As a 26 year classroom veteran in education, I thought I really understood what the responsibilities of teachers are. As the mother of a first grader, I really thought I understood what the responsibilities of a first grade teacher are. Although I currently teach high school English, I have a credential to teach elementary school and spent four years substitute teaching in various grade levels including first. It is a busy, challenging, exhausting grade level. So, I really thought I understood what the responsibilities of a first grade teacher are. However, after chaperoning a group of four first graders on a field trip, I can tell you I had no clue what a first grade teacher faces and accomplishes each and every day.
My home is an education home. We are readers, explorers, thinkers, ponderers. My husband and I seek out ways to expose our boys to new experiences and resources to grow whatever interests they may have. We live a scheduled life during the school year where everyone goes to school and on time unless there is an illness or very special event. Everyone completes homework, both students and teachers, before bed. Our boys have their own rooms and space. They have a set bedtime. We are a nutrition, housing, utility, and transportation-secure family. My husband and I have an awesome support system from a dear friend who cares for our children like her own before and after school. Our boys thrive emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and creatively in this secure, nurturing environment.
When I think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I fully realize that my children have their physiological needs met at home. They are fed, kept warm, and clothed. These represent the lowest level of human need. Until this need is met, nothing else matters. Free and reduced lunch programs attempt to address this issue, but a nutrition insecure child is never on the same plane as a nutritionally secure child. Hunger or lack of basic hygiene affects everything. I know my children have never experienced true hunger or even a weekend without heat in the winter. The next level of Maslow’s hierarchy is safety. While bullying is a real issue, I know my children feel safe at school. They are not afraid to go. Yes, they become frustrated with the requirements of the day, discipline, and friends who don’t play nicely, but they are not afraid. However, what good is a safe school environment when the safety at home is unstable or children are not guided in their daily lives? My children want to be at home more than any other place. Other students, who have to fight to have their basic needs met, cannot focus on math when what they crave are attention and meaning. The next two levels of Maslow’s pyramid are belonging and esteem. While both are nurtured in the classroom, belonging first must come from family, friends, and being in groups like sports, church, or clubs with esteem being built through practice and encouragement of tasks at home. Nothing builds esteem like mastering a task, no matter how small.
Humans begin to want to learn, explore, and know after the first four needs are met. So what happens when a child does not come to school every day with these basic needs being met? Do the public and our lawmakers–both federal and state–really understand that teachers are not given a raw material that is standard? In industry we would call it quality control. If our children were a moldable raw material, we would insure all of them are at the level of esteem on Maslow’s model. But they are not. So what do we do? Industry would reject the substandard material, but as educators, we cannot.
It is time for our Nation and State really to look at what is holding us back in education. I can tell you it is NOT the teachers. It is NOT the vision. In Van Wert, it is NOT the facilities, resources, or knowledge base. It is not the school leaders. The foundation of education hinges on the raw material. I am not sure the public or politicians, who are AGAIN debating high stakes legislation that will remove local control and require me to jump through a dozen new hoops to remain employed, really understand that not all students come to school ready to learn. Not all students want to learn. They are not standard. Education has to prepare these students for high level thinking, reading, problem solving, and collaboration. And every year, my time becomes less about classroom instruction and more about preparing students for high stakes tests (which also impact my rating as a teacher), tracking standards, collecting evidence of my worth and my students’ abilities, completing required evaluations, serving on committees, and reading at least four hours weekly to stay up on changes. Somewhere in there I create and implement high quality lessons and evaluate my students to see where to go next. Sometimes, I sleep and eat. I often yell at the walls and cry.
So back to my double dog dare. A week ago, I accompanied my son and three of his classmates on a field trip adventure. I already described where my son falls on the Maslow hierarchy. He is also a rule follower, reads at a fourth grade level (which, by the way, the new testing system assumes he will do by second grade. By fourth grade, the tests are written at an eighth grade level, but that is another post), enjoys school, and attends every day. The other three children in my charge were two girls who were independent thinkers, were willing to accept me as their leader for this adventure, and could quickly understand what we were going to do next. And finally, I was assigned Joe (not his real name–I picked the name Joe because that is my husband’s name and only has three letters). School starts at 8:20. Joe arrives about five minutes before we left at 8:50. I quickly got the impression this was a routine for Joe as my son’s teacher told me he would probably be here, but also took a few minutes to go over options with the teaching assistant should Joe arrive after the bus left. Joe missed morning work; Joe had to rush to complete regular morning routine–that daily slow time that builds community. Joe is below not meeting belonging on Maslow’s hierarchy. On the bus, I got to know my charges. Joe could not keep his hands to himself. He had little sense of the big picture. When we got to our location, there were, in my opinion, too many other schools there. The rooms were crowded. My son stayed with me, as did the two girls. They knew they needed to stay with me or be lost. Joe did not have this basic need to remain with me. When it was time to move on the next activity, he would throw a tantrum. We lost him again. As it was time to leave the field trip location and walk to a nearby park, Joe became thirsty. I told him I would get him water, but we needed to get to park first. And he was lost again. He was going back into the building we had visited as the rest were walking toward the park. He complained about everything. Finally, I stopped and got the water bottle out of my bag. Until I met this physiological need, he was not going to move forward. By now, I had hold of his wrist while the other three children held my hand and each others.
About a minute later, I heard him comment about how good the water was. He had reached into my purse with his free hand and removed the water bottle. That caused me to reprimand him for taking something that was not his to take. On the way home, he sat in the seat with me on the bus. He was quiet. I spoke positively to him after a day of yelling his name and trying to find him. And back in the classroom as the teacher lined up the class to go to an end of day special, I realized what amazing work first grade teachers do and how unfair the evaluation of their worth is when based on the growth of the student. She pushes my son to grow and pushes through the baggage Joe brings with him to help him grow as well. She is working her tail off for the good of these children. She knows them and meets them where they are EVERY DAY. My students come to me in eleventh grade with a wide variety of abilities, but I never saw how wide that range is at first grade. The student is the equation.
So, politicians, superintendents, boards of education, business owners, I double dog dare you to chaperone a small group of first graders on a field trip. You must insist the teacher give you a wide range of students in your group of four. He or she can do that. Then I triple dog dare you to sub for an entire day (I added this after a Facebook comment I read…why not…how brave are you?). Then examine the PARCC assessments for that grade level, check poverty levels in that classroom, have that teacher show you all the evidence he or she collects weekly to “prove” student growth and teaching practice, and be amazed that one human being can do all this amazing work. THEN–STOP ASSUMING THAT TESTING, LEGISLATING TEACHER EVALUATION, AND MANDATING SCHOOLS PROVIDE SERVICES THAT SHOULD COME FROM HOME will fix education. Education does not need fixing….it needs breathing room. And America needs to address poverty. PERIOD.