A little girl sits at a round table with 3 other kids her age. Her attention is fixed on the task in front of her: a sheet of paper with letters and numbers, and she has been given a mission to make sense of the information in front of her. She bites her lower lip, thinks with her eyes raised to the ceiling, then looks back down at the paper and begins writing. Her excitement is real: She is going to finish first. Her confidence rises as she glances at her table mates and realizes, yes, she will finish first. She is winning at this game.
At the same table, a little boy with a freckles peppered across his nose erases marks from his paper again. The lead smears and fades with his eraser strokes, and he does his best to hide his frustration from the rest of the kids at the table. Barely looking up from his messy paper, he glances around to see his table mates ahead of where he is with their task. His heart falls into his stomach, and his worry grows. I don’t want anyone to think I’m stupid. Why is this so hard? I don’t get it. What am I supposed to be doing? He tries to appear busy and engaged, but the sheet of paper in front of him may as well be written in Japanese. He knows what the expectation is, but his fear keeps him from raising his hand and asking for help.
This is education? This is education.
For many reasons, education walks a thin line between what sounds good to stakeholders and what has been done for decades, even centuries. Many profess to have the best interests of students in mind, yet more and more students feel isolated from their peers and disconnected from their own interests and curiosity.
Flash forward: The same two students, years down the road, are now in high school:
The little girl is now a young woman: a junior with plans of grandeur at a university far away from home. She wants to be a veterinarian and understands that means many more years of school are ahead of her. Rather than being concerned with a date for the homecoming dance, she busies herself with preparation for the ACT or SAT, advanced course work, writing scholarships, researching universities, and the many activities she has outside the school day: volleyball, basketball, track, volunteering, church youth group. There are not many minutes during her day that are not accounted for and are even fewer that are not spent planning for her future. She learned a long time ago that school and success are about playing a game and competing to be the best. There is very little time for anything else.
The freckled little boy is now a young man who walks through the hallways with his eyes cast downward. He moves through the hallways like a ghost, hoping to be unnoticed and unbothered by his peers or any teachers who may notice him. He learned a long time ago how to stay off the radar. His dreams are also of life beyond the walls of his high school, but he feels the freedom each time he leaves the building and uses his hands to fix things. To him, high school is pointless, and there are few classes he feels are useful. Classes that teach him a skill equals independence: welding, autobody, wood shop, agribusiness… This is time well spent, but classes like algebra and English remind him of his own shortcomings. Those classes were like being force-fed gravel: The process is painful, tedious, with no chance of success. When he’s in these classes, the minutes crawl, and graduation feels far away and impossible to reach.
School failed this student long ago. He learned all those years ago in elementary school that he didn’t belong; he didn’t play the game, it took him longer, and he wasn’t good enough. Teachers huffed in exasperation when he asked a question for a third time. Eventually, he learned to stop asking questions, and he got by with the bare minimum in order to pass from grade to grade. The only time he felt successful was on his own: outdoors, with his machines, or working with his hands.
These are the students who are round pegs being forced into square holes. These are students whose daily lessons include getting by, dealing with the struggle, and feeling less than good enough. If these students ever reach graduation, they have become used to feeling like failures.
The young woman: She fits in school like a glove fits a hand. Long ago she learned that success meant guessing what the teacher wanted and delivering it in a nicely wrapped package; thinking originally is overrated and never earns her the grades she seeks. She has a bright future ahead of her, but she is naïve about what it will take once she reaches the steps of her university.
Believe it or not, we are also failing this student. When the grade becomes more important than the learning, when the learning is about competing with peers rather than oneself, we have failed.
Neither student will reach graduation prepared for life if their path continues.
Teachers know this reality. We see it every day, and each day it becomes more frustrating. Being in the classroom and seeing these struggles, being able to put names and faces to the stories… the helplessness we feel each day is authentic and pervasive. Yet we have so little control with what happens to the students outside our classrooms and too little say with what we are allowed to do within our classrooms.
What do teachers say? Here are a few thoughts from current educators (Thanks, guys):
…a lie (or window dressing). It’s really not about what’s best for kids. It’s about what looks good on paper.
…test scores. Education is not really about people anymore. It’s just a number on a page—a kid’s ID, locker, ACT/AP/SRI score, a teacher’s number of students who passed or failed a class, test.
…not fun anymore. We better not laugh. We can no longer allow grade school kids to celebrate (multiple holidays) because that does not help improve test scores. All the kids have to look forward to is the drudgery work.
…preparing students to decide on their future avenue/direction in life. Education is not teaching them manners, responsibility, accountability, or behavior as they should have received this training at home from their parents.
…culturally relative, not ego or ethnocentric.
…priceless, not a commodity.
…a calling, not a business.
…everlasting, not static.
…we, not you and me.
…fun, not painful.
…dynamical, not prescribed.
…dreaming, not just doing.
…about the effort, not the grade.
…leading a team.
…focusing on the little things and doing them right consistently.
… listening and coaching.
…a profession of hardworking individuals who sell out for kids.
… no pushing hard on big objectives that overwhelm and stress teacher and students.
…telling and regurgitating.
… a field where those who have existed in the profession the longest are the only ones who are knowledgeable on content and pedagogy.
The truth in these responses is revealing and ranges from disturbing to empowering.
I don’t know the answer. Perhaps admitting we don’t know the answers is the first step to making education better. There are educators across the nation who make small differences every day. There are also children in every school and every town who succeed not because of what we do, but in spite of what we do.
…and that is what matters.