How many times throughout your lifetime have you heard other people say “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it!”
The way you are asked to teach your students, today in 2018, is because someone, many decades ago, sat down and designed an education system in a way they thought would make it easy to teach kids. In present times, we continue that tradition of one teacher per classroom of 35 or fewer children.
Now, imagine that you and the other teachers at your school decided to create an opportunity to spend a day brainstorming, without the participation of administrators telling you what you can and cannot do. Imagine that the challenge you were given was to create an education model from scratch that would enable you to do all the things you have always wanted but were unable to do with and for your students. Would it look anything like the education process in which you work today?
Go ahead and try it! Plan a brainstorming session some weekend and see what happens. What do you have to lose?
Like seeds, ideas germinate the easiest when planted in fertile soil so, to kick it off and get everyone in an “exponential-thinking mindset” so you can all think outside the box. Someone told me recently that “think outside the box” has become cliché. The phrase might be cliché but the process of getting outside of one’s frame of reference is an essential tool of creative thinking.
Suggest to your colleagues that they review my education model before arriving for your brainstorming session at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ just to get a glimpse of what might exist beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Then, set both my model and “the way you have always done it” aside and have at it. Start with a clean whiteboard and no constraints. There is no such thing as an idea too crazy to consider.
Start by going around the room and asking every participant, one after another, to identify anything and everything they can think of that children need in order to learn. Do not stop until there are no more ideas. Then, work together to try to consolidate and prioritize that list, but do not erase anything. Remember, you want to teach the whole child and even the smallest things might make an enormous difference. Once you have completed this step then start back around and begin to suggest ways you could organize yourselves to ensure that every child has every one of his or her needs, met.
Remind yourself that the existing education process was designed a century ago and things have changed since then; in fact, everything has changed since then, many times over. Educators have experimented with modifications and there have been many innovative approaches, tools, and methodologies over the decades, but the original model is still at work in public schools, as well as private and parochial school, all over the U.S.
The reason these ideas have not proven successful is not because they were bad ideas and not because teachers are incapable. The innovative approaches, tools, and methodologies have been disappointing because we tried to force them into an outmoded and brittle process. As I have written, before, it is like the parable of storing new wine in old wineskins that leak and turn sour the wine we had worked so hard to produce.
Today, you are teaching in an archaic structure and process only because that’s the way we’ve always done it. This would be okay if the way we teach worked for everyone. But, of course, we know it does not.
Some of you might be thinking, “it works in my school” but if there is a single failing grade in even one teacher’s gradebook, then a child has failed. There are many schools where it we be difficult to count all the failing grades that have been recorded in the gradebooks of all the teachers in a given school over the course of a semester.
We have been conditioned to think this is the best we can do and that the responsibility for the failure of children who live in poverty, a disproportionate percentage of whom are also children of color, must be borne by society, not our public schools.
As education reformers and other critics of public education have become more aggressive and are now offering alternatives to traditional public schools, it is only natural that public school teachers have grown defensive. That it is why it is vital that public school teachers, administrators, and policymakers step back and challenge their fundamental assumptions about what they do and why. It is my belief that teachers are in the best position to take responsibility for this process because they are close to the problems. Teachers live with the challenges of teaching every day and they witness the struggles and failure of children.
Consider one last chilling thought. We have noted that educators suggest that it is up to society to address the problems of poverty before teachers can be expected to teach millions of our nation’s disadvantaged students. Guess what? Society has done something to address the issues of poverty that make it so difficult to meet the needs of all our nation’s children; needs that are often extraordinary.
Over the past fifty years, American society has spent trillions of dollars building school buildings in communities all over the U.S. and have staffed them with the most qualified teachers our colleges and universities can produce. Society has been waiting on you, the best teachers we can produce, to find a solution because the American people don’t have a clue. You, America’s teachers—unsung heroes all—are the only Americans who truly understand the needs of the children with whom you work every single day.
America needs each of you to put your heads together and come up with a new way of teaching that will allow every child to learn and be successful in the classroom and that will refuse to let a single child fail. You know better than anyone that your students do not start off from the same point with respect to academic preparedness and with reference to your state’s academic standards; you know that they do not all have supportive parents; you know they do not all learn at the same pace; and you even know that there is no expectation that they will all arrive at the same destination. You also know that they are children and that they need us to like them, to be patient with them, to support them in every conceivable way.
You also know that our nation’s disadvantaged students, are the most vulnerable. They need us to tailor an academic process to their unique requirements and they are also the students who need us the most no matter how challenging it might be to teach them. Remember, the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.
What you may not have considered is that American society needs these kids every bit as much as they need us. We can no longer afford the enormous cost of caring for a growing population of Americans who lack the academic skills to support themselves and their families. We can no longer afford the incalculable opportunity cost that these generations of children represent if we are to rise to the unprecedented challenges the balance of this Twenty-first Century will present.
Finally, we all need to understand that we cannot legislate an end to the prejudices in the hearts of the American people. Neither can we legislate an end to the resentment, bitterness, and anger in the hearts of Americans who are frustrated that they are asked to pay taxes to support people whom they perceive to be unwilling to support themselves. What we can do, gradually, is to reduce the population of Americans who have become entrapped in a maelstrom of poverty, failure, hopelessness, and powerless; thus, leaving others to find something else to be angry and embittered about.
This is not something that can be done in a day. After all, it takes eighteen years to raise a child and it takes thirteen years in school to help them acquire the skills, knowledge, and understanding they will need to have choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning when they leave high school. They must, also, be able to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy.
Teachers, I urge you not to wait for someone else to fix the problems in our nation’s public schools. And do not forget that education reformers are working hard and spending huge sums of money to take that responsibility away from you. Scariest of all, these reformers haven’t taken the time to understand the real challenges in our public schools and are oblivious to the harm they do. You, our teachers, are the only ones who can stop the reformers and the only way to stop them is to render them irrelevant.