Many months back I wrote a piece to the effect of being “retired from full-time boss work” which had a few people ask me what I was going to do with my time (as if retiring from boss work meant not having a family and household to take care of). I probably even gave out the impression that I was retiring from working full-time for money period.
Truth be told, I’m unlikely to ever be able to stop working for money. Just learning to enjoy the gig economy is all.
Which brings me to being a pedagogical ninja for a public school system that, much like the larger society it grew out of, has its head up its ass.
I’ve observed a lot, and I need to vent a little.
So here are some lessons I’ve learnt being a full-time reserve teacher in a city I love and a public school system that my daughter will be entering next year:
1) The schooling system does not give a damn about the emotional and mental well-being of the child: I believe schools ought to exist for one reason and one reason alone – to create a safe, carefree, daily community that fosters play and curiosity. Sadly in Minneapolis, academics and scholastic numbers count for pretty much everything in the public system. Kids being happy and content count for jack shit. From K-12, this is a tragic, undeniable observation I have made in our schools – and it’s hardly a national outlier – rather I suggest that this is pervasive across our country. I’ve seen numerous elementary school schedules that have 5 hours dedicated to topics like literacy, math, and reading, while 20 or 30 minutes is afforded to recess and free play. I’ve seen supposedly “good” teachers stress their every minute of every day on worksheets and curriculum adherence, like proselytizing martyrs, while oblivious to bullying going on in front of their eyes. I’ve asked hundreds of high school and middle school students whether they like school, and not one time have I received an answer in the affirmative. Our children are miserable in our schools. Our teachers get even more miserable trying to implement an ass-backwards system that they seem to buy into only because it’s the only one in front of them. It is not working and the shittiest part is that there is a simple policy that can be implemented across the system that would resolve a lot of the stress factors. Which brings me to a second tragic observation about our school systems…
2) There is way too little play time and way too much stress, when it should be the exact opposite (like I said, head up ass): That schedule I talked about in the previous point – that’s the norm, and it is not working for our kids. We are not wired to sit in a goddamn classroom for so many hours at any age, leave alone as developing children. The primary way in which children learn to problem-solve, push their boundaries, develop social skills, and foster a strong sense of self is through play. Long periods of free play and semi-structured activities involving running, jumping, climbing, hanging, imagining, dancing, competing, laughing, singing, helping, supporting, simulating, building, negotiating, re-building and more. It is the primary foundation by which neural development takes place and should constitute the majority of a child’s time in school. When there is a strong foundation of play, only then can there be stimulating challenges set up to develop specific skills that will aid these children in sustaining themselves in whatever society they navigate as adults. Those challenges can be structured into an academic curriculum but, even then, should be for no more than short bursts of time as opposed to long drawn out bore sessions, stressing out student and teacher alike. And speaking of stressed out teachers…
3) Students need to be taught by caring adults with similar experiences and not entitled suburbanites who take themselves way too seriously: Seriously, is no one worried about the missionary-school-like racial demographics in our public schools? Why aren’t our children being taught by a teaching population of similar experiences, backgrounds, and journeys? Why aren’t teaching licenses incumbent upon these critical factors in student-teacher relationships. Racial parity is a major concern and will remain a major concern for years to come at the rate at which things are changing. But it’s not just a race thing, nor should it be. I’ve seen many white teachers doing an amazing job, usually by going against the grain and internalizing what it means to be a white ally to these kids. Equally importantly, they often appreciate the urban experience themselves. Just as important as race or background, city kids need to be taught by city adults, not adults who’re drawing a city paycheck in order to maintain a suburban lifestyle, figuratively but often literally as well. I have no problem with my bi-racial child being taught by a white teacher (and frankly don’t have much choice in the matter). But I know that there are sections of white society who are anxious and fearful of America becoming less white with every passing day. Teachers rooted in this fearfulness create a crappy experience and environment for a primarily racialized student population. Furthermore, because they’re vested in the norm, they’re accepted, even celebrated. Then there are sections of white society (a thankfully increasing trend) who embrace diversity, difference, and change in multiple ways, with all its accompanying struggles. White teachers coming from those backgrounds are less interested in maintaining a racist system and more interested in creating a nurturing space in their classrooms. I’m absolutely cool with my daughter being taught by one of them. Because ultimately, and this is the most sobering point one can internalize as a public educator…
4) The most important factor in the safe, healthy development of a child is a nurturing, stable home (and even good schools matter little in that development): Boy, are there teachers, good and bad, who have a grandiose sense of self. It takes one to one for sure. We educators think we’re going to change all kinds of young lives, with no small amount of ego-stroking, when we forget that school actually accounts for a lot less in a child’s healthy development than we might imagine. I’m not suggesting that schools cannot play a significant role in a child’s healthy development, just that the significance is way over-stated in our culture and that overblown sense of self-importance is fucking up our schools. I think it’s useful to internalize (the often bitter truth) that a nurturing, stable home is overwhelmingly the most important factor in a child’s healthy development. Now, a lot of kids don’t always have that. This is usually due to the ravages of capitalism, racism, and generational trauma. But with the kids in our system who experience this, they usually only get educators wringing their hands at the lack of learning taking place, resulting in the imparting of greater discipline, creating even more marginalization. Instead, a realistic understanding that schools be safe, carefree spaces for kids and nothing more, might actually result in the public system putting honest efforts towards achieving it.
Ultimately, regardless of the level of influence schools might have in any child’s life, what is clear is that stress, structure, and excessive discipline only feature as negatives for the children. Let’s stop messing up our kids and give them ample time to play, feel safe, and just be kids, for crying the fuck out loud.