Maureen, Educator & Mother of 2, PA
Maureen McGurk is a public elementary school teacher, wife and mother of two. She has a Master of Public Administration from California State University Long Beach. She is a Catalyst and was interviewed by REENVISIONED co-founder, Nicole.
Think about a child in your life that you care deeply about. Tell me a little bit about that child and what makes them special or unique.
I’ll think about my son who is 12, because I do worry a little bit more about him and how he relates to school. And what makes him unique and special? I would say he is a great combination of this really active boy – he’s moving non-stop and loves every sport there is, but he also has another side where he is able to be quiet and reflective. He enjoys spending time reading and drawing, sorting baseball cards. So, he has this great balance that I love about him. He is super compassionate as well. One time we went to Inner Harbor in Baltimore over a spring break vacation, and we saw a homeless person on the way into a restaurant. When we came out with leftovers, he made us walk around the streets looking for this person and give our leftover food to them. We didn’t find the person, but we did find someone else, so now it’s a tradition in our family. If we’re out somewhere and we have leftovers, we’ll give them away to people, and it’s because of him.
When you think about your son in his childhood – what makes a good childhood?
I have thought about this question a lot. I think having a good childhood means first, having your basic needs met. But then also, having the strong and supportive relationships that you need to navigate life – everyone has ups and downs – so having those basic needs met but also having good, solid relationships with people who can teach you in other ways, not just school-related ways, but about life. And be there to support you for those ups and downs
Could you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by basic needs?
Housing, food, being able to get enough sleep – as a teacher, that’s something I see a lot of times with my students who don’t always get enough sleep. And exercise too. I think exercise and play in childhood are a basic need that we forget about sometimes.
“But, in terms of a “good life,” I don’t know if a job is all there is to having a good life. It’s also important for people to pursue passions and again, have strong relationships with people – connections that can sustain and support them through life’s ups and downs.”
Now imagine your son in his 30s, he’s out of school and he’s beginning his adult life. What is it that you want for him in his adulthood? What would make a good life for him?
Similar to basic needs of children, for adults, you need to have a good job so that you can meet your basic needs and if you have children to meet their basic needs. So, there’s no doubt that is part of it. But, in terms of a “good life,” I don’t know if a job is all there is to having a good life. It’s also important for people to pursue passions and again, have strong relationships with people – connections that can sustain and support them through life’s ups and downs. I think a job is very important but when I think about my son in his 30s and what would make him successful, that’s not the only piece of it. I hope he’ll find his passion and maybe turn his passion into a career path. Even if that doesn’t happen – what is he passionate about? What can lead him to enjoy life?
Is there anything else that you think about when you imagine your son in particular?
Just being able to be happy, find joy, and when he goes through those times where he’s not happy – being able to persevere and being grateful that he got through it and for the people that were there to help him.
Is there anything that keeps you up at night or that you get worried about?
“I worry that the income inequality makes it so people who want other choices aside from banking, science, or technology are not going to be able to thrive in life. And I don’t know that those would be his choices for a career.”
Yeah, I worry about the fact that it seems there is less economic opportunity than there used to be. I worry that the middle class is getting smaller because that’s the group I see my children falling into. I worry about debt and college – there’s so much emphasis on college and career, but we’re sending kids to college and they have this debt, then they get out and don’t have a job that pays them very well. The income inequality – there’s a lot of emphasis on making a lot of money at the highest levels, and I realize that my son is in a position where he has a lot of privilege and opportunities, so he probably could work his way up to a position like that but I’m not sure that’s what he wants. I worry that the income inequality makes it so people who want other choices aside from banking, science, or technology are not going to be able to thrive in life. And I don’t know that those would be his choices for a career.
Now, given your description of the ideal childhood and adulthood for your son, what role should school play in creating those lives?
There should be less emphasis on competition and more emphasis on teaching kids to interact with people, discuss different ideas through debate, appreciate art and culture, and compassion– schools could definitely play a role in building compassion among students. It would mean taking the time to learn and appreciate things that aren’t necessary measureable – which is what schools are forced to focus on now. And civics – there has been so much emphasis on STEM recently, which is of course important – but making sure that students are connecting and contributing to their community and society. Schools could play a big role in doing that.
Also, helping students to find their passions and enjoy life more – more emphasis on not just going to college and getting a job, but also enjoying life and seeing that life has more to offer than just trying to make as much money as possible. And bringing that into the discussion of school about what success means – what “achievement” means other than just a grade or a test score.
“Most of the people in education have a broader picture of what an education should be. But, I don’t think schools are doing it at all and I think it’s because teachers and also administrators don’t have the choice of what they should focus on.”
Do you think school is currently playing that role for your son?
I don’t think school is playing that role right now. And I do truly believe – this comes from having the teacher lens –that the people in schools that have their boots on the ground don’t have the choice to focus on that. It’s not at all that they wouldn’t want to. Most of the people in education have a broader picture of what an education should be. But, I don’t think schools are doing it at all and I think it’s because teachers and also administrators don’t have the choice of what they should focus on. Teachers want their students to find their passions.
What do you mean by they don’t have a choice?
Education budgets aren’t funded the way they should so that schools can focus on relationships with students and understand what each kid’s passion might be. That would take having smaller class sizes, more paraprofessionals and teaching assistants, so that those kinds of conversations could happen during the school day. Counselors and therapists – we don’t really have them the way we should in school, and a lot of time counselors are forced to focus on the broader education policies around testing and measuring data. I think that’s why they don’t have a choice because they aren’t making those kinds of decisions. The whole piece of evaluating teachers and schools based on test scores have led them in the wrong direction away from a student-centered perspective.
Do you think school plays that role for all kids?
Right now, I feel like public schools are not able to meet that need for most kids because of the emphasis on testing, the emphasis on rigor – high expectations are good of course, but the idea that in order to make it more rigorous we have to raise the level of curriculum in each grade. For instance, how Kindergarten is the new first grade and so children don’t get to play anymore. We hear a lot about how anxiety and depression have become such a problem and people assume it’s the technology, smart phones and social media. I think a piece of it is the terrible education policies of the past 20 years – kids are so stressed to do enough, to achieve enough, to meet their goals in life. A lot of times in communities that have a lot of poverty – those schools are labeled as “failing” and there’s a lot of other problems that aren’t being addressed in society. Changing the standards or making kids take more tests aren’t going to make those problems go away. Schools aren’t able to meet the needs of children in the way that they should.
Do you think others agree with your answers to a good life and a good childhood?
I think many people would agree with me, yes. Any parent’s first instinct would be to say that you want your children to have a happy life. As I said before, a job is part of it, but there’s more than that. You want your child to reach their own potential so they can contribute to the world, not just through their work but in other ways as well.
What about the role of school in creating that good life – do you think others agree with you here?
I think so. In conversations that I’ve had with other parents and certainly other teachers, it seems to me that the people who spend the most time with children recognize that school is necessary for a good life. They recognize that some of the things happening in schools now are affecting children in a negative way. Now, the people creating these policies for whatever reason – business or political – they might not agree. But when I talk to people who really care the most about the children in their lives, people want schools to be able to meet their children’s needs but they don’t necessarily think the methods that we’re using now will do that.
What about the last question about the role school is currently playing for students. Do others agree with you?
In my experience, I have found many other parents who would agree with that. I do think there’s a difference, too, based on what community you’re in whether this is something that is on your mind or not.
“I really try to focus on relationships in my classroom – building those connections with students. That’s the most important thing – to know them and have relationships with them. I think of it this way: there’s over 7 billion people in the world at this point. And every year, I have 22 or 23 kids come into my classroom. I think of it as a miracle that we’re even in the same time and space in the world and that we get to spend so much time together.”
How do these answers relate to your teaching practice?
I really try to focus on relationships in my classroom – building those connections with students. That’s the most important thing – to know them and have relationships with them. I think of it this way: there’s over 7 billion people in the world at this point. And every year, I have 22 or 23 kids come into my classroom. I think of it as a miracle that we’re even in the same time and space in the world and that we get to spend so much time together. It is frustrating that we have a lot of teachers who believe relationships are important – but it’s gotten more and more difficult to stay focused on that due to accountability and measuring things. How do you measure relationships? It can be a frustrating situation when you know one thing is best for the children in your care and you have to spend your time doing something that seems to be the complete opposite.
Tell me a time you’ve have a very empowering educational experience, inside or outside of formal schooling. What was it and why was it empowering?
I was never a kid who loved school, which I think is unique among educators, especially elementary school teachers who often become teachers because they loved school so much. That wasn’t my experience, so I ended up in elementary education through a different route. It helps me relate to my students and understand that they aren’t always going to love school.
My most powerful learning experiences were centered around travel. We had an exchange student stay with us in high school. I made a really strong connection with her and wanted to visit her in Germany. I made it one of my goals to travel. I did a study abroad program for a semester in college and was able to travel then. I wanted to go back and I didn’t have parents who were just sending me – I got a job in college and saved everything I made because I knew that after I graduated I wanted to go back. That was an incredible learning experience because it was something I was passionate about and I wanted to do. I worked and saved the money and I went completely on my own. The experience of doing that – something that’s a passion but is also kind of scary, but you still do it anyway because you care about it so much. That was probably the best learning experience I had as a younger person that formed me as a person and what I believed.
Did you have a favorite teacher in school? If so, can you tell me a little bit about them?
I had a high school French teacher who was responsible for my desire to see other places. She made class fun and she was just a lovely teacher. We were always happy being in her class. She brought the subject alive. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I kept up with it. I don’t speak French now, but I remember her and that she opened me up to the idea of traveling to different places. That, and the experience of having an exchange student, really influenced me.
I had so many favorite teachers once I got to college and graduate school. In college and graduate school, I felt so engaged – there was more of a focus on relationships between the teacher and the student. I loved the classes – the depth of thinking and discussion that was allowed versus in high school. I really thrived. I remember joking with one of my favorite professors in graduate school who complimented me on doing well. I said, “Well, would you consider doing parent-teacher conferences? Because I’d really like my parents to hear this good news because it’s not the information they used to get.”
I had a great experience in college and graduate school. It was the kind of learning I felt was so beneficial. I realized it was only through the circumstances of where I was born that I got there. That framed my perspective of education.