A few months ago, an Associated Press article announced, “Obama: Longer school year would benefit U.S. students.” The accompanying story so jangled my nerves that the caffeine that usually jolts my sleeping self awake was, instead, spreading across the kitchen table and being absorbed by the newsprint.
What good will an additional twenty or so days in the classroom do if we don’t change the way children are taught and what they are taught? More importantly, if we don’t change the focus of education back to scholastics and away from “poor Johnny’s wounded ego,” we might just as well padlock our schools now.
Thinking back to my own years sitting behind the desk with a pencil at the ready, I can’t remember anyone being concerned that my feelings would be hurt if I failed a grade. The choice to be embarrassed or not was mine. Learn or be left behind. Teachers worried, instead, about the long-term effects of promoting students who did not know the subject matter being taught. Never once was I encouraged to work to less than my full potential by the misguided notion that “good enough” was actually “good enough.”
So vivid are my memories of Sister Regina Miriam standing at the blackboard pounding the multiplication tables into our heads that a chill has settled on my spine. How I hated multiplication – and the speed drills that were 50% of our grade scared the hell out of me! Sister didn’t care. Learning was our job, as she was fond of telling us, and if we were to succeed in life, knowledge was the first step. I don’t think a day has gone by since I entered the business world that I haven’t silently thanked the dear Sister for her dedication – usually in the form of "3 x 9 is 27," etc. as I’m tallying receipts and settling the books. Calculators are for sissies!
Of course, in those days, life meant nothing more than the coming weekend and Saturday matinees at the local theater. If my future depended upon me focusing on the years ahead, well, the future would have been pretty dismal. Gratefully, there were dedicated people – parents and teachers – who recognized that I was not capable of seeing beyond Jimmy Vervier’s blue eyes (my first boyfriend/summer between fifth and sixth grade). They made it their job to guarantee that the path before me was as smooth as the three Rs could make it.
There has been much talk in recent years about the maximum number of students in a grade and the lack of supplies available. Granted these things can have a negative effect on the ability to learn but only to a minor degree. Thirty to thirty five students filled the seats around me in each of my first eight years of schooling. We didn’t feel crowded and rarely did we misbehave. You see, there were actually four Rs being taught – the fourth was respect!
A good teacher can inspire a student to fly just by tossing a paper airplane into the sky. Inspiration has nothing to do with “things.” Inspiration is found in words and the encouragement those words express.
Encouragement doesn’t mean false praise or an undeserved promotion. What good does it do to lie to a student, which is essentially what is being done when they are promoted without having fulfilled the requirements of a course or grade? School is where kids first learn life’s lessons….there will always be someone bigger, stronger, smarter, prettier, faster….but that doesn’t mean dunking the fry basket into hot oil at McDonald’s is their only option.
Here is where parents come in. Did I say I felt a chill thinking about multiplication tables? Well, that chill was nothing compared to the dread of showing my mom and dad a report card featuring big red “Fs.” Like Sister Regina Miriam, my parents, too, felt that school was my job. Their job was to feed and clothe me. My job was to learn.
Granted, going to school these days is much different than in my youth. Gangs control the playgrounds, weapons in lunch boxes are more common than Twinkies, teachers are underpaid (always have been) and our government continues to focus on quantity rather than quality. None of those things is an excuse not to get an education. Throughout the ages, there have always been roadblocks to learning.
Picture this: Socrates is standing in the forum speaking to a group of eager students. He has neither book nor blackboard. Only his words hold their rapt attention.
Socrates is often portrayed "stalking the streets" of Athens barefoot, "rolling his eyes" at remarks he found unintelligent and "gazing up" at the clouds. If you add scratching his head in dismay, you will know exactly how I feel about this “latest” solution to our education troubles.
At the age of 70, Socrates was put to death by the Athenian government – much as an additional twenty days of school will kill whatever glimmer of hope there might be for real improvements in our educational system.