On The Value of Education

Into week two of summer school teaching assistantship. I’m in a local high school, working with an “essay writing workshop” group, which is to say a hodgepodge of kids ranging in age from rising freshman to rising seniors, all with a variety of writing levels and even English levels. The teacher was explaining to me that some of the kids are there for enrichment (there’s some very talented students), while some are there as “babysitting,” essentially, and others are there to try to keep them on track (one of the girls clearly has a gift for writing and self-expression, but struggles with English, as it’s her second language, so she’s here to work on developing her language skills).

Today, we were talking about description. The teacher brought in an exercise for us to think about metaphor and personifying concepts and things. The exercise was taking an adjective and deciding which of the two things it better described. (Examples: “Which is wiser, a pen or a pencil?” “Which is braver, an hour or a year?”) One of the questions, “Which costs more, a home or a house?” brought up some interesting responses from the students.

One of the boys vehemently argued with everyone that a house costs more than a home, because a home can be anywhere. He explained that just because you live at an address, that doesn’t mean it’s your home. For a lot of kids his age, this school is their home and that if we asked a lot of his contemporaries where home is, they’d say the school. Not just because that’s where their friends are, but because that’s where they feel safe and supported.

This is one of those boys who often projects a “too cool for school” air and is hesitant to participate in group activities or express himself.

To say that I, as a student teacher, found that stirring is an understatement. This boy, much like the girl in his class I mentioned above, is clearly a very bright kid. He, too, struggles with English as a non-native speaker, but also seems to worry about his image as projected to his peers. He wants to be cool, and it seems like he worries about stumbling when participating or class, or revealing himself as too vulnerable.

So, as an aside, I’d like to mention how fantastic the teacher I’m working with is. She is very smart and well-read, but has such a great way of getting down to earth and interacting comfortably with the students, making everyone laugh and feel a little more at ease. She is absolutely the kind of teacher I want to be, and I attribute her excellent class leadership to this boy’s willingness to speak out about his feelings on the house vs. the home.

It was such a jolt to me to hear a student say that school can be a home. I’ve known for a while that for many of our urban students, school is in fact the safest place (I’ve heard stories from colleagues of students who come to them after experiencing sexual assault, abuse in the home, dealing with friends in trouble; the students see good teachers are sources of strength and safety, and the school building itself is a bastion of safety from the messy streets outside). It had just never dawned on me that students–even students who are hostile to the idea of schooling, regardless of whether or not they are smart (smart kids don’t always love school!)–would actually see school as a place that they identify as a home.

When we consider education budget and support, when we think about closing schools and libraries or cutting after school activities, when we shrug off the importance of providing teachers with sufficient support… we’re denying the importance of our students having homes.

I don’t mean teacher support in the sense of “gimme gimme gimme I want a big salary” (though it would be nice), I mean providing teachers with adequate sick days and sub coverage, providing access to materials, letting them have some freedom with their curriculum, and so on. I’m not being selfish here; I’m speaking from a fact–a teacher without sufficient support, especially in a tough school with the students with the greatest needs, will burn out, and a burnt out teacher cannot provide the environment students need to feel at home. A school without after school activities denies students the opportunity to find their strengths and then cultivate them. Slashing funding to the arts and music might be justified by the fact that they aren’t “job skills,” but are we making cogs in a machine or are we helping to grow human beings?

A student may barely pass high school and graduate by the skin of his or her teeth (hell, that was pretty much me). Yes, I’ll be sad about that–I want to see all my students thrive academically! I’m a big nerd who loves school, so of course I want everyone else to share in that view. But students need not be valedictorians to be citizens. We lead by example in providing students with a home outside of the house; they will build these environments in their communities when they leave school. One of the things I find so beautiful about community activism is the potential that people see in their communities that outsiders write off (which references back to my post about how the rest of Boston seems to write off violence in Dorchester/Roxbury/Mattapan/etc). I think schools are a place where that feeling of potential and community identity can begin. Not to say that other community sources are irrelevant–for many communities, strength can come from religious groups, social groups, sports groups, etc–but schools are a shared experience for the youth of a community and it’s an opportunity for them to build an identity. It made me feel good to know that we have students who feel such a strong identity with their school.

I just hope that such feelings can continue, that our students will get the best education, in all respects, that they can get, and that there are other schools out there serving the same purpose. The school I’m currently in has a reputation for its strong community and atmosphere; not every school is so fortunate.

I’m not necessarily driving at a point here; I’m not really saying anything revolutionary. It’s all been said before. I guess it’s just a little more powerful when you have the experience yourself, and it never hurt to let these thoughts bubble back up to the surface.

Education: it’s important. Please stop voting down education budgets.

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07/13/2010. Tags: , . Uncategorized.

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