What Our Schools Need

I shared this reflection with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka this past Sunday, and though I may have been ‘preaching to the choir’ I hope my words will encourage more people to join in the fight and Take Back Kansas!!!

I went back to Washburn in 2006 to pursue a degree in Early Childhood Education. I knew that our schools needed good, caring people to become teachers, and I knew hanging out with kids was a natural fit for me. I love to talk with children about everything under the sun, and listening to them often helped me think outside the box. It does take a certain personality and a great deal of patience to spend each and every day in a room full of children, and teaching is a profession that requires intelligence, skill, and forward vision. I chose to focus on Early Childhood Education because I knew that humans learned more in their first few years of life than they did throughout their life-span, and I hoped to encourage and cement a love for learning into every young student entering the school system.

While I was learning the tricks of the trade, I also learned about the devastating situation of our country’s education system and our natural environment. My dream was to bring gardens back to the classroom as a core learning curriculum. What I encountered were parents and teachers who had been completely detached from nature for so long they could not begin to know how to grow a few marigolds, let alone a whole garden. While I dreamed of students drawing pictures of natural landscapes, measuring seedlings as they grew into tall bean stalks while learning math concepts, and exploring the biology of our natural world, I was facing a reality of red tape, such as extreme ‘cleanliness’ rules designed to prevent viral disease, but which actually create heavy chemical pollution in our classrooms; curriculum standards that excluded classic sources of material and dictated a set number of hours of instruction exclusive to reading and math. Teacher selection of instruction sources –which books to read and which math techniques to use– were forboden. Basic concepts of science, art, music, and physical education were reduced to mere minutes in the day, if not eliminated entirely. School lunch times were so limited the students were not allowed adequate time to eat, and so suffered possible further malnutrition while wolfing down sub-par food. School district budgets were so limited that starting salaries for new teachers were paltry compared to the investment made in earning a  degree. It seemed that we humans had in fact entered a Brave New World where only the privileged few are allowed a whole comprehensive education and the choice of a healthy lifestyle.

As I continued my studies the focus of my attention shifted to parents and their participation in their children’s development. I learned that parents in lower-income situations had less knowledge of child development, and did not understand how their home environment affected their children’s ability to learn. Somewhere along the way, our social norms had shifted to exclude working parents from the classroom and severed the partnership required for any child’s positive learning experience. And then there was the straw that broke this camel’s back. In 2009, I earned just enough working part-time in childcare to cover the cost of my own children’s care. I realized that my time was not being spent addressing the issues that had plagued my chosen career, and the cost was my own children’s development and well-being. Working for a low-wage as a preschool teacher while leaving someone else to raise my children was illogical, and cost prohibitive. Thankfully, my husband earns just enough income for our family to survive, but we are what’s known as cash-poor and debt-ridden. It was our first step toward learning to live with less, or tightening our belts as our leaders had suggested.

While I understand the idea of mothers at home is outdated and unrealistic for many families struggling in today’s economic situation, in the past it was the mothers at home who formed that necessary partnership with teachers for their child’s success. Today, our schools and parents must find a way to rebuild this partnership. But today, parents are falling behind in their ability to provide basic necessities and their struggles, more than school funding, are affecting many students ability to learn and have a successful school career. Some in the public eye will scapegoat teachers’ performance and expertise, but the truth is that income inequality has the greatest impact on the whole community.

After many years of helping people work their way out of poverty, Circles USA has identified three needs for a person to build a successful future, to work their way out of poverty: Transportation, Education, and Childcare. I joined the National Organization for Women in the hope to join the push for Universal Childcare, to demand a standard of care that would rival other nations’ successful, family-centered, whole life support. In the past three years I have grown into more of my whole self by sharing my voice to support low-income working families who struggle so hard to fulfill their basic needs. The act of sharing information with our legislators, and then to observe their inaction to solve issues that do affect the majority of our city’s school families is more evidence that civil-social relationships have been severely damaged.

Our schools need comprehensive sexuality education and child development, so that young adults may learn how to parent before they become parents. Our schools need justice for families struggling with poverty, a fair wage that is adequate to provide basic needs without the stress of working multiple jobs. Our schools need families to value education and keep their children’s learning as a top priority. Our community needs employers who value their workers personal and family health more than the hours worked this week.

I’m not quite sure how all of this may be accomplished, except for workers to insist. For all of us to rise up together. Time and again through history it has been the workers who have forced revolution. Frederick Douglas said that “power concedes nothing without demand,” and the current power rests in the hands of corporate businesses as much as, if not more than, government. Our schools need families with children who are safe, secure, well cared for, and loved. It is the social duty of corporate employers to insure that workers have a fair, living wage so they may care for their children, and rebuild partnership with their children’s teachers and schools. RAISE THE WAGE

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