Wednesday, June 24, 2015

All my life's a circle...

Star date: post summer solstice

Which means we are solidly in summer vacation. Praise to all that is good and holy that we made it here. There was a point in the year I wasn't 100% sure we all would.

For many reasons, these were the times that tried men's souls-- and while I may be the sunshine patriot in one measure, I am far from a summer soldier. This was the year that put my teaching to the test, but also helped me shore up my philosophy on what the role of school is. Next year will be different, although likely as difficult emotionally... although now I have a better sense of what to expect, and can therefore prepare to mitigate some of it.

I quickly jettisoned the academic rigor of content standards-- which in this teacher bashing era of standards based education is a radical and risky maneuver. I didn't have much choice however; in addition to being the only teacher (and usually only adult) responsible for providing content instruction in 9 high school courses, I was also working with a group of students who were dealing with significant personal crises. Watching a person implode on themselves is a tragic experience; watching 3 students go through that in one year is devastating on the classroom dynamic. Their situations affected everyone in the room, and triggered other less significant  (but no less serious, because any crisis you are experiencing is real to you, even if it's not as bad as the one the guy next to you is having) reactions in the rest of us. My goal for the year quickly became getting us all out alive. Literally for every one of us to still be breathing air: believe me when I tell you, that was not a foregone conclusion.

Public schools were created in America to provide communities with a well informed populace: how could we expect people to participate in democracy if they weren't able to think? Today, public schools become the place where we try to correct for the potential missing pieces from home while still teaching kids how to think. We claim that all children are equal, and it doesn't matter if you go to an inner city school, a wealthy middle class suburb school, or a poor rural community school: we'll take all the kids, balance for what they're missing from home, and provide the same quality academic education to all kids, Maine to California. That so many Americans have accepted that notion as truth is evidence enough that we aren't being so successful teaching people how to think. The kindergartner who comes on the first day having been read to, played with crayons and practiced writing, and knows that numbers and the alphabet exist and mean something can tackle learning to read. Unfortunately, we have many kids who come to school not knowing how to hold a book, never mind what it is for (I wish I was exaggerating; I have worked at k-screenings. I am not.) The same is true for every level of education: the child who comes from a home with plenty of love, basic needs, and safety is ready to come to school at 7:55 and learn algebra or language conventions or differences in rocks, whereas the child who comes hungry or from a dangerous neighborhood or from neglect and abuse isn't-- at least, not until you deal with what is missing. And in order to deal with the hunger or emotional turmoil, you have to put algebra on hold. So that's what I did.

 Make no mistake about it: I firmly believe all kids can learn, and it doesn't matter who your parents are to achieve great heights. It does, however, require different supports for different kids. It made more sense when I thought about it from my own experience. I had a rose colored childhood without question. My parents are college educated. My dad had a good job and my mom could afford to stay home with us until we were in school. They owned their house, in a good neighborhood. We had ice skates and bikes and toys and food and friends and family. We built tree houses and played in the rain. We did after school activities and had the proper gear required for said activities. We got good grades and graduated at the top of our classes. But when I was struggling with infertility during my 5th year of teaching, I was useless. I couldn't focus, and frankly, had a hard time caring about the quality of my work. I was in crisis. I was the same person, but my personal issue was all consuming. I've watched the same be true of people who were going through a divorce, family illness, or death of a loved one. I don't know why it's so shocking to think that kids who are in some level of personal crisis struggle to meet academic standards, too. And if we're going to really help them become the best people they can be, we have to help them deal with whatever the issue is.

I am lucky to work in a building that believes in the importance of alternative education. I have the support of my colleagues and a principal who doesn't write me up for trying crazy things. But I also work in a building where more and more kids are on the verge of falling apart-- far more kids than I can work with in a day. Poverty is all encompassing-- our kids are poor because their parents and families are poor. There isn't enough work for everyone, and certainly not enough fair paying work. Because we're a rural community, we don't have public transportation so the lack of a reliable vehicle is devastating. As a school teacher, I make more than the median income-- by a significant amount. (You know you live in a poor area when teachers are the rich ones.) Our schools are not meeting the needs of all our kids, and we've been set up by society at large to fail.

Summer break is great for me, my family, my friends... but is often not great for our students in crisis. I'm not going to lie, without it, my job would be significantly harder, because by being on an extended break I can regroup and be better able to handle my job the remainder of the year. I hope most of my kids can do the same... and if not, I hope they just make it back to school in the fall.

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