It seems no matter where we look, we are constantly bombarded by the many and various evils attacking our youths in today’s educational system: inappropriate student-teacher relationships, child abuse, unqualified teachers, unreasonable zero tolerance policies, volatile union riots, over-testing, questionable curricula, funding, the list goes on. It seems every day a new story is “exposed;” news channels like Fox News and NBC News even have segments called “The Trouble with Schools” and “Education Nation.” Simply watching the news or reading headlines could easily persuade us that schools today are corrupt, unhealthy places for children to be and the only answer for parents who care at all about their children is either private schooling or homeschooling, and if neither is an option for parents, then they may as well throw in the towel and accept the inevitable subpar education their child will receive because they can do nothing to change the outcome.
I may perhaps be overstating the case, although I’m not so sure when one considers the fear-mongering the media perpetuates by reporting nearly exclusively the terrible events happening in schools and the need for education reform. Certainly there are a few instances where the media occasionally features one good thing happening at one school in one corner of the United States, and every now and then, Hollywood gets on board by making a movie that highlights the positive impact a teacher had on his or her students such as Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Freedom Writers, Coach Carter, and The Ron Clark Story; or (as if excellent teachers are difficult to unearth somehow) they write fiction-feelgood: Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus. However, more often than not, even Hollywood perpetuates the myth that teachers and schools are warped or deceptive: Bad Teacher, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, The Faculty, Election, The Breakfast Club, even Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (yes, I know—it’s a classic for all ages but it still misrepresents the motivations of teachers and schools).
So it seems that the perceived wrongs and ills in education are at the forefront, ranking up there, at least in presidential debates and candidate platforms, with immigration reform, sanctions on Iran’s nuclear development, the economy, Hillary’s email and server, and national security. Now of course I’m not saying there are no problems with education, but let’s be honest—the problems largely stem from people who make policy regarding education and dictate mandates for education reform, yet have never been in the classroom other than their own experiences as students. I’ll even take it one step further and say those policymakers base their decisions and laws on one-minute sound bites from national news about some atrocity that has occurred—but which is, in fact, the exception and not the rule. They have never attempted to facilitate the learning of 35 students (140-170 for high school teachers), all of whom have different needs, mastery levels, and learning styles; have never been given a “map” for their job telling them what to do and when because others presume they do not know what they are doing; have never been given a mandate to fulfill but then denied the tools and supplies they need to fulfill even the basic aspects of that mandate; have never been judged on their job performance based on assessment measures of other people who may not be prepared through no fault of either of them; and they certainly have never really taken the time to speak and listen to teachers at length about the real issues they confront every day, like student poverty, hunger, and homelessness; some students’ inability to communicate even basic English; domestic issues; learning disabilities; the lack of useful and relevant professional development; the lack of mentorship programs for pre-service and new teachers; the lack of funding for schools to upgrade technology, equipment, furniture; the lack of funding for student academic and extracurricular programs; the needs are endless. It is not surprising at all that nearly half (if not more) of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. What is surprising is that many teachers choose to stay.
Every day teachers are making it happen. They arrive at work, many an hour or two earlier than the first bell. They call parents during their conference periods and collaborate with other teachers about best practices, curriculum, assessments, student learning and needs. They stay in their classrooms during lunch to tutor students who cannot come early or stay late because they do not have any other ride than the school bus. They stay long after the last school bell to tutor students, call and meet with parents, finalize supplies and materials for the next day’s lesson, go to faculty meetings, and attend after school events in which their students are participating because they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show their support when their students asked them if they were coming to the game after school. They work in the evenings grading papers, studying testing data, identifying which objectives they need to revisit; they work on the weekends grading papers, creating lesson plans, writing valid assessments that will actually gauge the learning curriculum; they talk to their spouses or close friends about their students, usually calling them their “kids.” These people know more than any politician and policymaker the needs of our students and the best ways to reform a system that has been broken by those whose only view of the classroom has been from the student’s desk. Yet, in a beautiful twist of irony, those very politicians and policymakers do not hear educators’ voices because we are so busy doing what we love—educating, shaping, guiding young minds—that we do not have time for games of political rhetoric. We are too busy with a classroom full of students who need our guidance.
So with the advent of a new school year upon us, I am challenging teachers, principals, parents, and students to action: for every story you hear about a failing school, post a story of a school that is making a difference for their students—the school does not have to be one that has overturned the power of gangs and drugs to make a difference for its students (although definitely share such inspiring turnaround stories). Likewise, for every story you hear about an educator who has abused his/her position, post a story of a teacher who has made a difference in the life of a child, and as before, the teacher does not need to be an Escalante or a Coach Carter. Tell the stories en masse to the media of the small schools and the large schools that successfully and with heart best serve their communities and its needs. Tell the stories to the media of the teachers who work tirelessly every day to do what is right for students and their fellow educators. Together, we can rewrite the narrative of education by not allowing the media, Hollywood, and Washington to define it for us. We can demand our stories be heard, our professionalism respected, our ability to effectively educate our students acknowledged. When our voices finally become louder than the voices on our televisions and in our legislative houses, then we can finally gain the respect our profession deserves and begin to effect real reform that will make true differences in the lives of the families we serve.