A Grand Experiment

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We are almost at the end of June which means that we have to begin thinking about sending the children back to school in six to eight weeks. I often used July to plan lessons for the coming academic year. I am a freak when it comes to preparing ahead of time. I have never been able to do anything at the last minute. When I look at the possibilities of chaos in the coming school year I feel for teachers everywhere. Never has there been so much uncertainty about what will happen once children return to the classrooms.

The governor of Texas has declared with great confidence that all schools will reopen and that masks and other forms of protection from the virus will be optional. The reaction from the public has been mixed with many insisting it’s time to get back to normal and others worrying about the dangers of turning classrooms into germ farms. I have heard of parents investigating home schooling for at least the next year and teachers resigning or retiring because of health issues. We are wading into unknown waters and the fear is that those waters may be infested with sharks.

I teach eight home schooled students and we have not yet decided whether I will resume in person lessons or continue teaching them remotely. I am not as self assured as our governor is. I am still in the mode of wanting to wait to see what happens in the coming weeks. I can’t afford to bring illness into my home so I am a bit more circumspect.

Knowing what to do is a major dilemma for so many people. I agree that the best case scenario is for the nation’s students to return to a sense of normalcy but there is still a little voice whispering concerns to me. My forty plus years of teaching taught me that classrooms are like petri dishes for growing germs. I’ve seen more than my share of outbreaks of disease that closed down campuses. My hope is that this does not happen when we attempt to get back to the books.

The planning in many school districts appears to be far too nebulous for my taste. I’m of the mind that every teacher and parent needs a clear outline of Plans A through Z that will take into account any eventualities. All the shareholders need to know exactly what to expect when they return. How many students will be in each classroom? Will masks be a requirement? How will the school day change from the norm. Everyone must be told what will happen if there is an outbreak of the virus in a particular classroom or if the virus runs rampant through an entire campus. There should be plans for doing a better job with remote learning if that becomes a necessity again. Just using canned programs did not appear to be particularly effective so there should already be discussions about to how teachers might make those lessons more meaningful to their students?

There should already be concrete learning alternatives for those students with illnesses that might make them more vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Parents need to know what to expect if they choose to keep their children home. Teachers who have compromised immune systems should be provided with opportunities to become remote instructors for the children who need to avoid classrooms. There needs to be consideration for all individuals, not just a statement that if they can’t handle things they should just stay home.

July should be dedicated to using the creativity and talents of teachers to help in the design of each possible scenario. Schools need to be willing to try new ways of providing instruction that focus on the health and safety of all parties and provide the needed materials to institute each idea as needed.

I know of parents who are trying to find masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes for their children to take to school. Each campus should be well supplied with such items and even have a larger than usual janitorial force to maintain bathrooms and general cleanliness throughout the school day. I have so often see restrooms without soap. This is something that should not ever happen and its occurrence must be reduced with a firm plan for continually monitoring the building throughout the school day.

So many schools have eliminated nurses from their faculty. I can think of no better time to bring them back onto every campus. Schools will need their expertise in attempting to insure that the virus does not overwhelm the efforts to provide education. They can also vanguard the daily monitoring for signs of potential illness and help to determine when and if there are particular dangers.

I know that many school districts are working diligently to be prepared. I hope that they are willing to allow teachers, parents and even students to both ask questions and provide input. I would also request that the governor please quit changing his mind about how things should work. His latest remarks undid a great deal of work that had already been done. If you are going to make the teachers and students return at least allow them to create the plans that work best. This is going to be a grand experiment and our halls of education need to be ready for anything. 

Silent Heroes

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We love our children. Parents dream of helping their offspring to live glorious lives filled with joy, success, and love. Teachers play a huge role in the journey of a youngster into adulthood. We put our educators under a microscope, judging their every interaction with our youth. Each day in classrooms across the globe men and women accept the awesome challenge of educating the adults of the future. The work is both daunting and rewarding. Teachers quietly and tirelessly perform their duties without a great deal of encouragement. In fact we are more often likely to hear criticisms of their mistakes than compliments of their dedication. Nonetheless teachers carry on with their vocations even when the conditions are difficult, the pay is subpar to other professions, and the evaluations of their worth in society are not indicative of the enormous sacrifices and contributions that they make.

Teachers are often told that theirs is a last resort occupation that is the solution for those who cannot find anything better to do. They hear snide comments about their short work weeks and three months of vacation. In conversations about improving education they are generally the last persons whose opinions are considered. Instead lawmakers, business people, and an assortment of souls with no experience managing a classroom decide how to run the educational system. Nonetheless our teachers return for insult time and again simply because they have a beautiful secret. They love their profession and they adore their students. No amount of indignation can chase them away. They have a mission that drives their enthusiasm more than money or status.

A tiny virus came along this spring to upend the educational process without warning and along with the chaos that ensued came a pleasant surprise for everyone except those who are teachers. With amazing speed all across the globe educators went into action to create remote classrooms and lessons. They transformed bedrooms and dining rooms into spaces where they might continue to demonstrate their magic. They spent untold hours learning how to manipulate technology. They found ways to bring the needed equipment and conferences to each of their students. They worried over their flocks until they were certain that everyone was present and accounted for. They grieved at the loss of being with their students in person and wondered if their pupils had enough to eat or if they were being abused. They even went on parades inside the neighborhoods that they serve and made efforts to personally congratulate the top graduates in the Class of 2020. Not for one single minute did they forget their students in fact they spent sleepless nights worrying about them.

As moms and dads contended with having their children under foot all day long they began to marvel at the patience of teachers who shepherd whole classrooms of kids and somehow remain calm. The parents realized how complex the concepts and lessons actually are and realized that one would have to be rather bright to explain such things. They began to reconsider the value of teachers in ways that had not before occurred to them. As the long weeks in isolation went by they learned of the many skills and talents that good teachers so humbly provide to society.

In spite of the newfound estimation of the educators of the world many old habits are slow to die. In planning for the reopening of schools at some future date few teachers have been consulted even though they are very people who may have the best answers for the logistical questions. When grateful citizens provide food and gifts for first responders and essential workers they tend to forget the teachers with such rewards. There are even those who wonder why teachers are still being paid since they are just sitting around at home. Some suggest beginning the new school year in July but without any extra pay even though the salary that teachers will receive in that month is part of contracted pay for this past year.

I am and always will be a teacher at heart. I think that mine has been a noble profession that ranks alongside the most needed work in all of society. We have learned during our lockdowns and stay at home orders what is most important in this world. We can live in our pajamas and walk around the house in our bare feet. We can cook for ourselves and find entertainment in very simple things. Slowing our pace has brought us new found joys and realizations of what and who we most need. Our world has become a quieter and less congested and polluted place. We see an opportunity to change some of our habits which may not have been good for us individually or for the world collectively. We stand at a moment of possibilities and among them is a new way of viewing our educational system and our teachers. Perhaps it is time that we acknowledge the wonderful men and women who care for our children as the heroes that they have always been.

Most teachers will tell you that the joy that they feel for their work is not about the money. They will admit that they don’t even need the respect that other occupations provide because there is something innately glorious about having a career that provides so much purpose. Each day for a teacher is a meaningful experience and teachers never forget the students who have passed under their watchful eyes. They think of them and dream of them and worry about them and hope for them. Their ultimate reward is knowing that their efforts have made the world a better place.

May is traditionally the month for acknowledging teachers. Find a way to reach out to the valiant and selfless people who have influenced either you or your children. Try to understand how much love was poured into their work. Let them know how much you value them. They are already planning the future and it will no doubt be very good. Let’s acknowledge them as the silent heroes that they have always been.

A Formula For Success

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While visions of sugarplums should be dancing in my head, instead I am inundated with thoughts of foci and directrixes on parabolas, and unit circles whose angles and radians haunt my dreams. I want to be enjoying the spirit of Christmas present but am forced to patiently explain the nuances of mathematical concepts to my grandchildren who are being rushed through advanced topics by teachers feverishly staring down deadlines that won’t stop for the holidays. The mad rush of the season is as evident in classrooms as at the malls and Amazon distribution centers. Christmas will be here and gone before anyone associated with schools manages to catch a breath and this year I’m caught up in the insanity because my grandchildren are drowning in information overload and I have the tools to help them survive.

The human brain is capable of great leaps of learning but knowledge must be ingested in appropriately measured chunks and then practiced and reviewed well enough for mastery of concepts. When new ideas are presented before the old ones are completely understood the brain tends to seize up in frustration and the individual experiences a sense of failure that is only compounded as more and more information is piled on a foundation that is faulty. This is what I am seeing in my grandchildren as they attempt to balance unreasonable demands on their capacity to learn. They are literally operating at full tilt each day while falling behind in the race to meet the demands of their teachers. It’s not that they are lazy or slow to learn. The problem is that nobody seems to realize that they are existing on five hours of sleep each day while filling every waking minute with assignments that take far longer to complete than their teachers seem to understand.

One grandson recently took a fifty minute test in Pre-Calculus that was four pages long. He knew how to do every problem but ran out of time when he was only about three fourths of the way through the questions. He made one of the few passing grades but it was still rather low. The teacher chided the students insisting that he had been able to do all four pages in only thirty minutes, hardly a reasonable way to determine whether or not the students should have been able to finish in a timely manner. He has been teaching the topics for decades and he made up the questions. Of course it would take him less time than those who had first learn the concepts only a week before the test.

Another grandson who is generally quite competent with all things mathematical described the breakneck speed at which his teacher is pushing the class. On the last exam the class average was 62 and the highest grade was a low eighty. This is a group of hard working gifted and talented students who are members of the National Honor Society. It is not that they did not expend the necessary effort to better learn the concepts. The problem was in the pacing which required them to deconstruct all aspects of exponential functions in the space of about four days time and then take a major exam on the concepts. There was not enough time for them to develop fluidity in their understanding and, even worse, in spite of their poor performance on the test they had to move on to the next topic while still in a state of confusion.

Much of this insanity is driven by the demands of the College Board, a group that mainly focuses on testing, an industry that brings them great financial profits. They develop tests like the SAT and then create workshops and curriculum for both students and teachers. All of the moving parts cost money that fills their tills in the guise of being helpful.

Today’s successful high school students are leaving for classes in the dark, spending spending seven hours in a classroom, participating in another three or four hours in after school activities, arriving home in the dark, and then studying until well past midnight. They are exhausted and often confused particularly when their teachers and society view them as being lazy. Their frustrations are real and few people are taking them seriously.

Each teacher is in turn encased in a pressure filled bubble with the scope and sequence of the curriculum more often than not predetermined by administrators who never see the struggles of the students to keep pace. The classroom often feels like a long distance race across a desert that leaves all but the strongest behind. The teachers see the problems first hand and realize all too well that in the process over which they have so little control so much potential is destroyed.

Sadly schools have become political tools for individuals who have little or no understanding of how the brain works or what proper teaching and learning looks like. There is often a one size fits all approach to education that does not take the needs of each individual into account. The platitude, “All children can learn” is true but with a caveat. The rate at which they truly master concept varies considerably and in a reasonable situation they are not tested for a grade that defines their abilities until they are ready. The goal should never be to frustrate, but to encourage. Time and patience is a critical aspect of the process. Because we are each so very different it is a huge mistake to assume that a canned program tied to a calendar will work for everyone.

Our schools are in trouble not because they are filled with incompetent teachers and unmotivated students, but because they are being run from afar. Learning should never be a race. When it is not a pleasant and encouraging experience it changes minds in negative and unpredictable ways. It’s time we all speak out about the problems that we see and seize control of the process from politicians and businesses who do not know our children. We have to return to a formula for success, Good teaching + time for practice + attention to individual needs = Mastery. That should be our goal.

Walking With Our Young

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Teachers do more than teach concepts. Sometimes they actually become a source of inspiration and comfort for their students. They serve as mentors, guides for their pupils when they need advice or just a calming presence. So was the relationship between a teacher at Smithson Valley High School and my granddaughter.

My granddaughter first met this remarkable educator as a freshman. Somehow they both felt a kind of kinship with one another. As is often the case between teacher and student they were seemingly on the same wavelength and so my granddaughter began to seek out the wisdom of the teacher who had a way of almost peering into her soul. At first she mainly went for help with her studies but before long she opened up about her fears and the stresses that are so much a part of teenage life. The teacher was able to put things into perspective and soothe my granddaughter’s anxieties in addition to being an excellent conveyor of information in the classroom. The two of them formed the kind of professional friendship that sometimes blooms between a teacher and a student.

Even after my granddaughter was no longer one of the teacher’s students she continued to visit with her regularly, finding answers to questions and concerns about academics and life in general. She was hoping to perhaps get an opportunity to take another class from this woman who had so impacted her life, but sadly that was not meant to be. One evening without warning the teacher who was only fifty years old died in her sleep leaving behind a bereft family of eight children and students like my granddaughter who had been so influenced by her intellect, compassion and sagacity.

I suppose that there is little more shocking than losing someone who is still in her prime with so much good to offer the world. We find ourselves wondering how it could be that a person so wonderful would have to leave without warning. I know that it has been unbelievably difficult for my granddaughter to accept. She had thought that she would have the privilege of being guided by this remarkable educator for many years to come. She wonders if the woman ever realized just how much difference she had made in the lives of so many young people.

Teachers never really make enough money to adequately compensate them for the many hours that they give to their work. A teacher is almost always thinking about students past, present and future. They see learning opportunities everywhere they go. They expend enormous amounts of energy worrying over their pupils even after they are long gone. They may not remember all of the names but they see the faces as clearly as if they had been with them only a few minutes ago. Sometimes all it takes is a smile from an aging student for the teacher to recall exactly where they sat in the classroom.

Teachers celebrate the successes of their students as much as they would those of their own children. They grieve over the difficulties that their students face. They think of them in the still of night and pray that all is well with them. They wish for the power to make all of their kids happy and successful. They pray that somehow their charges understand how much they really care beyond the confines of the subject matter that they teach.

Teachers can have a profound effect on their students that lasts a lifetime but what they do not often realize is how much they themselves impact the teachers. Learning is a two way path that does not end with the completion of a school year. Teachers evolve because of the students they encounter just as the students themselves often change when they find a relationship with a particularly gifted educator.

There are few professions that provide all of the players which such an emotion filled experience. Teaching is grand and rich in human interactions. Each day provides an opportunity to literally change a life. Teachers are cautioned to use that enormous power wisely and for the good. They must be aware that what they say or do does indeed make or break the young ones for whom they are responsible.

I salute the teacher who so influenced my granddaughter. I am saddened that she left this earth so soon. I know that she was truly loved and admired. There is little that anyone might accomplish in life that is more meaningful that what this teacher did. May she rest in peace and may her colleagues and students learn the most important lesson that she ever taught, namely that each interaction inside a school is precious and may be just the one that makes someone’s life better.

When History Comes Alive

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I’ve become fascinated by a series of classes at the Rice University Glasscock School of Continuing Education featuring the history of the kings and queens of England. Dr. Newell Boyd uses primary and secondary sources to bring the reigns of the British monarchs to life. His courses are exciting strolls through history that illustrate that human nature tends to be the same from one era to the next. The cast of characters may change but the themes echo over and over through time. His is a very personal look at history through the eyes of those who wrote commentaries about the people and events as they were happening.

The thing that has most struck me throughout the series of lectures is that so many of the problems that we humans face today were concerns hundreds of years ago. Those of us who are not royalty or “mighty barons” today may have a better quality of life than the common folk of yore, but questions of religious freedom, power, and economic equality remain essentially the same as they were when peasants’ lives were brutish and brief. The saga of mankind has been a story of wars and intrigue but it has also been one of slowly evolving equality and freedom and opportunity even for those not born into wealth and power. Much of that trend began in the rise and fall and ultimate decline of aristocracy and the belief in the Divine Right of Kings.

I’ve learned from the study of the Tudor kings that the audacious dealings of Henry VII in his quest for an heir had more to do with keeping peace in the empire than simply attempting to father a male child. Prior to Henry’s reign there had been years of warring between families to claim the throne. Henry desperately hoped to maintain a firm hold of legitimacy and continuity in the royal hierarchy. He believed that only a male heir would insure that there would be no challenges to the authority of his line. Of course we know in hindsight that his beliefs about biology were erroneous and that a woman would ultimately rise to the throne and do so successfully.

This semester Dr. Newell is outlining the story of the Stuart kings who descended from Mary Queen of Scots. Because Elizabeth never married and died without an heir there were many questions about who was the rightful heir to the throne. Untangling the family tree that lead to James I  is a story in itself but the gist of his troubled monarchy lies in the fact that he was raised in Scotland as a Presbyterian and as such was never fully accepted by the people of England. His reign and that of his descendants was continually marked by both political and religious intrigue that lead to unrest, civil war and revolution.

The Protestant Reformation had let the genie out of the bottle. While the Church of England was the official religion of the land there were still Catholics and Puritans determined to defy the dictates of the king who served as the head of the church. In his efforts to demonstrate his power and legitimacy James I was rigidly doctrinaire which lead to treasonous attempts to assassinate him by religious groups, perhaps the most famous of them being the plot to blow up Parliament when James was present by a group of Catholic revolutionaries that included Guy Fawkes.

James’ son Charles did little better than his father to earn the love and respect of the people. It was during Charles’ reign more seeds of revolution were sowed as Parliament became more and more powerful and the king became more dependent on their whims. It was also a time when grand new philosophies regarding the rights of ordinary people began to flourish. The world of royalty in England would never again be quite the same.

I have been particularly intrigued by this period of time in history because I can trace my own ancestry to the times. Charles was being plagued by warring forces in Scotland. People of the Puritan faith refused to bow to his demands that they adopt the beliefs of the Church of England. In an effort to rid him of those problems while also diluting the Catholic influence of the Irish Charles encouraged many Scots to relocate to northern Ireland. It was from that migration that my paternal grandfather’s people came. He always proudly boasted that he was Scots Irish, a strange mix of cultures that I never before clearly understood. Now I know that they were probably trouble makers searching for a place where they might think for themselves.

I am also learning more about Oliver Cromwell, a defiant member of Parliament who would lead England to revolutionary ways of thinking. From a woman in my paternal grandmother’s ancestral line I am a relative of Cromwell, all of which helps me to understand my own somewhat rebellious nature and unwillingness to simply follow the crowd.

I suppose that many of the folks who eventually came to the New World in search of opportunity and a new start were pesky Puritans, Scots Irish, people who had grown weary of being persecuted and limited by kings attempting to assert their authority. The philosophies and tyranny that had once been accepted as the Divine Right of kings began to unravel with the reign of the Stuart kings and it would end with a revolution unlike anything that they might ever have imagined. It’s fun to watch it all unfold while already knowing how it will end and it’s even more exciting to know that my kinfolk were part of it. Dr. Boyd surely knows how to make history come alive!