Thursday, September 13, 2012

Schooling Issues and Tough Decisions

I was a public educator for 5 years. I taught high school English in two different school districts in two different cities. I feel proud to be able to say that I worked with some incredibly hardworking and dedicated teachers and administrators who took their jobs very seriously. Some of my best friends are still teachers within public education and I would feel blessed to have any of my children in any of their classrooms. I technically am still a public educator, even though I have been out of the classroom for a number of years now. I still have a valid teaching cert and am currently employed by a local school district in a coaching capacity. At some point, when my kids are older, I intend to return to teaching. I believe public education certainly has its flaws and I have seen many of them up close and personal, both as a teacher and a parent, but on the whole I believe in public education. I believe the vast majority of public educators are doing what is in the best interest of students and don't get even a fraction of the credit or recognition that is deserved.

Unfortunately, there is a small percentage of educators (public, private, charter) that are not in in for the children. I know they aren't in it for the money, so I'm not entirely sure what they are in it for. Maybe at some point they held optimistic ideals about what they could do for education but somewhere along the way lost this vision. I don't know. What I do know is that these are the people who are ruining education. This small percentage of people who don't put students and student learning at the forefront of all of their decisions are the ones that the frustrated public refers to when they erroneously lump all teachers into the worthless category. There is most assuredly a distinct difference.

Good teachers, at all times, challenge, engage, and push students to their academic limits (both of my daughter's reading teachers last year come to mind). They teach them lessons that extend beyond the classroom, not by lecturing or demanding but through their actions and treatment of others. I feel blessed over the course of my academic career to have had some wonderful educators in my public high school. Bad teachers test their students ad nauseum and give homework and classwork or other extension activities that don't even correlate to the material they end up actually testing them on. I have a fundamental disagreement with the amount of testing some schools have opted to do. I'm sure some people are fine with the philosophy and practice of test, test, test, but when I ask to see ALL the work that my child has done to date and the only thing that comes home is a stack of tests, that is a problem for me. A huge one. The excuse that “all schools do it” is not the truth. Many do and testing as a whole has increased regardless, but I am more apt to ascribe to the philosophy if that you as a teacher are providing meaningful and engaging lessons where true student learning and retention is given the opportunity to occur then the need for constant testing is decreased. Sure, give them a spelling test, a math test, a reading test, but to test every single day is not teaching. Testing is not an accurate indicator of student achievement. It is absolutely a component but it should not be the sole factor. Ironically enough, in getting our daughter's school records in the midst of changing her schools we were able to see some test scores that previously weren't shared with us and it provided some insight as to the mindset of this particular school.

When our daughter was in 1st grade, we were told by her teacher that she had serious concerns about her math tests. This was the first we heard of it (and we didn't even hear of it until the END of 3rd quarter) and didn't make sense because all of her work was coming home with a 90 percent or better (this discussion led to the realization that homework and classwork was not being counted as any portion of her grade, only tests). In going through her records yesterday, we saw the district assessment scores. Her math scores were at 93 percent and her English was at 99 percent. A 93 poses a serious concern? This year she was tested at the start of the year for 2nd grade concepts. She scored an 89 percent and was labeled, “a slight risk.” An 89 percent is a risk? As a side note, I would strongly encourage every parent to put in writing a request to see the records that your child's school has on file (be sure to ask for ALL records). While they may act like they don't have to provide them, you have a right under FERPA to see your child's records. I think most parents would be surprised at what was kept in them. I know I was.

School is not all about test scores and school rankings. Or at least it shouldn't be. School should be about developing a love of learning and a lifelong curiosity. It should be about challenging students and teaching them critical thinking skills. School should be about instilling the value of hard work. School should be about developing friendships and learning to work through problems. School should be a place where hard work is recognized. Notice I didn't say rewarded although there are times where that is appropriate too. School should not be a place where people are rewarded simply for doing what they are supposed to do while consistently overlooking those who do so everyday. In a day and age where kids misbehave, don't do their work, refuse to try, etc you would think the kids who do all these things on a daily basis would be recognized or at least acknowledged.

School should be a place where students and their families feel a part of the community. It should be a place where students, parents, teachers, and administrators all work together in the best interest of the student. An environment that is not conducive to learning is one in which teachers are disinterested and unwilling to communicate their expectations or policies to parents. It is certainly not in the best interest of any child to have an environment where teachers don't feel an obligation to keep in any type of contact with parents, share any of the work that goes on within the classroom, or explain any of the curriculum. An environment that is not conducive is one where you ask to see your child's work and the response is, “Your kid is meeting all standards and has all A's and B's. I don't know what your issue is.” That just tells me that you have no intent to challenge my child. It tells me that you could care less about her simply because at this moment she is excelling. What makes this worse is administrators who defend their teachers at the expense of children. I worked for administrators who were pretty good about defending their teachers. However, if parents were right and made a valid point those were recognized as well. There is not a perfect school out there, but I don't think it is too much to ask for all sides to be heard. As an administrator, you lose credibility when you blindly defend your teachers even though you KNOW they are wrong. During this issue last year we were fortunate enough to have the ASSISTANT principal step in when the teacher and principal wouldn't cooperate. She was invaluable and I will forever respect her for acknowledging that we were right and defending our daughter. She is an administrator who I really do believe does what is best for children.

As parents, schooling is one of our most difficult decisions. When we send our child off to school for the first time and at the start of each new year, we do so with the hopes that our children will love school, get along with the teacher, learn a lot, and grow both academically and socially. We pray for an environment that is nurturing, encouraging, and welcoming. We pray for a staff that loves children and keeps their best interest in mind during all decisions. Because after all, teachers primary responsibility and obligation is to the students. It should not be to administrators, politicians and legislators and that is where I think much of our problem lies. I won't get into my believe that politicians need to stay out of education, but I will say that many schools, and some more than others, are way too concerned about their test scores and school “grade” and less about student learning and retention.

Parents also hope for a school wherein they feel comfortable and welcome. As a teacher I certainly understand that there is a fine line between parent involvement and too much parent involvement, but I don't think a school that fosters an environment that discourages virtually all parental involvement is one that is best for the student. I'd even go so far as to say that this type of environment is harmful. There is extensive research to support this. When students feel a part of a community they do better to put it simply. In schools where parental involvement is weak and a sense of community is lacking they tend to fare worse. If there are no opportunities for parents and teachers to interact, outside of the ONE parent-teacher conference a year, it makes it very difficult to build a sense of community or teamwork. It also takes away all opportunities for those informal “temperature checks” where a teacher could say, “Hey, your kid did a great job today” or “Hey, I have a concern.”

In deciding to change schools we were accepted for open enrollment at our top two choices. One school is within the district our home school is and the other is within the district I attended school and taught. I can say that both of these schools would be good for our daughter. The determining factor came down to what we feel would be better for our son next year. I will say that the assistant principal at one school, the same assistant principal who was so helpful with us last year, went above and beyond. She called us at home one evening to discuss the school and how she felt we would like it over there. She answered all of our questions and was wonderful. The school, outside of our district that we chose, was equally accessible. Our daughter's new teacher called us last night to welcome us, introduce herself, and answer any questions we had and to tell us how excited she was that Delaney would be joining her class. Those little things make a difference. They really do!

I send my child to school in the hopes that every day she will learn something new. I don't want school to be easy for her. I want her to be challenged. I don't want her to come home every single day and tell me what she scored on her test. I want her to come home excited about a project or experiment she did. I want her to come home curious about something she learned at school. I want her to be excited to go to school the next day, not only to see her friends, but because she can't wait to see what she is going to do and learn.

Pulling her from a school she loves and has good friends at was a painful and incredibly difficult decision despite how frustrated we have been with some of her teachers and specifically the school principal. The stress associated with it was beyond what I could have ever expected when we first started throwing the idea around last year. I registered our daughter yesterday in an office where I was cheerfully greeted by every single person who walked in. When I hesitantly asked if I could walk my daughter to class on the first few days (at her current school, parents are banned after the first week) the response was, “Honey, you can walk her to class every single day if you'd like.” When I was told that I could bring my younger kids and have lunch with our daughter whenever I wanted I almost burst into tears. I am under no illusions that this new school is perfect. They have their own unique set of issues and I am sure there will be things that we disagree with. However, the difference is I walked out of there much more confident that any issues that do arise will be dealt with professionally and with students' best interest in mind. And that is really all we have ever asked.