10/02/2012 06:37 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

No Fears on the Track Together

It was a beautiful day for a run. All stood at the starting line amidst the fall colors. One last instruction: "Be careful on the first turn. It is tempting to start out so fast that you catch the heels of the person in front of you, causing someone to stumble. A whole bunch can go down. Ready? Off you go."

It could have been a fall day on a college campus, but this was an elementary school in a small Iowa city. Third graders, eight-year-olds, prepared to run and walk their first mile! They had previously practiced once around the track which was the path around their playground. This would be 4 ½ times around. And they made it!

Ten years from now they will be 18-year-olds setting off on tracks of their own. What I watched last Friday afternoon, I would like to see ten years from now. All outside together in the world, prepared, fully participating according to their individual gifts and abilities. No one needing to drop out.

This is the season of specials on television and on-line about our nation's schools. There are dire predictions. And fear-based headlines: "Is college really worth it?" "The nation's schools are in crisis." We used to be first. We need to be first. We have to be first. Run as fast as you can! There are indeed statistics to which we need pay attention, but it is easy to let fears cause us to stumble.

Pell grant money saved, for now. But tuitions continue to rise. Since the beginning of the great recession people are charging less to credit cards and saving more. But defaults on student loans are a reality. Will we make it around the first turn without being knocked down?

Don't misunderstand me. The challenges are great. We need college students who choose teaching as a career. We need more teachers who can answer the call of a lifetime... for a lifetime. We need communities and states who honor, respect and support teachers and community schools. Public schools where are all welcome.

I worry when competition is the answer for everything. I cringe when blaming teachers' unions continues to be the fashion. And the gap between money spent on schools for students of wealth and students living in poverty continues to grow. The new segregation.

Yes, innovation is welcome, but I notice that a four-minute TV segment on a charter school's creative idea ends with "We want this to be a model for every school in the country." One says what we need is "Grit." (Yes, we all need persistence and resilience, but does building in some "failure" as a response to "giving a blue ribbon to everyone" really fit students who needs self-esteem?) Another says the answer, the only answer, is "technology." (Yes, we need technology in every school for every student, but also "innovative" ways to help develop face-to-face social skills.) Another says...

And a voucher system for elementary education is just as dangerous an idea as a voucher system for health care for the elderly.

But now I'm sounding dire. Yes we need to recognize the problems; we need also to appreciate places and people who are working hard together. I have seen teachers and administrators creatively working together on professional development; charter and neighborhood schools collaborating; community colleges, states universities and private colleges together shepherding students through their education. I see the graduate school where I teach building a teaching-learning community that is life-giving, and which connects on-line learners with daily life on campus.

Last Friday, every single child in that third grade class was out there together, under the supportive, watching, caring eye of their gym teacher and two paraprofessionals. There were the children who took off fast and ran as quick as a rabbit the whole mile. There were some children with special needs: Autism, Down syndrome. There were children who walked together, friends. All had been prepared to walk, jog, or run as they could. A girl living with a chronic disease did a wonderful job of pacing herself by running and then walking, running and then walking. They were fit and able, as they were capable of being.

Yes, we have a competitive society that schools us all to beat out the person ahead of us. Hurry, hurry or you will be left behind. But I saw no one cheering because they had beat out another. All did their best. All received their times. No, not a "give everyone a blue ribbon day." No ribbons at all. They didn't need them. The students had purpose and were growing in endurance. They did their first mile last Friday. Miles to go before they sleep. It was a beautiful fall day. Beautiful!