“If you could have any program to use in your classroom, what would it be?” This hypothetical question was the catalyst for three days of reflection about what my wishlist would be. What I decided was that if given unlimited resources, I would not want any program. I don’t need a program, nor do my students. Here is what we do need:
- More time. I get 40 minutes per day with my high school students. If I were to give each student individual attention, I would average 60 seconds per student– and that is not accounting for any group instruction time. This is not enough time to develop a meaningful perspective about each student’s individual challenges, strengths, goals or motivation.
- Technology. I don’t mean software. I mean hardware. Laptops. Printers. Cameras. I do not want to take my students to a computer lab. I want technology at my students’ fingertips. I imagine in my fantasy classroom I would often say, “Great question! Let’s all try to find an answer.” Students would google their little hearts out. They would share what they stumble upon. They would ask their neighbors, “Hey, how did you find that?” My lesson may derail. Maybe I don’t have time for such meandering. Maybe the students take the discussion in a way I hadn’t planned on going. But every good teacher knows when the students’ excitement changes the direction of the lesson, you buckle up and appreciate the adventure on which they take you. Common Core enthusiasts have students going very deep into texts and claim this is the same adventure. That is akin to giving a prospector a 2×2 area and telling him to find gold. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how deep you go. Sometimes you just need to dig somewhere else.
- More adults in the building to address non-academic needs. Many students come to school traumatized every day. Some have fled war-torn countries. Some are battle-weary from their own houses. Many are hungry. Many are afraid of what the day might bring. The girl who skips class may be struggling with morning sickness compounded by the harsh reality of teenage motherhood. The boy who sleeps through class may be working a full time job at night to support his family. No curriculum program or individualized software is going to motivate these students. The only thing that will motivate them is actual hope for the future. It isn’t about wanting to graduate. It is about believing in a future with conditions they have never experienced or even witnessed first hand. We don’t need more clinically proven programs that are aligned to Common Core standards in our schools. We need more compassion, empathy, respect and hope.
- Recognition that public policy has an enormous effect on student learning.
- When mom and dad have four minimum wage jobs between them and still have to choose between rent and food, students learn that hard work does not actually lead to success. In their worlds, hard work leads to frustration, strained relationships, anger and fear.
- When mom doesn’t have paid time off from work, so she has no choice but to send her baby to school with a fever, there is more at stake than the spreading of an illness. When the school calls mom to pick up her little one, instead of saying what her mind is screaming, “Tell her mommy’s coming!” she has to say, “I’m sorry I can’t come right now.” The school/home partnership instantly becomes contemptuous.
- When parents are drug abusers that are continually arrested and jailed, instead of treated for their addiction, children suffer. The drug addiction cycle is one that cannot be broken with curriculum alone.
- Children who are undocumented residents are here through no action of their own, and yet they are keenly aware that the promise of “hard work leading to reward” does not apply to them. The ever-looming threat of deportation, coupled with lack of real opportunity after graduation makes these children cautious observers instead of active participants in their education.
- The county in which I teach is home to the largest population of veterans in the state, and one of largest veteran populations of any county in the entire US. This population, and their children who sit in our classrooms, face challenges resulting from PTSD, TBI, physical disability, inadequate health care, insufficient mental health services, lack of transition assistance, and cuts to pensions. There is no curriculum program in existence that would not seem trivial in nature when compared to the stresses that these families endure.
So, my wishlist? Fix the world in which my students are living. If you can’t do that, then please, for the love of all things good, keep your programs and just let me educate my students. Trust my years of experience. Trust the lessons I have learned from the thousands of children that have graced my rosters. Understand that programs are mere commodities, while teaching is an art that deserves freedom and respect. Only when the art of teaching is again valued as an instrument of change for our students will real progress be possible.