To quote one of the most beautiful works of classical literature (and a current new movie release) Anna Karenina by Tolstoy….
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. - Leo Tolstoy
I’ve come to believe the same about teachers. I hope the dear departed Leo Tolstoy will forgive my insolent perversion of his beautiful phrase with the following edit….
Exceptional teachers are all alike; crappy teachers are crappy in their own way. – Signed “Annoyed Yet Again“
When my son was born I made too many assumptions: I would always be a patient and kind mother (um, yeah), he would be an eager and organized student (like I was), I would always know how to help him, and (perhaps the dumbest of all) – his school would take ultimate responsibility of ensuring his complete and effective education for 12 years.
Let’s focus on the education bit, since I haven’t had my meds yet today and my personal failings as a parent are legion and the fodder for my children’s collective need for intensive shock therapy.
Exceptional teachers breed unreasonable expectations
I have been ruined by exceptional teachers. The education gods have been exceedingly kind to us over the years – sending us teachers like: Lisa, Julie, Ellen, Larry, Sally, Nancy, Katie, and Sheryl. (These are their real names.) Each of these teachers is exceptional in the same way – they were all each born to teach. They each love their jobs – and even when they don’t, they love the children. Truly. And on some days, that makes all the difference.
Education is an unsustainable social construct
I assumed that all teachers were like the exceptional ones I had experienced early on with my eldest child. I fell off my cloud very abruptly when I saw that there aren’t that many Larry’s out there. And frankly I can understand why.
If you tripled a teacher’s salary at the highest range I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. Lordy, I don’t want to do it. I understand my own limitations, and I don’t have what it takes. Sadly there are a very great many employed teachers who also don’t have what it takes, and those individuals need to be fired. Today. (Refer to NOTE at the end of this post.)
But here’s the rub - even in the best case scenario, it’s an impossible expectation. Education I mean. As currently designed, it’s an unrealistic, and unsustainable social construct.
Education: then and now
Throughout history the delivery of education moved from the homes of the wealthy, as administered by personal tutors, to country schools where several grades were placed in the same cramped school house. The school calendar was arranged around the agricultural expectations that children help on the farm and at home. As the demand of education for the masses increased, children were divided up into grades.
And not much has changed since then. In the United States at least, we still observe a 9-10 month calendar in which one teacher stands at the front of a class of 25-45 students. Starting around middle school, one teacher might be teaching 4 or 5 sections of the same subject. So 30 students multiplied across 5 sections. That’s 150 students.
Are we seriously expecting that the average teacher will be able to manage that many flavors of: learning differences, ability levels, socioeconomic constraints, personalities, attitudes, cultures, etc?
It’s unrealistic and impossible.
Even in grade school where a single teacher has a room of say 30 kids on average. She is teaching those 30 children 5 different subjects. The child who is wonderful in math, might hate spelling, and be terrified by science. He might also have left his house without breakfast, or maybe his dog died yesterday. He’s ONE kid out of 30, or 150.
Expecting one teacher to be able to do that is stupid. But that doesn’t stop us from expecting it.
Define your terms. What are you expecting?
If you are a hands-off type of parent who pretty much trusts the “system”, an optimistic sort (PollyAnna or deluded – you pick) who figures that “hey, it all comes out in the wash. I turned out OK heh heh heh”, then God bless, you just got a pass. No worries, go back to watching “Pawn Stars” or “Moonshiners” and have a good night.
If you are concerned about what your child learns, if he’s actually learning it, and what that means as he progresses through his educational future – then buckle up.
Here’s my expectation : each child should gain one year’s worth of education in each subject each year. So my son should learn one year’s worth of science in his science class. Duh – pretty simple, right? Except when it isn’t.
There are entire chunks of education being dropped in relation to your child right now, at this moment: whether his teachers are well intentioned and “well liked” or not, whether you live in the best school district in your state, or not. Higher teacher salaries, bigger school budgets, and new technologies are not going to help. The structure is flawed.
So what’s the alternative
Until we can develop interactive teacher robots who auto catalog thousands of pieces of data per child, per second – we’re collectively screwed. So what are the choices?
- PUBLIC SCHOOL
This is the original dysfunction. Even at really really really good public schools – the kind people move across states for – the flawed nature of the system makes it unworkable.
- PRIVATE SCHOOL
Well, you can send your children to private school if you can afford it. We can discuss pros and cons all day – but I will tell you that in the end it just smooths out the roughest edges of the lunacy that is education. The main flaw remains.
You can homeschool your children. For me personally, unless I get Patron Tequila on tap in my kitchen, this is a non-starter. No way, no how – not happening. Just typing the word “homeschool” makes my eye twitch. Hats off to those of you who do it and remain sane.
- PRIVATE TUTORS
Unless you’re a Carnegie or a Vanderbilt – or your butler refers to you as M’Lord – then this probably isn’t an option.
Education Gumbo (definition):
- 60% traditional public or private education
- 30% homeschooling (aka you reteaching your kids)
- 10% professional tutors and outside enrichment or support where needed
You have to consider yourself the project manager of your child’s education. As a parent you are in charge of ensuring that all of the “staff” assigned to the project (namely your child) are doing their jobs. If they are great – trust but verify, keep checking in. If the teachers are NOT doing their job for whatever reason, then it is YOUR job to speak to the teacher and administrator. But in the meantime you will have to pick up the slack for that missing piece. Time to roll your sleeves up and get to work.
Whether or not you think there might be an issue, take a look at the state standards by subject for your child’s grade level. Currently 45 states in the United States have adopted the Common Core – a unified set of educational standards. That means that a child in New York is expected to learn the same exact content as a child in Ohio.
Find out what the standards are, then figure out if your child’s teacher is EFFECTIVELY teaching those standards. And prepare for the eventuality that it isn’t happening at all, or that it isn’t being taught particularly well.
Then use your own benchmarks to determine if your child has learned it. Forget grades – both of my kids get straight A’s most of the time – who cares? The grades are meaningless – did they actually learn something? Will they be ready for next year? Did they internalize the building blocks of learning like: math facts, math concepts, vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and effective writing? Do they understand HOW to study? Do they know HOW to do research and take notes?
As we work on homework each evening I ask my kids to explain to me the lessons they learned that day – to effectively paraphrase the message. If they can’t do that, it’s the first sign of trouble.
Last summer I re-taught my 8th grader grammar and writing over the summer (p.s. he’s an honors student in a coveted school district). Last month I re-taught my grade schooler the structure of plants, and this month I’m re-teaching branches of government. I create my own required reading lists for both children. And I’m preparing now for long division, and a full review of grammar *again* with both kids.
If you expect your child’s school to advocate on behalf of your child specifically, you’re out of luck. They don’t have the resources to focus on each child. And frankly, they shouldn’t have to.
Teachers and schools should not be expected to provide psychological counseling, personality mediation, or run a mini-prison system.
My child’s responsibility is to go to school with a respectful and hard-working attitude and complete the work assigned to the best of her ability. The teacher’s responsibility is to do their job and bring everything they have to each student as much as they are able (and if they aren’t willing to do that – they should be fired). My responsibility as a parent is to advocate for my child, teach my child to advocate for himself – and help him across the finish line, even if that means re-teaching long division.
Luckily I own stock in several tequila producing companies.
NOTE: I have a great respect for the teaching profession. Good teachers don’t make nearly as much as they should, and they don’t get anywhere near the credit they should. I count dozens of teachers and administrators among my personal friends – so please don’t count me among the infidels because I dare challenge the crystalline untouchable institution that is education. Some teachers should be canned, preferably today. That is all.
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