Friday, September 23, 2011

A Preschool Teacher's (and College Educator's) Take on No Child Left Behind

Anyone who knows me knows how horrid I think standardized testing is.  In retrospect, I think my opinions on this kind of testing have become extreme as the type of testing has become more commonplace and more extreme.  Standardized testing requires all children to pass a test that is geared toward the majority population.  That means, first and foremost, children who are not of the majority are already at a disadvantage.  We're not talking Eubonics here, people; we're talking basic cultural variances.  For instance, when I lived in Oklahoma, if you wanted a soda you asked for a pop a lot of the time.  If my children were to take a standardized test and it had a picture of a soda can and asked them to circle the word describing the can, they could waste valuable time looking for the word "pop" instead of "soda".  What's the big deal?  Well, those few seconds add up, and make your New Yorker look smarter than my Oklahoman, even if that's not the case.

Today was an amazing day in my eyes, because three years into his presidency, President Obama has finally uttered the words every teacher in this country has longed to hear:  educational reform.  NCLB had good intentions; the goals of having every child ready for school by six was lofty but laudable.  Where NCLB fell on its proverbial ass, in my opinion, is in these three points:  1.  Recognizing that all children are NOT the same and some were left behind at birth; 2. providing appropriate wraparound services (medical, therapeutic, psychoeducational, family support) to ensure all children are fed and healthy and READY to enter a classroom; and 3. finding a scapegoat in this nation's teachers.

I have been a surrogate mom on a few occasions for students, and many years ago, for two children I cared for while their mother worked and dealt with a lot of problems she had.  Nothing is as difficult as trying to be somebody's parent when you aren't.  They know it and you know it, and what's worse, is they know that their own parent didn't care enough (or couldn't, for whatever reason) be there, and now they're stuck with you.  Usually, I try to keep things focused on fun and we do that.  But every once in awhile it's torturous.  But that's part of my job now.  Supporting my students in every way is part of my job.

Feeding them is as well.  I have had children come to school unclean and unfed.  I kept food in my desk for them.  Pride often kept them from asking in front of classmates, but they knew they could pull me aside.  Additionally, I often diagnose a child who is too sick to come to school.  Fevers, rashes, excessive mucous, swollen eyes, vomiting, or diarrhea are unacceptable symptoms to bring a child to school with.  And I always am looking for ways to educate parents.  So many parents are looking for a little bit of help with their kids but don't know where to turn.  The internet and the bookstore are almost frighteningly overwhelming.  So they turn to me, their child's teacher.

All of the failures of NCLB have fallen on teachers' shoulders, except when they haven't, and they've fallen through the cracks.  Those are the children who are really left behind.  The children that nobody even notices, except for test scores.  The goal then, is to get the child up to a passing score if possible.

Most schools provide extra food the week of testing.  Why?  Because we all do better if we've eaten.  There are parent volunteers.  Why?  Because it's helpful to have more hands to proctor tests and collect answer sheets.  I have known principals who have gone house to house to pick up sick or tardy or absent children to take standardized tests. Why?  So their test numbers are high enough.

Can you imagine if we practiced these things without a test being our motivator?

Perhaps if we can learn anything from NCLB, it's that it's commendable to have strong, lofty goals for our children—and our nation.  But those goals must be ones that we as a nation buy into, believe, and support wholeheartedly.  Money for education must start with the education of parents prior to a baby's birth.  Child development is NOT the same as academic rigor, and should be part of what parents learn about their babies.  Expectations should be clear, and needs should be met.  A child who is hungry simply cannot perform well on a test.  Neither can one who needs medical care, or even one who needs the care of a parent.

NCLB has possibilities, should we be able to turn it on its ear, re-evaluate it, and redistribute some allotments.  In addition, it makes sense for the nation's strongest educators of young children to be in charge of a project such as this, rather than political committees that vary state to state, producing tests of varying quality and leverage.  A national skill set should be established for each grade, and children should be held accountable to meeting those skills, with the guidance of their teachers.

It's my deepest hope that President Obama's words today were just the start of a dialogue, rather than a passing fancy.  I believe in our nation, and I believe in our nation's children.  And with the guidance of loving adults, these children can shine.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Honoring the Fallen

To my son-

This weekend was the anniversary of one of the darkest days in our nation's history:  September 11, 2001.  Because yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of that day, the entire weekend has been filled with news reports, movies, stories, and the like about September 11th and what it was like that day.

On Friday, you and I had a disagreement.  You were talking with the family excitedly about watching these shows.  You and your sister were looking forward to seeing such a powerful day in our nation's history, as you were a young four-year old when it happened.  I immediately snapped at you and told you I didn't want to discuss it.  I told you several times that I didn't want to see or hear anything about it, and had trouble hiding my tears from you.

"But Mom," you said earnestly, "we're supposed to honor them."

I remember snapping back something along the lines of honor not always having to do with television shows.  It was a poor excuse to get you off my back in the moment.  But now, I realize, you need to understand.  I owe it to you to understand, and not just what you see on television or hear from your friends or the radio.  You deserve to hear what that day was like, and the days after.

It was a beautiful, breezy day and I had dropped you and your sister off at childcare.  I was ready to teach my course, and had started when a few of my students wandered in late, and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  We all thought it was pilot error, and continued with class.  A few minutes later, another student arrived and said there were two that had crashed into the towers, and now they thought it was a hijacking.  We finished class and I went to the preschool as I always did.  The three of us—teachers and university facilitator—decided to close the center for the rest of the day, because nobody was sure what was going on.  All planes in North America had been grounded, but there were still two planes that hadn't been accounted for.  All of the adults at the preschool split the phone numbers to call.  I remember one of the parents, who was a professor on campus, saying, "Now you're not going to let a few little Iraqis scare you, are you?"  Honey, you will remember that most of your childhood our country spent in a war with Iraq.  This day—this terrible day—was used as a way for people to agree to attack a country that had nothing to do with the attack on us.

After we cancelled our classes, I went to pick up you and your sister.  I took you straight home, locked the door behind me, and kept you out of any rooms with the news.  You and your sister were sheltered from anything that might frighten you.  I refused to allow you to be exposed to the events going on around you.  We put on happy faces with you and made protecting you our top priority.

At school, I had one little girl who cried every day for two weeks.  Little boys built tall towers and crashed them with planes over and over again.  The same pictures played on the news, and child psychologists speculated that young children, like your sister and you, would believe the same thing was happening over and over again if you saw the coverage.  I will never forget how the news, for weeks, talked about how to protect yourself from bioagents in the air, such as nerve gas.  People were supposed to duct tape their doors and windows shut, and wear masks.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  When I had been eleven or so and learned of tensions between countries, I often worried about nuclear war.  It would keep me up some nights, terrified that somebody somewhere would blow us all up.  But I never imagined the pain and horror of terrorism.  It used to be that wars were fought out in the open; we knew our enemies and the war started when it was declared on a battlefield.  War is no longer civilized.  Terrorism is not only a physically overpowering fight but a psychologically overpowering one.

You told me the other day I need to honor those who fell on 9/11.  My answer to you is this:  I honor them in every footstep I take.  I honor them when I support our freedoms and when I fight against the fear that terrorism has left in our country.  I honor them when I stay politically active and vote on issues that are important.  I honor them when I guide children through moral and ethical land mines.  And I honored them when I kept you and your sister away from the horror of those days.

You are old enough now to make some of those judgment calls yourself.  It is important for you to know what happened that day.  It's important that you know that Osama Bin Laden, NOT Saddam Hussein, was responsible for 9/11.  It's important for you to know that political parties jumped on the fear that Americans felt to take away our liberties and to start a war that should have never happened.  But it's also important for you to know that in the days, weeks, months afterward Americans bonded together as never before.  Your sister wrote an essay yesterday in which she stated that we learned what a great country we were.  And that, my son, is the most important lesson we learned from 9/11:  that no matter what was taken from us, we could not be destroyed.  We WERE and ARE a great nation, and always will be.

And so I honor our country, and thus, I honor her fallen.

Much love always,

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What I Wish Teachers Understood

Recently published an article about what teachers wish parents understood.  As a teacher, I began reading the article with curiosity and a readiness to shout a battle cry of "Yeah!"  But within a few paragraphs I found my head shaking.  Something wasn't right here.  Principals giving up on kids because of parents?  Teachers who feel they're not taken seriously—or even more, feel they should be taken as seriously as a doctor or a lawyer?  Really?  And I found the mom in me rising up and silencing that teacher with a cry of "Really?  REALLY?"

I guess maybe I'm the only one who gets a second opinion from a doctor, or has a nagging doubt about the advice a lawyer has given me when it's over something incredibly serious. Like, you know, my KIDS.  I've been in the education and early childhood education field for twenty-four years now.  There are plenty of times that I have silently bitten my tongue or rolled my eyes outside of a parent's view.  But more and more I see teachers who are convinced that parents should bow down and accept their view of things, rather than the parents' instinct or knowledge.

I have taught long enough to know that the truth about any child's progress, whether in academia or in the social/emotional arena, usually falls somewhere between both opinions.  Teachers are trained to teach and to assess what children learn; unfortunately, the majority of that assessment  now falls into formal categories that are not what we consider "authentic".  For instance, when you're driving in the car and your child looks out the window and says, "Look Mom, it's my R" because he sees the sign for Residence Inn, that's authentic assessment—he's recognized something in its authentic context.  These assessments are much more accurate than the type we often give children in schools, where they sit down and the teacher presents them with a row of letters and asks them to point out the R.  Because of this, there are times when parents see their children's ability to do and understand things that teachers don't see.  On the flip side, teachers are teaching children all day, and they are trained to see things that we parents sometimes miss.  The best of both worlds happens when adults respect and listen to one another with the goal of improving learning for the child.

This brings me to the second irritation I had with this article.  Since when did it become okay to just give up on kids because you don't like their parents?  I've been in this field for nearly a quarter of a century and I can attest to the social changes that have gone on in how we treat children.  I personally think (and have written about) how we have swung to the far side of some weird form of what parents think is "positive discipline".  Too many parents don't understand what positive discipline is or was, and believe it is necessary to raise healthy children.  They also believe that any kind of limit setting will stifle creativity, harm self-esteem, and create neurotic children who will one day find themselves on a psychiatrist's couch crying how their mommy ruined their lives.  Bull.  Positive discipline has to do with maintaining a positive attitude, using positive phrasing, and using techniques that encourage positive behavior.  It does NOT, in any way, mean to never say no to a child.  Because of all of the confusion and misunderstanding so many people have had with this approach, I tend to recommend Love and Logic instead, because it is an easy, logical, and loving approach that can be applied at home as well as in the classroom.

Like every teacher, I have had parents that I did not mesh well with.  I have also had teachers that I as a parent did not get along with.  But at no point did I consider any of those struggles an excuse to give up on a child, mine or anyone else's.  My job as a teacher is to build a bond with EVERY family, whether I agree with them or not.  I can begin to help educate families when they trust me.  They trust me when I show respect for them and for their children.  To be clear, that doesn't mean I give the child everything they want.  But it does mean that I can respectfully set limits and explain those limits are for ALL children and why we have them.  It also means that a huge (and I mean HUGE) part of my job is to find the good things a child does.  Parents who take their children's side over a teachers do so for several reasons.  First is because past experience has taught them that teachers lie.  Maybe not even their children's teachers.  Maybe it was their first grade teacher, or their friend's teacher.  Who knows?  But there's a core lack of trust.  Second, these parents also are emotionally tied up into their children's lives.  To criticize the child is to criticize the parent, and if the parent has invested all s/he has into the child, you may just as well have slapped the parent across the face.

What do I wish teachers understood about my kids?  I wish they understood how hard my kids' start to life was.  I wish they knew how close we are as a family.  I wish they knew what an overprotective bear I am and why.  I wish they understood that my daughter's "bossiness" is actually a need to maintain order, due to the chaos of her early childhood.  I wish they understood more about my son's disorders.  Most of all, I wish they expressed an interest in my family, because honestly, there have been very, very few in ten years who have.

So CNN may have some good points, but as a teacher and a parent I have concerns about such an article.  What do you wish your child's teachers—or the parents of children in your class—knew about you?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

On Being a Mother

I'll never forget the moment when I first realized I was about to become a mother to not one, but two children.

I was sitting in a room full of social workers and attorneys, who had just asked other relatives to leave the room.  Once it was just the five or six of us (me plus three social workers and a guardian ad litum), I was told, "Look, you cannot take only one child.  These children must stay together.  Either you take them both, or they both go to foster care."

I was there by myself.  My husband was four hours away at work, and we were due to go before the judge in five minutes.  I dialed my cell phone frantically, trying to get my husband to discuss this recent development.  See, everyone had previously agreed that we would raise our son, and our daughter would be raised by another relative.  It wasn't' until this moment--five minutes before we saw Your Honor--that I realized my life was about to change for forever.

I never did get up with my husband before court.  Shakily, I agreed with all of the officials there that we would take custody of both children.  I was about to be a mother.

Most women have nine months to get used to the idea of their families expanding.  I had less than six weeks, from the time the children were removed from their biological mother until they were placed with us.  The practicality of the situation was difficult.  We had no beds, no clothing, no carseats.  No toys.  If you had been a fly on the wall in those first several weeks, you would have seen how anxious and worried I was in my ability to be a good mother.

Once, many years ago, somebody asked me what makes a good mother.  "Well," I replied, " a good mother is someone who nurtures her children, who loves them no matter what, who disciplines appropriately, who never yells but is understanding.  A good mother feeds her children healthy food, makes sure they don't watch too much tv, and gives them appropriate toys.  Good mothers also make sure homework is done, extracurricular activities are planned, and stays in touch with teachers and coaches.  Good mothers make sure there is a structure to the day and that children follow it."

My friend stared at me, nodding slightly, and then said, "Are you for real?"

It took me years to learn that yes, good mothers do a combination of those things, but sometimes we fall off the wagon or other priorities come first.  But overall, when you look at my children and my life, two people come ahead of everyone else, and I don't apologize for that.  There is nobody else in this world who will love, respect, and honor these children the way that I do.  That's because I'm a damn good mother.

I struggle with things like every parent.  My temper flares sometimes.  I don't check up on homework every night.  Some weeks we eat way too much junk.  And every once in awhile, I've been known to say something hurtful.  But I recognize the mistake and move on.

Being a mother is an amazing experience.  I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.  I can't imagine my life without my children in it.  They are amazing people who have taught me more lessons than anyone else.  As parents, we often get locked into the "authority figure" type role, when in reality, our children are as much our teachers as anyone else.  The love you feel for your children is alive in itself, palpable and real.

And the love never stops.  Once you're a mother, you stay one.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Starting at the beginning...A Very Good Place to Start

One of the things we know about discipline is that it doesn't just deal with correcting difficult or unsavory behavior.  Discipline is teaching children how to behave appropriately, which relies on an understanding of social norms and expectations.  Kids need to know what is expected of them and the expectations need to be clearly stated and reinforced consistently, especially when things are going well.  Many parents, out of frustration or lack of time, only focus on when the child makes a mistake, which turns powerful learning opportunities into punitive, shaming moments.  The trick is to catch your child when s/he is doing good, and encourage that behavior.  When  he picks up his toys without reminders, encouraging him by saying, "Wow!  You remembered to take care of your toys all by yourself!"  is a great encouraging statement for a preschooler.

I once had a parent tell me that now that his child was three, it was time to start disciplining him, and did I have any suggestions.  My thought--which of course I kept to myself--was, "Yeah, you should have started three years ago."  Because discipline isn't just about logic and consequences.  It's about relationships and trust.  Discipline starts at birth and continues until the day we draw our last breath.  When parents meet their child's needs in a timely manner, they are teaching trust and building a relationship, which leads the child to believe parents are trustworthy and can be depended on.  This is handy later on when a parent needs to correct a child's behavior.  The "I'm on your side" part of discipline--the rapport--has already been established.

I'm going to be spending this year working on a research project studying the power of relationships on children's behavior.  What happens when teachers build positive rapport with children who struggle with behavior?  Will that rapport assist the children in behaving better and achieving more in the classroom?  It's an interesting question.  Common sense leads my gut to say yes, it would.  But there isn't any research that says yes, it does.  So that's what we'll be working on this year--using specific strategies to help children build positive relationships with their teachers.

This type of study is beneficial for teachers as well.  If you're a parent, you are probably very familiar with the fact that there are days every once in awhile that you wish you could get a break.  Teachers feel the same way.  And when a relationship get set up to be a struggle, it's very hard to redefine it without serious introspection on the teacher's part and intervention on the chid's part.  Children need to be taught different ways to approach adults when their behavior puts people on edge.  Teachers need to be able to recognize when they're going to "that place" inside that makes it difficult to see the positives in a child.

Several years ago, I had a child who was a daily struggle.  He was unfocused and his trouble behaviors included everything as minor as running to as major as hitting or throwing materials.  I found myself beginning to grow frustrated and dreading the days he would be in class.  One day, as I found myself breaking up an argument for the umpteenth time, I looked at this three-year old and realized it was ME who was in a bad place with him.  He hadn't changed, and I hadn't taught him any better.  I needed to change my attitude to something more positive with him, and to find things to appreciate about him.

So here's what I found:  he was absolutely beautiful.  He was funny and genuine and had a total love of life.  When the french say joie de vivre, they were speaking of him.  He was also loving and he liked his peers.  He just needed some help in the areas of impulsivity and self-control.  So that's what we worked on, and I worked on focusing on the good things about this child, and I found my love for him quickly growing back, even more powerful than before.  One day he was playing at the sand table and I walked by.  He stopped and walked up to me.  "Misell?" he said in his little voice, and I knew he was about to tell on himself.  I knew he had done something he shouldn't have.  He held his arms up to me and I picked him up.  "Yes?" I responded hesitantly.  He looked at my face, and put a hand on each cheek.  "I wuv you...dat's all," he said, and in that moment, I remembered why I teach every child in my classroom.  "I love you too," I told him, then put him down to play.

Discipline is a complex arena that encompasses so many different things.  It's not something that any of us will do perfectly from day one.  It's a complex dance, like teaching, that relies on the responses of human beings.  And when you misstep, just like in dancing, you start over and try to do better the next time.  But make no mistake--the first time you hold your baby, touch your baby, smile at your baby, that's rapport.  And that, my friends, is the beginning elements of discipline.