It’s something principals do, spotting an overturned garbage can and righting it while walking across campus. Along with nabbing stray sandwich bags after lunch or straightening framed awards in shared waiting rooms, these little offhand actions show a commitment to always making the school a better place.
Today, as I was headed up to the library, I saw a group of three students pause by a plastic garbage can tipped over by last night’s wind storm, lift it upright again, and walk on as if nothing had happened.
They’d inspired me with their unpremeditated act of kindness and subtle school spirit.
Participating in the #YourEdustory blogging challenge this year has prompted me to write about all sorts of topics and caused me to reflect on my own practice, our meaningful profession, and the school I call home. Almost always I’ve found the weekly topics interesting and thought provoking; only once have I been stumped. That was a couple of weeks ago now, when at the end of October this prompt smiled at me like a diabolical jack-o-lantern:
What “scares” you most about education right now?
Well, I thought …nothing.
I’m a firm believer in the ingenuity of educators. I remember my first teaching job at a high school in rural Oregon that routinely lost electricity in December and January when winter storms blew down power lines. I kept a couple of candles in my desk and kept on teaching.
I knew I could squeak out a post on budgets, but the truth is that I believe that a great teacher can help students learn with or without robust financial support. I might have written about the encroachment of cell phones and other personal electronic devices and the fear that brings to some, but if I’m honest, I love this new challenge and look forward to the technology rich world our students will inhabit and help to create.
With so much in the news about student (mis)behavior and police in schools, I thought about filling my post with something about discipline and how new legislation about marijuana and vapes impacts the schoolhouse, but my experience in education has taught me that things aren’t darker now than they were in 1990 or 1970 or 1940. Different? Sure. Worse? No.
So I avoided writing anything.
In an uncharacteristic silence (at least with regard to #YourEdustory), I ignored the topic and drove on. Self reproach whispered in the back of my mind: Just write something about how frustrating it is that teachers have to ask for kleenex or how you wish housing costs allowed educators to live near where they work… I kept mum, believing that all things being equal, education is moving in the right direction. Nothing “scares” me about it, not helicopter parents, unhealthy college pressures, or any conversation that begins with “kids today.”
Education faces challenges, sure, but nothing to be frightened of. Historically, educators have dealt with very real challenges, from the disruptive teenager described attacking his teacher in Little House on the Prairie to drama surrounding standardized testing and new state standards. Historically, educators have figured it out.
…and then I saw that group of students set right the garbage can and it hit me. If I’m scared of anything related to education, it’s that the general public has too little confidence in the kids.
Too often the public sees students as victims or delinquents. Reports about drugs, cyberbullying, and cheating litter our newspapers, and teens are more likely to be called out for insolence than praised for their self confidence.
Sometimes it’s concerned community members who see the worst in students. A senior smoking a cigarette as he leans against his car does little to conjure images of James Dean and more to send homeowners into conversations about hot places and handbaskets. Some believe that students driving too fast, a complaint leveled against students at my school since the mid 1930s, speaks to the decline of youth, not the reality of the teenage brain.
Parents can feel pressured into this underestimation as well, intervening more aggressively or earlier than their own parents might have, motivated by love but hampered by fear as they step in to protect a student who would have the strength to address the concern herself if given the chance.
The students I know are strong and more confident than many suppose. They learn at levels well beyond my own high school experience, and many of their parents’ experiences as well. At their best, they have an understanding of the world they are preparing to enter that would astound anyone willing to listen.
Certainly students are students, and despite the exuberance of youth and the confidence of being a teenager, they can benefit from guidance from those of us who have been on the planet a few years longer than they have. They also benefit from the respect that comes when we recognize that they have resiliency and reserves enough to surprise us.
These are the thoughts I try to keep in mind as I work with students at my school. When they ask “why?” I want to be able to answer them with respect and honesty. When they try something new, I want to be able to suspend disbelief long enough to see what they are doing and how it might just work (even if it isn’t the way I’d have done it). And when they do something magical and unexpected, like righting a windblown garbage can, I want to celebrate.