Over the last three weeks I have had the incredible opportunity of visiting with educators, administrators, and legislators in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Alabama. I have spent time in Lansing, Madison, and Huntsville, and during that time and at each stop I have had the great privilege of visiting with people who are dedicating their lives to making sure our children have the best opportunities possible. From school to ready-to-work to free and reduced-cost meals to immunizations, these good people are trying to insure our kids have access to the greatest social experiment in history – the American way of life.
It makes me proud to live in a country where people genuinely care about the quality of life and the opportunities our kids will experience. It also makes me proud that we are a generous nation when it comes to teaching and caring for our kids. Whether because of religious beliefs or simply because it is the right thing to do, most everyone agrees that our kids are worth the effort and they are worth the price we pay. Now we just need to ask the question of whether or not we are getting a good return on our investment.
Let me preface that question with this caveat – this nation has the finest educators and the best educational system in the world. Our test scores may not place us at the top, but what makes this country special is the fact that our educational system is designed to give every child an opportunity. It is designed to make the information and knowledge necessary to succeed accessible and attainable for all kids. We do not predetermine any child’s future based upon aptitude or a formalized caste system. We give every child the opportunity to learn and then that child, and just as importantly, that child’s family can either receive or reject the education provided.
With that caveat out of the way, one common theme I heard from educators in large cities and small towns and from northern urban to southern rural is that our educators are concerned. They are concerned that our kids aren’t as interested in learning as in years past and they are concerned that the value of an education does not seem to reside in as many homes as it should. They are concerned that they have to become more than just academicians. They also have to become life coaches, interventionists, preventionists, and social engineers. This focus on social development raises the ire of some people, especially those that believe that social engineering should not occur in our schools. Let’s look at in context:
Mrs. Howard’s 4th grade class has 21 students. Here’s the Breakdown:
So, Mrs. Howard is supposed to teach 21 kids who come from different backgrounds, different home situations, different learning levels, different socioeconomic statuses, and different cultures. She is supposed to not only teach reading writing and arithmetic, but she is also supposed to identify the students who are at-risk socially and emotionally and provide intervention small groups and then behavioral prevention lessons for the full class. The tricky part is that Mrs. Howard’s schedule is packed, so when she has time to devote to behavior prevention lessons she really needs them to target the most significant behavioral risks for the largest percentage of kids possible. And when she does a small group, she really needs that group to be comprised of the kids who can benefit the most from anger management training or communication lessons or even basic hygiene. There just isn’t time in the day to teach redundant or non-focused lessons to kids who don’t need it and then miss teaching the right thing to the kids that do. Mrs. Howard is a teacher, but she is a social engineer in every sense of the word. Her daily work is preparing kids to become contributing members of our society and that task requires the development of the kids socially with an engineered plan for each student with implementations in modalities ranging from classes to small groups to individual. Our teachers have to be as multi-faceted as the classes they are teaching. They are the engineers that are laying the foundation for our nation’s future.
This is the world our teachers live in each day. Kids from all sorts of backgrounds with all kinds of different needs all need to score at a certain level on the standardized testing. All the while some of the kids need to have their behaviors addressed before they can even fully participate in class, and the entire class needs to learn maturity skills to prepare for the following grade’s responsibilities and accountabilities. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
One of the things that has made America great is that we are the grand experiment. We are the world’s melting pot. We have people of all nationalities, belief systems, cultures, and abilities. What makes us unique is that we offer opportunity to every one of these people and every one of these groups. That offering is fomented in our educational system and is guided by educators who devote their intellect and their time to making sure that each student has a chance to achieve. And that’s the beauty of our system – it is predicated on opportunity not a predetermined end-result. It works best when our kids are rewarded for achievement based on what they have done not just the mere participation.
In visiting with educators, there were two common themes that resounded in each meeting. The first theme was that educators are worried about our families. They are worried about the number of kids coming from broken and uninvolved homes. They are just as worried about the “helicopter parents” that hover over every move they make waiting to pounce and further push our society into a litigious one. They worry that many of the parents don’t have the basic skills or value set that they need to teach their children. They also worry that some students are so privileged at home that they will not accept work or discipline at school. Educators worry about what happens when their students leave the classroom and go home.
The second common theme of educator concern was that such an incredible amount of burden is placed on our teachers that they are concerned whether or not they can hold up and stay in the system. There is a balancing act that needs to occur between providing the resource to affect change and heaping one more thing onto an already over-burdened teacher. Administrators must make measured choices to insure that time is allocated to the greatest needs and resources are devoted to the greatest good. As I listened to this concern, I kept coming back to the notion that if we only gave our teachers the necessary tools to affect change, then the world’s best teachers could again produce the world’s best students. It was very affirming for me in that it made the work my colleagues and I have put into Leaps seem not only valid but necessary.
Our society is like a huge jigsaw puzzle and we are asking our educators to put the pieces together. Their job is to develop a group of young adults who are prepared to either enter the workforce or go on to higher education. Our educators take little ones who cannot read and still need a nap to make it through the day-- and by the time that child goes through the system and walks across that stage to receive her diploma, they are supposed to be ready to be a contributor to our grand experiment. They are supposed to be a contributing ingredient to our melting pot. And if this child is ready to work, and if they are ready for college, and if this grand experiment can reach its potential, then you have to thank men and women who chose a life devoid of fame, fraught with increasing demands from an evolving society, destined for middle class with no hope for wealth, and dedicated to achieving one year only to have to start over the next. Our grand experiment is built on the backs of our teachers. That means the rest of us should recognize the sacrifice they are making and what they need from us to be the social engineers who build the foundation for our nation’s success.