I am a miracle worker, but…

I wrote Thursday about how some of the habits that made me a great student were actually reaction to trauma, and I wondered how my life would be different if any of my teachers saw red flags instead of the ideal.

I need to follow up with that today to clarify that I don’t blame my teachers, and I wouldn’t blame a teacher now for not seeing it.

You see, we’re trained to teach. Of course we know content, though that tends to be the easiest piece. We know how to deliver content in a myriad of ways. How to help kids who are struggling and kids who are flying at the same time. How to be engaging. Classroom management.

But we’re also expected to teach basic social skills. (Making eye contact when addressed. Saying please and thank you. Not talking over other people. Not calling names. Cleaning up after yourself. And on and on.) We’re expected to be social workers. (You can’t learn if basic physical and psychological needs aren’t met.) Parents. (see: social skills)

But we have boundaries set for us, and they’re in different places for different kids, parents, teachers themselves, principals, school districts. What one parent berates us for not doing another parent thinks is over the line.

We have classes with too many kids. Kids with mild behavior problems. Kids with major behavior problems. Kids with physical limitations. Kids with mental limitations. Kids with emotional limitations. Curricula that are not developmentally appropriate.

When I was in kindergarten, we learned letters, numbers, colors. We played games and sang songs, had snacks, played games, and, if we were there the whole day (which was atypical), we took naps.

Now, if you show up to kindergarten without knowledge of letters, numbers, and colors, you’re behind. And of course you’ll be there all day. How else will we have time to teach you everything you need to know to be ready for first grade?

Except that I learned to read and write and do math just fine, as did many of my contemporaries. We didn’t need to learn it a year earlier. (And I’m certain that the kids who struggled to learn it in first grade weren’t going to have a higher success rate a year earlier.)

There are other places in the world where children aren’t taught to read until they’re 8. And they’re still literate. And people enjoy reading more and are better at it.

There’s quite a bit of research about education, about ideal class sizes, about what is developmentally appropriate for each age, but we don’t use it. We have this unfounded notion that in order to do better, we have to do more and it has to be earlier.

It’s flat-out wrong.

Kids are stressed about school (and about high-stakes testing), and adults are so stressed themselves and don’t have enough emotional space to be empathetic (or thoughtfully critical), and kids are told that this is how life is …

But it doesn’t have to be. And especially for kids, it shouldn’t be.

If kids are stressed in the learning environment, they’re not going to become lifelong learners, because learning has become equated with stressful. But the work environment now requires lifelong learning and adaptability.

(How many people will tell you they’re not good at math because they had trouble with math in school 20, 30, 40 years ago? Or that they can’t sing because their elementary choir teacher told them so? Emotions connected with learning in school stick.)

We have an industrial mindset for a workplace and world that simply isn’t industrial any more. And the blowback is at the teachers.

Teaching is

  • powerful (ignorant people are much easier to manipulate)
  • female-dominated (female is still less-than in this country and most others)
  • an art (arts are culturally seen as frivolous; teaching is so much more than content knowledge)

I think if it mattered less and was more masculine (which would also, culturally, make it less artful), we’d be more inclined to follow the research and fix it.

So often, I hear teachers demonized for letting kids fall through the cracks. But honestly, how can they not? How can every teacher wear all of those hats all the time, teaching material that isn’t appropriate to such a variety of social-emotional starting places?

As I have been known to say: the miracles I work are only so big.

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