What school could be is an interesting idea. It also seems to be an idea which relatively few stop to consider seriously. What could school be? Recent articles in a number of newspapers got me thinking about why no one seems to get it. Education is not rocket science, despite the continuous educational “reform” which seems to plague the system. An eight-year-old boy in Massachusetts does not need to be suspended and ordered to undergo a psychological examination for drawing a picture of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross. The child was asked to draw something which reminded him of Christmas—what was expected, a picture of a PlayStation? Every time something goes amiss we don’t need to open commissions and panels, we don’t need to write up new curricula or spin out new policy. What needs to happen is for schools and schooling to return to some basic ideas, and I don’t mean two plus two, although that wouldn’t hurt either.
What school could be is a place for children to feel safe and valued, where they also learn to read, write and think. School could be a place for children to come into being themselves and to understand and empathize with others unlike themselves. School could also be a place where society is transformed rather than merely reproduced. As recent educational reporting has illustrated, school is not like this. So the question we must all stop and seriously ponder is: How do we get back on track with what school should be? I have a couple of suggestions and I will frame them around three words not often heard in the educational community—courage, compassion and common sense. Certainly all three of these could have benefited the recent situation with the eight-year-old in Massachusetts.
Courage is lacking in all parts of the educational system. Ministers and lawmakers are scared of voters, board officials and school administrators are scared of parents and politicians, and teachers are scared of all of the above. As a consequence, it has taken a couple of grade 11 students in Quebec to stand up and speak out about the unfairness of their high school English leaving exam. We should all learn a lesson from this and stand up and speak out. We should also speak from the heart when we are dealing with what is best for children and their development, and set aside the policy and rhetoric once and for all. Poor schooling and bad teachers leave way too much to chance for our society’s future. Teachers must find the courage to stand up and claim the dignity and respect deserving of such an awesome responsibility as teaching. Parents must find the courage to stand up and demand good teachers and be prepared to support the cost of maintaining them. The time has come for a lot of speaking out in education and it shouldn’t all be done by grade 11 students.
Common sense may seem like an oversimplified idea for radically changing our schools, but believe me, it is one of the most sorely needed concepts in education today. When students are being suspended and remanded for psychological evaluation because they have drawn the crucifixion, or when provinces spend years and millions of dollars reforming evaluation techniques to arrive at incomprehensible evaluation systems using 1-2-3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4, it should be glaringly clear that we could benefit from some common sense. If you don’t want children to draw the crucifixion don’t ask them to draw things which they associate with Christmas. If parents and even ministers of education are unable to read report cards because they are littered with 1s and 2s or 4s and 5s, which hold little to no meaning to anyone other than the bureaucrats who spent years crafting these cryptic schemes, then eliminate them. Return to something the whole world understands and which works like A-B-C-D-F. Actually, A-B-C-D-F and 1-2- 3-4-5, hmmm… Education and common sense have become an oxymoron. This must change and it can, but it will take courage.
Compassion is lacking in schools. Far too often students are suffering from something other than poor behaviour or lack of motivation. These are symptoms not disabilities. Our students are people—real people with hopes and dreams, struggles and fears, and lives who need our compassion and understanding. This is hard when teachers have more than a hundred students and see some of them once in a nine-day cycle. To truly engage children in school and in their learning we need to engage them as people, as individuals first. We must recognize the importance of expressing emotions and learning through feelings. Teachers need to have meaningful relationships with students and we must find the courage to demand the conditions necessary to achieve this. When students know teachers and teachers know students, and caring relationships are forged, situations like Dawson College or Columbine High become less likely to happen. We don’t shoot people we care about or people who care about us. We shoot at numbers, and students and teachers alike have become numbers trapped in a bureaucratic system of meaningless busywork. We are both feeling dehumanized and the consequences are beginning to show. This must change and it can, but it will take courage, compassion and common sense.
I’m afraid that perhaps, in the end, we cannot see the forest for the trees. English exams are not the problem. A child drawing a crucifixion, no matter how graphic, is not the problem. The problem is that education suffers from a profound lack of courage, common sense and compassion—from a lack of basic humanity. We must get beyond the compartmentalized critique of schooling, we must get past the mountains of policy and rhetoric and get back to some basic ideas about being human. Most schools operate in a way, which if it were a country or a community at large, cries of human rights abuse would be heard loud and clear. Public schooling is at risk and therefore our society is at risk. What school could be is a place where we are truly concerned with the children in front of us, a place where we act with courage, common sense and compassion. We must act now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Ernest Sweet
Michael Ernest Sweet is a 2009 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. He teaches English at Lester B. Pearson High School in Montreal and is an appointed member of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s January 2010 issue.