Monday, June 25, 2012

Deep thoughts from a teacher mom...

I spent two days last week at our summer administrative leadership retreat with my school district. This was only my second retreat, but it was the best I've been to mostly because we spent lots of time talking philosophically about the direction of our district - our next steps in our goal of continual improvement. It was invigorating and exciting to talk about possibilities and brainstorm with others that share a common goal. I've been thinking about it so much, in fact, that I decided the best way to get it out of my head (or to the next step in my head) is to write it all out.

What follows is a part educator/part mom that is in no way reflective of my employer, but instead reflects what I hope is continual professional and personal growth on my part.

This means some of you will stop reading here, and I'm okay with that.

Much of the conversation started with being the "school of choice" for parents and students. (I realize this has multiple meanings, but I'll only address one of them here.) I don't see this as being competitive, necessarily, but instead being the school that is the very best learning environment for every kid. We talked about who our "customers" are, and it was a pretty interesting conversation. Parents? Students? Employers? Colleges? Legislators (i.e. the oft-far-removed people who make all the big decisions)?

We also discussed the concept of choice. What does choice look like in a school or school district? It's easy for me to see this in the secondary world - choice is online courses, and choosing the classes that teach you the appropriate skills but interest you the most, and being able to go to school from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. if you choose, and on and on.

But in the elementary world it's not that simple. How can our elementary schools provide choices for parents and students? What choices would people even want?

One person at my table said, "Many of us are parents. What choices do we want for our own kids?"

So I started thinking about my own two Hickmans.

Tucker is a math kid. Some of you have heard this story before, but I'm going to tell it here because it's relevant. In first grade, Tucker went to second grade for math. He went every day unless the second graders were taking a test. (In first grade there are no number grades for math, so the test taking was irrelevant to him.) He LOVED it!  He loved that he was good at math and challenged in math and that he could do second grade stuff in first grade. It was (and still is) a point of pride for him.

Then he became a second grader, and he had to take second grade math again. My understanding is that second grade number grades were needed for the report card and that since he never took any tests as a first grader there really was no way to be sure he had mastered the second grade concepts enough to move on to third grade math. By the way, third grade has STAAR testing and all that other good stuff, and it wouldn't really be relevant to a second grader taking third grade math. For all I know, he stunk at second grade math the first time around, and he needed to take it again. No grades, remember?

He went to a phenomenal school with phenomenal teachers, and as a mom/educator, I understood some of the reasoning for putting him in second grade math again. There's also that weird dynamic of "we work together so I don't want to imply that I know more about your job than you do" that comes into play when dealing with teacher kids. I trusted (and still trust) the teachers and administrators at that school to do the best thing for my kid, so Tucker did second grade math again. It didn't seem like that big of a deal to me at the time.

Now, though, I wonder if I did the right thing. I know I didn't do the wrong thing - an extra year of math never hurt anyone - but was it really the right thing for Tucker?  Could he be getting ready to take fifth grade math instead of fourth? Or could he be farther ahead than that, soaking up math concepts like a sponge if given the opportunity to keep moving forward at his own pace? Did this glimpse into the ability to move faster and then the subsequent "second graders only learn this material" make him less interested or less excited about pushing himself to his absolute limits? Could this manifest itself not only in math but in other things, too?

And such is the age-old question of every parent: Did I unintentionally screw up my kid forever with something silly?

Back to the educator convo - How does choice factor into this?  More importantly, how does it factor in without tracking kids beginning in preschool and pre-determining what they'll be able to do in five or ten or fifteen years?

I'm still working on this one.

Disclaimer: Tucker's math teachers have been amazing every year he's been in school. I have great respect for them and their ability to differentiate for all skill levels in their classrooms. This is not about them, but more about the system and how it works for every kid differently. 

Then I though about Little Hickman #2, and what choices I want for him in school. Keaton is very smart, but more than that he's creative and willing to experiment and likes to DO things rather than talk about them. What choices would I make for him?  Primarily, I want him to have teachers who appreciate this about him. I want someone who realizes that when Keaton laughs, it's contagious - one of the best sounds in the world. I want someone who understands that sometimes he's not confident because he sees things differently than other people - in a brilliant, interesting perspective that I would miss if it weren't for him. I want someone who pushes him to be and do everything he wants to and some things he doesn't want to because he's the kid who gets the "work" out of the way so he can get on to the stuff that really matters (mostly fun and getting to know people - the kid has never met a stranger).

So is teacher choice the answer to choice in elementary schools?  

Maybe, but there's a part two to this story. I work at Keaton's school, and I have a part in putting kids in classes. I have the ability to choose, and - get this - I didn't.

I would put Keaton Hickman with any second grade teacher on this campus. We have two new teachers coming on board, and they are fantastic, so they are included in the "any second grade teacher" that I'm talking about. I thought about choosing and talked about choosing, but ultimately it's too hard to choose because all of the choices have so many strengths.

And here's the A-HA moment. Maybe for us in elementary schools it's not about providing choice as in "pick your teacher" but instead choice as in "the teachers here ARE the best choice." The same could be said for the environment of the school, the curriculum, the administration, even the facilities.

It's fundamental to everything we as educators do (the good ones anyway). We will love your kid, get to know him, see where he is academically, and exhaust every resource we have to help him find his own successes today and for the rest of his life.

And so the Little Hickmans parallel this entire question of choice. Tucker is about the numbers and rules and such, and Keaton is about the people. And my job as a mom is to make sure that both of them have the very best public education (and private education for that matter) has to offer. And my job as an educator is to make sure that every kid who walks into my school will have the very best public and private education has to offer.

Meeting the demands of those jobs is something we have to choose to do every single day.

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