I’ve had some lousy teachers –some really lousy teachers, who did some spectacularly unhelpful things.
One scared the heck out me; I cowered for the entire term. She yelled, and hit kids with a pointer. I “did my work” and got straight “A’s”, for fear of physical punishment. All the lessons I learned that year were about fear.
Some teachers I had were not very bright; in fact, I think I was smarter than some of them. I often suffered through deadly dull classes and meaningless busy work. I often felt bossed around, punished needlessly, and unfairly treated. I felt that many teachers didn’t understand me and made no attempt to. I saw silly, unnecessary rules and punishments.
Teachers gave me Herculean worksheets and made me try to learn numbingly boring things in which I had no interest.I wrote thousands of “lines”, and attended more detentions than I care to remember.
We had to recite the Lord’s Prayer daily and listen to a ten-minute Bible reading every morning until grade 6.
I was strapped for playing tetherball at the wrong time and again for climbing a horse chestnut tree that was out of bounds.
In elementary school, a teacher gave us fifteen pages of math word problems to do over Christmas vacation.
In Grade 10 I refused to write the Roman numerals from one to ten thousand as a punishment for something inconsequential I’d done. I fought the “sentence” and lost, even though the teacher was insensitive and crabby. (and wrong)
I had ridiculous assignments and worksheet teachers and I ran afoul of the main office several times for breaking silly rules – no eating lunch in the hallways, no basketball shooting for the first half of lunch hour, no painting the Principal’s headlights black at the school dance. (well perhaps that rule made a bit of sense.)
I had a high school Principal so clumsy and ineffective with people that many of us could hardly remain civil towards him. Insecure, arbitrary and irascible, he reminded me of the awful Macy’s psychologist in “Miracle on 34th Street,” who tried to get Kris Kringle fired as Macy’s store Santa. (hence the black headlights)
If my adult impressions of public school were based solely on these memories I would likely have joined the cadre of anti education tweeting trolls on the internet.
Yes , I had some lousy teachers, and yet, I still became a teacher and a fierce supporter of public schools. Why?
Because in addition to the bad experiences I list above, there were myriad good things and some inspiring teachers and friends of all colours, abilities, and proclivities. School afforded me 13 years of rich self-actualization, in the company of hundreds of kids my own age – school was a petrie dish of child development.
School gave me a place to be my own person, away from my Mom and Dad.
That is not to criticize my parents, they were great. They were smart enough to know that school helps kids practice values instilled at home; that schools despite their warts, complemented their parenting rather than usurping or competing with it.
They also knew that teachers had a more fleeting emotional relationship with children that gave them a more objective credibility than a parent. Handled artfully, the triangle of school, parent, child, helps the child and the parent, who can step back and be supportive of their child’s progress at school, rather than having to helicopter over every moment of their child’s development.
Despite and between the malpractices I list above, school and teachers allowed me to experience and experiment with activities, friendships and relationships that allowed me to develop as more than an appendage of my parents.
In school I learned where I stood with other people. I could practice and develop strategies for getting along with smart kids, dumb kids, athletic kids, funny kids, studious kids, – the cultural mosaic of kids who came to public schools to learn the same lessons I did.
As a retired teacher and Principal, I am now wise about schools in a way I wasn’t before and I’ve concluded that the real benefits of public school are the un- measurable ones, the child development ones.
I now realize that teaching “stuff” to kids is only a minor benefit of public schools. The different kinds of clouds, square root, the line of British monarchs, these are just the vehicles we use as we help children enter and come to grips with, the next stage of their development as people.
I have often said that I learned as much at school as I did in school.
My schools were close by. We could walk or ride a bike to and from school with neighbourhood friends we gathered along the way.
Walking to and from school with a couple of friends every day is a more valuable learning experience than social studies class.
And so is unstructured playtime. Before and after school touch football games, ball hockey and other pick up games spawned at school. Kids make up their own rules and are often so intensely involved they have to be asked two or three times to come in from lunch hour.
As a Principal, I often wanted to let them play rather than calling them in to Math class.
Assuredly, none of the things I describe above that happened to me in school should happen in any school; but then, my perceptions come from my memories as a child. I can’t consider them from the perspective of the adults who had to deal with my admittedly precocious behaviour.
But more important, it’s not helpful to form one’s opinions about public schools based on a small sample of traumatic childhood memories, either your own or your child’s. The childhood monsters we saw in the closet should look different viewed through adult eyes.
We should look beyond anecdotal childhood memories of things that happen(ed) in schools and appreciate and nurture the irreplaceable, developmental lessons our children learn from parent and public school.
So yes, I had some lousy teachers. We all did.
But no matter how bad the teacher or how good the parent, the invaluable developmental cocoon offered by neighbourhood public schools can’t be replicated; in even the most sensitive and attentive of homes, or in cross town, uniformed learning academies with rigour and high standards.