Readers, I am sorry I got myself into this mess of a series. It’s taking me forever to edit. From now on I am writing only about bunny rabbits and whether to give your babies almond milk or the regular kind.
During Ray’s first music class of the kindergarten season, the teacher grabbed his arm and yelled in his face, which made him cry.
We went to see her. Lynn and I didn’t just hightail it to the school with no plan. We discussed what our approach would be, and we purposely did not telephone the principal or write a formal letter to the superintendent of schools.
Mrs. Cohayn is slim, with thin blonde hair. She moves quickly and nervously, like a little bird. She is middle-aged, speaks shrilly, and seems very high strung.
After we introduced ourselves, Lynn said, “We heard you had some trouble with Raym– ”
“Well,” she said, breathlessly. “He was — he was sitting cross-legged in his seat. And you know how small they are. They can just fall off so easily! And I always tell the children” — and here she took on a singsongy affectation — “safety first, safety first!” She dashed over to the chart and pointed to some words scrawled in magic marker on a gray piece of paper that was taped to the blackboard. I don’t remember the exact words on the paper, but the whole thing was ridiculous. Kindergartners cannot read.
“We’re here because we don’t want our son to give you a hard time,” I said, my tongue slapping itself against the sides of my mouth in an effort to form the shape of a huge lie.
“Oh, no, no,” she said. “Of course not.”
“We’re all working together,” Lynn said. “To make sure he doesn’t disrupt the class.”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes,” she said, and her lids moved sideways and then back again, suggesting that she needed us to get out of there, fast, and that it took great effort to be so false. I also noticed that she wasn’t aware of being false, which brings this whole analysis to a very deep level, indeed. Too deep for the hour of the day that I am writing this, which is well past midnight.
She never even brought up the matter of arm-grabbing and yelling, I told Cindy, later.
“It doesn’t matter,” Cindy said. “Everyone knew the subtext of the conversation. You were flagging yourselves as parents who care about your child. She knows the score.”
“Well,” I said. “If she so much as touches the hem of Ray’s garment, I will write to the district faster than you can say Mississippi Hot Dog.”
I don’t think it’s the worst thing that he got yelled at, or even that this ninny grabbed his arm. When I calmed down and acknowledged that he was probably being annoying, I empathized with her frustration. I’ve taught in schools for years, and I know how irritating children can be. In fact, a colleague of mine once came into my ESL classroom full of seven-year-olds because she overheard me saying with great exasperation (and probably volume), “Will you please stop acting like such a child!”
But I don’t think we should scream at children, and I certainly don’t believe we should touch them in anger, unless of course they are our own children. I’ve worked with plenty of teachers in the public schools who shout at little kids. It’s always appalling. Especially when it’s a classroom full of five-year-olds. These are little people, and to scream at them is terribly offensive and unfair, let alone rattling and unproductive. Once, when I was working with another teacher, I even went so far as to say, “Do you realize you are screaming at five-year-olds?” But never, ever, did I feel as unconscionably furious as I felt when my own child bore the brunt of it.
The other day, while I was reading the newspaper, Ray wandered into the living room and said, “Mama, can I try a different school?”
The next day he had a stomachache and wanted to stay home. When I told him that he was welcome to stay home if he wasn’t feeling well, but that we would not be watching any television, he said he would go to school. But he seemed lackluster.
“So, do I keep laying the groundwork?” I asked Cindy, the next day. “Because there is no newsletter and there is no parent volunteering unless it’s a field trip. I don’t think I will be spending much time in the classroom. Even if I bring her a dozen rare orchids every week for a year.”
Cindy sighed. “I think you have made your position clear to this music teacher, anyway,” she said.
“I’m going to tell the principal that he is allergic to music,” I said. “He can just go to study hall instead.”
“Yes,” Cindy agreed. “Right after geometry class.”
Ray also did a funny imitation of the lunch aides: “Young Man, if you leave your seat for even a second you will stand by the wall. Young Man, do not speak unless I say so!” Like the music teacher, the lunch aide also sounded like an ill-informed meathead. It was funny, sort of, but mostly it made me sad.
I realize that I am stating the obvious, yet again, as I declare that the public education system in our country is in a state of crisis. But it must be said.
“Let me get this straight,” I said to Lynn, removing the oven mitts and laying them on the counter. “If you put your child in public school, then are you pretty much sending your kid to be taught by a bunch of people who are intent upon reproducing the labor force?”
I didn’t listen to Lynn’s response because, frankly, the complexity of her answer exhausted me so much that I nearly dropped the casserole. But I will share with you three thoughts that come to mind when we speak of public school in America (more than three would be too difficult).
The public school system focuses on order first, and on pedagogy second. It attempts to socialize children to become good cubicle workers by having them stand in line without fidgeting, even though they are little and need to move their bodies for more than the allotted 20 minutes per day.
Bad teachers constitute only one small part of the reform equation. Administrators and business leaders have worsened the schools by focusing on the wrong things.
There is no system in this country for recruiting talented, well-trained people to teach. Right now, we rely on luck to find talented teachers — someone who has a calling or happens into a rigorous education program.
Kids get screamed at in school when you set the bar very low, when you do not recruit the best and the brightest to teach, when you don’t pay teachers competitively enough to capture the valedictorian’s attention, and when anyone with the IQ of a tomato can get into a cheap teacher-ed program and come out with certification. See? I did the algorithm. (What is an algorithm? I have no idea.)
Sending your child to public school means that uninspired nimrods will be shouting at your kids. You get the folks lower down on the education totem pole, the ones who were probably slapped as children and who, in turn, slapped their children as a primary form of behavior modification. This isn’t something I am just pulling out of my, um, ear, thank you very much. I’ve been around educators all my life. My parents were teachers, and so was I, and the truly gifted teacher is a rare species indeed (I was not one).
Here are some quotations I took down when I worked in public school. At the time I had no idea what I would use them for, but they seemed noteworthy at the time.
“Amy, your hair is a totally disaster.” This was from my ESL co-teacher, with whom I worked for three years. A truly lovely person and a sweetheart besides, but English was not her forte, and she was the full-time English language teacher in the school.
“You should join my church. It’s non-dominational.” Again, another English language teacher from another school.
“I can’t give ya books. I can’t give ya knowledge. What I can give ya, is common sense.” This was from a professor in a supervisory program, who had taught for thirty years and was teaching a course in administrative principles.
“I am not going to be deduced to this.” The classmate sitting next to me during a professional development seminar, on test preparation.
I’m not trying to indict all teachers. Administrators and public school reformers are equally — if not more — culpable than the teachers. They focus on the wrong things, like firing teachers who don’t produce good test scores on racially biased assessment exams. I guess what I’m trying to say here, in what is purportedly a “personal essay,” is that we can do better. I don’t want our public education system merely to reproduce the labor force. Education should be transformative, not indoctrinating. If you don’t believe in this simple principle, you have no business being an educator or an administrator in the first place.
Another hostile remark that I must lay claim to responsibility was, “I think sending my kids off to a public school means that they’re going to be knocked around by a bunch of working class idiots who don’t know anything about pedagogy.” Indeed, this is how I, and many of my friends, felt about my son getting yelled at by the music teacher and the gym teacher and god knows how many lunch aides. We dismiss these teachers as working class behemoths and don’t really bother thinking about the speciousness of this claim.
The truth is our children are getting educated in the public schools by people who cross all economic strata; I’ve seen improperly trained teachers from working class families as often as I’ve seen ones from wealthier origins. Crappy teachers exist all over, and this is because it’s not that difficult a field to get into, and if you don’t feel like working very hard or being particularly good at what you do, teaching can be downright easy. It’s no harder or easier to be a shitty teacher than it is to be a shitty CEO. It’s just that when you do it badly there’s so much more at stake.
Teaching is a noble endeavor at its best, but we’ve created a system where it is not operating at its best.
In Finland, only about 10% of people who apply to teacher training programs are accepted. Teachers are paid a living wage, and children are offered a wealth of social services, if they need them, from the time they’re born. In this country if you were born poor and to parents who sang you no songs and gave you no love and who tossed you into your first classroom in early September at age four without actually treating you like a human being, we still expect you to be able to listen during circle time. To sing a song or to perform well on a test. Please. These standardized tests do nothing to address the naked fact that through no fault of their own, by accident of birth, children find themselves in families with parents who are addicted to drugs, who are impoverished, who are food insecure.
I have an idea. Let’s get more businesspeople to tell educators how to manage accountability in the classroom. Entrepreneurs know all about pedagogy, do they not? This is the model we live under, the regime we celebrate and try to emulate, which is unconscionable. Our education system ranks 17th among 40 developed countries, a fact that is pretty hard to stomach given that the United States ranks about 6th from the top for wealth. Our educational system is a failure. It’s devastating.
There is another elementary school in our area, about five minutes away from the one Ray now attends. We’d heard about it, and I even phoned to see if it was possible for Ray to go to this one, since the school transitioned completely from a traditional model to a Montessori one six years ago. Learning there is project-based, and instruction is differentiated based on student learning styles. But I was told on the phone that the program was likely to be shut down because of budget cuts, and the superintendent was new that year and no longer allowing applications for a variance.
So I let it go. Besides, I had heard that test scores at the school were among the worst in the area, and that it was in a blighted part of the city. Besides, we wanted Ray to have friends in his own neighborhood, which is racially diverse and largely working class but not as poor as the one that follows the Montessori model.
About a year ago, I ran into a woman holding an infant at our local organic butchery. The baby was about the same age as my twins, and the woman turned out to be a teacher at the alternative public school. Of course, her baby was named Alchemy. Alchemy! I felt like hugging this mom.
“I have to see what’s doing over there,” I said to her, after she told me about the teachers who sought to work in this particular school, and who trained for over a year in the Montessori method above and beyond the state requirements for an elementary teaching certificate.
“You should,” she said. “It’s a unique place.”
I asked her what she thought of the school Ray would attend.
“It’s very traditional,” she said, carefully. “They take a more conservative approach.”
I patted her baby. She suggested I take a tour of the school. Then I drove home and went to sleep because that is what you do when you have infant twins. If you are not washing a shirt or buying a grocery item, you are unconscious.
I must stop here. Everyone in my home is screaming at this moment except me. Part 5 in your inbox or on the blog, first thing Thursday morning. I promise…