Teachers, Students and Learning
This past week the school board of one of the districts in New Hampshire fired its entire faculty because the schools have been under-performing for many years. President Obama applauded the school board for making and carrying out a courageous decision to improve the education of its children. All around the nation teachers, unions and others reacted angrily to what they considered to be an unfair action because among the teachers fired were those who performed on a very high level.
In this article, I am writing about some of my experiences and observations about what is wrong and what is right about our students and schools with a few suggestion for how parents might help.
Before I became a Clinical Social Worker and studied psychoanalysis and psychology, I worked as a secondary teacher. That experience left me with some very firm opinions about school and learning based on what I experienced and observed.
First, I met many teachers who were truly dedicated and hard working. These were people with a passion for learning and teaching. Their focus was on students and help them achieve regardless of their motivation and intelligence level. They would go out of their way to help youngsters learn, including spending their own money to purchase supplies and time after school to get involved with extra learning time and with sports activities with the kids.
On the other hand, there were too many teachers who were burnt out, cynical, bored and intolerant of the fact that youngsters have diverse learning styles and varying levels of motivation.
Many of these burnt out teachers were biding their time until retirement. Others were simply "putting their time in" until years later they could leave with a good pension. Whatever their reasons for being in the classroom, they did such things as cover their chalk boards with endless notes that classes spent 50 minutes copying into their notebooks. Literally, there was little in the way of real teaching and learning going on.
Some of these lazy and uninspired teachers could not control their classes. Students ran wild and unsupervised in the classroom, disturbing other classes and ignoring the teacher.
How were these teachers able to remain employed despite lack of effort? They had tenure and Labor Union protection that made it difficult to impossible to have them removed.
I believe that this is part of the reason for the wholesale firing of all the teachers in that particular New Hampshire district. Frustration with poor student performance fueled that firing and calls for the same from others around the nation.
Second, too many youngsters enter school unprepared to be in school. How is that possible? Many families are so deeply immersed in poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse and crime that children are both neglected and abused.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am referring to families that live everywhere from the slums of our big cities to our wealthiest suburbs. In other words, this population of children encompasses everyone from African American to White, Jewish, Asian and etc.
It is my firm opinion that children and teenagers cannot learn in an atmosphere of chaos. Yet, many schools, teachers and students try to cope with anarchy and violence on a daily basis. The anarchy begins at home where there is little or no adult nurturing and supervision and spills over into the schools.
It is important to emphasize that, even with these problems, the majority of youngsters want to learn and do well in school. However, they are either shouted down in chaotic classrooms, turned off by dull and bored teachers or have learning disorders that are overlooked and ignored.
Principals, assistant principles and deans need to support their teachers. I have a vignette told to me by one teacher who reported that she got into trouble with the dean because a student kept arriving late to class and entered in a disruptive manner. When she met with the student to discuss the problem and set limits, he became threatening and almost assaultive. The dean blamed the teacher for setting limits with this youngsters. Implication? Better to ignore a problem student than to cause difficulties for the administration! And, this in a "good school system."
Today vs. Yesterday
Many old friends of mine sometimes engage in discussions of the old days when we grew up in New York City and went through its school system fifty years ago. One of the big differences we enjoy discussing is comparing family and parental attitude towards children, teachers and schools. For example, it was quite common for a teacher to send a child home with a hand written note to the parent that the child had misbehaved in some way. It goes without saying that we carried the note home and delivered it to Mom who, upon reading about our infraction firmly scolded us. There was never any question of doubting the teacher nor any doubt that we would deliver the note.
What about corporal punishment? Let me preface my next comment by asserting that I am strongly against corporal punishment. Rather, my effort is to bring into view a whole different attitude towards teachers and schools. So, if by chance, a teacher had hit one of us because of misbehavior, family reaction was always predictable. We, the children were wrong and the teacher was right.
By contrast, today the school and teacher can do nothing right. I have heard from many present day teachers how they are criticized by parents anytime they enforce classroom rules and regulations, including those having to do with attendance.
Many of us discuss the fact that some of the teachers that we had in the schools at the time were also awful. What I recall is that some of them never wanted to be teachers but found their way into it because it was a secure, if low paying job, during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Yet, we managed to learn, not because of the teachers but because of the types of homes we came from.
What Can We Do?
The challenges of teaching learning in American democratic society are many and complex. We want and need all children to succeed in school. In order to achieve this I believe we need to do several things:
1. It is important that we provide our children with positive attitudes and values about learning. There is no better way to do this than to turn off the TV and read to them when they are young.
2. We need to patiently and quietly help our children with their homework so that they feel confident when they return to class the next day.
3. Parents need to spend time with their children helping them to study for tests and quizzes.
4. Instead of making homework and study time an unhappy experience, find ways to turn it into fun. Everything about school needs to be associated with positive outcomes, in my opinion.
5. I have heard from too many people how they left for school each day with no breakfast or with a small snack they made for themselves because their parents were asleep when they awoke. Sorry, parents but you need to arise before kids, get a good breakfast into them and send them off to school with warmth and love.
6. Keep the communication between yourself and the teachers open. Know what is happening in school and in class.
7. Join the school board and advocate for good teachers and getting rid of those who are burn out. I wish this is what would have been done in New Hampshire.
Teachers, Administrators, Parents and Leaders:
Put a real stop to drugs in the schools. Criminal elements find all too easy to sneak into our schools and sell drugs to youngsters. Children and teens find it easy to get marijuana and other drugs even from the medicine cabinet at home) and abuse drugs at school. It goes without saying that this makes learning impossible and contributes to the chaotic climate that pervades many schools.
We need law enforcement from community leaders to end the drug trade in school and support for our teachers and administrators.
It seems to me that good, sound psychology used with our children will enable them to learn.
As parents, teachers and students and leaders, what are your opinions about this critical issue?
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD