Thursday, July 28, 2016

Public Education: Opportunity for All

I remember my first day of school.

Dressed in a crisp plaid dress with a matching kerchief and brown leather shoes, I proudly marched up the wide, shiny wooden steps of my large, brick city elementary school. A small group of teachers looked down at us with welcoming smiles. I was so happy and excited.

My parents were also happy. Two loving, working class parents who had big dreams for me--dreams that I'd be the first one in the family to go to college. They reminded me of those dreams regularly, and I did go to college and graduate school after that.

School for me was an open door to the world. My enthusiastic and dedicated teachers taught me to read, write, and study in every subject area. They and my parents brought me to museums, parks, and nature preserves. Those teachers listened to my ideas, answered my questions, told stories, and awakened me to interests, investigations, and information that inspired future study and endeavor.

While I was an eager and ready student, my bright brother found school to be a laborious, unwelcoming place. As I skipped down the hall, he was relegated to standing against the wall because of "bad behavior." While I quickly learned to read and write, dyslexia hindered his ability to learn in the ways expected in those days. While school lifted my confidence and sense of self, it served to demean my brother.

My parents' enthusiasm for my schooling turned to frustration when it came to my brother's experience. He struggled so much with the expected learning yet his mind and ideas were bright, capable, and trapped by the fact that no one really understood how a boy like him learned and what they needed to do to build his confidence, inspire his love of learning, and help him attain the skill, concept, and knowledge he was so capable of developing.

This troubled me, and I was not alone. In the neighborhood it was clear to see who found school easy and welcoming, and who found it to be troubling and uninviting. The children who struggled generally turned to other activities to engage their curiosity and build camaraderie. They mostly hung out on the train trestle by the edge of the school playground. As my parents would tell it later, drugs were introduced to the neighborhood and so many of those teenagers and even preteens and younger children would get involved. You could hear the loud music and raucous play from the tracks late into the day and night. The gang, involved in drugs, were harmless to others, but often destructive to themselves with addiction and risky behavior. Thankfully it was a time before the ready availability or acceptance of guns, knives, and neighborhood violence. Though there was the occasional brawl.

For me school continued to be a haven. I did well. I enjoyed learning. I was headed for college. But for my brother, school continued to be a disastrous path of overwhelming challenge, little support, and struggle. He turned more and more away from school towards his comrades and their collective risky behavior. His actions created struggle at home as well and my parents were split between one child for whom school was a successful path towards achievement and one child for whom school was anything but successful. They had four more children who all fell somewhere on the continuum between my experience and my brother's experience of school.

My brother's struggle led me, in part, to teach. I chose teaching because I want every child to experience what I had--a positive, supportive path towards a good life. My brother was treated unfairly. He wasn't given a chance to experience school as a welcoming, supportive, and successful path. I don't blame his teachers as, to a large degree, what happened to him was due to the ignorance of the times. People didn't understand dyslexia, active boys, learning dispositions, or how the brain works. They had no idea that every child can learn when given the right supports and encouragement. Instead, he was relegated to descriptors such as "behavior problem," "unable to learn," "low skilled," or "uninvested." Teachers and others back then didn't know what we know today.

I watched my family and teachers struggle with my brother, and then I watched my brother struggle too. I watched his own children struggle as well. The ignorance of the past propelled itself into the future with injured self concept, mistrust, and disengagement.

I know, in my heart of hearts, that there's a good place for every child in this world. I know that every child is capable of success and that learning has its own path and pace for every single child. I understand that what's most important when it comes to teaching well is that relationship you build with a child--a relationship that says, "I believe in you and you have what it takes to live a good life for yourself and others." My brother's great struggle has been a teacher to me. I've learned that what we do for and to children carries forth throughout their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. Every time we reach out to do what's right for a child, we positively impact the world for generations to come. In contrast, when we neglect, hurt, or injure a child in any way, we hurt and injure the community that surrounds that child and that child's family to come.

It's not a perfect world and no parent or teacher will be the perfect coach, educator, or mentor--but we can work together to build the best possible schools and education system. We can support the terrific opportunity that public schools hold for the lives of individuals, communities, and our nation, and not give up on public schools and continue to use our collective voice and dollars to build schools that serve all children.

My choice to teach is based on the promise and potential education holds for positive lives today and into the future. My parents' pride and dreams for me are embedded in my choice, and my parents struggles and frustration with my brother's experience of school is similarly embedded since it has propelled me forward to envision schools that do not harm, but instead elevate and celebrate every child.

Too many today want to give up on the notion of public schools. They want to use our public funds, the hard-earned tax dollars from all citizens, to support schools for some, but not for others. They want to give our tax dollars to private charter schools who see school as a "corporation" for financial gain and a way to create workers for their industry rather than to invest our public dollars into a high quality, holistic, and inclusive education for all, the kind of education that teaches well and allows students to find promising paths to good lives.

Yes, our public schools are not perfect, but they do hold tremendous potential for what is right and good. Giving away needed dollars will not better public schools, but instead dismantle public school, tearing apart the great institution of democracy that we have assembled. It is vital that the public decide how their collective funds are spent and it's critical when spending those dollars that the investment is made to support all of our children, especially our children most in need as they will be the backbone of our future society. A good education for all will translate into a strong, prosperous country of equality and opportunity.

As a little girl in a plaid dress and kerchief with shiny brown leather shoes, I remember taking the big steps up those elementary school stairs. It was a climb well worth it. Now as an educator, I urge you to take the big steps that we need to take to support our public schools, the foundation of our democracy, so that every child gets a quality education, a chance to succeed, the confidence to live a good life, and the model of your generous commitment and contribution that they'll replicate in their own lives.

As a people we hold great promise for our lives today and the lives of our children and grandchildren tomorrow. This promise is a great challenge and opportunity to live and do well.