Trigger Warning: There is a bad word in this…
The time had come for me to take a unit test in a sixth grade Language Arts class. This was a big test for me because I thought I might have a chance to move to the back table with the coolest kids. Little did I know back then, but one would someday have a cool job working in a lighthouse up in Maine. Anyway, the test included a reading and then some comprehension questions. One of the tasks in the test was to make an outline about clouds.
I think I was already starting to dislike school. Maybe that sounds crazy since my whole career has been as a teacher, but it’s learning that I love, not school. On the outlining part of the test, I could not remember where the Roman numerals went and where the capital letters were supposed to go. My teacher kept sending the test back with directions for me to fix the outlines and I kept sending it back wrong. I’m sure that I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about the outlines. I didn’t care about the clouds. I only really cared about sitting with those guys in the back of the room. Finally, Mrs. K. gave in and let me move on to the next level. She also kept me in my desk near the front of the room.
I’ve thought about that day many times over the course of my career as a teacher. I thought about it a lot while I was working on my doctorate in education. During those Monday night classes where we debated that state of education in the context of creating change, I began to believe that we are missing the boat on education. As we are forced to squeeze more from students in the name of achievement and accountability and as we continue to force canned instructional programs on students for the sake of standardization and efficiency, we are losing the essence of learning. To learn is to have interest. To learn is to be passionate about something new. Learning is more than a college prep course, scripted instructional programs, or a one dimensional program focusing on some motivation inspired by industrial interests.
Recently, two former students talked to me about school in those terms. The first is a current high school junior who wants to be a physical therapist. She is working in an experiential program that has her paired with professionals in the field. She lit up when she talked about her opportunities to get practical experience before going to college. She also shared her disappointment at not being able to take fitness classes, because of all the other “academic” stuff she had to do. She felt like being in an environment where she was exercising and learning about how the body worked was more suited for her goals than learning about history. Names, dates, and the struggle for power…
I agree with her in principle. Core academic subjects are important, but how many of our students will use the content knowledge that is required in those courses? We miss the opportunity to link the content to life skills in meaningful and practical ways. For example, how often are students asked to write goals. While schools spend a great deal of time talking about students following their goals, we give them very little opportunity to follow them. Goal setting will continue to be nothing more than an academic exercise until students are allowed to pursue those goals and demonstrate commitment to achieving them. For my student, the traditional academic requirements are not necessarily meeting her needs. Too bad…
The second student graduated last year (2015) and I was fortunate to teach him for all four years in high school. When I asked him as a freshman if he was thinking about going to college he said, “I don’t have no time for fuckin’ college.” Instead of shutting him down for his language or telling him he would be closing doors if he didn’t go to college, I just said, “Cool,” and left it alone. He worked hard in my classes, helped other students succeed, took care of large family at home, and lived a social life straight out of Dazed and Confused. Today, he is landscaping and not regretting his decision at all. He does what he needs to do without giving in to the singleminded focus of college as the only path to success.
I love my job as an educator. Some would say that being a gym teacher is not really teaching (Try it, I dare you…). Health is an academic subject, but this is not about me trying to justify whether Health and Physical Education are important parts of a student’s learning. What this is about is whether we have the students’ best interests in mind or do we have the best interest of education in mind? I wonder about instructional programs that are based on shaky research practices. I fear that coercion is the tool that gets used to motivate students rather than finding positive ways of helping students find intrinsic motivators. Maybe the current model of success set for students and schools is unattainable because the logic of continuous improvement is flawed and I write cynically, schools are not allowed to succeed by politicians and the media (uh-oh…Am I running for office? Never.) Can we ever be satisfied when the goals are always changing? When will we be good enough? Remember, I love my job. Helping students learn to love learning is about the most satisfying thing there is for me as a teacher.
Please don’t confuse my criticisms of my profession as an indictment of my school. We are evolving into a building that values persistence, embraces innovation, and understands that an education can take many forms. There is an energy in my school that is shifting and it’s very exciting.
As for outlines, I’m not sure I ever made another outline after sixth grade. Check that, Mr. Yates’s history class in seventh grade was one serious outline. At least I only had to copy his outlines for notes. It obviously worked for him, but I can’t say the roller-overheads about the colonies or Thomas Hooker made more of a difference in my learning than if I had been allowed to format my own notes. Despite, or maybe because of, I like studying history. Names, dates, and the struggle for power… Clouds, though? When they are big and heavy it’s likely to rain or snow. That’s all I need to know.
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