Rachel, Teacher, TX
Imagine your child (or one you care about deeply) is now in their 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for them about their life? What would make it a ‘good’ life?
I think there are a lot of ways to live a good life but I think there are some themes that would underlie across the board. The first thing I think of is being compassionate. I think a lot of unhappiness and unrest and turmoil grows from the places in our culture that don’t have compassion. So I think you’d have to be willing to hear and care for people and walk in the shoes of people with diverse experiences. That’s a big part of a good life.
I think kids also need to have an understanding of their talent and skills and the things they are passionate about and the knowledge of how to use their passions to make a positive impact on their community.
What role do you think schooling should play in achieving that ideal good life?
When I think about those concepts of a good life, a lot of it is emotional. A lot of it is the way you take in the world around you and deal with people and situations. Which is really tricky because it’s not something that’s easy to teach explicitly. I’ve seen teachers analyze literature in a way that opens kids eyes to diversity, but I think it’s really hard to get a kid to carry that with them. But I like to hope if you present kids with the right tools and the freedom of analysis, they can grow in compassion. This might be a bit biased, but as a composition teacher, I think a big part of school is teaching kids to communicate their ideas. So much of the unrest in our community stems from people not being able to communicate—either the words that are coming out of their mouths, or the choices or mindsets.
I also think you have to look at two levels of community. There’s the community in which the school is situated. I think it’s very difficult for a school to be effective without an understanding of the community around it. That doesn’t mean they need to change their expectations, but they might need to understand the language they use and structures they use to reach families and students. It’s so hard to think of a system that works nationally, because even just moving between three different cities, the communities my students come from have been so dramatically different that no set of books or problems would work for all of them without varying levels of scaffolding and support. So that’s one kind of community.
The second community is the one within a school. The most effective school leaders are the ones that let every person feel value within a school. They create a sense of collegiality, they get to know the students and teachers. I think having everyone be included and everyone understand policies and changes is really powerful.
Do you think schools are currently playing that role/doing what they should (for you/your child and for everyone)?
It’s really hard to say. Some schools certainly are, but again… I understand both sides of it. I think it’s so hard to create the schooling system that can reach communities as diverse as a reservation in the southwest and a wealthy suburb in the Midwest and everything in between. It’s hard to create a system that works for all of those places. And I understand for a system that’s publicly funded to have a system of accountability. But at the same time, a school has to have an understanding of its community to really flourish. I think there are many educators who are doing incredible things to teach children that they’re valuable and to fill them with knowledge that will uncover their passions. But there’s so much pressure on numbers and accountability that some of those more personal lessons like compassion and empathy can get lost. So I think an evaluation is necessary, but I certainly don’t know the solution, I don’t know how to align millions of children under one system successful.
I do think finishing fifth grade should have some sort of tangible meaning. I should be able to finish the fifth grade in Colorado and move to Maine and be able to succeed. I just don’t know what the method is to achieve that.
The other thing that came to my mind—I think there’s a delicate balance between making those big changes and persevering. In a lot of communities I’ve been a part of, as soon as something shows signs of not working, people are prone to overhauling it. And I think when you’re dealing with kids and large numbers of people, you can’t expect overnight change. Those types of changes don’t take all the necessary considerations into account. The kid ends up unsettled and unbalanced, and without a solid picture of the place they’re going to school. Is it that this program isn’t working, or that we haven’t stuck with it long enough to make it work? That’s something I think about a lot.