Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The State of Education

Scrivener has up a post about a NYT article that talks about the death of play for the average kindergartner. As a kindergarten teacher, I would love to have more playtime in our day. I think we force too much on children, too quickly. We force it on them because that's what's required of us. No Child Left Behind -- while a good idea in theory -- is not conducive to putting the play back into the regular school day.

When I was in kindergarten, I remember a lot of play time. I remember the playground and the giant slide that looked like a clown. I remember getting in trouble for giggling during rest time. I remember meeting other kids and running together like wild hooligans in the schoolyard.

Sadly, those days of endless play are gone. The article references a group of children who do nothing but drill all day. That is not the case for my class. I try to plan my lessons with the thought behind them that all children will be bored with learning unless you engage their attention. Running rote drills does not inspire love for learning. Sure, you can get the kids to do a lot by rote, but they don't truly get anything from it. And if it's not being retained, then why waste your time teaching it?

I mentioned in Scriv's comments that most of the parents that I've encountered here on the blogosphere are very involved parents. They care about education, both the state of education, and their child's role within that framework. They want their children to do well. Most of you with children who are at kindergarten (or near) age have worked with them very diligently on the good foundations that they would otherwise get in kindergarten. Your children know their letters and sounds, numbers and colors, and other basic personal information like full name, age, address, and telephone number. Yours are the prepared children. I see many other children who are not so well-equipped to begin school. I have taught children who did not know their letters, and indeed, did not even know their last name. I had a student last year who came to me unable to do more than draw a very shaky circle. By the end of the school year, he had a very legible handwriting, and a short story that he illustrated was good enough to be sent in to a Reading Rainbow contest. These may not seem like great strides to some people, but they are when the child could barely grasp a pencil before.

I have also had less-than-involved parents. Just last year, I had a father that I met once. And I only met him that one time because he came to complain. I could not imagine being so uninvolved in my child's education. All too often, though, we do see parents for whom we are free daycare. I have had parents tell me that they would not come pick up a vomiting, feverish child because he wasn't their responsibility until 3:30pm. I was stuck with him -- he was *my* problem during the school day. I've had a parent who let her daughter come to school in clothes so filthy that I was reluctant to even touch the child, even though I knew full well that the child had plenty of clean clothes at home because both myself and a friend had donated huge amounts of clothes to the family. I've had children tell me about drug use in their families. And then I've had students who were just pure joy to teach.

The problem with having such an obvious chasm between the high-achieving students and the ones who come to us ill-prepared is the constant state of catch-up we, as educators, are in. We have to play to the lowest common denominator. We have to try and explain concepts to the child in the room who has no clue to what we're referring while still retaining the interest of the child who has already mastered that concept. Are we out to create a legion of folded-hand zombies who do no critical thinking? No, but sometimes we are forced to teach in styles not of our own choosing because of district and national mandates.

These days, the average kindergartener has to be able to count to 100 by 1s, 5s, and 10s. They have to count to 30 by 2s and backwards from 10 to zero. They have to know all of the letters of the alphabet, and each corresponding sound. They have to know common diagraphs like /sh/, /ch/, /wh/, /st/, and /th/. They have to know how each individual letter sounds, and how they sound together. They have to know sight words -- words that are harder to prounounce using typical phonics, and so should be known on sight alone. They have to master simple addition and subtraction. They need to know ordinal numbers -- first, second, third, and so on. They need to know basic punctuation, and the difference between a letter, a word, and a sentence. They learn the concept of more than and less than, not only in objects: "I have more cookies than you," but also "Seven is more than three. How many more than three is seven?" They learn about science, and history. They learn library skills -- what a title page is, what an author is, what does "illustrator" mean? There is so much more to kindergarten now than there was even as recently as 10 to 15 years ago. There are way too many objectives for me to list.

I take exception to articles like this. The reason that I take exception is because it is a wide, sweeping generalization. Not all schools are like this, and even then, not all public schools offer a terrible education. Is there better to be had? I'm sure there is, but don't make the assumption that all public schools are not worthwhile. There are jewels in any school, both in the student population, and in the professional population. Is it sad that there is very little play time left for students? Yes, it is. But, if you have a teacher who engages your child, who makes learning fun, isn't that something?

Another thing is that people don't want to pay teachers. They want us to give the average student a stellar education (which is my goal anyway, regardless of salary) but they don't want to have to actually pay us for it. Do you know, in my area, a Farm Equipment Mechanic makes more money than a teacher does? Is it any wonder that people are leaving the profession in droves? Each year, more and more classroom supplies come out of the teacher's own pocket. I can't tell you how much money I spend in a year on classroom items. It's hard to provide a great education when your family is eating Ramen Noodle Soup so you can buy printer cartridges and crayons for your class.

I do agree that it's a shame that there are fewer and fewer dress up corners and less and less time to make Lego creations. I would love to have more time to incorporate these into our average day, I really would. I would also like people to be more aware of what teachers do for their children. Kindergarten may have more objectives to cover now than ever before, but I'm also the one your child runs to when he's fallen on the sidewalk. I'm the one who hugs her when little Susie won't share the crayon basket. I teach them manners and math. I talk about good citizenship as well as good hygiene. We cover phonics and friendliness. I love these kids. I make them presents for Christmas. Sometimes, I'm the only hug a child gets all day. I teach, and I'm proud to do so. Teaching is not just "my job." It's what I was meant to do.


Scrivener said...

I don't disagree with anything you've said here. But I don't really think the article was a criticism of teachers (and I hope my post didn't come across as being critical of teachers either). The point is that teachers shouldn't be paying for classroom supplies out of their own pockets. The point is that we should be treating teachers as professionals, and paying them as professionals, and then letting them actually carry out their expertise, but the institutional structure on the state and federal levels, in particular, is such that teachers can't do that as well as they should.

Sometime a year ago, I was getting gas and noticed that the station had a sign up advertising that they were hiring an assistant manager. Assistant managers at the QT make almost twice what I make as a college professor.

Phantom Scribbler said...

I wish you were going to be LG's kindergarten teacher, KLee. God, but I do. Your passion for teaching shines in every word of this post.

I have to confess, though, that I read your paragraph about what the average kindergartener has to do, and kept gasping. "Ack, he can't do that yet! Or that! Or that! Or that! Ack!!!"

KLee said...

Scriv, you did not come across as putting down teachers - we have had enough conversations that I know how much value you place on education, both for your girls and others. I had no bad feelings about what you posted.

The article, however, was flavored in such a way that it left me feeling as if the teachers are at fault somehow. I mentioned that you "work" with your children -- and you referenced that in your later comments. What I was saying was not that you come across as a martinet about schoolwork with Ella, but more that you are on hand (and willing) to give Ella help should she need it. Often, students of mine get no help at all at home. Some parents are at best, lazy, and at worst, nasty, about helping out their children with homework and the like.

Yes, teachers should be given more of a break, and better pay incentives, but is it any wonder than no one is willing to pay us when we have articles that talk about how bleak is the landscape of public education? It seems like a lose/lose situation so much more often than not.

College professors are lumped in with the low-paying professions as well. It's sad that everyone strives to get a college education, yet they don't want to pay the people that make aquiring the education possible.

KLee said...

Phantom -- I'd LOVE to have LG in my class. I'd never get tired of his boundless curiosity. He's the kind of child that I could see myself doing extra research on trains for. I like to do "theme" units, where I decorate the class for a specific unit: We hung nets and sea creatures from the ceiling for Ocean Week; we had "leprechauns" who came into the classroom and made mischief by throwing papers and toys around, even leaving their green footprints everywhere! I could very well see the transportation unit focusing heavily on trains for LG. I love to play to their likes and it amazes them how creative we can get.

Don't stress over what on that list he hasn't mastered yet -- you have a whole school year to get those under his belt. And, you may not even have some of the same standards there as we do here. Your local and state guidelines may be completely different. Whether they are or aren't, I see LG soaking up all the learning that he's confronted with like a huge sponge. I don't think you'll have any trouble at all. But, if you want to ship him down here for his kindergarten year, I am so not going to complain.

Marni said...

I totally agree that you guys don't get the pay your deserve. My children have had the most wonderful teachers -- they keep in touch with almost all of them. I cannot imagine what you see on a daily basis from parents that don't give a rip. I WANT my children to succeed and to stand back and put that in the hands of another person is wrong. You give them the tools and knowledge - we, as parents - help them with what you give them and provide real life examples/tests. It should be a partnership... in my humble opinion.

Karyn said...

You're a better person than I am. When I was a kid, all I wanted to be was a teacher. That's all. Ever. Then I started college and lost all interest 100%. I still don't know why. But I know now that I would never ever have the patience for it, so perhaps it was just divine intervention.

I applaud your efforts and your work ethic and your kindheartedness. I boo and hiss at the dearth of playtime and dress up corners and building block bins.

And I am going to throw up now because my kid is 1 year from Kindgergarten and is a million MILES from being able to do any of those things. He just learned to count to forty - BY ONES. TH / SH are a struggle. I can't reread that paragraph or my head will burst into flames.

I need to go lie down. Dear God.

And thank you, by the way.

Beanie Baby said...

This was a great post, KLee. It was amazing to see what you do for hte kids and what you deal with both from the kids and their parents. Talk about a sense of entitlement--I would never handle it with half your grace.

It's sad that you're paid so poorly. I don't know what it's like here, but I don't think it's quite that bad--I mean it's not great but not quite as bad as your situation. I'll have to look into it, now I'm curious.

It makes me dizzy to think of everything kids are supposed to know these days--and how a teacher covers those subjects with five year olds is mind-boggling. In my kindergarten class they just taught us the alphabet! We didn't do arithmetic until first and second grade!

halloweenlover said...

Ugh, they should pay teachers about 5 times what they make. A teacher is doing the most important job of all!

You sound like such a wonderful teacher, KLee. I wish my future babe would be in your class too. No chance you'll move to Boston?

Karyn said...

Oooh! Yeah! What Halloweenlover said!!!

KLee said...

Sadly, no. We're tied here by both family and jobs. Both our mothers would kill us were we to move out of town.

ccw said...

An excellent post!

I am constantly amazed by the amount of skills that are now considered standard for the lower grades. Kindergarten used to be primarily for socialization with some learning tossed in, but now it is not much different from 1st or 2nd grade.

I admire how much you love your students. You are a wonderful person and teacher; those children are lucky to have you.

liz said...

I wish you could be my son's Kindergarten teacher next year.

It makes me furious that teachers are paid bupkes.

Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

You are such a wonderful teacher... and I know from good teachers (having been raised by one). I've said it before but I'll say it again (as others have already said here): I wish you lived in my town and could teach my boy! I can only hope he'll have some enthusiastic, earnest teachers like you in his life. They can't all be winners, I know, but the ones that are stick in your memory your whole life. You are making such a difference in these kids' lives.

(I still remember my first grade teacher's name. Best teacher I ever had, in all my 20 years of education. Loved that woman so fiercely you cannot even imagine.)