Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Don't get me started

Don't get me started
Originally published on June 12, 2013

School's out for the summer in Toledo.  Cookouts and picnics abound in my neighborhood as well as the sound of laughing children, happy to be outside after a long winter into spring.  For two and half months, my friends who are teachers are able to work on home projects, attend workshops and prepare for the 2013-14 school year.  In addition, many of them have a summer job to help cover their expenses. 
When I quit teaching fourteen years ago, someone asked, "What are you going to do now?"
"Work less and get paid more," I replied.
"How could you work any less?" she sneered.  "After all, you get your summer's off."
"Why don't you come into my classroom on a Monday morning at 9:00," I said.  "I'll leave you nothing...no lessons or behavioral plans; no indication of what the kids need or their challenges.  By Friday at 3:00, you tell me how little I work."
Her eyebrows shot up.  "I wouldn't want your job in a million years."           
And so it goes.

Teachers in America have become the target for why our children are failing.  Many of my former colleagues, all highly educated and trained professionals, are now facing the fact that their salaries may one day be linked to how well their students perform on standardized tests.  They've been instructed to teach to the test to avoid having their schools labeled "at risk," and often feel scapegoated by those who spend little to no time in their classrooms.  
I began every school year by saying something like this to the parents of my first graders at Open House:  "You are most welcome in our classroom at any time.  It's important for you to know what's happening here at school.  I encourage you to keep in mind that while I'm responsible for your child's academic work and safety while he or she is with me from nine until three, you are responsible for the other eighteen hours of the day. 
"You are your child's first and most important teacher.  For the first five years of their life, you taught them how to speak and think and eat and everything else a little person need to learn.  You taught them your values and your habits and they will reflect you here in the classroom. Let's work together to make your child's education a success."
I was lucky.  The majority of the parents attended conferences and signed their children's homework notebooks.  Some of them called to talk about issues at home and asked my advice on what I was doing in the classroom that seemed to make a difference.
But that was in the nineties.  Testing was just beginning to become influential and by late 1998, I could see the writing on the wall.  Watching my first graders sob over mandated standardized tests was one of the reasons I left the classroom the following spring.  No longer would I be able to teach creative, developmentally accurate lessons.   And with more and more children coming to school without their basic needs met (let alone the need to be seen and heard and loved), I knew that if I continued teaching, my life would be so stressful, I'd end up burned out before my fortieth birthday.

I've been out of the classroom more than I was in it, but I still teach.  I choose where and when and how.  I choose how much I will charge for my services and live with the reality of being in a service profession which can be feast or famine.  But it's still my choice, and it's one I'm thankful to make.
I stay in touch with many of my former students and their parents, some who are very close friends.  They keep me grounded in why I love working with children, why I wanted to become a teacher in the first place.   While I am deeply blessed to be surrounded by many people who love and nurture their children, it's heartbreaking for me to watch how many parents don't parent. 
There was a blog posted last week by a woman who sardonically bragged about being "the worst end of the school year mom ever."  She hadn't checked her son's homework notebook in three weeks, complained mightily about the time and energy it took to throw together a mediocre project and whined about how she just wished the school year would end already.  She didn't make the time to check his work or make sure he was doing his best on a project, but she made the time to a write a blog complaining about it. 
I wonder what her son is learning from his mother's behavior.  Beyond that, does she realize how difficult the end of the year is for teachers who are trying to cover curriculum, complete grade cards, and manage a classroom filled with children infested with spring fever?  I wonder how she would feel if she were under pressure at work to finish a project that was a year in the making only to have her co-workers drop the ball in the final quarter.     

Teachers do not create children. 
Parents create children.
Teachers can influence them greatly, but the unpleasant truth is the lack of accountability for who is responsible for the other eighteen hours in a child's day and how that environment more profoundly colors who the child is and who he/she becomes.
I recently spent the day at a friend's home and in a five hour period, her sons and I played chess and Monopoly, did a little knitting, wrote a story, played outside, and finally, at the end of the day, read some books before bedtime.  This is common place for my friend's boys and I love every moment I get to spend with them.  Their parents often hold them close and listen to what they have to say.  They occasionally will ask a question, then they listen some more.  The boys are well adjusted, bright, articulate and confident children.  They are also curious and honest and hardworking when given a task.  It's no wonder they do well in school and continue to thrive in their home environment.
But not all children are as fortunate.
When shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I was trying to steer a large cart through a narrow aisle.  A family with four small children sat in the seasonal area, trying out lawn furniture.  The littlest, a boy who couldn't have been more than fourteen months, was pulling himself up on his father's chair.  As I approached the family, I said to the father, "Excuse me, I don't want to bump into your baby."
He had been staring into space and when I spoke, he reached down and grabbed the baby's arm, pulling the boy into his lap.  "I forgot I had another one," he grumbled.
I glanced at the mother whose face didn't register a thing.  I imagined she had heard him, but chose not to acknowledge his sardonic comment.  The other three children looked at me with grimy faces, oblivious to their father's cruelty.  I felt sorry for them all.  So I smiled at the kids and sent them all thoughts of peace.
Then, as I walked away, I sent a prayer to the teachers who will one day have all four of those children in their classrooms.