Education–the struggles to get it right. Part One. By David Reid Otey

I teach Special Education for 95% of the finances I earn to eat, have a home, a car, clean clothes, pay bills: all the stuff you have to do, too. And it’s a big deal, really, to think about what ”real” life is. It’s being able to contribute to your own needs and desires first of all. Then life is made up of ”going somewhere” by having and practicing and perfecting skills in something you really want and like to do. That’s a brief synopsis of what education is ”supposed” to be for. Did I hear someone say, “How long have you been a teacher?” I’m glad you asked. Finishing fourteen years at this point. Plenty of time to absorb the challenges, to grow with the right turns and wrong turns of my planning and reacting choices, to eventually enjoy the security and reality of the absurdity of my occupation.

I love what I do. I love the variety of topics and of the kids. I love the electrical energy of curiosity and imagination from the grade school kids flowing all around me, as I walk up and down the halls. Their humor, their bravery, their “I own this world” disposition. The clock starts as soon as they show up for the free breakfast, forty-five minutes before the first class begins. I start then, too, because my morning duty is to help toss out leftovers when they bring up their trays. Rows of kids chatter, laugh, tease, maybe one will yell, but they all mingle. They all socialize, blend, slowly developing the future community. Out there dressed in many different ways, wearing various hair styles and walking proud, or meek, or somewhere in between, are the next business leaders, bankers, police force, medical personnel, social service people, art people, music people, everything under the sun. Maybe even one of the future Presidents of the United States is sitting there. I watch all of this, and I’m always thinking and imagining what their ”reality” will be. I wonder how well our system ”prepares” them for what they want to do rather than what everyone else wants them to do.

 You can read hundreds and hundreds of articles and newspaper reports about failing schools, angry parents, ”distant” politicians trying to “fix” schools in districts they don’t dare drive their cars into, school consolidations spreading like wild fires just to keep some form of education present for their youth, and especially about kids graduating high school with little to no sense about how to handle money, how to have a successful work ethic and attitude, or how to handle physical passion and personal relationships. The really crazy thing is that these reports come from every single generation in the United States, starting in the late 1800’s to the present.

A lot of money has been made for over a century now from ”utopian” curriculums, new ”paradigms” and many so called new ”cures” that promised to finally lead our youths and the nation to higher educational performance so that we can compete with the ”brains” of other countries. Well, guess what. Every new program isn’t really ‘new’. It’s always a redesigned format of something past generations have all seen before. The pretty packaging and the statements of ”scientifically proven and tested” for the new and improved curriculums and state standards are business as usual. Sometimes there are better ideas such as combining past programs that compliment and supplement each other, or that join the right and left hemispheres of the brain. But none of them touch the foundation of where all education begins. None of these programs can start where the spark of curiosity begins; in the homes of the children from the very first day they enter the house of the family they were born into. That is where it all begins.  

What I share next is to show the variety of emotional states of the students every school has and tries to teach. When I stand in front of my class and pass other classes during a walk down the hall, here is what I see. Kids that are loved by their families, kids that are tolerated by their families, kids that are almost hated by their families, and some kids with temporary families because their kin are dead or in jail, or simply ran away from the responsibility. I see kids who know more about drugs than some of the teachers, who know what pornography is and have seen it, who are used to having the police visit members of their families regularly and who know how get around town on their own late at night because no one at home cares where they are. I also see kids from families that are very poor but doing their best to work and make things balance out.  Single moms and single dads, working when they must, depending upon family to baby sit their kids. Then there are the poor families who have adults that don’t want to work and who have learned how to use the system. They’re not stupid, just lazy and living the way they want to. We also have the kids from homes where the parents care, work hard, know how to handle money, watch over their kids day and night, making sure they’re home by dark. There are more varied conditions and combinations of conditions. All of these conditions are what children live in and experience before they ever step into a school. I have learned that stereotypes fit reality maybe 60% simply by my observations. I have also learned that there are kids who want to learn, who have pride in themselves, who love to know things outside of their ‘home’ world and will work hard because they love what life offers—these kids come from every single condition I have listed. It was a curve ball surprise to me when I first noticed a ‘well-off’ kid manipulating, whining and throwing fits to get out of school work and try to get kicked out, and then see a poor kid in old clothes loving the school work and doing everything asked by the teacher, smiling, asking questions, really enjoying the process. It took awhile to see that attitude trumps everything else. The best books, the best programs, the best of anything is effective only if it is in the hands of a person with the right attitude.  End of Part One.