Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Plea for Education

The United States and The United Kingdom share common problems and futures regarding our public school systems. A healthy public school system offers a country hope for the future. It is vital to remember that as we make decisions today.

The current UK government is set on a course to dramatically overhaul their state education system, resulting in substantial cuts to many schools across all age groups. Some of the issues include per-student funding cuts, job eliminations, course offerings slashings, abandonment of infrastructure items and increasing class sizes.

I do not pretend to be an expert on their situation. It does, however, sound very familiar to what we see in the United States.

Educator Coach Angela Browne wrote her own response to the current UK crisis in her blog and it offers a personal view from the ground on what this development means to educators and their students. What really struck me was her emphatic response as she thought of a specific student in crisis: “‘Not on my watch will you be failed by the school system’, ‘Not on my watch.’”. She talks of struggling to deal with “children in crisis” as though there are situations with students who are free from crisis. In truth, everyone in education is dealing with crises, both academic and otherwise, with their students on a daily basis. Our children or their friends know first-hand and share the good, the bad and the ugly with each other. Schools need the means to address these issues in addition to the more traditional subjects.

In regards to the challenges wholesale budget cuts create for those in education, Ms. Browne sums up the plight educators find themselves in:

“Because of course, school leaders and dedicated school staff will keep going, they will keep advocating for the children in the communities within which they live and work, they will not fly off on that metaphorical jet plane. I can’t leave the children behind and yet the silk purse that I am being forced to sew in no way matches the ambitions for the provision I would want to have for them.”

Sound familiar? (Her silk purse and sow’s ear idiom is masterfully used.)

Schools cannot solve the world’s current problems- they inherit them. What they CAN do, is become the places from which we launch our FUTURE. As entire communities (towns, states, nations and beyond) we need to work on defining and strengthening what we feel matters most. We can’t have it ALL. We do have to evaluate our practices and be as efficient and as effective as we can. That all requires careful thought, stamina, cooperation, brainstorming, creative problem-solving, negotiations and broad-picture views. If we do that, we can then channel support through our institutions, including schools, to help reach our overall targets. Simple slashing to meet some financial goal without thought to long-term societal goals leads to escalating chaos and fractures.

I confess that I have had changes in flight plans regarding my own plans with the metaphorical jet plane that is the world of education, both as a parent and professionally. I struggle daily to understand what and assist where I can. One cannot truly abandon the field once one has been immersed in it.

Returning to Ms. Browne, she does not continue with the farmyard analogies for long, however, where one can become mired in fruitless fatalism and pessimism. She goes on:

“The time has certainly come for creativity, for entrepreneurship and for thinking outside the box.”

Sound familiar?

I hope so because I recently wrote about ways we use to deal with failing to obtain what we want in my essay When NOT Having Something is Good. Her words match my own: creative thinking, working together, redefining what we really want and not giving up.

Why is this all important? The answer goes back to the theme of Ms. Browne’s essay: Not on my watch. We have a societal duty to work as hard as we can to educate our youth as well as we can. Our investments in them are returned back to us all as highly functioning adults making their own contributions to the world. The alternative option, of abandoning our watch, of continuing to strip away funding and making this not a priority in our governments, results in thousands and eventually millions of unskilled, ill-informed, maladaptive and miserable people. These abandoned students will more likely become citizens who either do not have the means to adequately support themselves no matter how hard they try or who will be choosing ways to do so that breed even more, ever-widening suffering for themselves, their own children and those around them.

But this negative scenario doesn’t apply to everyone, right? You are absolutely correct. If we keep going down this road, along with the abandoned masses there will be the few who can afford to buy themselves and their children a proper education. There will also be further isolation and fear of “the other” as more people migrate out of organized educational systems altogether.  “Good” primary school entrance will go the way of higher education: affordable only to those with the most means and a long term debt burden for those who can’t. The odds of what side of the coin we’ll end up being on in this sort of future is looking more bleak as time marches on.

What might help? Dramatically lowering the student-to-teacher ratios. Adding mental health specialists to all schools. Offering social and emotional skills training programs for all students. Building on the existing electronic academy formats to connect more people, ideas and industries together. Big picture ideas need to be laid out and implemented.

It also demands of us the ability to zoom back in all the way on Ms. Browne’s “Not on my watch will you be failed by the school system”. That student looking up to us for help today is depending on us to be there for them.

For the sake of us all living today and those yet to come, I hope we will be.

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