"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Post #1,000 – What Matters to Students

BLOG ENTRY #1,000

This is entry #1,000 for this blog.

My very first post on this blog was titled, as was the blog at that time, On Beyond Thirty. I had just finished my 30th year as an elementary school teacher in my local school system, and was anxious to express the frustrations I felt at some the changes happening to public schools throughout the nation. At the time, however, I didn't realize how much more difficult things were going to get.

For the most part, over the last 999 posts, I've focused on the damage "reformers' have done to public schools, with an occasional nod to music and baseball.

1,000 STUDENTS

Over the 40 years I've spent in public education either as a classroom teacher, a pull-out reading specialist, or a volunteer, I've taught about 1,000 students (not counting my college years as an intern and student teaching).

I started teaching at a time before computers and the internet. In my first blog entry I wrote,
...my first class of third graders had no clue what a personal computer was, and had never heard of an iPod, an SUV or a hybrid car. They listened to music on records made of vinyl, or on cassette tapes, watched movies on film projectors in theaters or on TV broadcast, didn't have cable TV, and would have thought that "internet" had something to do with moving fish from the end of the hook to the boat.
In those days teachers were aware that educational fads came and went. Each year, it seemed we were introduced to some new idea which would help us make every child a success. None of those ideas worked for everyone, of course, but most of us tried everything and kept the parts that worked for us. We all knew that there would always be some children who would challenge our abilities to teach the curriculum.

In that way, our teaching philosophies and teaching methods changed and grew. Today, in Indiana, experience doesn't count for much according to the state legislature, but we knew that a good school had a mix of young teachers and veterans. We learned from each other, and our students benefited.

RELATIONSHIPS HAVE ALWAYS MATTERED

Over the last 40 years one educational concept has helped me more than any other; Building good relationships between teacher and student. Students benefit when teachers build positive relationships in the classroom. In Relationships Matter, I wrote,
The goal of education should be to build lifelong learners, not test takers. Skills like perseverance will be of greater benefit than parsing sentences or finding the greatest common factor of two numbers.

Academics are important, but it's who we are and who our students grow to be that determines our success in life...much more than the facts we know or our score on the SAT or other test.
The concept of good relationships came home to me late last year when I received a visit from a former student. I wrote about that in Tests Don't Measure Everything.

The Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education (NEIFPE) is currently running a social media campaign focusing on things in public education which work (click here). The student I wrote about in Tests Don't Measure Everything wrote her story which will be published on the NEIFPE blog at the end of February. In it she said,
Right after Christmas that year, my family had a particularly hard weekend. My mom and dad fought a lot, but we were all used to it and didn’t think much of it. Things seemed different, however, and we were all old enough to recognize it. They sat us down and told us they were getting a divorce. We were also moving, which meant changing schools and leaving our home behind. I was devastated. My family was falling apart and everything I knew and loved was about to change.

That Monday, I went back to school. I was sad and withdrawn. I remember sitting with my sister at lunch instead of my friends. She was a fifth grader and equally despondent. There was nothing we could do to fix our parent’s problems. We would walk home quietly together and then sit up in her room. Each day was never ending. By Wednesday of that week, I was a mess. I was holding in so much, and there wasn’t anyone to talk to. I had stopped participating in class and withdrew socially. Mr. Bloom knew it immediately.

I am sure there was a moment where the other kids saw Mr. Bloom come over to me and kneel down by my desk. I am sure someone came in and watched the classroom for him as he quietly walked me to the adjoining room. I don’t remember any of that. But that day was a defining moment in my childhood. As we went and sat down in the other classroom, he quietly asked me what was wrong. I remember that being all I needed to hear…he knew I was hurting and I began to sob. At that point, I didn’t care. He didn’t need to say anything because what I needed was to be held and rocked like the broken child that I was. This man, this father, this teacher recognized that I was going through something horrible. My world was upside down and he knew it. It was everything I needed at that exact moment. I needed to feel safe and comforted by a grown up I trusted. My parents were dealing with their own emotions, and I felt so alone. He listened when I told him what was happening at home. He explained that it wasn’t anything I had done, and he told me that it would get better…it was exactly what I needed to be told at exactly the right time.

What may seem insignificant to an outsider was life changing for me, even at nine years old. I had enough common sense even then to realize things were going to be a lot different after this school year. But I had someone who cared and made the rest of that school year awesome. School was my escape. I joke to my mom even now that Mr. Bloom’s talk saved me from years in therapy. He was the one reliable person in my life that year. His class was my safe place and he made my days normal. For this I am forever grateful.
I remembered that incident when I talked with her, but I had no idea that it was as important to her as it was...so important that she remembered it in such detail 30 years later.

I also remember a letter I got from a student. It was written from prison. I wrote about it 2 years ago.
The adult Joe wrote to tell me that his father had recently died. He said that, at the end of the year in third grade, I had helped him create a Father's Day card. I remembered that. It was common for us to make Mother's Day cards in May each year, but Father's Day takes place after school ends for the summer. For some reason, I decided that particular year, that I would have my class make Father's Day cards as well. I don't think I had ever done it before...and I don't remember doing it again. I told the students to save the cards after they got home for the summer...and to give them to their fathers (or another important male relative) on Father's Day.

Joe's letter reminisced about the Father's Day card. He wrote how I had helped him think of things to write, spell words he didn't know, and illustrate the card. Then he told me that the card he made that day was the last contact he ever had with his father. For that young man the fact that I had decided to make Father's Day cards with my class became a significant life fact a few years later.
I wish I could say that I was instrumental in the lives of each of the one thousand students who passed under my educational care, but, of course, I wasn't. There were students who I had trouble with, and with whom I was unable to develop the kind of relationship they needed. Those are the students I failed. Those are the students to whom I need to say,
"I'm sorry that I wasn't the person you needed at that time in your life."
As the adult in the room, it was my fault...my weakness...my responsibility. It was my failing that I was unable to help some of the children I worked with. I know that their letters to me, should they ever write, would be very different.

IT'S ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIPS

School curriculum is important. Teacher effectiveness is important. Maintained facilities are important. Sufficient resources are important.

But the relationship that teachers build with their students makes or breaks the learning process.

In his post, A Bill of Rights for School Children, Russ Walsh includes ten "rights" to which students are entitled, including a well-staffed, well-resourced, clean and safe neighborhood school, and the right to developmentally appropriate instruction. He also includes,
Every child has the right to be taught by well-informed, fully certified, fully engaged
teachers who care about the child as a learner and as a person. [emphasis added]
In their rush to blame teachers for low student achievement "reformers" fail to understand that a score on a standardized test isn't all there is to school. They don't understand that the human interaction between student and teacher is every bit as important as knowing who invented the spinning jenny or when World War I ended. I don't believe that any of my students would ever write to tell me that they were glad I taught them math facts, how to spell their, there, and they're, or how to fill in circles on a bubble test.

When Henry Adams, great-grandson of the second president, and grandson of the sixth, wrote,
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops
I'm pretty sure he didn't mean influence as a "test facilitator."

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2 comments:

Ellen said...

What a great post. Congrats on 1000! I am so proud to have you for my dad.

Stu said...

Thanks El :)