"We are living a public life on a global stage, the ones who can express themselves best, will be heard." -Laura Hill Timpanaro, Artist, Author, Educator

Monday, April 24, 2017

Toxic Or Textbook, What Type School Culture Are You Creating?

Last week my daughter came home upset.  “My teacher said I didn’t hand in my homework when I did and I got a zero,” she told me.  A moment later she gave me a form to sign.  It was from another teacher outlining punishments for bad behavior; a verbal reprimand, being held after class and detention. “What’s the second one all about,” I asked.   “That is so we will be late to our next class and get in trouble with our next period teacher,”  she replied.  I have to admit I was really surprised but thinking back she was also docked grade points for missing a band concert because we went to Lincoln Center to see the ballet.

It made me ask are we teaching our children about academics and cultural arts or are we teaching them to play the game to get by?

At the tender age of 12 my daughter and her friends who all pull outstanding grades are very aware of the culture in their school.  On one hand the principal and guidance make an effort to know the children and engage them.  On the other hand a rigid standard of grading homework and unfair punishments breed a culture that encourages the children to play the game to get by and spawns accusations of favoritism in a very competitive education environment. 

To understand what is happening we need to look at education’s public narrative that emphasizes standardized testing, teachers and funding.

Examining the business models of industry looking to cash in on the multi-billion dollar education market we can discern several things.  First, we need to acknowledge that companies and non-for-profits that sell books, curriculums and testing are in business to make money not to educate students, that is a by-product. In fact, a well-educated student would put many of these companies out of business because the need to recreate the materials they provide would disappear.  In our public narrative standardized testing, rigor, and a focus on numerical achievement has taken the emphasis on growing student’s talents completely out of the picture.

Additionally, a public narrative that emphasizes numerical achievement puts stress on teachers making them responsible for student’s academic success without an opportunity to consider the student’s abilities, drive or environment.  This leads to unfair assessment of students.  I recently spoke to a mom who was upset because her child’s grade in writing was “too good.”  In looking at the essay in question it was full of grammatical mistakes, run on sentences and had poor structure, yet the student received an 87.  “I’m afraid he’s not learning,” she said.  Still, the teacher continues to give high marks presumably due to pressure to meet funding and other goals that might be in jeopardy if her students don’t achieve.

Fear that students will not be prepared for college or real world challenges is growing amongst parents.

Parents are largely shut out of their children’s education, which is a big mistake. Parents are directly responsible for the billions of dollars school systems have available to them and should have their community’s culture, values and children’s needs taken into consideration.  The current public narrative doesn’t allow that and instead de-emphasizes the individual and their unique talents creating a school culture in which children at a very young age know that they are academic failures or successes, that their ideals have no value and that their unique abilities are not part of the scholastic equation of success.  How long will parents continue to fund a system including higher education when their children are not being valued, their talents not being cultivated?  How long will they fund a system that does not grow skills that children can use in the real world, or one that results in debt, not opportunity after studies are complete?

The knowledge of academic rank affects every aspect of a student’s growth, drive and future ability to succeed. 

So what do we do?

First, we need to very boldly acknowledge that our school cultures are creating a toxic learning environment for students, teachers and parents.  Teachers need to be willing to stand up against unfair practices and hierarchies that breed resentment and diminish their ability to collaborate and grow as a professional community.  Second, we need to shift the emphasis away from numerical ranking and move toward measuring individual achievement, helping students grow their talents to become confident, productive members of society upon leaving the scholastic system.

Do not sacrifice a generation of students to the bottom line of big business. 

You are passionate, talented educators who have dedicated your life to empowering our youngest citizens with information, shaping their character and inspiring them to the greatness we all possess. You might not be able to change the system or the public narrative overnight but you can change the culture in your school.  Make it fun, bright, engaging! Change the physical environment to be more conducive to learning, exploring and collaborating. Set aside time for sharing and discussion-15 minutes a day can make a huge difference in a child’s mind. Try something new even if it puts you outside your comfort zone. And make sure you find time for creativity and play, especially in the higher grades.

 No one ever learns stuck in a box

Be bold, examine your school culture today and make a change with your colleagues. You have the power. Your students and their parents will thank you and so will I because today my daughters are living in the culture you’ve created.  You can build on the foundation I have given them or you can destroy it, the choice is up to you.  I hope for all of us you make a good one.


Read the books I write with my children.