opportunity to succeed and the belief they can.
I know classrooms are often over crowded with a huge variety of learners, and teachers can’t possibly be expected to reach them all. However, I would hope we don’t just throw up our arms and say, “It can’t be done.” I was in there doing it every chance I got.