some thoughts about education

hello. it’s been a long time. i have graduated from my beloved wellesley college and i am sad about it. maybe i’ll write about that sadness another time. i am at home and just finished typing up a ridiculous essay that attempts to cover the problems in the US education system, how to fix it, and how i am going to fix it. i say that is a ridiculous essay, not because i didn’t take it seriously, but because how am i supposed to cover those three enormous subjects in an essay that ended up being 3.25 pages long? i hope that was long enough. i have now realized that i have not announced yet via this blog that i am employed for the next two years! i am going to be a public school math teacher here in jacksonville. i am not going to specify for which district i will be teaching, nor for which widely known nonprofit i will be working with over those two years because i want to feel free to openly discuss those things on this blog without fear that i am going to attach opinions to their names. if you would like to know more details about my job, you may of course email or facebook me, it’s by no means a secret.

i have decided to post this essay now. i have also decided that i might write a book about my teaching experiences. it will most likely be an expansion upon things you will see on this blog. my mom just told me that i will have to pay out of my own pocket to publish said book. yikes. maybe i won’t publish it. but it will be good. are any of you publishers?

in the meantime, here you go:

A public school student in the United States today has too much to worry about. Am I going to be able to safely walk to my bus stop? I didn’t eat breakfast – hope there is something of nutritional value for lunch. Is that older kid going to shove me in the hallway again? Who should I play with during recess? What if the other kids make fun of me? Have to take care of my little sister after school is over. Don’t forget to set my alarm clock.. and then on top of all of that they are supposed to be learning. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the struggles that some students and their families face, and yet we wonder why they are “underperforming”. I put that word in quotations because I do not think that a single person can define what it means to ‘perform’ or ‘underperform’ – it is different for everyone, and that is why I have a real problem with standardized testing, but alas, that is another essay.

We live in a society in which fingers are pointed everywhere but at oneself. We do not have a perfect education system by any means, that much is obvious. But I often feel that instead of truly working to find and solve the root of the problem(s), no one will simply accept their portion of blame and move forward. Race, ethnicity, wealth, poverty – all terms that people are slightly nervous to use, but then throw them around like they are supposed to mean something, bring more gravity and urgency to the situation. All of those aspects should absolutely be acknowledged and taken into consideration, but we are already at the point of grave and urgent. It’s the government’s fault, it’s the parents’ fault, it’s the teachers’ fault, the students just aren’t trying hard enough, maybe we should switch to another testing system, maybe the learning environment is not set up well, we should change that too, but wait we don’t have enough funding because of the government again! Those all might be true in some combination or another, but that is not the point. It is my firm belief that we all have to quit yelling at all the things that are going awry and instead stop to fix the things that we as individuals can change. That’s why I am here.

The achievement gap. It isn’t an achievement gap, it is simply a gap. It is the gap between the haves and the have-nots. I have been on both sides of that gap. I grew up here in Jacksonville, and I have experienced both public and private institutions. Race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic factors all certainly contribute to this gap, but what it all really boils down to is what do you have that I do not have? How do I get what you have? What do I do if I can’t?

I am a person of mixed race, but people can only sometimes tell. My surname is Scandinavian; I don’t look that different from a white person (at least that’s what people tell me), and so when I was at school I was white. What do white people have that non-white people do not have? I would be a fool to attempt to answer that question in just a few sentences. But there is an undeniable gap between the two groups. And so why does our education system treat them as equal? The world is not colorblind, and I doubt it ever will be. As a teacher, I will not be colorblind. I will be color aware, and I will not insult my black students or Asian students or Native American students or Latin@ students or white students by treating them as if their situations and lives are equal. They are not. That does not mean that any are inferior to another, nor does it mean that any deserve special treatment relative to others – it means they are different, and those differences should be embraced, not ignored.

The same goes for people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Saying, “it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, you can still get a great education”, is laughable and will probably bring a person physical harm should they utter those words too loudly. I didn’t have to work to support myself or my family, but you can bet that students who do are more likely to fall into that category of “underperforming”. My family could pay the cost of a new suit every year so that I could be on my school’s varsity swim team throughout high school, but not everyone can afford that type of extracurricular. And then how are students supposed to look well-rounded on a college application? How are poorer students supposed to go up against the more wealthy students taking the SAT, when their preparation has been a CollegeBoard book borrowed from the school library and the other kids had the time and money for a $2000 Princeton Review course? I by no means want to discredit the Princeton Review or any other test prep company. I was one of those kids who took a $2000 course, and it probably got me into the college I just graduated from. My academic life thus far has been defined by the privileges I had and have now. I know that not every student can have those privileges, much as I will them to. Student A will never have what Student B has, unless A and B are literally identical in every way. And thus, I believe that our education fails most egregiously by assuming that one program will work for every student, or for the majority of students. Where does the school to prison pipeline stem from? It is this concept of using the method for the majority. High achieving students are rewarded, while low scoring students are essentially shamed leading the achievers to achieve more and the low scorers to unravel completely. I have learned during my very short life, that quite few people respond well to (especially repeated) scoldings, shame, or punishment. In fact, it simply makes them feel that they never, ever want to do whatever it is that caused them said shame ever again. And if that thing that caused them shame happened to be a failed math test, well then there goes the little interest they had in the subject of math. I do not promise to never hand back a paper with an F at the top, but I do promise to never make my students feel shame for their lack of achievement.

So then what? How do we close the gaps? We do everything possible to help the have-nots get what the haves already benefit from. Free and reduced lunch programs are one way, test prep organizations like Let’s Get Ready (the group that inspired me to be a teacher) are one way, non-profits and individuals that are wholly dedicated to solving these problems are one way. In my opinion though, every student has to have a teacher or mentor who awakens within them this idea that they can be greater than their circumstances. They can be great in their circumstances, not despite or because of them. I promise to know as much about my students’ circumstances as they will allow or want me to know. I promise that knowledge will not affect my judgement of those students, but it will influence the way that I understand them and what I expect of them. And I promise to try my very best to not allow any of my student’s circumstances be to his or her detriment.

After rereading this essay several times, I think that I sound righteous and idealistic. But I have decided that if those are the worst things I can be while I am shaping the lives of young people, then maybe that isn’t such a bad way to be. Ask me again how I feel at the end of these two years and I might look back at this and laugh at my own naivete. But I think the world needs more naïve, young people who think they can change the world. Because if people thought that the impossible was truly impossible, then nothing great would ever happen. So here is my impossible task: give my have-nots what the haves already have. And if I can’t, then I’m going to figure out the next very best thing to give them.

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