When I was a little girl I often drove my friends crazy by suggesting that we play school. Of course I always insisted on being the teacher. I had a cardboard box that was ready for a very realistic rendition of a classroom. It held paper, pencils, pens, textbooks and even prepared tests and report cards that I designed in my leisure time. I suppose that it was rather nerdy on my part but my buddies and brothers placated me now and again by sitting in the makeshift desks that I created and listening to my lessons. There is little wonder that I ultimately dedicated my entire life to education.
I literally worked my way up the ranks of schools. My first job was at Do and Learn Pre-school. I met with my four year old students on Tuesdays and Thursdays in rented rooms at the local Methodist church. I so loved my little foray into the academic world that I became convinced that I had a bonafide vocation to be a teacher. I was determined to finish my degree at the University of Houston and get started as soon as possible.
I’ve always had an abundance of energy and so in addition to working at the pre-school I was also a Sunday school teacher at my church. There I taught kindergarten kids about Jesus. Evidently the nuns who ran the program liked my work enough to recommend that I take over the pre-school and elementary classes when they decided to leave for another posting. I served as the Director of Religious Education while continuing to work on finishing my degree. This gave me my first taste of being an administrator. I was still as happy as a clam and became utterly convinced that I wanted to devote my life to children.
Upon graduating I landed a position at St. Christopher’s Catholic School which was admittedly a bit disappointing to me because I had wanted to go directly to a public school. The economy was in the ditch at the time and there were simply no jobs for teachers that year. As it was, the job at St. Christopher’s was more perfect than if I had hand picked it for myself. I had a super principal who was innovative and child centered. I had great students who allowed me to practice my teaching skills and best of all I was the one and only mathematics teacher for the junior high. I taught the full spectrum of skills and even headed the computer and newspaper electives. I was happier than ever and certain that I had chosen the correct career.
When a public school job became available I reluctantly left. I became a self contained teacher of fourth graders under the guidance of yet another incredible principal who taught me so much about classroom management and taking care of my own physical and emotional needs. The children at this school were far more needy and underserved by society than my private school youngsters. Their stories were often tragic and I had to learn how to keep my emotions in check so that I would be able to provide them with what they needed.
Over time I taught multiple subjects, students from varying races and economic backgrounds, and many different grades. Each experience strengthened my abilities and demonstrated the complexities of teaching. Eventually I became the first ever intermediate Peer Facilitator in the Pasadena Independent School District, an idea from yet another of the outstanding principal for whom I worked. Today every intermediate school has multiple Peer Facilitators. I’d like to think that I helped to convince the higher ups that it was a worthwhile position to have.
I ended my career at KIPP Houston High School, one of the KIPP Charter schools, as the Dean of Faculty. By then I had been working with kids in one way or another for almost forty years. I’d seen public, private and charter schools. I’d taught reading, language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, art, theology and journalism. I had worked in daycare, pre-school, Sunday school, fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. I had observed countless teachers and taken part in hundreds of parent conferences. I had been a Title I Coordinator, Gifted and Talented Coordinator, Magnet School Coordinator, Peer Facilitator, AP Coordinator and Testing Coordinator as well as Dean of Faculty. I conducted training sessions and taught mathematics teachers at an Algebra seminar at Rice University. In other words, I have been around the educational block a time or two and along the way I never lost my enthusiasm for my work. Now that I am retired I continue to tutor intermediate and high school students at both public and private schools.
With all of my knowledge and experience I find it disheartening that our newest Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, cannot even come close to matching the depth of what I know about schools. She may be a very nice lady who has contributed generously to education and she may even be quite interested in helping to improve our current educational system but it takes way more than just a desire to help to even begin to make the changes that are necessary to make our educational system as strong as possible. It requires someone with intimate knowledge of schools from the ground floor up and I personally believe that it should be an individual with experiences that are so deep and expansive that he or she has a clear understanding of how every facet works. Obviously Ms. Devos is not that person.
The public is always searching for a quick and simple fix for our nation’s educational problems. Every teacher will tell you that there is no golden ticket or one thing that will make everything all right. Children like all people are very complex. Each classroom requires individualized instruction that is seamless. It is a difficult task to pull off but there are many exceptional educators who are doing it every single day. There is something almost magical about watching a great teacher in action but the reality is that it took hours of hard work and practice and self reflection to get there. This takes time and patience and has little to do with whether a school is public, private or charter. There are good, bad and ugly examples of each. The trick is in finding more of the really good educators who understand that they will have to be nimble when adapting to the needs of their kids.
Sadly Ms. Devos appears to be of the mind that the key to improving our American schools lies in turning them into a marketplace using a business model that assumes that demand will eventually supply quality for all students. Of course we all know that even in the world of retail all the economic pressure in the world will not transform a dollar store into Saks Fifth Avenue. It is ridiculous to think of education as some type of commodity and that allowing everyone to choose will somehow spur better possibilities for everyone. It is also a pipe dream to believe that a child in a run down neighborhood will be able to take the meager funds of government to a high priced private institution and suddenly be allowed to run with wealthy. For one, most such exclusive schools have long waiting lists, require entrance exams and cost well above government allotments. Furthermore they may or may not want to accept government money because that will make them beholden to rules not of their own making. Additionally, not all private schools are actually good. I interviewed at one or two that in all honestly should have been shut down. Charter schools are also of varying quality. While the KIPP Charter Schools have managed to maintain a solid reputation, many of those currently available peddle an inferior product that should not even be allowed to exist. The complex network of neighborhood public schools display a wide variety of quality from excellence to despair. The reality is that once the best are filled to capacity most children are still caught in the web of underperforming schools from which there is no escape. If the only idea for improving our schools is to provide students with vouchers, nothing really changes and we have wreaked unnecessary havoc for everyone.
I sincerely hope and pray that Betsy Devos listens to the counsel not of lawmakers but of educators who know more than she does. My wish is that she think very carefully before the burning bridges of our public school system. The project upon which she is embarking will determine the future of millions of young children. She must be very careful and very wise. Somehow my impression of her is not particularly positive. More than anything I want to be wrong because missteps in education will impact our nation for decades.