James, Middle School Science Teacher, Father of 2, UT
James is a middle school science teacher at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE). RE-ENVISIONED visited SLCSE as part of our School Spotlight #schoolstour, which aims to understand school communities in more depth. We loved every moment at SLCSE. You can find more posts from SLCSE by searching #slcse on the "A New Conversation" page.
The Salt Lake City Center for Science Education (SLCSE) is a unique lab school serving a diverse 6-12th grade student population in Salt Lake City. From their website: "At SLCSE, we develop the character and skills necessary to "Change Reality." We are courageous and persistent problem-solvers. We take healthy risks. We make mistakes and learn from our mistakes. We care about the quality of our work. We use professional language and kindness to develop learning communities. We take care of our abundant resources and use them to serve our school community and beyond. We use our curiosity, imagination and adaptability to direct ourselves in our quest; as learners, critical thinkers and ethical world citizens." You can find out more at http://slcse.weebly.com/ .
Think about a child you care about, who you don’t teach, and tell us about that child.
My own kid is the first person that came to mind. We have two kids. The younger one, Andrew, is 12. Both of our kids have special needs in different ways. We adopted them out of foster care—there are challenges.
He goes to another middle school. He’s super smart. He has made huge gains in his reading and math abilities. He was like four grades behind when we got him. His troubles are not academic. He has attention problems-- he has ADHD. He also has reactive detachment disorder, which is a huge slew of challenges. My wife is going to a course right now, but it seems like it’s a new diagnosis and people are still trying to figure out how to fix it. He has delayed learning, he is slower and he needs a lot more processing time. His fine motor skills are really poor. I’m the only person in the world who can read his handwriting. We used to think he had autism, but that diagnosis went away because as he got older we can be more specific about what it really is. Just because he has special needs doesn’t mean that he’s not smart though. He’s really sharp.
When you think about him grown up, what would be a good life?
I just want him to be able to have the skills and abilities that a functioning adult person needs. Yeah, do I want him to be academically smart, go to college and get a degree? Yes. But I want the same things for him as I want for the kids I teach. If they leave my class and don’t know the kingdoms or domains or list off all these scientific facts then that’s okay - I’m going to teach that and I think it’s important - but I’d rather them be able to have good problem solving skills, listen to other people, know how to communicate and stand up for themselves. That’s the stuff you really need as an adult to succeed--how to take accountability for your own life and choose differently when you face a difficult problem. Sure, I want him to get a degree but I more so want him to have the abilities to figure out life and navigate this world.
What would you, ideally, like the role of school to be in helping him get there?
I would like the role of school to be that he learns academically but I also want him to learn that other stuff—it’s kind of weird because some parents get defensive if you spend time in school teaching social skills, but with my kid if you took half the day to do that, then that’s what he needs. Yeah, spend time on academics, but I’m totally fine with them taking classes about social interactions and how to have healthy relationships. Yes, he’s had challenges, but he’s not a ton different than the kids I teach—most kids need help in that area too. I don’t know where they get that if not here since they’re at school with us all day. I feel like I need to work that in somewhere.
Do you think he’ll get that ideal school experience?
No. The school system is designed to teach the academic expectations that society has for school, which is fine because I want him to learn these things. But, I think the other social things are just as important, which he might not get. He might get those more than other kids because he has qualifications that allow him to get more resources and time with a teacher one-on-one, but it’s not the goal of the public education system to teach social skills and life skills: it’s to teach Common Core and concept curriculum and facts. Which is fine, kids should learn how to read and write and do math, those are all valuable things, but I think there are other valuable things.
Why do you think we have school as a society?
I think we have school broadly because everyone, no matter who you are, deserves to have some sort of education. It levels the playing field and tries to create equality. However, that’s not what happens in the end. Some kids get a better education than others because of the way the system is designed. I think at its core and its heart it is meant to provide a basic education so it creates an even playing field.
The whole system is designed towards certain kids. I think about my own experience in going to school—there were hardly any kids that had an ethnicity that was from a Spanish-speaking, or African-American background. I remember some kids, but very few. I didn’t think about it at the time, but not as an adult I think, “How did they survive? How did they come out of that? Did they come out on top?”
Everything that we learned and did was totally geared towards a middle class, white society and it was in an area of the state that was predominately Mormon, so that plays a factor into too. Where you teach, it’s geared towards the population you’re around. Luckily here, because we draw kids from all over, we have a nice conglomerate of different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders…but we still struggle to meet the needs of some of those people.
What has been an empowering learning experience for you?
It was not in the school setting in all. I was in my mid-20s and I did this self-empowerment training. It awakened these ideas that I never thought of before. It was about accountability in life—I feel like our society and people within it don’t take accountability for themselves in their lives. They look at themselves as victims. Like, people say, “I’m not good at math.” I tell my kids all the time, okay you can think that, but you’re still in charge of what’s going to happen with that. If that’s what you believe about yourself, then that’s what’s going to happen. If you want to change it, then you have to think of something different. You can be good at math.
It was this cool idea and it changed how I took on life after that. I look at my family and friends my age and, by far, I don’t make the most money, but I’m in a much better place in life because I take accountability for things. I think that’s one of the biggest life lessons I’ve had. I tell my students that we’re going to be accountable learners - we’re going to make a choice. I can’t make you do anything, you’re in charge of what you do…you make that choice. I want to teach them that they are in charge of their lives and their destinies. That lesson allowed me to claim that power that I never felt was mine. I used to feel like, “Oh, this is happening to me in life.” After this I thought, “Yeah, this may be happening, but this is what I’m going to choose to do. This is going to change.”
It’s been helpful, especially since I’ve run into tough times at times since our kids moved in with us. I felt like a horrible father for a bit. I remember thinking, “I’m trapped; I don’t have any choices.” So I used those lessons from that class – Okay, this isn’t working so I’m going to make a different choice and I’m going to do this a different way. So it was fine after that. If I get stuck, I choose something else. It sounds very simple but it’s hard in practice.