When it comes to public education, one must be idealistic

21 Jul
When it comes to public education, one must be idealistic

We eased into public school. Part time, just the youngest two, just P.E. We’d just arrived back from overseas, where we’d homeschooled some, co-op’d some, had the kids in language study, public school and private school, each in turn to try to find the right situation given their levels of maturity, flexibility, and cultural adjustment. Maybe the kids would be going to school the next year full time instead of homeschooling, since we’d pretty much run out of money and I’d have to try to find work. Besides, the nearest campus was just around the block. Met the principal, a short, seemingly sleepy woman, but as it tuned out, very astute. We had our choice of schedules and class arrangements, something full-timers don’t. Did the paperwork, signed the kids up for their respective classes, the remaining semester only. They both had Mr. Kline–a wonderful, experienced, kind man who knew how to really teach as well as keep an orderly and positive gym environment.

Some days one or the other claimed to be sick or injured, but it seemed to be mostly discomfort, and no wonder. Thirty kids per class, only twice a week of busy gym time, so no time to form friendships, starting in the middle of the year, having to learn new moves. And so did I have to learn new moves. I’d been on the school parent end in Israel, but that was different in the sense that they expected my kids would need lots of parental support, being in a different culture and language immersion environment and all. I’d show up to discuss problems with the teacher, provide alternate study materials, arrange for extra tutoring, eventually arrange a part-time schedule. I had certainly learned to take principals’ assurances with a grain of salt, assurances that the school was fantastic, all the teachers above reproach, and so on. I learned to observe, be an assertive advocate for my kids, while at the same time encouraging them to do their best, be patient, stick with it, find their niches, try to remember that one day they’d be glad they had such an adventure.

But how much of those skills would translate back in the U.S.?

Perhaps it’s disloyal, not socialist and egalitarian enough, but I’d prefer do the same thing here, take that consumer approach, advocate for my kids (and therefore support a model for other parents being able to do the same thing). Rather than just sign ’em up and hand ’em over, complete with free bus ride from my block. I’d prefer to walk into the school the previous year, observe classes, meet and even choose my kids’ teachers, decide on “grade” (expertise required and intensity of study?) level (different for different subjects?), electives, bring someone in one-on-one (or one with a half dozen others) during classes or activities that don’t have value for my kid, so he can instead do extra free writing (with prompts and feedback), delve into poetry, form a musical group, get extra tutoring. Self-paid, but using available school space? Open houses would be important for researching school and teachers, as now, but need it be so contrived–shiny, happy people holding hands–can we watch candid class video clips? We look at teacher notes, meet former students and their parents, read and hear teacher reviews! And how about individualized schedules? Five-day, four-day, three-day fifth grade? Only mornings or afternoons? I’d be responsible for the rest of the program, of course, maybe help organize something with the other parents on my type of schedule–field trips? Co-op? A performance choir? Carpentry class?

What if teachers offered a variety of approaches, according to their philosophies and gifts? Starting out, perhaps, with the traditional approach and lots of peer mentoring, and becoming more truly individual and in tune to student needs, an organic, dynamic approach. And if it seemed like some teacher needed to bust out due to values perhaps not allowable in state funded program, could there be a crowd-funded spin-off program or element (tax breaks for the funders)?

Many teachers look back on their teacher education programs critically, judging them as no sort of preparation. I can’t say that about mine. Of course it was a strain to learn to organize my own classroom and program, adjust to school and local culture, figure out how I could best deal with those strange teenage creatures, most of who had little value for the system we worked in. But philosophically, I feel I was well grounded (partly by my upbringing, of course, but my B.Ed. program was key. One of the most valuable elements in the Acadia University School of Education approach (in those years, at least) was that each professor was free to take the approach that most suited his or her personality and/or the focus/material of the class. So I saw, by their example, that a good teacher might hand out a syllabus and schedule of topics, list of meaningful assignments with due dates and percent grade weight. Another might have everyone sit in a circle, and ask “So what do you need to know, and how can I help you get there?” A third might specialize in rich all-class discussion and debate, periodically launching into spontaneous role play to explore various viewpoint on philosophical issues. Yet another might offer content-heavy lectures with Q&A along with a detailed list of what a student must accomplish to achieve an A+, A, A-, and so on, based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. And there was a typical boring, out-of-touch, inexperienced professor who taught straight from his post-doc publications because it’s what I he knew. And so on. One professor brought almost every discussion and assignment evaluation down to his mantra, “SUCCESS!” He felt that a teacher ought to do whatever he or she could to help every student succeed. Incredibly short, wrinkled, smiling man in a rumpled suit, he also exclaimed, “TEACHING IS REVISING!” whenever he could make that point from what we were working on. So I saw individualized teaching, flexibility, and trust in students to pursue their own learning goals, with a lot or a little help from the teacher. I’ve never forgotten that.

Instead I call my new neighborhood school, find out the principal does not know who next year’s teacher will be, will not even guess, and of course cannot comment on which teacher would the best for my kid. It will be a class of up to thirty-five, depending on enrollment. Only guarantee is that students will be grouped by age. Special permission needed to enroll in the school on the other block (why should individuals have individual choices–it wouldn’t be fair!) Children need to have bad teachers too, to learn how to deal with that, I’ve heard in various quarters.

Of course, some can choose homeschooling, unschooling, independent community cooperatives, school-home partnerships (do lots of paperwork and stay away from religious content, and you can get some materials paid for by the district, in return for registering as a public school student, thus bringing in more state funding without adding a body to the classroom). Out of the homeschooling “movement” has come very independent, creative thinkers who believe that education, personal scholarship, training, all can and ought to be individualized. And that parents have the right to manage and individualize their kids’ education if they can, whether it’s “fair” or not. Might even benefit society as a whole if we end of with some variety in educational preparation. Off these young adults go to interesting , universities, trips around the world, internships, jobs, sometimes without even bothering to graduate high school. Yes, that’s allowed (tell your principal).

Ivan Illich wrote of deschooling society and breaking the school’s monopoly on education. What if we broke open the structure of the thing, went beyond the status quo? Is it time to act more like a consumer of educational opportunities? I agree with John Taylor Gatto that “public” should make “public” schools more like public libraries–full of the works of a variety of real people freely expressing themselves and offering to share, to be used by choice and in various ways according to individual needs and priorities. Should something “public” really be compulsory? See this link to Gatto’s writing.

What a lot of work that would be for parents, though–all that organizing, advocacy, truly being part of our children’s educational process during “school hours.” As if more than a few of us aren’t obliged to work full time and therefore, when it comes to the education of our children (both a personal and a public responsibility), we do end up signing ’em up and dropping ’em off. Still, one must be idealistic. Yes, that’s what I said. One must be idealistic to see change for the better. Being practical will take care of itself (thanks to those wonderful practical people) if we start in work in some more idealism.


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