Tuesday, November 16, 2021

We Will Fail Unless We Find A Way To Put Children At The Center

In a nutshell, according to research performed under the auspices of Penn State University: "Today, teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the US. High levels of stress are affecting teacher health and well-being, causing teacher burnout, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and some of the highest turnover rates ever." And this was before the pandemic and the attacks on educators who make the mistake of teaching the truth about US history and society."

A few readers offered their own solutions. Some feel the time is ripe for a massive, nationwide teacher's strike. Others suggested that we should find a way to fund lobbyists and engage together in other political activities. One reader suggested that this difficult time is a necessary phase between the old ways and a future in which AI (artificial intelligence) takes over most educational functions, a deeply depressing vision, especially since the AI I've encountered is long on A and short on I. 

The most notable thing is that not a single educator wrote to disagree with the proposition that things are bad and getting worse. 

Jenni writes: "This is real for us early care providers, where admin and parents more frequently lack respect and empathy, experience is dismissed, academics are pushed too early, where disabled kids and teachers lack support and inclusion. I simply don't have the capacity to continue. You can't pour from an empty cup."

Sonia writes: "I just handed in my resignation letter after working in the same school board for 15 years."

Cat writes: "I love my job, I love what I do, and I have a very supportive management/owner team, but I am tired. I am tired of having to fight for what children need. There are so many rules, regulations and criteria we have to follow, some of it unreasonable or just plain not doable. It is exhausting to keep up with them as well as taking care of the children they way they should be cared for. I have been doing this for over 33 years, and the last few seem more challenging than the others."

This is just a small sampling. And it's not just in the US, with people chiming in with similar comments from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and elsewhere, many on the verge of walking away from a career they love.

Most encouraging were the calls for a revolution in education based on the needs of children. Getting from here to there, however, seems overwhelming. The forces aligned against transforming education are wealthy, powerful, and completely unmotivated to do anything other than nibble around the edges. Yes, there are some who want us to get paid more, but as many readers point out, the problems go way beyond money and pension plans. 

Then there are the parents who are simply taking matters into their own hands with their own kids. As Tracy writes, "I walked away from public school teaching over a decade ago after just two years and a masters degree. Then I walked away from public school for my own children five years ago." Tracy doesn't mention what she walked away to, but more and more parents are opting for what is called "unschooling," a version of homeschooling that doesn't just try to create a system based on "the needs of children," but rather puts the children themselves in charge of their own learning. It's not an option for most families right now, but surveys indicate that the numbers of homeschoolers have doubled in the last few years.

And this, I think, is the fatal flaw in all of our adult-centric ideas, no matter how well-intended. The children themselves, the citizens at the center of it, are never, in any way, consulted. I won't forget the cynical way my high school aged nieces and nephews shrugged their shoulders when their schools shifted to online "learning" at the beginning of the pandemic. They all said, "It's a complete waste of time." Even pre-pandemic, this is how far too many children wind up going through their schooling because the only alternative is to be labeled as some kind of troublemaker, to be punished with bad grades or by having recess taken away.

And I'm not just talking about teens. Children as young as three are suffering from rates of anxiety of depression never before seen. The most disheartening part of my job as a play-based preschool teacher has been watching engaged, joyful learners go off to kindergarten only to have their bright lights dimmed until, by the time they've hit middle school, they too are shrugging their shoulders and going through the motions, because it's a "complete waste of time."

Unschooled children, however, get to choose their own course of study. They get to choose how to study it and for how long. They get to choose their teachers and "fire" them when they are no longer useful. I once suggested on these pages that maybe we should grant children the right to vote because then our elected leaders, policymakers, and school boards would be forced to actually listen to their opinions and concerns. Nothing I've written has ever produced such angry responses from readers, but I keep coming back to this notion of somehow giving children an actual say in their own lives, and not just in the form of some sort of toothless and symbolic "advisory" role, but one with real agency. Maybe our school boards should be required to be at least in part comprised of actual students. Maybe our schools should be run as democracies, with the kids, collectively, making their own decisions about their own lives. Whatever we do, we will fail unless we find a way to put children at the center.

You see, I've been at this long enough that I don't trust adults to actually listen to children, especially young ones, let alone act in their best interests. This is why our schools continue to be child-ist institutions (despite the genuine, loving work of individual teachers) devoted almost entirely to satisfying the needs and desires of adults who, at best, believe they are doing it for the children's "own good." Maybe my suggestions go too far, but until we place children and their learning needs at the center of what we are doing, I'm afraid we are destined do little more than to continue fiddling as Rome burns.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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