After a lengthy career as a public school educator, I now believe that all actions in the schoolhouse should always be looked at through the lens of what is best for children. That’s why my favorite tie and lapel pin both say “Children First.” Unfortunately, I have seen way too many instances of adult interests taking charge of situations. At least at the elementary school level, there is an old saw—whispered between school administrators—that says things at school would be great if we only had to deal with the children and not the adults. How many times have I told staff members to model positive adult behavior, or to go work out their problems as adults? Professionalism is difficult to teach.
Now, I am not saying that all is lost. I believe that education in the U.S.A. is not in some sort of crisis mode and in need of drastic reformation. On the contrary, I believe that we are doing a dramatically better job now than we did when I was in school and since I became an educator. No longer do we “drill and kill” our students. Instead, we are developing real critical thinkers who can discover the “why” of things, rather than parroting back memorized dates and facts. The problems in education are largely caused by the society around us. Education reflects society rather than creates it. The social ills in this country—including poverty, apathy, violence, substance abuse, the lowering of standards, the loss of taste and cultural awareness, and the lack of an appreciation of the importance of education—make the job just about impossible. Still, there are things we can do better.
It is not acceptable that adult interests drive decisions in schools. No administrator wants to hear that a change that will help children can’t be made because it would violate the union contract. The deterioration of work ethic, lack of dedication and pride, and sometimes blatant laziness often shortchange students. Anything new is often blocked because contracts don’t allow “changes in working conditions.” And, teachers who buck the tide are railroaded by their colleagues. A class action grievance on principle may be filed even if the teacher is perfectly willing to implement the policy or procedure in question. Another major problem is that some people simply don’t belong in the profession. You must love children or you shouldn’t teach. And, you have to love the age group you are teaching. “Delivering curriculum” or content is not good teaching.
So, what are some characteristics of the true educator who places children first? Foremost, I believe that teachers and administrators—staff members in general—need to be really in touch with their students on a daily basis. Human contact with caring adults is a prerequisite to academic (or social) success for students. Educators should make schools happy, welcoming, healthy, safe and well-disciplined places for children to come to. And, this is possible despite the parental and societal attitudes (and the modern feeling of entitlement) surrounding the students. Educators must find ways to get parents actively involved in the education of their children—even given their busy lives and the economic pressures of the times. I believe that good teachers embrace change and search for ways to improve. They model and internalize the ideals of lifelong learning. They value excellence and demand it of their students (and of themselves). They believe that all students can succeed. And by this I do not mean the absurd NCLB “goal” of all children meeting standards by the year 2014! Teachers will have to become much better at individualization and the differentiation of instruction. We have to teach to all learning styles and intelligences. One key is better integration of all disciplines across the curriculum.
The bottom line is that we must do a better job of preparing students for life and the world of work. This will only happen when we constantly put children first. And, then we need to heed the words of Stephen Sondheim:
“Careful the tale you tell,
That is the spell,
Children will listen.”