As I entered the first-grade classroom at Concord the day after Labor Day in 1955, I found myself stepping into my future. Concerns on the minds of Americans that September day of nationwide back-to-school activity: a polio vaccine, duck-and-cover drills, Moscow at odds with West Berlin, the McCarthy hearings, a national debate about phonics sparked by the bestseller Why Johnny Can’t Read, standardization of Ohio education programs through school consolidation.
Now in August of 2022, the five districts in Champaign County have five different start dates, but kids are nonetheless returning to school. Concerns on the minds of Americans: boosters against Covid and variants, active shooter drills, Moscow’s war against Ukraine, the January 6 hearings, meeting the mental health needs of increasing numbers of people – including students.
The memories of school 67 years ago have taken on a quaint, faded-photograph quality in comparison with the unrelenting immediacy of educating youth in a technology-driven, politically-saturated, social-media-influenced world. In spite of huge differences between then and now, important similarities remain constant. Every schoolkid in 1955 or 2022 was/is doing exactly what I did: stepping into their futures – and the future of our country.
Despite generations of curriculum reform, the mission in classrooms across the nation endures: kids must learn to read, to write, to process numbers, to communicate, and to think.
After two pandemic years, most parents and principals agree that teachers must be with students, students must be with teachers, and kids must be with kids for real learning to take place. As pupils across time progress from their ABCs to literary analysis or from block printing to authorship of essays and research papers, they need direction from teachers. Teachers need to sit beside their students during the progression from counting to abstract mathematical operations applicable to the sciences. Kids need support from teachers as they learn to effectively express their thoughts and ideas. And each individual in a classroom is instrumental in the application of critical thinking skills to past events and present problems.
If we have known forever what and how students need to learn, why is there continued turmoil in our schools? Scarcely a day passes without news of a school confrontation, a classroom crisis, or some politician’s unsolicited opinion. Can’t we all just agree to do our best for the kids and get on with it?
Because it has been more than a decade since I left my classroom for the last time, I turned to several educational experts with whom I am acquainted: former students, former colleagues, former students/colleagues. All are currently classroom teachers at every level, college instructors, and principals. Their replies to the following inquiry informed me in heartening and disheartening ways: WHAT WOULD MOST BENEFIT YOU AND YOUR STUDENTS THIS YEAR TO ACCOMPLISH EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS?
Sadly, I was not surprised that most of my “consultants” cited a lack of professional respect, a kind of dime-a-dozen attitude toward teachers I also noticed as my career concluded. One example: the standardized testing program foisted upon schools back then continues to detract from precious instructional time and to needlessly stress children with data collection yielding statistics of questionable value.
This erosion of trust appears each time someone expects a change in classroom lesson plans to satisfy a personal agenda; each time a group demands removal of teacher-selected material, thus depriving all students of its use; each time an organization insists educators teach students what to think rather than how to think for themselves; each time politicians legislate school reforms with token input from teachers and their principals.
The vast majority of teachers are professional educators qualified by virtue of their degrees, continuing coursework, classroom experience – and the 1000+ hours they spend each school year with their students. A teacher’s commitment to provide the best for their students in order to bring out the best in their students is too often all for naught.
Members of the public, reluctant to second-guess doctors or lawyers, regularly underestimate the work of a classroom teacher, which may seem simple to the untrained eye. In actuality, a teacher spends a specific length of time explaining, engaging, reexplaining, challenging, reexplaining, while simultaneously observing twenty-some students: making sure all are on task, addressing each learning style, storing mental notes of concern for follow-up. Teachers make it look easy, but believe me – classroom teaching is not for the faint of heart.
A cautionary note: teachers must adhere to the highest of professional standards. They must plan lessons thoughtfully and carefully scrutinize materials they choose. They must remain above reproach in word and deed. There is no place in a classroom of impressionable youngsters for lax behavior, a loose tongue, or personal political views. Remember, trust is lost in buckets and regained only in drops.
The folks I consulted expressed again and again: trust our process; trust us to use our professional judgment to prepare your children for the future; trust us with curriculum decisions just as you rely on us to protect them against active shooters. Just let us teach!
As for the disheartening part mentioned earlier, a high school math teacher warned: Please trust us to teach and care for your child. If the current trend continues, there will be no one left to do so.
And the heartening part, a principal’s bottom line: We have to teach as if our lives depend on it – because someone else’s life depends on us.