Education, Uncategorized

For love of public schools: This is what we’re fighting for

kindergarten My public elementary school in Lakewood, Colorado was a red brick building. Here is something amazing: for a while, there was a glorious fort in the library with two levels (an upstairs?! Imagine the joy) and piles of pillows. There were poster board stars hanging from the ceiling of that library, covered in aluminum foil to make them look shiny and important. Each noted the names of students who had passed spelling tests because spelling was a Big Deal. The Dukane projectors provided private showings of The Solar System or Great Plains Indians one slide at a time with cassette tape soundtracks. Our principal, Dr Doll, was a firm and fierce tiny-boned woman who insisted “I want every eye on me” and holy lord, if that administrator wasn’t a great role model for being a badass woman in charge.


School was wonderful and it was life. My classroom’s incubating chicken eggs did not hatch at all one year. Total bust. But still, year in and year out I was the type of child who reveled in my workbooks and rejoiced in my Trapper Keepers and closely guarded my favorite Hello Kitty mechanical pencil.


Not everyone was the same. Every year my class was a motley crew. I was a Green Frog one year. Not everyone was a Green Frog. Some were Yellow Ducks and Brown Bears. But there we all were, the kids with peeled-crust sandwiches and the kids with free lunch tickets, the kids who guarded Hello Kitty pencils like I did, kids with every sort of last name. Bear Creek Elementary had a place for everyone.


I had the same teacher for my final two years at that school. Mr. Pyle was only five feet tall, about my height then, but he looked like he could bench press a few. He was balding with a gray mustache and was a stickler for discipline, following directions, and penmanship. My friend and I memorized “The Spider and the Fly” and performed it in class, and we built a robot using a shower head and other odds and ends we found in my dad’s basement workroom. Our class completed an entire weeks-long unit on baboons, of all things. Mr. Pyle was a fiend for complete sentences and his book reports went on for pages. He challenged a sixth grader to a pumpkin pie making contest and attributed his popular-vote victory to his precision in following the recipe. He admitted he had never traveled anywhere but Kansas and Colorado, but he had a reverence for books and information that was contagious.


When I graduated from high school six years later, Mr. Pyle showed up at my doorstep. Although I was nearly 18 years old, I found this embarrassing, the reality that teachers are humans who continue to exist off campus still seeming debatable. He congratulated me on my achievements and gave me a gift: a book of Bible verses. Thinking about Mr Pyle, this gift wasn’t a shock – that love of discipline and decorum probably did dovetail pretty well into adherence to religion. But I have to give the man credit – he never betrayed his Christian faith in his classroom. We were at a public school, and his job was teaching us to multiply negative numbers and keep a clean desk and give oral reports on the Siberian Tiger. It was not to teach us those Bible verses.


Again: not everyone was the same. There was a place for everyone at Bear Creek Elementary. There was a boy in my classrooms through the years who pulled out his own hair. There were kids with various special needs, some of whom were in separate classrooms and some, like the hair-puller, who weren’t. There were jokers and math whizzes and the Latina trio that performed Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That” at the school talent show with matching shirts that read “No Can Do” on the back. There were kids who moved away before they could settle in and the kids from the “Luxury Apartments” near the school.


Those were not luxury apartments. I’ve always been proud to be a product of public schools, beautiful and diverse and complex and successful public schools. The Green Frogs and the Yellow Ducks and the Brown Bears are now teachers and accountants and bankers and veterans. They are making decisions, building, repairing, doing research and leading. They are parents and taxpayers and neighbors.


There needs to be a place for everyone, regardless of circumstances and resources, regardless of belief systems or ability. And here’s another thing that’s as amazing as that library fort: we are better together. We learn from each other. I’m better for having been in class with the boy who pulled out his hair.


So to those who would undermine our proud public school system and its principles: no can do. Let’s lavish our public schools, and every Green Frog, Yellow Duck, and Brown Bear within them with our patriotic pride. I grew up in a country in which boys and girls, learners of every pace and style, six-minute milers and 18-minute milers, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and None of the Aboves were all deemed worthy of my nation’s time and effort. In this era, we cannot each flee to our own distant outposts and figure everybody else is not our problem. There is not a problem. Together, we are abundant in riches.





Those Who Teach

Jefferson County, Colorado. My childhood home.

Jefferson County, Colorado. My childhood home.

My husband’s mother spent her career in the classroom. For more than four decades she was the lively presence at the front of the room, stewarding group after group of first graders through the hallmarks of that pivotal year: by the time they moved on, those children had grown into literacy. Over the years my mother-in-law assembled a wide collection of gifts from these little ones, the “#1 Teacher” plastic apples and the framed photos with mats covered by the wide scrawls of child signatures. As she readied finally for retirement, she began to thin her classroom supplies, and her grandchildren were the recipients of a career’s worth of materials.

There were books. In fact there were stacks and stacks of books — hardcover picture books with playful jackets, thin “Learning to Read” books with large fonts. In many she had written her name in the crisp handwriting of one who spends years communicating with six-year-olds. There were other supplies — holiday decorations, geometric magnets, alphabet-learning kits, hundreds of markers. All of it was purchased from her own pocketbook, and all for the purpose of bettering the experience she provided for forty years’ worth of children.

She was a good teacher who was a stalwart advocate for early childhood education, one who witnessed the detriment of disparate starts, one who stood patiently by the many children who never occupied the pole position. She read to the children and rhymed with the children and sang songs to them, repeating, celebrating, noticing.

Several years have passed since her retirement, and in that time our public discourse about education has dwelled in a contentious era. We are living in a time when the American teacher can often be maligned more than lauded. Rather than revering the professionals who have learned and honed the craft of pedagogy, we behave as if anybody could do that job — we could edge our way into it sideways, we figure, as if the task of getting dozens of different minds to attend to, absorb, process, and retain information were as simple as guiding a lone child safely through a crosswalk. Common sense, we figure, ought to do it.

Yet many of us remember our teachers well. My third grade teacher was a soft-spoken woman. I cherished the daily citizenship awards she bestowed in the form of fuzzy googly-eyed creatures pinned to one’s shirt. My fifth grade teacher had a deep respect for literature; he read to us aloud every day. I remember the feeling of mastery I attained that year from memorizing and performing the poem “The Spider and the Fly.”

An English teacher taught me to avoid starting sentences with “Perhaps.” Just say what you want to say; don’t qualify it. This was the beginning of my emerging voice, one that would guide me well into college when the tasks became to pitch my ideas to the arena, to test my own novel theories, and to craft my own prose. These educators were among the scaffolds that shaped me into a learning, thinking global citizen.

I grew up in Jefferson County, Colorado, a place for which I have an enduring fondness. In reading this month about the tumult caused by a Board of Education majority that is alienating many of its teachers, I think of my K-12 classrooms. I remember how my mind was blown at the idea of negative numbers. You mean you add it to another number, yet get less? I remember the empowerment of being a co-editor of the high school newspaper. I recall the satisfaction of completing a geometric proof. I know I believed that my sixth-grade watercolor portrait of a girl in a hat was by far the best artwork I’d ever done — except for the color of the girl’s neck. I didn’t get that part right. The point is that I, like anyone, was profoundly influenced by those years of my education. And those years were the proud work product of many teachers, men and women who were voices and guides and creators and facilitators. I owe them a debt.

We all owe our teachers a debt. Theirs should be a profession that we dream of as children. Theirs should be a profession that we daydream our own children could achieve — oh, a teacher! We should revere our teachers. We should be grateful that there are people who choose these tasks so mighty: to take the reluctant five-year-old or the distracted 10-year-old or the sly 15-year-old and raise up each one, raise them all up by giving them the knowledge that is their birthright. We depend upon our teachers to do the daily work, the creative, active, demanding work, the work most vital.

And so we should support them with our every resource. We should respect their expertise, their innovation, their systems of leadership and quality control. In our era where we emphasize that it is “kids first,” we neglect a simple principle: fostering a well-resourced, enriched, highly respected teaching workforce is a magnificent way to put our children first.

I read recently what an editor of a literary magazine wrote to those who toil in the art of writing short stories. “For this,” he began, “despite what anyone might say, you are a person of great virtue.” It is time for us to transform our collective mindset so that we approach those who teach with this same respectful admonition. For dedicating your careers to students, for studying the art of teaching, for filling classrooms with stacks of books — for all that you do, dear teachers, you are people of great virtue.