I realized something about myself and my upbringing: as soon as I was old enough to feel it; I was very aloof about my grade school education. To this day, I have a bit of an attitude problem when it comes to school.
I enjoyed elementary school for the most part, but when it came time for middle school, like many early adolescents, I thought school was a bore. My teachers were out-of-touch bores on auto-pilot. School presented no real challenge for me. I figured out how to earn A’s without doing any homework.
I was an under-the table-intellectual. I stretched my vocabulary in conversations around the dinner table at home with my highly educated parents and then totally detached myself from the “wha-wha-wha” sounds of my teachers’ lectures at school. I experienced rigor and learned real discipline through private violin lessons with a very serious teacher, a challenge that I chose to take on and which my parents supported, despite my frequent frustration with it. My grandmother (who was a teacher) steadily supplied me with interesting and challenging reading materials that opened me up to worlds outside the suburbs of Boston. She encouraged me to write for fun, and I would read my poems and stories to her over the phone… but I never connected this with school.
I sometimes felt like I knew more than my teachers, but I resisted asking questions that I knew would complicate matters. I was a respectful student and understood there was an agenda in place that took precedence over my intellectual curiosity. But this made me aloof. I sought refuge in counterculture, befriended local anti-heroes, and maintained my A average.
What calls my attention now is this: I was able to be detached from my public school education because I felt like I didn’t really need it to succeed. That wasn’t completely true, of course. I did need to go through the motions, learn the necessary content, get the grades, and achieve on the big tests to get into the college of my choice–but I felt like grade school was a tiny part of what would push me into the future I wanted for myself, whatever it might be. (I had many interests and felt in no hurry to decide on one thing.)
I realize that part of me still dismisses our country’s system of public education as a farce. I involuntarily sympathize with students who seem aloof toward school and the role it plays in their lives.
But I need to remind myself of the perilous disparity between my own experience growing up and the realities of my middle school students. I need to be clear on the fact that engagement in school is absolutely vital for my students’ success later in life. Most of my students’ home lives are not filled with college-level dinner table conversations, private music lessons, and reading and writing for fun. They may be full of other valuable experiences, but not likely those that will afford them easy success in school and entry into college.
My students’ engagement in school must be daily, real, vigorous, challenging, joyful, sometimes maddening, and loving without fail.
That said, school as institution must DO more to engage students than it ever did for me. School must play the role for my students that my grandmother, my parents, and my violin teacher did for me in addition to teaching the necessary content and skills.
I recognize that it is my responsibility, as an educator, to shift my attitude about school. I need to deal with my underlying mistrust and dislike of the institution, which seems to have resurfaced as of late, keeping me from fully owning my role as teacher. In order to do this, I need to remind myself that I am here to help create a learning environment that embraces the curiosity and individuality of students, where doing the right thing doesn’t always mean keeping quiet, where there is both discipline and exploration, both a shared agenda and opportunities for self-expression. I need to keep going this way, despite the pressure to teach to a single test, to “catch kids up to grade level” on rote skills and forget the rest.
That’s a tall order, but I think it’s why I chose to be a teacher. I am seeking to unify some of the pieces of my upbringing, to infuse genuine intellectual work into the drab scene of public education, and to do this for kids who truly require it from school in order to access power in our society.
[image found at www.lsmsa.edu/ content.cfm?id=155 and