Whenever I read about public schools that are not doing right by their students, I think those children should be home-schooled. And when I talk to students, at the school where I teach and elsewhere -- like when my basketball team is on the road and I chat up the crew at the scorer's table -- and they say that school for them is mostly a waste of their time, I think that those students should be home-schooled.
By that I do not mean that each of those students should be in his or her home with his or her parents trying to be a multi-subject teacher or with private tutors filling in. Thousands of people do that and many of them swear by it and are probably, for the most part, doing a great job of it for their children, but it isn't what I'm thinking of, not as a solution to the problems in many of our public schools. Most of us -- parents, that is -- couldn't stay home with our children if we wanted to, and many don't want to and probably shouldn't.
What I'm thinking of when I say that every child should be home-schooled is that every school ought to feel like home to its students.
That's a pretty ridiculous idea, I guess, maybe. I mean, really far-fetched. I mean, if you've walked through your average public high school, especially an urban one in an underserved community, it doesn't feel at all like a home -- not even your average group home -- and doesn't feel like a place that could ever be one.
But I'm standing by the idea anyway, because it's what we need and because I've seen it work.
Because inside those awful institutions -- preoccupied with counting heads, warehousing young souls, crowd-controlling them with petty rule-enforcement, a carnival of wasted time and wasted minds and children drowning in fear and boredom bringing out the worst in each other -- inside those places, there are still, somehow, teachers, administrators, and other staff who find ways to treat those children like those children are their own. And manage to make at least a few of a those students feel at home for a little while.
You see it sometimes when a student is in a crisis and someone steps up for that student. Steps out of his or her job description and says that these are all our children and that the best way to help the experiment of humanity prove a successful one is to get all our children to swim through the rough waters of youth.
-- You want to lower drop-out rates? Make school a place of stability, encouragement, and support.
-- You want to reduce school violence? Make school a place where everyone knows each other and every student feels known and appreciated.
-- You want to raise test scores? Stop seeing students as numeric quantities and see them, each, individually, as a person.
Whenever I'm able to get my students to value my opinion of them, those students work harder. When I convince students that I care about whether they succeed or fail, they almost always succeed.
It's one of the reasons I've coached for so long -- despite the long hours and headaches. Because a coach gets to see so much hard work and commitment and camaraderie and sometimes, when a team does battle together and survives adversity together it becomes a little like a family.
If we could replicate that kind of experience somehow in the classroom, students would care more and learn more and schools would be far more useful to far more students. But how would we make that happen? What policies could a school board or a politician propose?
If anyone is interested, here are a few things:
-- Smaller schools. Massive high schools -- especially urban ones -- tend to become human warehouses that tend to serve as little else. It ought to be possible for every teacher to know the name of every student.
-- Stability. Don't move teachers and administrators around unless urgent circumstances necessitate it. Give teachers and admins incentives to stay where they are so they can build a school community.
-- Make students and their parents welcome, really welcome. Fire front office people who are rude. Immediately. Encountering an officious DMV or postal clerk is annoying, but when a child or his parents are made to feel unwelcome, our mission as educators is seriously undermined. I should say, though, to be fair, that we ought to make those behind-the-counter jobs a little less stressful and frustrating and that everyone in the school needs to be a part of the welcoming atmosphere at the front desk and elsewhere.
-- Be fair and reasonable about rules. Schools have to be orderly and students should be protected from other students who might otherwise violate their safety and their access to a quality education. But policies that are rigid and unrealistic often do far more harm than good. They are designed for expedience, to avoid lawsuits. They serve the interests of those who care least about children, those who seek to hide mis-education in a cloak of abstruse data. Zero-tolerance policies are, all too often, just a reflection of callousness and laziness. It takes imagination and insight to make ethical choices about student discipline. If we fear the responsibility and lack the confidence of our convictions, then let's do something about that. The idea of not giving our young people second and third chances is a destructive one. It is a sad admission that we lack the will and resources to help our most troubled children.
Just the other day, two students wandered to the door of my classroom. They weren't on my roster but they were seniors retaking a freshman class down the hallway and they'd been displaced from the room by a standardized tests that wasn't given to seniors. I was teaching an AP class and needless to say these two seniors retaking freshman English did not "belong" there -- and I suspect that their interest in joining us was purely social. Still, I invited them in. Conditionally, of course. They were welcome but would have to participate, try to do the assignment. The two young men hesitated -- this was some spontaneous free time they'd been handed; did they really want to spend it doing work in an AP class? -- but then they walked in, one and then the other. They sat down and glowered at me as I handed them the assignment and assigned a student to get them up to speed. Perhaps this twenty minutes in an AP class might bury some latent academic confidence in these young men. Maybe not but feeling welcomed, knowing that the door is open was worth their free time.