Monthly Archives: October 2016

OUR Children

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This morning in my spin class I overheard two moms talking about where their kids go to school. They both really like the same school. They praised it for its discipline policies and how well behaved the students are. They liked the teachers too. They said it is the best school in San Pedro. I know and love that school– it has some amazing teachers. It is a great public school.

I teach in this town too. Parents love our academic program and they love the teachers too, and we have a solid reputation in the community as a great school. But one of the perceptions also out there and even within our own walls is that our school lacks discipline– and that kids get away with bad behavior. In the world of public school competition, bad news travels faster than good.

The school the spin moms like is almost totally white, and mostly affluent, in this little suburb of Los Angeles, one of the most racially diverse cities in the country.

The school I teach in is a mixed bag of lots of different kinds of kids. Lots of different socio-economic groups.

And as I sat there, getting strapped onto the bike for my morning ride, I started thinking about what it means to love a school because kids are well-behaved. Who wins in this situation, and who loses? At my school, we work hard to help our students develop a sense of self-control and agency. Compliance is not our goal. But many parents see compliance and they see safety and order. Safety and order = good school.

Who is left out when compliance is our goal? It’s pretty obvious: kids who struggle to comply. How do they fit in? How do they find success? How do they develop the tools they need to function once they leave our safe little bubble with the clear boundaries?

Our school is incredibly diverse. We have families that advocate for their children boldly and consistently. We serve children whose families have read to them since they were in the womb, families who take their children to libraries and museums regularly, families who provide for their children in every way they can manage. A compliance-driven system can work for this population, but at what cost to individuality and healthy self-awareness?

And we also serve children whose parents can’t effectively advocate for them, for many, many, many different reasons. We work with families who can barely get their children to school. We work with parents who cannot parent their children and are at a loss of how to even try. We work with kids in deep pain, with entrenched patterns of negative behaviors, with living conditions and backstories that would challenge the most stable among us. How do they find their way in a compliance-driven system?

They don’t. Well, some do, they adapt and figure out how to comply– while pushing the pain deep down. But most do not. They act out. They push boundaries. They cause lots of trouble. Do we just suspend? Kick out? Label them as failures before they hit ten years of age? That isn’t just or humane.

I celebrate a school that endeavors to help each child– EVERY child that walks through our gates–to find a way to get through a day and develop their own compass, one that will help them navigate their way through life.  And I celebrate that messy process. It is messy. We aren’t expert at it– yet. Maybe we will never get it exactly right. But we make huge strides with kids. Daily.  And it works. In the long run, I believe,  it is worth all of the talking, the patience, the hope against hope, the small kindnesses, the tears.

As I spun away, my legs and lungs crying out for mercy, I realized this: I worry that when we separate ourselves into these specially coded places– and ensure that OUR children will be safe and away from THOSE children– we are missing the big picture. We are part of a big and beautiful city. We have to find ways to be together in it. They are all children. Our children. Surely we can find ways to embrace them all, and help each of them find their way. Easy to say. Tough to do. And we can.img_4128

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Better Than That

 

Every year for the past two years the air conditioner in my classroom has gone out. Broken. This happens for two to three weeks out of the school year. Each time it gets “called in.” Each time we wait and wait. Each time, eventually someone comes out to fix it. And then it works for a little while. And then it breaks again. And it gets “called in.” And we wait…

This is a problem. Let me dive a little deeper into three aspects of the problem.

1.  I have to teach in 80-90 degree heat. My students have to learn in this heat. The students are stressed, although they are troopers, and very little complaining goes on. But I can see it in their flushed faces. And I get tired too. When I get home I can wring out my clothing. I have painful heat rashes all over my body. It is stressful to teach in these conditions.

Each time this happens, I am offered a cooler spot- most often the library. I appreciate this, and we took advantage of it on the very hottest 100-degree-day this week. We really had no choice. But it isn’t an ideal solution. It isn’t really any solution at all. Which leads me to the second aspect of the problem.

2.  Assuming that I can pick up my classroom and move to an alternate location for an indeterminate amount of time is an erroneous assumption. If it were for a day or two– I could handle that. I do handle that on a regular basis. But this is different. This is for a week, or maybe two, or maybe only three or four days. No one knows.

I plan lessons to occur in my classroom where I have access to my charts, my books, my technology, my tools, my seating arrangements, my meeting spaces. This is a carefully orchestrated endeavor each and every day. I don’t take this work lightly. To assume I can just move it all to an alternate location at the drop of a hat, and then back again, during the course of a regular day… I will be honest and tell you I feel insulted. I know that is not anyone’s intent, but it is a real feeling I experience when this solution is brought up as a “Why don’t you just move to the library…” solution to the problem of a broken (again) air conditioner.

The fact is that when we move, we accomplish about 50% of the work I had planned for that day. We cannot focus, we are constantly interrupted, we are in a whole new space without our normal borders and boundaries. This is fine for a day or two, but not as a regular and seemingly permanent solution for this persistent problem. I am and always have been the kind of teacher who is mindful of every moment of instruction. I am often literally breathless at the end of the day. There is very little down time in my classroom. And yet I am forced to choose between teaching in the heat or losing what amounts to half a day of instruction every day that the air conditioner breaks. This is an unacceptable choice.

Last spring I was forced to give them the state tests during a no-air-conditioner period, and because the library was unavailable, we had to remain in our classroom with the doors and windows open and the portable fans blowing loudly–which was a good thing because it drowned out the noise coming for the lunch bench and playground areas– during testing. This is one of the main ways in which my students and I are judged, and these were the conditions under which we had to work. No one made a note of that on the test results page.

3.  The third aspect of the problem is this: What message does it send to our families when the very basic need of adequate shelter cannot be met by the school to which they entrust their children? To tell our children again and again that “someone is going to fix it but we don’t know when” is to let them know that they are not important. Their needs take a back seat to other district needs. What else could be more important than clean, safe and reasonably comfortable facilities?

In addition, we are under an order by the local air quality management district to filter the air that flows into our classroom 24/7. There are two large signs stuck on to my wall demanding that I run the fan at all times. This is important it says! Yet, this filtering does not occur when the AC is down because with it goes the fan. So, not only are my students hot and sweaty, but they are also breathing air that has been determined to be unhealthy for them, and there is not a thing I can do about it. And no one seems to think it is important anymore.

 

I think it is more than evident that a pattern has been established here. The air conditioning unit for room 37 is not ever going to be okay. And it is not okay with me that that fact has become a permanent part of my employment. I try hard to be a team player. I am not a big complainer. I have been a flexible, hardworking, problem-solving educator for 30 years in this district. And I believe that my students and I deserve better than this hot and sweaty limbo condition every few months for days and weeks at a time. Can’t we do better than that?

Sincerely,

Cathy Scott Skubik

Park Western Place Elementary

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