School Experiences, Part 1

I live in a very good public school district. I can say that with confidence; I’ve been in hundreds of schools in a handful of states in the last 7 or so years. There are many things I admire about the district in which I live.

However, even the good districts are under pressure by measures of accountability put in place by educational policy. Furthermore, teachers who teach subjects like art that are free from a standardized test aren’t free from things like increased expectations about a standardized curriculum, students pulled from their classes for “remediation” of more “important” subjects, and cuts to class time as schools increase time in tested subject areas. My sadness has grown as I’ve watched educational policy suffocate the life out of good teachers across all subject areas. Not all teachers, but some.

For instance, I was observing one of my university students teaching at an elementary school that happens to be in my district. The students had a very energizing class period working with materials that they typically did not use. Each table of students worked together with various objects and the excitement in the room was contagious. The students were learning all sorts of things about structure, adhesion, design, functionality, and collaboration.

The classroom teacher came to pick them up, as is the custom for most elementary art classes. Her presence came with expectations: students were to get in line, be quiet, and ready to move to the next activity. As students quickly cleaned up and worked towards these expectations, she said, “It’s time to stop creating now. Get in line.”

At that moment, my heart sank. I, as an educator and parent, sure hoped those students would have opportunities to create other things that day — if not artistically, intellectually, socially, or otherwise. I was also disappointed because the teacher failed to acknowledge the obvious energy in the room. No, “Wow, look at what you’ve done! Someone tell me about these pieces” or, “You all look very pleased with yourselves. What did I miss?” Her words dismissed the significance of what students had just experienced. To me, it felt like pulling the plug on an electrical device prior to turning it off.

I am pro-teacher and believe teachers mean well. If I was that teacher, with a class that was too large, teaching in the current educational policy climate, and had to take students to get their hearing checked earlier than planned and would now have to rework my whole plan (all true), I might have said something similar (but I hope not). Statements like the one made by this teacher seem like the subtle evidence that the humanness, or ethic of care, might be slowly disappearing from teaching as educators struggle more and more to “fit everything in” while performing well on their teacher evaluations.

This post described one specific and recent experience in a public school that made me seriously reconsider whether I want to send my students to this fantastic public school. I have never seriously considered sending my own children to a non-public school, but I know that I want to send them to a school where the culture fosters learning, and compassion, and where they are deeply cared for. I want them to play, and for art to be seen as valuable as math, and for them to find out how to live life alongside others. And I am more worried that teachers (and public schools) who do have these priorities face serious barriers when attempting to enact them in the current system.

So, I determined to spend time over winter break attempting to assess if the culture of non-public schools using alternative models of education were different, and if so, if it was worth the money we don’t have to send my kids there. The rest of the posts in this series will describe my experiences at these other schools.