By Valerie Strauss October 12
Leslie Gaar is a former teacher who works in public schools training and coaching teachers. She is also the mother of three and a blogger whose work has been featured on Scary Mommy, TODAY Parents and Mamalode. She blogs at www.pailsandfires.com. Find her on Facebook and Twitter. In this post, she wrote about something that she says disturbs her every time she sets foot into an elementary school these days: what she calls an “increasingly oppressive, harsh environment” in which many young students are educated.
By Leslie Gaar
The speaker used a firm tone of voice that left little room for discussion.
In 30 seconds, everyone should be in line.
Time is up.
Everyone stand up, hands behind your back, walk back to the room.
This conversation was one I recently overheard not in a prison or detention center, not in a courthouse or police station, but in an elementary school — a typical, run-of-the mill elementary school in the suburbs. It happened between a kindergarten teacher and her students. They weren’t in trouble or anything; this was just a routine bathroom break, like the ones that happen a few times each school day.
I work in public schools and can be found navigating their halls on a regular basis. I wish I could say the conversation above was an isolated incident, not representative of other schools I have been in, but that is just not the case. I’ve seen and heard exchanges like this hundreds, maybe even thousands of times, in all sorts of schools — even the “good” ones. As a teacher, I myself participated in these types of interactions daily, but it wasn’t until recently that I began seeing them in a whole new light.
A bit of history: I was a classroom teacher for eight years before taking a break to stay home with my children. When I returned to the education field a couple of years later, it was in a different capacity than before. I began training and coaching teachers, as well as working with administrators to promote best practices on their campuses. This role shift has given me a different perspective on an environment which was as familiar to me as my own skin, and it continues to be eye-opening in a number of ways.
Out of this experience, a question began to bubble up inside of me and has continued to swell so that I can no longer ignore it. That question is this: When did we start running elementary schools like prisons?
When did it become both accepted and routine to address 5-year-olds (and 6- and 7-year-olds) with barking orders instead of kind, encouraging words? Was it really that long ago that our own kindergarten and first-grade classrooms were filled with the sounds of nursery rhymes, laughter and children at play? Is the world today really so different than it was 20 or even 15 years ago that it warrants a new, harsher brand of education?
I don’t entirely know the answer, but I suspect that one culprit, among others, is the increased importance placed on standardized testing in recent years. It is undeniable that teachers at all grade levels feel mounting pressure due to high-stakes testing, even if they do not teach in a testing grade. Time spent in transitions to and from the cafeteria, on bathroom breaks, and at recess is seen as precious, wasted minutes that could have been used in classroom instruction. There is no time for niceties or even, in some cases, common courtesy — the clock is ticking. The pressure is on.
And the truth is that the business of teaching young children “soft skills” like cooperation, empathy and time management, is a slow business — one that cannot be rushed and commanded to spring forth on demand. And one that, for better or worse, cannot be quantified on a Scantron form.
So, if this harried, often harsh environment is partially the result of a pushing down of pressure, it is understandable — very much so.
But another question must then be asked: What is this increasingly oppressive climate doing to our kids?
What are the lasting effects of students who are expected to walk the hallways with their hands clasped behind their backs, their mouths filled with a “bubble” of air to prevent them from making the slightest of sounds? What becomes of 4-year-olds who are forced to sit with their elbows on their knees and their eyes on the ground as they wait for their classmates to use the restroom? What do we really teach our children when we punish them for speaking back to us, or for speaking at all? When they are shamed in front of their classmates for not being able to follow directions that are inappropriate for their age group to begin with? When we admonish them for not knowing how to think critically but consistently fail to provide them with opportunities to do so?
I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist, so I can’t tell you for certain. I haven’t done a long-term study, but I can tell you what the answer is as I see it, as a teacher, a mentor, an administrator and a mother.
The simple answer is that their spirits are crushed. Their innate love for learning is stomped out at the first sign that they have fallen out of step, or colored outside the lines, or raised their voice.
So they learn not to fall out of step, even if a magical discovery is just around the corner.
They don’t color outside the lines, even if it means they fail to explore a world that exists beyond thin, black borders.
They can’t raise their voice, even if an injustice is happening right before their eyes — not even if it is happening to them.
Why? Because the cost is too high. The need for approval by their teachers and peers is too strong. The punishment, for even the most minor of infractions, is so severe that they will do anything to avoid it, at the cost of shutting down curiosity and creativity and a sense of justice.
And so we lose the next generation’s Margot Fonteyn, or Jackson Pollock, or Martin Luther KingJr. We give up new forms of expression and art and righteous protest because it took too much time to cultivate such things. Because it made us question our long-established practices. Because there was “real learning” to be done. Because it wasn’t on the test.
We resign ourselves to the fact that students who can’t sit still during storytime will be branded as “bad” before they even understand the meaning of the word. Some of them will succeed in spite of this, while others will believe it as truth and begin to live it as a result. And our society ultimately pays the price of order and conformity at all cost.
But at least our children will have learned to walk the halls quietly.
Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.