…nor does it always confer a love of reading. I’ve ruminated on this particular subject for many years, probably because my 5-6th grade teacher was so very BAD at her job. I went to an elementary school so small it had double classrooms—in other words, fifth and sixth grade was smooshed together and the total number of students equaled maybe twenty per classroom.
Anyway, I remember feeling very betrayed when I got to fifth grade, because my 3-4th grade teacher was so very GOOD at her job. I had no idea until that moment that adults could totally suck at their jobs. It was a harsh awakening. I was a straight-A student and when I hit fifth grade, I had every expectation that this would continue. It did, but not because of my teacher, and not because I worked harder than before. It was mostly because I was genetically gifted with the ability to absorb information.
My teacher, for the first time in my life, actively disliked me. As an adult, it gradually dawned on me that she probably disliked me because I was so very bright and wasn’t afraid to show it. At that age, I had no filter. I said whatever the hell I thought (I must admit, I have backslid into that mode of behavior recently, with intention). I’m sure I must have been belligerent or just disdainful towards her (it seems to run in the family).
The lesson I learned from those years, though, was this: school can totally suck.
I mean, I knew it before… I was bullied. But the learning always made up for the misery. I loved cracking open new textbooks. I loved reading. Until fifth grade, I thought that would continue for always. It didn’t. Instead, I learned that learning on my own was way more fun than learning in school. Books became my solace, and have continued to transport me throughout my life.
Recently, my son has run up against this same wall. He’s trying to figure out why his high school and earlier schools did not really prepare him for having to write a paper in college. For some reason, the education system seems to think that PowerPoint presentations and projects with colored pencils are the way to teach writing. Sure, he had to write a little—the standard five paragraph paper complete with outline, but there was not very much practice with writing the way I remember it from my days in high school. He’s wondering why he feels like a widget in an education factory.
Perhaps I’m remembering wrong. Perhaps no school can ever teach the basics and we’re all just fooling ourselves. I know that most states and our federal government seem to fall short of creating a consistent curriculum for every school. I know that some great teachers manage to teach well, but mostly DESPITE the standard curriculum. They have to teach around all the required testing. Mediocre teachers drone on and on at the head of the classroom while the students die of boredom in their seats.
My gut tells me the heart of the problem lies in two things: we treat our teachers badly (poor pay, district politicking, standardized tests, etc.), and we assume that every child can be a star. The truth is, some kids are better at building things with their hands. Some are great at math, but suck at reading. Some are fantastic writers, but struggle with word problems. People have different talents and intelligence levels. When did we start assuming that everyone would be good at the same things? I find that confounding.
We need to stop assuming that access to public education means everyone will be brilliant at everything. Broad access to education was meant to create a literate society. It has done this, for the most part, barring poverty-stricken districts (my grandparents had an 8th grade level education—their parents were mostly illiterate). We also need to remember that the US is composed of wildly disparate individuals and cultures. We are not Japan or Finland or China. We are not a homogenous society. This creates challenges that no one else in the world faces. We’ve done okay. We can do better, I’m sure. However, the biggest issue for me personally is this: education does not necessarily equal learning.
I have spent my entire life fighting against the drudgery of school in order to convince my children that learning itself is cool, even if school sucks. This has been an uphill battle. Why? Because they spend most of their lives in a classroom, just as adults spend theirs working. It’s hard to separate learning from school when the majority of your time is spent there. Perhaps this is yet another lesson everyone must figure out on their own. I’m not certain. What I find most confusing, however, is this: I grew up in a depressed area, going to poor schools. Why are my kids so much more disillusioned with education than I was, when they had the opportunity to go to “good” schools with lots of district money?
I think it’s because when I was growing up, great teachers didn’t have as much oversight, and so they were able to do a much better job at teaching. The flip side is that the bad teachers I had also had much less oversight, and created much more damage. Our society has decided that it’s better to limit the good teachers and force the bad ones into the same track, thereby averaging everything out.
Which is the better way? I have no idea, so I think I’m going to go read a book now. I bet I learn something.