I’ve cared about children for as long as I can remember. As the youngest of three girls, I always hoped for a little brother or sister. When that didn’t happen, my dog, my baby dolls and younger cousins filled the void. As a teen, I spent the majority of my free time babysitting for my older sisters and neighbors.
We often visited parks, zoos and historical venues but spent most of our time playing outdoor games such as hide and go seek, any kind of ball, or hopscotch. When indoors, we read, did art projects, danced or created scripts for plays. All of these ideas came from them, not me.
I lit up every time I saw them discover something new, ask cool questions, or make inferences based on their observations. It was as though I was learning all over again only with them. I have no idea why this excited me as much as it did, but it made sense to consider teaching as a profession. This was a logical conclusion.
A teacher salary never entered the equation in my decision making. No doubt a career in math, science, medicine or law would provide ample earnings, security and a certain amount of respect and prestige. Teaching didn’t afford the same. It didn’t matter. I would be doing what I loved and helping children along the way. So it began.
I was off to a late start after having four children, when I finally earned the title “teacher” in 1984. I was teacher to my own four children and of course my nieces and nephews, preschool teacher at the local YWCA and Sunday School teacher at my church. However, this certificated title opened doors to private and public schools both in the city and suburbs of my hometown.
It eventually took me to an adjacent state where segregation had been the norm just ten years earlier. It exposed me to the haves and have nots in public schooling. I learned the inequities of zip codes and the lack of choices for the have nots. These experiences, along with meaningful interactions with children and their families led me to become a Comer facilitator with the Comer School Development Program created by Dr. James Comer, Child Psychiatrist at Yale Child Study Center. Dr. James P. Comer
My public school administrative career took me out of my own classroom and led me to school, district, and county positions along with another move to a new state. Throughout this three-state journey, I observed both caring and dismissive teachers, facilitative teaching and managerial teaching, competent administrators and inept ones.
On a more granular level, I saw young children held back a grade or “fail” because they did not meet the grade level standards in the given time frame. I followed the labeled “at- risk” children as they were identified and mortified with interventions. I visited classrooms and schools that bribed students with rewards for behavior and punished them with public ridicule, lack of recess time, lack of time with peers and the stigma of sitting in the school office for all to see.
“What rewards and punishments do is induce compliance, and this they do very well indeed. If your objective is to get people to obey an order, to show up on time and do what they’re told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies. But if your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless. In fact, as we are beginning to see, they are worse than useless—they are actually counterproductive.”
― Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
I participated in and led federal, state and local educational mandates commissioned by the various officials who held the important purse strings. I reluctantly followed the rules while often questioning the purpose and value of such mandates.
Over the years, when I questioned why we were doing this or that, when I colored outside the given lines, or when I made decisions that veered from the norm, I risked my credibility and longevity as a public school educator. At a distinct moment in time, I didn’t care anymore. Suddenly a multitude of epiphany moments led to a logical conclusion and cemented my decision to retire. Remembering why I first decided to enter the teaching profession and my learning along the way, made it an easy decision.
My decision to retire had nothing specifically to do with the school district where I worked. In fact, it was one of the best. I do not fault anyone who worked there or anyone who works in any school in this country. For the most part, they are hardworking, caring people who are just hardwired to do school in a particular way. My decision had more to do with the children. I could no longer justify the system’s unyielding, relentless effort to make children conform to its desired image of a good, well-behaved student.
Simply put, the joy of learning, the freedom to play and grow at ones’ own pace, the lack of time and attention to creativity and imagination, and the emphasis on standardization and scores sealed my decision. I crossed over to the retirement world and discovered that there is quite a bit of learning that happens outside of conventional schooling. A pioneer in the field is Dr. Peter Gray. Worth a read. Dr. Peter Gray
It’s been four years now since my retirement from public education. I’ve made an interesting discovery. Many of the thought provoking ideas and research that I see now match most of my epiphany moments from years ago. It’s as if the writers are saying, “here’s something to think about educators, here’s a way we might make learning more authentic and meaningful.” While I find these discoveries note worthy, my intuition tells me that four years from now, I’ll be reading the same ideas, while observing no structural or substantive change in our schools. Parents who choose to home school, quote this as one of their reasons for leaving.
For those who support public schooling and want to send their children, I hope you live in a great zip code. I hope you find caring people in those schools. I hope your child has great teachers. I hope your child has smooth sailing along the way and learns to their satisfaction. I hope that they have choices.
My deeply held belief is that student and parent choice is the key to educational liberty and justice for all. It will unlock every child’s potential for learning and that is the important outcome.
Please check out this new book by Kerry McDonald.
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