Saturday, April 2, 2016

What Do We Want for Our Children?

At the beginning of this school year, a parent approached me after my Open House presentation and said, "I have a bone to pick with you.  You are ruining my child".  Taken aback, I asked her what her concern was.  She said, "Since my daughter could speak she has always said she wants to be a Marine Biologist.  Yesterday she came home and said she wants to be a Teacher, like you.  I don't want her to be a Teacher."  She explained that teachers are not well paid nor are they well respected.   She went on to say that her daughter loves school and is excited to come see me every day.  I told her that it was never my intention to "ruin" her child.  I said that we both know that her child is six years old and her interests and intentions will change as she grows.

Ask any class of first graders what they would like to be when they grow up and you will hear some interesting answers.  My JA volunteer asked that question yesterday.  The answers were adorable:  "An astronaut."  "An ice cream guy."  "A cooker."  "A hockey player."  "A rocket scientist." "A teacher."  Most of my little ones, both girls and boys, say they want to be a teacher when they grow up.  This is more a reflection of their limited experience than a true desire to be a teacher.  I always take it as a compliment.  It shows me that they love school and my classroom and they want to emulate it.  My Firsties sense how much I love teaching and how happy I am doing what I love to do.

It is important to ask children what they want to do when they grow up because, for a moment, it allows them to think and dream about their own futures.  In contrast, by constantly emphasizing "college and career readiness" beginning in PreK we are not only asking the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up" but we are also answering the question for them.  Yes, we want our children to grow up to be productive citizens of our nation.  Yes, we would like them to be prepared for college.  But let's prepare them for Life.  

We need to allow children to experience childhood, in all its messy glory.  Let's allow them to dream  and to be creative.  Let's give our children time to play, to be active, to explore, to imagine, and to fall and get back up again.  Children need opportunities to experience "playground justice".  They need to learn to write in cursive, cut with scissors, color in the lines and color outside the lines.  They need to learn how to have relationships with others, solve problems and resolve conflicts productively. 

Telling children and parents that we are preparing our students to be "college and career ready" presumes that all children either desire to go on to college or a career training program, have the aptitude to do so, and can afford the monetary costs associated with continuing education.  Placing the emphasis on the first word "college", while noble, unintentionally sets so many up for failure.  If a child desires to be a song writer, a dancer, a mechanic, a plumber or another other profession, why should we make them feel that their dream isn't a success?  Training and education beyond high school is costly, as student loans have higher interest rates than mortgage rates, and student aide is drying up. Some students do not desire to go further in school and some have circumstances that will prevent them from ever doing so.  A child who does not learn life skills will not be successful no matter what path they choose.  Without social skills, problem solving skills and an ability to be self-directed, our children will be unhappy as adults and will always struggle with their own self image.

Our current education system is robbing our children of their childhoods.  We are in danger of taking away what little time they have to be children and to learn skills that will serve them well as adults.  Schools are increasingly becoming test-prep factories rather than safe environments of learning.  Our students are being used as child labor for the publishing and testing industry that is profiting heavily from the data these tests generate.  Our public schools are being starved of much needed funding and autonomy to create and execute curriculum that is developmentally appropriate for children.  Just this week, our government in NYS gave more money to schools.  However, they reinforced our punishing teacher evaluation systems by linking the funding to testing students.  Teachers will have 50% of their yearly evaluation based on the test scores of their students, even though it is has been proven again and again that VAM is junk science.  It does not take a rocket scientist or a marine biologist to connect the dots and realize that this will only further narrow the curriculum and create a pressure cooker atmosphere in our schools.  The legislature also gave more money to the creation of charter schools.  By creating a situation that defines public schools and public school teachers as unsuccessful, we are allowing charter schools to be the only place for our students to be educated if their parents cannot afford private school tuition.  Anyone who thinks that that is a better situation for the youth of our nation, doesn't understand the facts.  

To date, the only thing that has made an impact has been the grassroots OptOut movement.  Many myths have surrounded the movement, including that the opposition to the tests and the resulting opting out of students has been fueled by teachers who don't want to be evaluated and by the teacher unions who represent them.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, as this has been a parent led movement from Day 1. The teachers have had their hands tied about even discussing the issue openly.  Only recently has NYSUT stated that teachers should opt out their own children and that we could discuss the impacts of the tests.  We are still not allowed to speak to our students' parents about it.  Teachers are being threatened with their jobs for taking a stand on the issue.  My feeling is that all the negative publicity and the hard push by lawmakers and education department officials to ensure that students take the tests shows just how concerned they are about the OptOut movement.  Opting out is making an impact.  It is truly the best way to get our public education system returned to where it belongs:  back in the hands of teachers, parents and locally elected school boards.  It sends the message that test scores on meaningless corporate developed tests are not what our students should be preparing for.  Parents are redefining what it means for schools and teachers to be considered successful, and it has nothing to do with tests and everything to do with children and life beyond the classroom. 

Many days, I feel like our public schools are playing the game of Limbo.  Every time we dance our way under the bar, the bar gets moved, making it increasingly challenging to be successful.  Our flexibility is truly amazing, as so far, we seem to be able to meet the challenge.  If not, then the bar wouldn't get moved so often.  However, at some point, so many of us will simply just give up.  That will be a great loss to our students.  Children will no longer have the role models that they need in classrooms.  Rather, they will have temporary help (TFA) and "facilitators" who keep them focused on the screen in front of them.  Children will no longer desire to be a teacher because they will not see it for what it truly is:  a profession, a career,  a way to be happy and successful doing something you love. 

On Fridays, before the dismissal bell rings, my students and I dance to the song "Happy" by Pharell Williams.  We sing and we dance because we are happy that we have had a successful week full of love and learning.  I want them to go home on Friday with the thought that school is a happy place where they can be their best selves.  I believe that the best gift we can give our children is an education that allows them to grow to be happy and successful adults, however they choose to define that. When children say they want to grow up to be a teacher it shows that their experience in the classroom is a positive and loving experience.  It shows that they value their teacher, their classroom and their school. It shows that they feel successful and happy in their learning environment.  

Essentially, isn't this what we really want for our children?  Don't we simply want them to be happy as adults?  Don't we want them to decide what they want to be, on what makes them happy?  If they are happy, then they will be successful, both in their chosen profession and in their relationships with others.  The best we can hope for is that our children will live a happy life.  

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