Is love stronger than fear? – a commentary on public education

21 Oct

Do parents love their children more than than they are afraid for them? Do children love learning more than they are afraid of not being liked by their peers? Do teachers love children and teaching them more than they are afraid of “getting into trouble” with their supervisors for speaking out? What does it take to be brave and stand up for the right thing?

I work with a whole bunch of people who are scared. They are scared that they will get pushed, punched, kicked, slapped, or worst of all – ignored. These are the fears of children, but I also work with a bunch of frightened adults. My colleagues fear that they will be judged, misquoted, verbally attacked, sued, fired, or worst of all – ignored. And last, but certainly not least, I work for a whole bunch of scared parents. They are terrified that their children will come to school and get bullied – by either other children or by the teachers, treated unfairly, or worst of all – ignored. For parents with resources, this is frustrating at its worst, but they can find ways around it with private tutors, lessons, or simply by providing enrichment activities for their children. Many parents with means have found a way around it by choosing private or home schools. But for parents with no resources, this fear is blinding because if their children are ignored, what chance do they have to learn? Children who cannot read by the time they leave elementary school are astronomically more likely to never graduate high school, never have a decent paying job, and most frightening of all – to go to prison. These parents at my current school, most of whom are black and brown, know that if their children get ignored at school, the price is huge. The saddest part about my job is this: all these fears are totally warranted. Our prisons are full; our school systems spend thousands on lawyers; teachers and administrators are exhausted and leaving the profession in droves.

After 13 years in this business, I chose to work in an inner-city public school in Durham. Durham is in the heart of North Carolina in the deep South of the US. When people think about the South, especially people who are not from the South, they immediately think something along the lines of “Gone with the Wind” – or so I have been told. There is an awful lot of baggage that comes with having been a former slave state that seceded from the Union and then lost The War. And in some small part, all that is here, but there is much more to the story and certainly much more to the complexity of the current state of public education. The “much more” or remaining part makes NC just like every other state in the US. We are struggling to fund public education; struggling to fight crime; struggling to employ our citizens; struggling to trust our politicians in a very disparate reality where those with money (and power) are arguing very loudly that we cannot increase government revenues; that we should not regulate banks, but we should absolutely regulate the hell out of public education – which is just what the No Child Left Behind Act did. In a way, the NCLB legislation shined a bright light on the shortcomings of public schools who were failing to educate children with disabilities, on children from low economic status, and especially on children of color. What it did not do was provide answers to the institutional racism that plagues public schools. Yes, I said it – racism. While most will argue that the issue is about poverty and generational illiteracy, blah, blah blah. Study a little slice of African-American history and you begin to understand why the number of blacks who are poor is so disproportionately high. Discrimination lives on and it plays itself out daily in public schools everywhere. The Achievement Gap is about race and it is the water we swim in. With a black man in the White House, at least people are starting to have the race conversation openly, but effective action still feels unusually far away to this public servant.

When I decided to go into public service, I did it to serve all children. I love teaching and learning. There is nothing more exciting to me than to watching the ah-ha moment when someone “gets it.” I have two degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel. I studied Middle Grades Education back in the 80’s, and I earned high marks in my Master of School Administration program, which was ranked 5th in the nation the year I graduated (2008). I am Highly Qualified (HQ) in three areas and licensed to be a principal. I know what I am doing in public school. Yet, like everyone else, I am afraid that I am being ignored or that I will “limit my career” by speaking out about its current state. In fact, I am sure my fears are true.

The parents’ fears that their children are being ignored, are true, too. The children are being ignored by their teachers because the teachers are overwhelmed by their plethora of duties which include trying to keep the children safe. These children are literally punching, kicking and slapping each other. Why is this behavior so rampant? Well, the children have been taught by their parents, aunts, uncles, peers and in some sad cases even their teachers, that they must stand up for themselves and not take anything off anyone. “If somebody messes with you, hit’em back. Don’t let yourself be bullied.” They make sure they enforce the street rules that you hit back and never “snitch.” Yes, it is craziness. sadly, all this fear is fueling the reality that the original fear is based in. The kids all have hair-triggers. Every time they have to line up, if someone gets jostled, there is an incident. The punching and kicking happens. It takes all kinds of time to sort it out. There are forms to file and phone calls to make and not to mention, getting bags of ice for the bruises – and all this time, no one is learning. And to me, there is an even sadder part: no ones is teaching these kids to use their words. When you ask the kids about ways to handle their conflicts they offer, “Walk away” or “Tell a teacher.” When I asked “But what can you say?” a strapping young boy came up with, “Please don’t hurt me” in a soft and apologetic voice. I laughed out loud. That will not keep you safe here in an inner-city school. It is ludicrous.

What is not ludicrous, though, is saying those words forcefully, with conviction and volume so that everyone turns around and takes notice – especially the grown-ups. “Don’t hit me! Get out of my space!” Yet, no one is teaching the children to do this to simply stand up for themselves without making threats. Ironically, I learned about this tactic in a parenting class about how to keep my own precious and privileged children safe from sexual predators. Sexual predators, like all bullies, rely mostly on coercion and manipulation. Direct refusal, showing personal strength, standing up and saying, “No!” like you mean it, works 99% of the time. The problem is, in a culture of fear – and fear is the basis of racism – no one is standing up for themselves effectively. Everyone is afraid to stand up and say “No!” in a loud and convincing voice. Instead they just take it until they snap. Children snap with a push or a punch. Parents snap with a call to a lawyer or a supervisor, or the Board of Education. Teachers snap with a letter of resignation or a demeaning remark to a child. School leaders snap with another mandate and more testing. Wouldn’t a loud a convincing NO! be easier?

The children need to stand up and say NO to being bullied and NO to being ignored. All children deserve a quality education. They deserve to love school and to love learning. Love needs to win.

The professionals need to stand up and say NO to unnecessary testing; NO to bullying from parents; NO to bullying from colleagues and supervisors and especially NO to bullying from politicians, especially those who really don’t know anything about education. Teachers deserve to love their jobs because their jobs are so hard and so important. When teachers do their jobs well, everyone, our whole country wins. Changing a young person’s life for the better is the most fulfilling work there is. Love of teaching needs to win.

Parents need to stand up and say NO to overcrowded classrooms, to underpaid teachers, to substandard facilities, and to out-dated curriculum and techniques that leave children feeling ignored and depersonalized. Should your child’s teacher have to hold a second job just to be able to afford to drive a car to work? Parents need to say NO to testing that relegates their children to more of the same ineffective instruction that is punishing their children out of elective classes in the arts and humanities and places them in “remedial classes.” Parents need to love not only their own children but other’s people’s children enough invest in and support public education. Believe me, these children who are not finding success at school are angry and hurting. They exist and they will grow up and be part of our society one way or another. Love of children needs to win.

We all need to stand up and say NO to a society that continues to create a gulf between the haves and the have-nots. A society that does not put children first and allows precious resources to be lavished on certain groups of children but not on others is just plain wrong. The wider this gulf gets, the less safe we are all. The haves cannot continue to keep the poverty out of sight and out of mind. This current path is not sustainable for a peaceful society. Love for one another must win.

I don’t have any answers about how to help love win. I just know it has to. For the first time in a long time, I am short on hope for the state of the Union. I do know that for me personally, when I have searched my heart and said YES to love and NO to fear – things get better – a whole lot better.

12 Responses to “Is love stronger than fear? – a commentary on public education”

  1. David October 21, 2011 at 8:46 am #

    Allison,

    Welcome to the Indie Albany group! Wonderful first post.

    I think that many of us who made it through public school and went on to do good things in our lives had parents who had positive experiences in school and were role models for their kids. This made it easier for us to survive the bad teacher or the disruptive student without losing our faith in ourselves and our ability to make a difference in the world.

    Many students of low economic status don’t have this backstop at home and thus give into the “hair trigger” response that you write about so eloquently where everything is about fighting back and not actually thinking about consequences.

    Look forward to continuing to read your stuff.

    David L.

    PS Went to that private institution in Durham (two graduate degrees!), but still like UNC anyway.

    • Allison Mahaley October 21, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

      Hi David,
      This is actually my third post. See “My Grandson” and “Losing my Religion.” I hope you enjoy those as well.

      The problem with saying this about parent involvement and home life is that kids don’t get to pick their parents. I always say, “You have to have a license to go fishing, but anyone can have a baby.” The truth is, we now have 30 years of empirical data telling us what works in education; yet, because of politics, we can’t get it implemented. Part of the reason we can’t is because there just aren’t enough really smart and gifted teachers to go around. Teaching is both an art and a science – it is a people industry of ever there was one, and it cannot be made “teacher proof” or “kid proof” by some purchased curricular remedy. That is why love has to be part of the equation. Relationships are at the heart of the matter.

      I am already working on my second post that explains this all a little more. Thanks for reading,
      AM

      • David October 23, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

        Allison,

        As someone who has taught for a number of years at the college and grad school level, I hear you about the “art of teaching”. It applies from the youngest learner to the adult learner as well.

        DSL

        PS Yes, I have read those other posts and just had a senior moment when I made the other comment. I thought that this would old off until at least 55, but it seems to have gotten me earler.

      • Allison Mahaley October 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

        Yes, when the “art” of teaching gets lost…ugh. Odd reference here: Did you ever watch the Beverly Hillbillies when Jethro decided to be an artist? He would make himself suffer to cultivate his inner-muse. I think mine is getting over-developed!

        Senior moments are turning into senior hours these, no worries!

  2. Greg Goth October 21, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Powerful post. I posted one a while back called “Wanting Less for My Child,” from the viewpoint of a fairly bright kid who was raised in the suburbs and who was not particularly well-served by the teach-to-the-mean ethos of the public schools. I was cordially invited to leave what I used to call the worst state college in the South (East Carolina) 12 credits shy of a useless degree. So in principle, I agree with you on many levels, but in other ways, I see an economic system in toto where self-employed people with no more means than a tenured teacher pay $15,000 more a year for health insurance than public school employees, yet are berated for not “supporting the children” if they vote no on a budget.

    Our district gets a new superintendent about every three years, and every one brings in their new curriculum…There are thousands of dollars worth of books sitting on teachers’ shelves from the last whiz-bang methodology that were intended to help our kids ace the state standardized test, which is what it’s all about these days – though to me, No Child Left Behind means No Kid Gets Ahead.

    Our schools in Watertown are better than average, and the town is a safe little burg, by and large. We told our kid to tell kids who pick on him to say “Stop that!” loudly, just as you suggest, not once but twice, but to wail the tar out of the miscreant if it happens a third time.

    You can only control what you can control. You’ve been an educator for many years. I’ve been a journalist, so I tend to be more cynical about the state of the Union to begin with. Sometimes love isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to make the other guy afraid. The progressive cadre hasn’t done a very good job of that lately.

    • Allison Mahaley October 21, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

      I think it is all about to get to get very scary. I was in London when the riots broke out. It was scary. Yet, the reaction of the Brits was amazing. They came out as united citizens and cleaned the streets themselves; they spoke out and called violence what it was – senseless lawlessness with no political point. Most refreshing of all was a news story that aired about a poor mother who had identified her own daughter in the looting on the news. She called the police and had her arrested and was heart-broken about having to do the right thing. Somehow, I don’t see too many American parents doing that when all hell breaks loose here.

      I agree that the progressives need to stir the pot and find their collective voice. Superintendents don’t last because they are hired and fired based on politics. Political agendas are running our schools into the ground and we will all pay the price.

    • Allison Mahaley October 23, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

      You went to ECU? Interesting. I’m sure it was very different than UNC was then and very different than ECU is now.

      Just read “Wanting less for my child” – the comments about the AP status and not meeting the needs of children really resonate with me as well – having raised two “gifted” boys who learned to hate reading and writing in public school. Then there’s me who nearly flunked out of college after graduating HS with honors…under the current system, many gifted teachers are spiraling toward mediocrity. Smaller schools would help a lot – on-line programs like Kirsten mentioned; even a blended model of service learning and academic tracking or vocational training after sophomore year of high school. We could do so much better!

  3. blackbeardswyfe October 22, 2011 at 11:18 pm #

    Your frustration with the system is very clear in what you have written…..

    The truth is there is no simple answer that will satisfy everyone’s needs and demands. Society wants someone to blame. Who should it be? Teachers? Poor parenting? A state that thinks a “lottery” is a good substitute for “fundraising” or budget prioritization? Kids that have been used as political pawns in the name of integration?

    I so admire anyone who chooses to become an educator in the public system. It is grueling thankless work. I speak only from the perspective of a parent who through the years has entered the classroom with an unruly ADHD bonus child in tow. The majority of the teachers were recent graduates. Rarely did I see a face with some age on it in our district mandated school. That told me a lot. Teachers didn’t stay there. As soon as they could, they quit or transferred to a more suburban school. We did too. We won a lottery spot in a charter school. With that prize came a private school education with public money. I felt bad for the kids at the old school. Those kids deserve the same quality of learning that was being offered at the charter, and yet because of the luck of the draw we won something they would never be offerred. An education free of politics.

    The teachers administrators and staff were a world away from the traditional school experience. They were happy, inspired and most importantly empowered to teach. I wish every teacher could have that type of environment to work in so that every child could have the opportunity to learn in that environment.

    I wish that I had some inspiring advice for you. You have dedicated your career and life to a noble cause. Turn your frustration into a plan. It may take some time to implement it, but it will give you peace. Your plan will change minds and then lives. The system didn’t fall apart overnight nor will it be repaired over night. Keep teaching with a big heart. You know your kids need you and you can inspire them to be more than they think they can be.

    I close this overly long response with a heart felt Thank you. Thank you for your passion to teaching and kids. Thank you for educating yourself so that you can raise the standard of what you have to offer to your learners. Thank you for loving what you do.

    PS. Have you read “The Water is Wide” by Pat Conroy?

    • Allison Mahaley October 23, 2011 at 9:13 pm #

      Thanks you – for saying thank and for reading. I will look for Pat Conroy’s book – I am a fan of his writing.

      Yes, I am frustrated and yes I have a plan – more on that later. Right now, I mostly want to call attention to the problem and raise awareness. I know being a parent is exhausting, hard work, but when we vote, donate money and time, and make political commitments, we have to think about ALL children. Charters and Magnet schools have created a venue to “sneak” resources to a small number of our neediest kids while quieting down a whole lot of parents who would be damn vocal and active for real change without an alternative. I have watched it play out too many times.

      As a parent, I also navigated a public school situation that was not meeting my kid’s needs. I advocated and advocated and pleaded and begged with the school to simply follow the law and give him the accommodations on his 504 plan. I could have snapped and called a lawyer and many times I wanted to. At times, I felt like my son was my sacrificial lamb on the alter of my politics which binds me to support public school and to work within the system…and yet, his school was good compared to some others.

      -Thanks again, Allison

  4. Andrea Rhodes October 23, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    There is a responsibility fo parents to not ignore their child’s academic needs as well. It seems that just because education is federally mandated, some parents send their children to school when they are five and promptly “wash their hands” of teaching their child about life, academics, and the world. They push all responsibility and blame onto the teachers when a child is not learning or falling behind or not being stimualted enough. For me, one of the greatest responsibilites I have for my child is to teach him, not to just bring him into the world and change his diapers. It takes more than 5 years to raise a human.

    • Allison Mahaley October 23, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

      You are too right, Andrea. Raising a child is an enormous responsibility. Your child has the advantage of having really smart and educated parents. Many kids don’t have that advantage. They deserve a chance too. One of the reasons my current school is so difficult, though is the culture of violence – parents beating their kids in the name of “what’s good for them.” The kids get beaten with belts, sticks, fists – all sorts of things. The law says this is okay as long as the child does not suffer broken bones or visible marks. It seems like there are greater protections for dogs than children. Violent treatment really screws with kid’s minds and helps promote bullying. Then, other parents are completely overprotective and can’t believe their kids would do anything wrong and that their kids would never lie or fabricate a story. And, yes, all this is much more rampant in the absence of just good teaching – but it happens even in the best of classrooms and it is exhausting!

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