I am a firm believer in free education for all; however, there are many things about public education that I would change. Unfortunately, as a teacher in the system, I can only control my classroom. I choose to provide a firm foundation in literature, writing, and grammar to my freshmen classes. I build upon that foundation in my junior classes, and I pride myself with teaching ethical, unbiased journalism to my newspaper students. I teach my classes with compassion and humor; I set high expectations, but give them the skills to achieve those expectations.
To some extent, I fear my choices in the classroom will someday become limited because of the direction I see public education going. In an attempt to fix what is wrong, Federal and State Education Departments have put initiatives in place that will only serve to continue the downward spiral of our public-education system. These initiatives are not the only problems. I admit, we have teachers who shouldn’t be teaching; we have students who have given up and/or only care about the grade, not the learning; and we have parents who are contributing to the problem through their misdirected attacks on schools and teachers.
First, rest assured that I love teaching. I know I am doing what I was created to do. Every year I get letters and emails from current and former students who tell me how I have changed their lives for the better. I have former students graduating from college telling me they are going to become teachers because I motivated them to make a difference. However, for the first time in 9 years, I’ve considered doing something else. If things don’t change, I may have to, and it will break my heart to leave the profession I love. So many things have made it hard to stay optimistic about teaching. State tests have become more important than actual learning. Budget cuts have forced an increase in class size. Students are becoming more and more disrespectful. Teachers have been on a pay freeze for four years in my district, with no end in sight. Teachers are frustrated and feel under-valued. Administrators’ hands are tied to make school-based decisions by superintendents who are not connected to the school in a tangible way. Parents participate in teacher bashing and go as high up the chain of command as they need to go until they are heard, rather than contribute to the education of their own children. Students want to be spoon-fed information, rather than to think for themselves. We don’t have enough hours in the day to teach the important elements of our subjects because our time is spent making sure students will do well on a state test that doesn’t affect students, but could cost teachers their jobs.
For those who are not in the classroom, it may appear that these problems are separate issues; however, for those of us in the classroom, we see that all of these things are interconnected, a chain-reaction in essence: The emphasis on state tests has stolen the funding from the classrooms; students get lost in the crowd in bigger class sizes, making them act out or become invisible; discipline, not education, becomes a primary concern for administrators, but removing students from the school costs the state more money in the long run, necessitating more budget cuts; parents are assuming teachers are to blame for students’ failing grades or discipline problems, so they attack the teachers and administrators; students are becoming enabled by their parents and the system by telling the students it’s the teacher’s fault; teachers then have to find alternate ways of teaching to reach the non-performing students, rather than teaching and challenging the students who want more, thus lowering the education for the top students. All of this will then result in lower test scores, which will start a more vicious cycle.
We need to stop the cycle. Public education needs a complete reformation at all levels with all concerned parties before any real improvements can be made.
We may then ask, “Isn’t that what The No Child Left Behind act was supposed to do—reform education?” Yes, it was. No Child Left Behind actually sounds great on paper. What a great idea to make sure every child gets the education he or she deserves to become successful adults! I know I want that for my students. I don’t know one parent who wouldn’t want that for his or her child. I certainly don’t want my children to get left behind. I want my children to learn to read and write. I want them to understand math and science concepts. I want them to know our country’s and world’s history. They should be able to find everything on a map and appreciate the beauty of our world. I want them to be productive, healthy members of society. That’s what No Child Left Behind was supposed to support. Sign me up!
But of course this idea came from people in offices, not in classrooms, so they had no idea how to implement their idea. I believe that’s how the catch phrase Failure Is Not an Option was introduced; it was a way to guarantee that No Child was Left Behind. Once again this is a great concept—on paper. If we raise our standards and expectations, and we all agree to teach the most important skills and concepts to our students, there is no way they can fail, right?
Wrong. What the people in offices fail to realize is that the problems in public education do not begin and end with teachers. We are part of the classroom equation, but only a third of the equation: Students and parents make up the other two parts. Students fail constantly, and not because teachers have failed them, but because they refuse to do the work. How can I force a child to do his work when I spend, at the most, five hours a week with him—and not just with him, but with 20-30 other students in the five-hour time frame who also have motivation issues? I could have the best student/teacher relationship with a student: he never causes trouble or is disrespectful in my classroom; he listens and participates in intelligent ways during class. I could teach literature in a captivating way, give the best grammar instruction known to humanity, and present step-by-step essay instruction that produces organized, thoughtful writing; but when that student needs to show me that he understood everything I taught him by writing that essay, he won’t do it. He must receive a zero for that assignment. How does this student’s failure begin and end with me?
If we look at this child’s home life, we may see this situation: He is failing all seven classes, yet he has a smart phone, a new car, and can stay out all night with his friends. If the parents aren’t providing a home geared towards learning, how can I be blamed for this? The reality of the situation is that I and other teachers are constantly blamed by parents for this type of student’s failures. Failure Is Not an Option has made teachers scapegoats and victims of unwarranted teacher-bashing tirades. There is no provision made for students who won’t work and parents who underestimate their role in their child’s success.
The fact remains that children can and will fail, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
One proposal I have to begin my Education Reformation is to make a change to the government initiative: Never Give Up, Even-after-Failure Option. Imagine the paradigm shift, which could lead to dramatic results. Students fail, but are encouraged to try, try again. They try until they get it right and can finally move on. Children would learn and move at their own speed. After a failure that is treated like a life-lesson, students would be motivated to work harder. If they don’t they stay where they are until they learn the necessary skills. It may take a day, a week, a month, or possibly a year to master the concepts, but they will master them. I know some may be worried about a child’s self-esteem if he is held back too many times. Could it be any worse than a child who is passed along and never learns to read and write or add and subtract? I know what they become when they reach my classroom in high school: They are drug addicts, discipline problems, or both. With 63% of inmates classified as illiterate, we can see the not-so-bright future for these children. I couldn’t imagine a more destructive reality that would lower someone’s self-esteem.
Never Give Up, Even-after-Failure Option will allow students to fail, but learn from their mistakes. Truly, our best lessons in life come after failure. Failure teaches us perseverance. Failure helps us become better and stronger people. Failure can push us to become the people we were created to be. Teaching our children how to fail will help them remove the fear surrounding failure. This skill will give students more confidence than anything else. Think of all the great people who have succeeded after failures: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; J.K. Rowling received a number of rejection letters for Harry Potter; Lee Iacocca was fired by Henry Ford; Thomas Edison made over 1000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb; and Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade. Their failures made them exceptional people. This is the kind of drive I want my students to have; this perseverance will teach and strengthen our children. Failure is an option, and it can be a beautiful thing.
Look for my next post where I explain what this could look like in schools.
Please add your thoughts, questions, and concerns in the comment section.