“Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?”
Neil Gaiman

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Becoming A Better Teacher

While I still haven't found a permanent school librarian position, since the beginning of the year I've expanded my teaching experience and knowledge in ways I never could have imagined. I began substitute teaching for a multi-district sub service.  I substitute teach in districts from Avon Grove to the edge of the city limits of Philadelphia and up to Bristol Township.  Some days my commute is over an hour and some days it is only 20 minutes.  In the 3 months I have been teaching in these districts, I have been able to observe the huge disparity among Pennsylvania schools.  We may read or hear about this disparity, but nothing compares to witnessing it "up close and personal."

The most shocking realization that I have had over the past months is how truly devastating educational cuts have hit those districts in the middle and lower economic sectors.  Schools in areas where it is predominantly upper middle class have survived cuts to funding.  While they still need more staffing and resources just like other schools, they seem to be able to compensate for some of the loss with volunteers and donations.  The rest do not fare so well.  Some of the school buildings are so in need of updating and repairs that they inhibit learning.  Imagine teaching a class of 30 in a classroom that is almost 100 degrees?  The level of technology available is limited in many schools.  Many schools no longer have libraries or only have a librarian once per week.  The books in those libraries are often worn and outdated.  Art and gym have also been cut drastically, particularly at the elementary level.  The one "special" that seems to survive is music, especially band programs. In addition, class size is often pushing 30 children - I've even had days with as many as 36 elementary school students filling my classroom. Behavior issues abound and tend to become greatest in those schools with the least.

You might think that the best teachers are at those schools with the most.  However, the teachers I
meet who are exemplary at the art of teaching are in all of these schools.  As a substitute, the schools I enjoy teaching at the most have teaching staffs and principals that are warm and welcoming and emanate a passion for what they do every day.  As an example, one of my favorite schools is an elementary school in a district that is truly suffering from educational cuts.  Highland Park Elementary exudes a feeling of warmth the moment you walk through its doors.  The lobby has a large fish tank filled with African Cichlids and adjacent is a fountain emitting the soft gurgling sound of flowing water.  The office staff smiles the moment you walk into the office.  The Principal is all over the building and oozes with an amiable authority.  Likewise all of the teachers smile, offer help, and always invite me to join them for lunch.  The walls of the school are filled with colorful artwork and posters. An "art wall" outside the cafeteria has colorful post-its with drawings by students.   As you walk up the staircase to the top floor of the school, there is an array of potted plants sitting on a shelf at the landing.  The school just "feels" good!  The students reflect that feeling.

I am becoming increasingly dismayed by the idea of evaluating students and teachers based on standardized testing.  By comparing students across the state with a test that by its nature assumes equivalent learning environments, we are not only doing students a disservice but creating incentive for teachers to opt not to teach in those environments where they are not as likely to have high-scoring students.  I am particularly concerned by the effect that cuts to education have had on elementary schools. Learning is cumulative.  If we do not ensure that students get a solid, quality education rich in resources from the very first years of their learning, we are setting them up for future failure by giving them a weak foundation upon which to scaffold all future learning. We have to do better.

How can we begin to change?  The first step we can all take is to open our eyes, voices, hearts, and wallets and become true advocates for the quality education of all children.  Vote for people who place education as a top priority, volunteer in your local schools, lift up best practices at schools where teachers and administrators are going above and beyond, educate yourself about education in general, speak out against the barrage of testing that is now impeding true learning, stop calling art/gym/music/library specials and insist on their essential role in schools, push for education that steers away from packaged curriculum with scripts and worksheets and allows professional teachers to use a diverse array of teaching techniques and resources that adapt for the incredible range of abilities within the modern classroom, and insist on true literacy skills across the curriculum.  We have the ability to change our world for the better.  The answer lies in ensuring that future generations are given the solid foundation they need.

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