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How to Build a Giant

I was at a conference last week where participants were asked to vote for what they felt were the two key indicators for third grade reading success. The list of choices included school and family relationship, cultural awareness, attendance, and instructional quality. I was there in my professional capacity and was committed to the table promoting instructional quality. Breakfast started at eight. At nine o’clock, attendees were called to their feet to vote.

As a presenter for an indicator, I stood still behind my table and watched as adults sheepishly circled the room, trying to stop at each table while at the same time trying hard not to come to an actual stop. Some had questions, but most didn’t want to talk. Voters averted their eyes while they read posters bearing sad statistics and then chose whether to toss a letter block into a glass vase or to hold their vote and move on. When the half hour was up, I tossed my own letter block in to be counted with the others and found my way back to my seat.

Once the votes were counted, the room was shown an image of the blocks stacked into individual pyramids. The image was projected onto multiple large screens. Attendance won the day as the indicator voted most key to third grade reading success, while the indicator that I had shown up to support, instructional quality, came in dead last. The school superintendent who had been my co-presenter merely shrugged at the results, having anticipated that we would not do well. Instructional quality is not sexy, after all, and is far less intuitive an indicator than, well, showing up to school. But here’s what was nagging at me that day: So, the students show up. What do they show up for?

When my daughter was younger, What’s it do? was a favorite question of hers. It was the next logical question after learning what something was called. She was leaving babyhood at that time and attempting to carefully categorize the world. No matter her age, though, she had a good, clear question. What’s it do? can be applied to pretty much anything. Take school, for example. What does school do? Perhaps, for more clarity, we change one word in the question from does, to should: What should school do?

The work that SLD Read does happens primarily in inner-city schools, so I know that the list of what schools are currently doing in and for their communities is quite long. Schools act as conduits for food services to entire families in need, provide free breakfast and lunch to students on-site, and house non-profit entities that work to, among other things, clothe children, ensure that they receive fresh fruits and vegetables, and provide them with free books and Christmas gifts. There are expanded health services at many schools, where children can be vaccinated, get checkups, and receive required sports physicals at a price that their parents can afford. Once in the classroom, students are greeted by teachers who not only get to know them, but often come to love them. I know of one teacher who took custody of a student for months in order to prevent that student from once again switching neighborhoods, friends, and schools. Acts like taking physical custody of an at-risk student prove that schools and teachers are doing astonishing things. But remember, we changed one word in our original question from does, to should. To honor the modified call of the question, then, we need to ask ourselves if these are also things that they should be doing.

Hungry kids don’t learn, at least not easily or well. We know that. Neither do scared kids, sick kids, or traumatized kids. Nor do children who move often and suffer the very real effects of unstable home lives lived in poverty. These are all absolute knowns, which means that these issues can’t be new. What is new, at least relatively speaking, is that all of them, along with most of the efforts to address, remediate, or abolish them, have landed in our schools. And while it seems to make sense to “catch” kids where they are (at least on weekdays from September to June), this has caused some confusion around what schools should do.

Not too long ago in my little corner of the world, a father was shot trying to shield his son from a teenager’s bullet. The father died. As far as I know, the son survived. So did his sister, who saw all of this horror unfold in her home. The next week, just days after her father’s murder, that girl was back at school. She was a stunned child sitting in an elementary school classroom because her family did not know what else to do with her. The school she was at was labeled as “failing” by the state based on standardized test scores. This is a school being used as a safe space for kids, away from guns and what guns do. But the students are also expected to learn and master grade-level skills. Right now, that isn’t happening, and it’s not surprising. One building meant to serve as both a haven and a school will undoubtedly fall short at being one of the two.

I am not arguing that we have our priorities wrong: safety, stability, health care, food. All very good. I’m saying that we may have our location wrong. Schools can’t do everything. They can and should offer free meals to students; that’s long-established and fairly easily done. But to get back to our discussion about key indicators, they can’t do a whole lot about kids who aren’t showing up to school. Believe me, they have tried everything, from reporting truant students, to driving or walking students in, to repeatedly calling home, to giving perfect (or close) attendance awards. And we shouldn’t overstate the problem that truancy represents for many schools, as compared to other issues. My co-presenter, for example, said that only about six percent of the students in his district had a problem with missing too much school. Meanwhile, more than half of the students in that same district are not reading at grade level. And sure, in other districts, those numbers might be switched, but what are schools to do? Should teachers leave classrooms to go in search of the truant kids? Surely not. We all know that it is sad to see a student walking out on his future, but honestly, if he chooses to, there’s just not a lot that schools can do.

Like increasing attendance, strengthening cultural competency in the classroom and fostering strong school and family relationships sound like spectacular things for schools to do. They are spectacular. The problem is that our expectations are unrealistic to the point of being fantastical. Teaching is still primarily a white vocation in many states and school districts. There is a growing number of Hispanic teachers in some states, which is good news, but the news is not at all good for another voice that we need in our classrooms. According to the Albert Shanker Institute, the number of black teachers working in American schools fell as much as 62% in some cities between the years 2002 and 2012. Apparently, many of the teachers who have left the vocation did not feel that their cultural viewpoint was valued and that they were instead expected to fall in line with practices that they had resented as students themselves. This means that cultural competency is leaving our schools along with those who brought it, or at least tried to. If we want to get it back, then we’ll have to recruit. And if we truly want to succeed at creating, and maintaining, diversity in our teaching staff, then we must be willing to listen to a different point of view.

I attend all of my daughter’s parent-teacher conferences. I consider it my responsibility to attend, even though I don’t tend to enjoy them. I work all day, and I am tired. My husband is generally with me, and he is tired. My daughter’s teachers are all tired, too. We gaze at each other across a hastily assembled folding table and talk about what’s going well, what isn’t, what concerns we might have, etc. It’s a pretty miserable experience, frankly, and I feel comfortable in saying that it’s probably the same on both sides of the table. The teachers would rather be home with their families than in a poorly heated gymnasium, and who could blame them? My father taught at a public school for close to three decades, and he always said that the only parents who came to conferences had students who were doing well in his class. The choir always shows up for church. And those who don’t show up, won’t. I know schools that put on carnivals and potluck dinners, bring in interpreters, hand out bus passes, and even hold raffles that you must be in attendance to win. At every event, the same parents volunteer and the same parents come in. I think it can be said that most schools have been attempting to foster relationships with families for decades now. It may be that they’ve reached out as far as they can, and it’s the families’ turn now to choose to step in.

I titled this post How to Build a Giant, and I do know how that’s done: you take a regular person, and you train her really well. It’s not magic; it’s preparation. Schools and our expectations for them have grown enormously in the last few decades. And yet still, what schools should do hasn’t changed. Schools should educate kids. That’s why I stand behind the idea that instructional quality is the key indicator for third grade reading and so much more. Because without teachers who have been solidly trained in the fundamentals of how kids learn, then a school might be a haven, or a pantry, or a clinic, but it won’t be what it should be. Our teachers should be giants and given the time and space to do their jobs. Because no matter what else is happening there, our kids should learn at school.

 

If you would like to learn more about the black teacher shortage in America, please visit Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/09/black-teachers-public-schools-education-system-philadelphia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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