Sunday, July 16, 2017

That's What I Want For All Children

We often discuss teaching as a profession, and it certainly is a field populated by professionals, but the longer I do this the more I come to understand that what we do falls much more precisely under the heading of a "calling." I've never met a preschool teacher who went into it for the money: everyone knows it stands among the lowest paying careers out there. No, we're in it for the purpose of doing good, for making the lives of young children and their families better. Whether or not we succeed is another story, of course, and I'm quite certain that there are some who have ulterior motives, but most of us feel called to our work for the highest purposes. I know that's true for me because, honestly, I could probably make more money as a barista and I would probably be less tired at the end of the day were I to be a jack hammer operator.

That said, there are those who are hellbent on turning education into a business, one that is measured, as all businesses are, by the singular measure of profit. That's how capitalism works: the bottomline is all that matters. Indeed, courts have found that stockholders of corporations have grounds for suing a company that chooses "public good" over profit. The United States Supreme Court itself has ruled that corporations count, for the purposes of free speech, as "people." People who place money before the good of others are called sociopaths.

So this is where we stand as the corporate education reformers, from Microsoft's education dilettante Bill Gates to Amway heir and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seek to shape our schools according to free market principles, where survival of the fittest competition stands at the center and actual education takes a distant second place to capitalistic ideology. This is where they expect our children to spend their days, in a system that is, by design, fueled not by the quality of the education they provide, but rather by scores they can deliver on high stakes standardized tests, the results of which not only determine the child's future but also that of their teachers, the administrators, entire school districts, state budgets, and the bottom line of any number of for-profit education corporations whose investors expect their dividends. Is it any wonder that there is an epidemic of stress out kids sweeping the globe?

These are human beings, not human resources. To ask a question first asked by the late, great Utah Phillips, "Have you ever seen what they do to valuable natural resources?"

I was recently speaking to an audience of early childhood educators, people who were there because they've been "called" to help young children to have actual childhoods full of play and wonder. I'd not planned to go there, but one of the participants asked a question, and the discussion turned to the topic of the corporatization of education. We all agreed that what is happening is nothing less than the theft of childhood. We ranted a bit, sharing stories about how we are increasingly finding ourselves in a position of having to defend our charges, being forced, for instance, to provide "evidence" that playing with other children is actually good for them, while the side of capitalistic ideology has no such onus to "prove it." Indeed, the evidence quite clearly shows that their drill-and-kill methods are damaging children, causing their brains to literally shrink which is one of the results of too much stress, while there is a mountain of research demonstrating the power of play-based learning to result in happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults.

And then, as always, the question came, "What can we do?" It's an important question because in many respects we are the last line of defense against the encroachment of the childhood stealers.

We might not have entered the profession as to be "warriors," but that often becomes part of any "calling." First and foremost we must make sure we are educated ourselves, that we not only know the evidence, but are likewise prepared to cite it when challenged. In a past life, I worked in public relations and one of the things we would tell clients is to develop an "elevator pitch," those four or five sentences that convey the essence of your message, one that can be delivered concisely during a quick ride in a lift. Everyone's will be different, but mine goes something like this:

"All the research shows that 'successful' people have three common traits: they are self-motivated, they work well with others, and they are sociable. This is exactly what is fostered through a play-based education, while corporate-style education is based on carrot-and-stick motivation, rewards selfishness, and leaves social skill development to playground bullies. If we want our kids to be successful, we will let them spend their childhoods playing. That's what the evidence tells us about success."

But when I have a bit more time, I've found that the most powerfully persuasive technique we have at our disposal is to simply help doubtful adults to connect to their own childhoods by asking them about their memories of play. Invariably, you see them relax as they fondly recall playing outdoors (and it's almost always outdoors), with friends, with few toys, lots of time, and little supervision. They will tell you of rocks and sticks and water. They will tell you of forts and conflict and fantasy. They will tell you of risk and mess and failure. They will in a matter of minutes tell you of all the things that a childhood of play has done for them. I ask questions, inquire after details, and wonder how they felt and even what lessons they learned. Then, when the time is ripe, I simply say, "That's what I want for all children."

We have been called to this and today we are called to do more than we might have expected.

Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'll be presenting in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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