In a few hours, my twin sons will each cross the stage and receive their high school diploma from and the Center for Global Studies at , celebrating this enormous milestone in each of their young lives; the good, the bad, the ugly, the rough patches, those brief, shining moments when they each demonstrated the integrity and character that affirmed for me that they heard at least some of what was repeated during the years of parental speeches, lectures, and pleading, …and now my young men will move on to the next exciting chapter in their lives. I also find myself celebrating this milestone in terms of what I anticipate to be the freedom from no longer having to investigate and analyze, ponder and judge, evaluate the level of calm or discord as situations occasionally come up in my children’s school day, coloring my life, my day and my mood by what’s good, bad and ugly in the Norwalk Public School system. I’m done!
But wait, I’m not done.
I know that something is broken in the delivery of public education – not only in Norwalk, CT – but in much of the country and public education is the only game in town for most Americans. And, by the way, our neighbors in communities whose socio-economic profiles are both similar to ours as well as those that are significantly more affluent are ascribing to the ever-growing belief system that the only children who attend public school do so as an unfortunate, lowly trade-off because otherwise, why would you ever opt to send your child to a public school?
My husband and I have educated our four children in a total of six elementary, middle, magnet and high schools in Norwalk, having been enrolled in Honors, AP, standard classes and Special Education support; we’ve seen it all. Our children have been truly blessed with an array of talented, passionate, devoted and caring educators and administrators who have profoundly influenced their lives; and a minority who demonstrated a disappointing level of indifference, burn-out and astoundingly unprofessional behavior both inside the classroom and out.
The crux of my concern with regard to the education of Norwalk’s children is simple;
Students in Honors, AP and Magnet classes have an element of self-selection in that every child (and/or their parent) in that classroom shares a common desire and commitment to excel in the subject. While I am sure those classes place significant academic demands on their teachers, behavioral distractions or outbursts during class is not a common occurrence. Over the years, I’ve heard teachers speak of the educational journey they’ve shared with their students as being a most profound experience for themselves as educators. It is how you want teachers to feel about educating your child.
Is there any reason why students who do not test into Honors /AP or choose Magnet programs should not have the same depth of educational experience with their teachers? Does the fact that the student finds the subject matter to be more challenging or may not be able to grasp more sophisticated aspects of a subject mean that a teacher could not have the same profound experience teaching that same student? I’ve seen too many great teachers to believe that to be true. Every child deserves to know the experience of their teacher being moved by and engaged in their accomplishment or their understanding of an issue that had been discussed in class. Until knowledge in actually applied in higher education or the workplace, it really is that dialogue, understanding and affirmation with your teacher that keeps a child connected to who (other than your parents) is excited by your intellectual growth.
Current budget issues not withstanding, I question whether we can attain this quality of learning for all of our students when we expect many of our talented, committed Norwalk teachers in our schools to spend a growing portion of each day playing disciplinarian and police (wo)man, defending students and often themselves from repeated incidents of disruptive, rude, inappropriate and sometimes violent behavior inside the classroom and the school. Teachers are being expected to ‘handle it’ at escalating levels within the classroom; after all, how many times can a child be marched down to the appropriate overburdened administrator, given a stern warning and returned to class? I don’t know. Is that really the only trade-off the system can look at – destroy the continuity of instruction for an entire class of students or repeatedly seek out overburdened administrators – and we see evidence that neither is changing the behavior.
I’d be interested to know the ‘cost’ associated with one students’ pattern of repeated disruptive behavior in a classroom of students as it equates to lost minutes every day and days every month of valuable teaching/learning time. Why isn’t the conversation about the vast majority of the students in the classroom who want to learn and are having that opportunity compromised through no fault of their own? Why is it acceptable to perpetuate an undercurrent of a disrespectful atmosphere with less fluid, focused learning time for students who are in school to get an education?
At the end of a month or a year or 3 years of middle school or 4 years of high school, we know this translates into students who could have gotten so much more out of their classroom experience and relationship with their teacher, great teachers having personal stories of being threatened that are chilling, feeling a diminished sense of professional satisfaction because they’ve logged more hours as disciplinarian than teacher and depending on the school, finding that discipline has become a contentious issue among all.
Certainly on the middle and high school levels, there are elaborate policies to deal with inappropriate behavior. Zero tolerance and detention and in-school suspension and hearings and the list goes on and on up to and including provisions for a student to attend class with his parole officer (not in Norwalk – but true for one of our neighbors, nonetheless!). Lose-lose for everyone involved.
Could we give the teachers who very much want to impart knowledge to our children and the children who want to (or understand why they should want to) learn a safe, respectful environment to do just that? Might we consider that a system affording endless, meaningless chances to a child engaging in inappropriate and/or dangerous behavior is doing that same child an enormous disservice? Children today with the brightest prospects will face unprecedented challenges as they embrace adulthood in an ever more complex and challenging society and world. What keeps us from saying to a child (and his/her parents) in middle or high school, a few years away from having to navigate the ‘real world’, that there is an absolute line in the sand with regard to acceptable, respectful, appropriate behavior in a classroom and it is not negotiable? Step over it and the responsibility of your education no longer rests inside of any of the traditional middle or high school buildings.
Politicians at all levels of government want us to know that the future of our children lie with our teachers. I think that’s true. When those same politicians (at all levels of government) would like to make it something more than a sound-bite, I’m with them.
So I’m not done, but I also don’t know what to do about it.