School Daze

Approximate reading time:5 minutes

Timehop pulled up this gem from last year and reminded me of students’ quarterly scramble to turn their grade around.

I joked that should I ever hear of Fire Monkey doing this to his overworked and underpaid teachers, the consequences will be far more dire than if he had accepted his fate. Then, because I am a pathological overthinker and like to plan ahead approximately 20 years in advance, I started ruminating on how Science Guy and I will eventually talk to Fire Monkey about school, grades, and the like.

In some ways, teaching is rather similar to parenting. (More on that in a few weeks…hopefully.) But in other ways, my perspective and experience as a teacher are somewhat in tension with my hopes (and fears) as a parent.

Do I want Fire Monkey to do his best in school? Of course, but not because he thinks grades and awards determine his worth as a person, or worse, how much I love him. Education was very important in my family growing up; both of my parents have advanced degrees and it was never a question whether my brother and I would go to college. Good grades were kind of taken for granted, in the sense that they were not celebrated as extraordinary accomplishments. (My parents were just not celebratory folks in general.) I remember goggling incredulously at non-Asian classmates whose parents gave them generous cash bonuses for every A on their report card. If my parents did that, thought my 6th grade self, I’d be a millionaire! (…I can hear all my immigrant friends laughing uproariously/bitterly.) In my experience it seems like young children are able to derive more intrinsic motivation from their work than older kids, and of course I’m sure some of that has to do with the letter-grade system that only becomes stronger as students progress through school. I certainly don’t want to create a monster by paying him to color inside the lines, but I do think it’s fair and healthy for him to feel rewarded for working hard and using his brains for good rather than chaos. (That is, after all, how things will work in “the real world,” whatever that is because I certainly don’t live there.)

Do I want Fire Monkey to love and enjoy learning the way Science Guy and I do? Of course, but as a teacher I know that every student has strengths and weaknesses, things that fascinate him and things that bore him to tears/throwing pencils at the ceiling/using an entire roll of scotch tape to create a tape paw. (Yes, the latter two have happened in my classroom, yes, I teach high school, no, this shouldn’t surprise you, have you met any teenage boys?) With Science Guy almost done with his doctorate and me with my Jedi Master of Education (HAH), it might be easy to assume that Fire Monkey will do well enough in school. But I don’t want him to feel as though we take that for granted and more importantly I don’t want him to assume that learning is always a piece of cake because I know that eventually he will happen upon something in his studies that will not come quite so easily as everything else. For me, it was chemistry and physics, which I needed for my license to teach biology (totally logical), and I had to muster all of my brute academic force to muddle my way through two years of college sciences. (I learned a lot about bell-curve grades, does that count?) Does Fire Monkey have to master everything he does, no, but I’ve seen too many students let one difficult topic or course sour their entire outlook on school. I want my kid(s) to be able and willing to work hard at things that challenge and/or don’t interest him if they are required or helpful for what he ultimately wants to do, whether that’s medical school or welding or anything in between.

Do I want Fire Monkey to grow up in a diverse community of learners and have good teachers and a good educational experience? Of course…but as a public educator I know that those things are sometimes, unfortunately, mutually exclusive. And that has caused me no small amount of existential angst, even before I was married and had a child. In my brief teaching career, I have worked in high-poverty high-diversity urban, high-poverty mid-diversity rural, and low-poverty varying-diversity suburban public schools, as well as subbing in a high-income mid-diversity private school. Let me start by saying there are good, great, and amazing teachers everywhere and good, great, and amazing students everywhere. The teachers are not the problem and the students are not the problem, and I will happily fight anyone who says otherwise. But the reality is that poverty unleashes a Pandora’s box of other problems at home that will quickly invade the classroom in spite of the best efforts of teachers and administrators. (NPR has a great article about how domestic violence in one home affects every child in the class.) When I think about the school where I taught my first year and ask myself whether I’d want to send Fire Monkey there…the reality is, as a parent, I don’t. I don’t want him in a room where another kid is throwing chairs around and screaming profanities. I don’t want him in a school where drug-sniffing dogs are quarterly visitors. I don’t want him in a school where gang violence takes student lives. I don’t want him surrounded by students whose perspective is limited to the city and county they were born in. (Teenagers are, by definition, short-sighted and self-absorbed, I realize.) For that matter, I don’t know that I want him in the same class as kids who don’t know whether “deers eat meat,” but that might just be my own snobbery. (Lest you think I am hating on one group, I also don’t want him to go to school in a wonder bread factory of privileged students and teachers who have no idea how easy they have it and no empathy for those who have less. Yes, I am difficult to please.)

But having worked with and cared for students in those very schools, can I truly say that my boy deserves better because he happened to be born into a certain demographic and live with myself afterwards? I am fully convinced that a world that isn’t safe and nurturing for black and brown boys isn’t totally safe and nurturing for my boy either. But I don’t really know how to act on that conviction. I want to believe that the high have more power to lift up the low than the low have to bring down the high, but I don’t see our current educational and social service systems being set up to empower that. I guess that’s where faith and hope come in, and maybe the very best thing I can do is have these conversations with Fire Monkey when he is old enough to understand and young enough to still have the empathy and curiosity of a child.
Overthinkingly yours,

A-minus Mama

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