Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Learning: The Quintessential Survival Skill

I've been considering picking up some additional graduate work and the following is my response to a request for a writing sample.  The topic was "the impact of three issues that challenge educators today."  This will be the last of my rants on educational topics for a while...I promise.

As I stepped through the door into my own classroom at Heritage High School eighteen years ago, I brought my passel of ideals and my passion for literature with me and laid them right out for everyone to see.  I had no doubt that these pieces of gold would inspire my students and generate a whirlwind of learning, no matter how disparate the learning styles or how severe the behavioral issues or anemic the student motivation. I had a mission. If only it were that simple.  While I had the immeasurable support of my administration and confidence in my vision, it soon became clear that there was a lot more to being a teacher than teaching, talent, and good intentions. In college, no one really prepares you for the politics of teaching.  By politics, I don’t mean the ideology of the superintendent or the social etiquette of the faculty lunch room.  I mean the white noise that both student and teacher must endure to get the job done.  
Working in a township school, I was prepared for some disparities in the socio-economic composition of the student body, but the most persistent motivational roadblock came not from the students themselves, but from their parents.  Politicians argue about the accountability of the school districts for the quality of their children’s education, but one of the most damaging cultural attitudes that teachers must face is a devaluing of education by the already disenfranchised.  In this particular community, many of the parents had never finished high school, let alone gone on to college.  They were farmers or factory workers who saw school as a necessary evil.  Other families may be broken, one-parent homes relying on school to babysit their children while the parent worked two or three jobs just to make ends meet and avoid welfare.  The frustration, exhaustion, and formative experiences of the parents translated to a mistrust of school as an institution and even an adversarial relationship with education itself, an attitude which was ultimately inherited by their children. They did not see education as an opportunity, but rather as just another yard stick with which to measure their deficiencies.  It is difficult to help these students (and their parents) see the value of learning for its own sake, but that is part of our mission.  
 As our economy struggles, the divide between the haves and the have-nots grows and so does this attitude that education is not for everyone.  Lack of equity in the distribution of resources has always been an issue.  Some school systems simply do not have the same access to funding or the most modern resources essential to educational growth.  And with the lightning pace of technological advances, many schools cannot keep up, which again pits the more affluent communities against the poorer communities and the politicians get to decide who gets funding based on academic performance rather than need.  Their altruistic but misguided answer is No Child Left Behind legislation that is intended to hold public schools accountable for sloppy standards, bad teaching, and poor programming.  However good its intentions, NCLB is in large part perpetuating some of the most pervasive problems as it widens the gap and confirms those old prejudices against education. It has created a “teach to the test” mentality in many school systems that are terrified of losing their funding or being labeled as “the bad school” and abandoned by anyone with the means to transfer their child to a “choice” school.  Administrators have begun to pressure, and in some cases bully, their faculty into using a canned pedagogy that may encourage a stronger performance on the test but that will surely hinder true learning, which is whole the point of education.  Jobs are threatened, innovation is stifled, and whole populations are ignored in the name of that sacred test score.  Sadly, NCLB is now a significant part of the problem instead of the solution.    
Solid, veteran teachers will continue to inspire their students and help them learn, but in some ways their efforts may be hobbled by politics.  First year teachers do not have the experience to help them discern where an appropriate line can be drawn between content and learning so they rely on their administration and their mentors. Moreover, the efficacy of the assessment is only as good as the instrument, and we have plenty of research that demonstrates the biases and limitations inherent in many standardized tests.  So where does this leave ESL students and students with learning disabilities and other special needs?  With the ever growing diagnoses of children with ADD, ADHD, and Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as other issues that affect learning, the current trend in response to NCLB is to make few accommodations while forcing them to participate in this flawed evaluation process. There is no specific measurement of their growth as a subset of the population.  Through my own teaching experience, I saw the number of students with these issues in my classroom grow year by year.  Some of these students had early intervention, but many went undiagnosed or unserved for years.  In addition, the influx of non-English speaking immigrants is disproportionate across regions, yet these students are introduced to our classrooms, often with little support depending upon the availability of funds and programs, and included in our standardized testing which will impact that carefully guarded average that represents “adequate yearly progress” and subsequent NCLB approval.  
Teaching has always been a challenging vocation and certainly not a profession for the weak-hearted.  Education, however, is the backbone of any society and no matter what the political climate or the changing demographics or the gap in generational attitudes, learning is the essential point.  A student cannot effectively acquire content knowledge unless he learns how to learn first.  At its very core, learning is a survival skill, one that needs to be nurtured and fed and practiced throughout life.  Good teachers lead their students onward through the white noise and help them develop the most crucial competency they will ever master—the ability to learn. 

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