Thursday, January 6, 2011

January 6, 2011 ~ Day 28
The Buck Stops With Us

I'm sorry.

I'm apologizing in advance because I think this will probably be my all-time most controversial and perhaps offensive post.

If what I am about to write offends you, please let me know so we can start a productive dialogue and I can learn from your perspective. Together maybe we can forge ahead and create something of value - find some answers.

That said, here goes:

Based on my 10 year teaching career (in which I've worked with well over 1,000 children in public, private and charter schools grades K-8)... my now nearly 6 years as a mother... and my 35 years as a female American human with the course equivalent of a master's degree in Education, I'm going to take a stand right here.

Parents, the buck stops with us.

Let me be more explicit. If your child tests poorly on a standardized exam, it is more likely to be due to lack of exposure in the home to literature, communication, mathematics and a strong work ethic than it is to the fact that your child has a crappy teacher.

Now listen, I'm not saying that your child DOESN'T have a crappy teacher. I trust your judgment, and you're probably right. If you think you've seen better teaching before, chances are that you have.

I'm saying, it doesn't much matter... because at the end of the day, the most important teacher in their life is YOU.

Since I started teaching in 1997 (I started out as an assistant in four private school classrooms: grades K, 1, 3 and 4) I have seen hundreds of teachers in action. Some of them have been magnificent. Life-changing. Inspiring. The kinds of professionals that adore children, go into teaching for all of the right reasons, and stick with it for a lifetime because their hearts are in the right place.

I've also seen teachers like the infamous Mr. Q who once grew so angry at a 7th grade student, he (the teacher) actually threw a book at him through the window of the classroom and then chased him (the student) around the building. Can you imagine a fifty-something Caucasian male chasing a spry Hispanic 13 year old around a bungalow, cussing? Needless to say, Mr. Q (who had been documented with a long paper trail) did not last much longer at that school.

For these reasons and many more, my husband and I decided years ago that since we both attended public school all along before heading off to our fancy alma mater... and since we both BELIEVE in public school, that we would put our children in the best public school that we could find in our city.

So here we are. We live a block away from a "10" school - top rated, highest test scores, yadayadayada.

Except since we've been living here, we've started hearing things. Bad things. About the schools, the teachers, the drugs on campus. We hear things from our local babysitters, from older parents, even from elementary school teachers about the high school teachers. We hear that "It's not what it used to be", and "All of the best teachers have retired". One good friend confided in me that her friend has a child here in the 12th grade and another in the 4th grade, and apparently the educational quality has gone far downhill in the span of those 8 years.

I'm not one to take the word of other people though. I've always been the kind of person who needs to do it for myself - see it for myself - in order to get my head around the problem at hand.

So I've started volunteering in my son's classroom. I've started subbing in the local district schools. I've been in the classrooms and met the teachers and seen the quality of the work.

And I've got to say, I'm a little shocked.

These are top 10 schools? Really?

This is the point in the article where I should give you concrete examples of what I saw in these schools. I have plenty of examples that I could give, and I'm absolutely itching to do it. In my heart though, I feel like sharing what I've seen and what I've heard the students say ~ especially sharing it on the internet ~ would be breaking my own professional code of conduct. These schools were kind enough to invite me in as a substitute teacher, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

So I'm not going to call anyone out by name, and I'm not going to engage in mudslinging. However, if you take me out for a glass of wine at some point (or a cup of green tea) I will heartily bend your ear for an hour with stories of what I've seen and heard.

I think my own children (and yours) deserve A LOT better than what is happening in these supposedly top 10, first-tier schools. Mediocre is a word that springs to mind. Truly mediocre. Disappointing.

I've seen MUCH better, more reflective teaching in the 5-ranked (5 out of 10) inner city middle school where I spent two amazing years out of my ten year career. That same kind of inspiring, outstanding, phenomenal teaching of which I spoke earlier in this column. Classrooms that were cheerful, inviting and organized. Environmental print and art used in a multitude of ways to capture the imagination and keep the students engaged.

So here's where my own "Teacher Head" starts to spin.

Why are the test scores so low in poor socio-economic schools populated by students who are being raised in single-parent families, or by two parents who are both working full time? Can all of it really be blamed on the teachers? Even those aforementioned teachers I have personally watched "in action" - some of the best I've ever seen or heard of?


Why are the the test scores so high in this upper-middle class to wealthy neighborhood where my family lives, when the quality of the actual schools - and the teaching that I've seen in action so far - is basically mediocre?

  • Could it be that the difference comes down to parenting?

  • Could it be that our home life, and the environment we create in our homes, actually makes the difference between a kid that succeeds in school and one that flunks miserably?

  • Might it be that our own motivation to help our children navigate their education is actually more important than any single teacher they may have in their 13 years in primary, middle and high school?

Does the buck really stop with us?

I think it does.

I am as liberal politically as they come, but I am going to make the argument that it isn't just our broken education system that is failing our students today. The system may be broken but many motivated families are managing to navigate it quite ably.

I think it is the breakdown in our family structure that is failing children the most.

Children who come from homes with parents that value education, who grow up surrounded by books and newspapers... taken to see art exhibits and given extra-curricular opportunities... are far more likely to succeed and even thrive in any classroom.

Children who come from homes with parents who expect a school to raise their children, will have a severe disadvantage when it comes to education. I taught a 10 year old girl today who came to school with a bag of cookies for breakfast because her mother "didn't have time to make my breakfast, and I had to do her hair for work". Yes, that is right. The daughter didn't get breakfast because they were running late and she was too busy doing her own mother's hair before work!!!!! The poor kid complained of a headache and stomach ache and had a lot of trouble concentrating until after she was able to eat the school lunch. Small wonder! Who wouldn't feel lousy on a breakfast of three OREOs?

I wish I could say that is the only time in my career that I've had a student given cookies by their parents for breakfast but THERE HAVE BEEN SO MANY OF THEM. And sadly, the lack of a decent meal is basically the least of the problems that my students have often brought into the classroom from home.

Here are just a few of the household problems my students have had to contend with over the years:

  • Divorcing/Divorced parents - multiple homes, parent drama, much chaos

  • Alcoholic parents - 12 and 13 year old students taking care of their own parents and younger siblings

  • Abusive parents - TRAGIC

  • Abusive boyfriends of single mothers with children in my classes

  • Psychotic parents - one of my first students, a sweet fourth grader who loved to play basketball, was murdered along with his mother and brother by his father who was facing financial and legal troubles

  • Jailed parents

  • Gravely ill parents or siblings - cancer, leukemia, heart-breaking

  • Teenaged parents - I'll never forget the 13 year old 7th grade student who told me it was "No big deal" that she was sexually active with her 17 year old boyfriend because "My mom had me when she was 14". So that would make your mother, um, 27? Wow... imagine being a grandparent by 30!
  • Overbearing, tightly wound parents who pressure their kids until they snap

  • Parents with eating disorders. Yes, seriously. Imagine being the teenage daughter of THAT mess!

  • Absent parents - I tear up thinking of some of the journal entries I've read written by kids whose mother or father (or worse, both) have left them behind with grandparents or other relatives... there is no rejection more personal or more painful than this

  • Micromanaging parents - Obsessed with even the smallest details about their children's lives, they hover around the classroom and playroom and stifle them both socially and educationally

  • Parents living in extreme poverty - Students come to school many times without having bathed, wearing the same clothing day after day

  • Deployed parents - Serving their country with honor... but when country must come before family, it is usually the children who suffer most

and then you get the hard working, well-intentioned, caring parents who simply have to work double shifts or two jobs to keep their family housed and fed. They don't have time to watch their kids after school, play with them at the park or help with homework.

These are just a few of the hundreds of examples I have seen of home life directly affecting what happens at school.

If you are reading this article you probably do NOT fall into any of the aforementioned categories of parents I have mentioned. I cannot think of a single friend of mine or my husband's who is not 200% devoted to their children and their growth, education and well-being. I admire you all so much! I'm lucky to have such great influences in my life as a mother.

That said, I'm going to wrap up this tired by saying that I think we parents need to take more responsibility for how our kids turn out. In my opinion there are three main advantages that kids who attend "good" schools in wealthy neighborhoods have that other children may not have: Access, Language and Peer Support.

It is true that some schools (e.g. high schools) offer more Advanced Placement classes and the opportunity to take college-level courses while still in grades 9-12. It is true that some high schools offer study abroad opportunities or International Baccalaureate curriculum. Kids that attend these kids of schools have greater ACCESS.

It is true that top-ten schools tend to be populated by students whose first language is English. This doesn't make English "better" than other languages. This is just common sense: It is simply easier to learn ANYTHING if you're being taught it in your native language. When I took an anthropology course taught in Italian while living in Italy, I (a 4.0 college student) was totally and completely lost. Clueless.

How can a kid understand content if they don't know the language it is being taught in? Studies show that it takes up to 7 years for any English as a Foreign Language student to become proficient in academic English. Which means if you move to the USA and begin learning English in the 7th grade, you should finally understand the school textbooks by say, your junior year of college. So, kids that attend elite schools surrounded by mostly native English speakers have the advantage of LANGUAGE.

It is true that students in wealthier communities tend to come from families who value education... and because of this, there is a general peer-enforced sense of the importance of school. Kids motivate and push each other to succeed through peer pressure and peer competition. As my husband says, in the school where he attended grades 9-12 it was "Cool" to be smart and that made a huge difference in his desire to achieve. PEER SUPPORT for the value of learning is priceless.

But we as parents, whether we have $$$ or not, can find ways to give our children access. We as parents, by getting to know our children/their friends/the culture of our community can find ways to connect our children with other students who value learning. There are charter schools out there, and bussing options.

I will never forget visiting the living room of Rosa, an eleven year old student entering the sixth grade. As her new-student advisor, I was sent to speak with her parents about our school and its expectations.

I had never driven in that part of our city before, and was a little nervous to see gangs of high school or young-twenties boys wearing bandanas and white t-shirts, just hanging out mid-day on the stoops of their apartments and houses.

When I entered Rosa's two-room home, where mattresses could literally be seen on the main floor next to their dining table, I was struck by the radiant smiles of her parents. They sat me down on their tattered sofa and plied me with glasses of ice water and candies. Neither of them spoke English, but with Rosa's translation they explained to me that education meant everything to their family. They had brought Rosa and her sisters here from Mexico to have a better life.

This family had NOTHING, but they did everything they could to get Rosa and her two sisters to the best school that they could, figuring out - with no family car and no Driver's License - how to get her across the city every morning to reach our school by 7:30am, so that she could thrive. They put her education first, and she understood just how important a value that was to her family.

I am proud to say that from the first day Rosa DID thrive, and earned straight A grades in every class she took... from all of the best teachers ~ and probably some less than great teachers too. Either way, she likely saw each of these teachers for one or two hours a day. She will be with her family for an entire lifetime. In the end, parents are what matter most.

Rosa comes from poverty and illiteracy but she has parents who care, and they DIDN'T pass the buck. They stepped up and found a way.

If they can do it, the rest of us can surely do it too.

THE BUCK STOPS WITH ME. My kids may have outstanding teachers in their school years. They may have disastrous teachers in their school years. But as long as they have me, I will make damn sure that they have all the language, support, access, attention and love they need to grow, learn and thrive.

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