“Oh, they’ll be fine, kids are resilient.” I’ve heard this said many times during a move, a divorce, custody situation or any transition where adults want to reassure themselves that children can endure any decisions that adults make as gracefully as possible. However, some transitions have a long lasting impact on not only children’s lives, but their education as well.
When I was a little girl, I loved school. My step-dad would sit me at my little desk at home, and I would write my name over and over until it was perfect. I would get little ribbons for reading and art every year. I remember making honor roll and being called up to the front of the church to accept my award, it was an amazing feeling. My little ribbons still sit in an album at my mom’s house in Richmond.
I attended St. Anthony Elementary School and that’s where I met a woman who would change the course of my life. Her name was Ms. Galway. She was a heavy-set, formidable woman from Ireland. Why do I always picture her wearing green? She was my 7th grade teacher. One day she did something that made really changed how I felt about teachers and school for almost two decades. She had us stand up, and she had arranged the desks into circle groups so that the students faced each other. She spoke to the classroom and assigned groups, when she came to this one table she said, “This is the dumb group,” and she sat me down in it with a few other kids. Now, I have no idea what the other kids thought of this little seating arrangement, but I was now convinced that I was officially “mathematically challenged”. This was also the moment that I stopped caring about school and about what teachers thought. The awards stopped coming, and what started as a comment about math became my personal challenge.
So how did a girl go from awards and honor roll to the “dumb group”? Well, there was the divorce and the lack of structure this caused at home, moving from our flat in Glen Park to a studio apartment on Mission Street, my mom went back to college and started going out dancing, and I started raising my little sister. All of these events made an impact on my academics. Ms. Galway was just one of the many adults who stopped paying attention and didn’t ask why. From the time I was nine years old to the time my sister became a teenager, I was expected to raise my sister. I would iron her uniform, shop for food, clean, cook and babysit.
Nobody asked about school, so I didn’t offer any information. Later my mom would tell me that I was part of a “team.” We were a team. When I told my thirteen year old daughter this story, she said, “It sounds to me like you were on her team, but nobody was on yours.” I’m not bitter about this, but I need to share this with you to give you a better understanding of why some kids cannot succeed academically during certain circumstances in their lives. It is not for a lack of intelligence.
Years later, I chose not to make this the defining moment in my education that would determine my intelligence. If anything, it was a lack of accountability by a teacher and an administration for a job not well done. For years, I have watched parents give teachers the benefit of the doubt. There are times when the teacher is right, but sometimes the child has something to say, and it is worth listening to. Sometimes there are circumstances for a child that impede his/her ability to succeed in a classroom. Alex Haley documented a conversation between Malcolm X and his teacher where is teacher told him to become a train conductor and not a lawyer because of his race. I actually had a child tell me, while discussing racism in America, that his teacher told him (this happened in 2013) that the reason Africans were made slaves was “only because” they were considered animals. What?! This was still being taught in 2013? For years, I have thought that teachers should be reviewed. We need to evaluate what young people are learning, being taught and most importantly, if they are being empowered, inspired, and encouraged to succeed.
This brings us to the idea of giving teachers 360 reviews, which are long overdue. This would include evaluations by other teachers, their supervisors, parents and anonymous reviews by their students. Children would evaluate their own teachers because this is a career where people are of service to youth and the service provided is of utmost importance to that child’s future. I do believe that teachers should be paid what they deserve, and this salary should be based both on the cost of living in the area where they live and work, plus taking into consideration their merit. This is also a way of encouraging schools to do more for their good teachers. Teachers like my high school English teacher, Ms. Carter, who went above and beyond to get us excited about literature. Because of her, Cry, the Beloved Country and The Picture of Dorian Gray became my favorite books and taught me important life lessons. Teachers who come to work excited about teaching new generation of learners who will someday take on leadership roles should be rewarded and held in high regard by their school and community. This idea is about cultivating an environment that feels safe for children and raises the bar for teachers. I have a friend who teaches art, and she is excited about art every day, which translates to children excited about art and learning. My daughter had a great teacher who was a lawyer and taught AP European History and set a high standard for her students. She inspired my daughter’s love of European History.
Learning is about living your best life. This is not just a time where you sit and tune out to the droning voice (Charlie Brown’s teacher) of somebody who makes no connection to you as an individual. The responsibility of our school administrators is to encourage a love of learning at any age and to make sure that teachers are doing their part to make this happen.