Wednesday, June 8, 2011

School Days, Golden Rule Days

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
                (Music by Gus Edwards; Lyrics by Will D. Cobb, 1907)
School is out. Have the expectations we hold for our children been met? A report card:

My children are leaving elementary school. During their six years in our local school district, there have been two parcel tax battles. In the news, teachers have been portrayed as being money-sucking union members. In our local school district, letters to the editor have frequently portrayed teachers as being overpaid and over-pensioned. I have not seen that. These are political myths that are convenient to cutting off funds, and an unaware public all too often buys into the lies.

I attended school board meetings, not PTA meetings. The latter might have been useful, but I only had time for one or the other. PTA meetings deal with the specific environment of a school, while school board meetings discuss the entire ecology of the district. I went to those meetings. Frequently, I listened while parents complained about how their children weren’t being given something, whether it was the ability to enroll in their neighborhood school, or the sports elective that parents felt sure was essential. The general message was that the district owed these children whatever it was the parents wanted. Those parents with complaints would have their say, and then they would leave, and go home.

I stayed on at those meetings. Meetings where the board would leave to the very last an agenda item that needed to be addressed by the teachers’ union representative. Such meetings could go on until sometimes later than 11pm. Yes. And, yet, the union rep hung in there. I know, because I was one of the ones who stuck it out with her. What I learned in these meetings would curl your hair and your toes. Parents who left, after having their 3 or 5 minutes to talk about their personal need for their child unique, never heard about any of the issues or challenges that inform policy in the district.

The teachers’ contracts had been up for renewal for a several years. Our district, like many, had been shortchanged by the, due to the shortfall of the state economy—brought on because people, particularly politicians, don’t believe in taxation or social programs. The state, you will remember, mandates education. However, whenever there is a fiscal crisis, the first thing cut from the budget is funding for public education, whether it is k-12 or higher education. That is the  first cut. The teachers in our local district have been working without a contract, and had agreed to a cut in pay, in order to preserve the continuity of the district’s education. When further cuts came, unpaid furlough days were also adopted.

I volunteered at my kids’ school. I was the parent volunteer on one of the morning drop-off safety patrol teams. I was an art docent. I volunteered to help with reading in the classroom. My husband and I sold cups of coffee on the schoolyard in the morning for over 3 years. We wore a groove in the sidewalk and street between our house and the school—who knows, we could have been personally responsible for the deferred maintenance of our local streets! I loved being able to be there, with my kids. They loved having their parents participate in their learning. It was a beautiful thing. My husband and I were given the school service award for this year. I was stunned and touched. Our children achieved their own recognition.

People, hear the truth: that service award attests to my husband's and my involvement, but it means nothing when compared to the gift we received. We saw our children and the children of others learning, growing, and thriving, while they were having a great time. For us, it was all about the kids. We saw younger siblings who couldn’t wait to start school. We saw older siblings come back to say hello. We saw students struggling, and getting help. Yes, we saw a few who were beyond help, also. There is no system yet devised to handle all parameters; when we cut funds, how many more students fall through the cracks? We all do what we can, in the time we have. As in the old carol:

Please put a penny in the old man's hat,
If you haven't got a penny, then a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!
But, that brings us back to money. Doesn’t it? [How many resources were cut while my children were in school?]

When I think back on my own elementary school days, I never could have imagined how wonderful such days would be for my children. I did have wonderful days, back then, days that I remember fondly. But I tell you, I was able to live it again, and in a better way than when I was growing through it, because I could see it all from both sides of the coin.

Do I wax nostalgic? Not at all. No, not at all. And again, I say pas de tous.

Because I was there, at my children’s school, many days throughout the year, I was able to witness what it is that individual teachers can and do offer, despite being hampered by budgets and regulations. Teachers are now, and have always been, about TEACHING. What teachers teach goes beyond readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. Teachers teach life skills. Teachers teach compassion. Teachers teach manners. Teachers teach children how to discover what lies beneath the surface. Teachers teach children how to be interested in something other than themselves. Teachers teach anticipation. No thanks, mind you, to the parents that drop off their children but never try to venture into the classroom, to the parents that write nasty letters to the editor of the newspaper, to parents that show up at the board of education meetings to state a grievance, but will not sit through the meeting to be informed of the complete picture. Never mind the textbook writers don’t know how to write for their intended audience. Never mind the federal regulations and programs, such as No Child Left Behind (a.k.a. Nickleby, as in Nicholas Nickleby of Dickensian origin, as in nickel, as in this nebulous federal program that tests, but does not fund). There is always a way to reach a child; where there is a will, there is a way--and most teachers have the will and find the way. Never mind the possibility of bloated district offices with overpaid upper management—our school offices run on a shoestring, but they run.

The teachers at the school where my children have been for six years are each stars in the education firmament. And so, too, the staff and Principal. Bless them all. Watch over them all, in these lean days of budget cuts and broken promises and the dissolution of the public employee and the breaking of the unions.

If there is anything I could now question, looking back on these last six years, it is the expectations the public place on public education. For a lot of people, school is a place where the kids are dropped off. What happens while the children are in class can remain a mystery. Many parents are strangers to the classroom life of their children, while yet wanting to have control of it. We continually expect our teachers to have ultimate responsibility for what our children learn, but, just as frequently, the public does not remember that public moneys are meant to publicly fund public education and other public programs. (When our government abdicates its responsibility to tax for the common good, we can only blame ourselves--we voted for this abdication.) And many parents do not remember that they are primary models to their children, and therefore bear the ultimate responsibility for all humanist qualities that their children learn.

Long summer days stretch before us. If I wish anything for you and for your children, it is the experience of boredom, which is the mother of invention. When your children get bored, don’t let them play computer games; don’t let them watch television. Send them to the park, or park them in front of a good book. Let your children be BORED. Boredom is the key to doors of discovery and perception.

School is out. Have the expectations we hold for our children been met?

For my part, I sing a resounding YES! The way I see it, we could not pay our teachers enough for what they do. I want our teachers to earn a decent living wage: this is how we value teachers, students, and society. 

My children and I thank all you beautiful teachers that have shaped these formative years.

May you all be blessed and may you all be kept in the manner that is due to you, all your days—be they school days or those halcyon days of summer.

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