My class from 2003-2005. I had these kids for 5th and 6th grade. They built an incredible community within the classroom.

I wanted to give a shout-out to all of my teacher friends feeling the anxiety in their chests this week! Maybe it’s just ingrained in my soul now, because I’ve been feeling it too. Let’s call it “sympathetic anxiety.” It’s a very interesting feeling really, to know that I’m not going to have to sit through hours of PD, unpack my classroom, or make lesson plans for the first week. I’m also not shopping for supplies, getting together with my teammates, or feeling the anticipation of meeting a whole new crop of kids. There is no way to see the end of July approaching and not have these feelings.

I’m a bit melancholy, actually. One of my favorite parts of being a teacher is setting up my room for a new school year and then meeting those sweet faces as they walk in on the first day! New backpacks, new notebooks and pencils, new shoes….and the lockers!!!
In 5th grade, they are getting their own locker with a combination lock (just heaven!), which most learn to open quickly. Then something magical happens! Some of the quietest, less-confident kids master the combination lock quickly and then they become rockstars! How? They go to work helping every child who is struggling with a lock, to teach them to open their own lock! At first, the kids panic and come to me, but I begin to partner them up and pretty soon, I’m just an observer of this beautiful, harmonious classroom of students working together to solve problems.

As quickly as that moment takes shape, it just as quickly comes to an end. The community that we talk about and build during the first week gives way to teachers’ feeling pressure to get their numerous standards taught before the first round of “practice” testing. The community that was built “devolves” into hurried and frustrated voices and expectations, leaving children equally as frustrated. People keep asking why I’m leaving for a year; this is really my “why,” if I can be really honest. I have a tremendous problem with shoving developmentally inappropriate standards down the throats of students that aren’t ready for them, academically or behaviorally. It was a personal choice and even a form of personal protest against a system that I whole-heartedly adore and support: the public school system. I’ve had some backlash in the forms of private messages about whether I am making personal jabs at any single place or individual. I am not and it is very short-sighted of anyone to think that it is. Thinking that I’m “quitting” or not “in the fight” anymore is ludicrous and anyone who thinks that about me doesn’t really know me at all.

I have some theories about why we’re watching a mass-exodus of teachers and students from public schools, but it’s completely based on my personal experiences of 19 years in the classroom. When these 5th graders walk in the door on the first day, everyone is new to the building. In our school system, 5th grade is the first year of middle school; in my particular school, we primarily received students from two elementary feeder schools, but we are a “zoned-option” school for students living in and around a housing project across town. Then you have the regular number of transfers, students who move over the summer, etc. In other words, EVERYONE is new and EVERYONE is at the same level of new, especially the first week. There’s no comparison, no good/bad kids, no “smart” kids…everyone is the same because everyone is new.

The differences come when we start sorting kids. Have you noticed that? When we allow comparison to play a part in what we do in the classroom, the problems among the students begin. The focus is on their weaknesses instead of focusing on their strengths. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t offer support for students who have that need, but we spend lots of time focusing on student differences and sorting them out. Then we throw them all together and expect them to NOT notice these differences and to treat each other the same.

We spend a lot of time, effort, and training talking about “social-emotional learning” (SEL). This type of learning looks at the whole child and their social and emotional well-being. Students come to school at different levels of social and emotional maturity based on their life experiences. These don’t always align to what we’re teaching them and it is my opinion that we are asking students to do much more than what they are developmentally ready for as young adolescents. I don’t think it’s a big mystery if you work with kids, have your own, or even just keep up with the news, that our adolescents are struggling with a world and situations that are very different than the ones I grew up with in the 70s and 80s.

There’s nothing that exists in this world that would ever make me go back to those years. There are plenty of events that stand out in my mind that are still painful and probably affected me in ways I can’t imagine. It’s why so many of us as adults turn to therapy and self-help books!

My brother, Chuck, and I at about ages 8 and 6, not quite adolescents, but old enough to have lived through experiences, good and bad!

In today’s education-eze, we call these life-changing events, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These events could include the death of a parent, divorce, violence, being removed from a neglected home situation, sexual abuse, and probably other things that are beyond our comprehension. After 19 years in the classroom, I believe that I’ve heard almost everything, but undoubtedly, there is always something new that turns my stomach.

Despite the situation a child is living in, they all come to school. We don’t ask for a complete history as they walk in and divide them accordingly, they all show up and they all must learn. This is why I had to find a way to get an incredibly diverse group of kids to get along, so we all could learn. If you can’t find a balance, you’re in for a rough year!When I began teaching, one of my colleagues said, “Hey Pam! I’m working on this proposal for a grant. If I get it will you go to these classes with me?” I agreed, not even knowing how it would change my point of view toward teaching, learning, and the classroom.

Of course my colleague got the grant, and I spent several (5 or 6) evenings, and a week in the summer, going to classes at the old Waverly-Belmont building in Nashville. The program was called “Schools for Thought” and it brought full-circle many of the ideas and thinking that I had been introduced to during my student teaching and interim term at Gower Elementary. It was sessions created by teachers that encouraged teachers to start their year by building community in the classroom as a foundation, and then to continue to create lessons that encouraged students to work together to solve problems. It wasn’t a “boxed-up and sold” program, it was just good pedagogy. It created a community within the classroom where students worked out their problems through discussion, it supported learning of all levels and abilities, and it allowed students to understand that our learning and living in our classroom community could also be applied outside in the “real world.” Was my classroom perfect? Nope. However, many have grown into caring adults, with jobs, families, and a sense of community. This is despite their ACEs and their home life. Did I mention that many of my students didn’t come from “ideal” homes?

We built a community of trust, kindness and fairness, but there were expectations that held us all accountable. It is SCHOOL, after all! In fact, I believe that as the students learned to depend on each other and build relationships, it raised the bar! The amazing projects and fun we had in the classroom created memories and lifelong learners!

Here’s my point, we are spending lots and lots of time buying into programs and thinking that we can use them to “fix” kids. There’s nothing wrong with the kids. The kids are the same, but now they are thrust into an environment where we are pushing more and more on them and not allowing them to develop at a “normal” rate with any sense of community, without any sense of belonging, and without FUN! We are expecting them to be little adults and use standards that are way past their cognitive levels. Then, we want to tell them they have behavior or learning problems and place them in tiered programs while we continue to tell them that they are all should treat each other the same.

Restorative Practices is one of those programs. We focus on kids’ problems and their home life and their relationships with adults and use all of these things to justify – make excuses – for their behavior. Why aren’t we teaching them how to build relationships with peers and live up to the expectations of the classroom and the school? Honestly, I get it. I have my own set of ACEs, so do you, and so does the next person. Mine are uniquely my own and I guess I could have used them to become a lifelong victim. I could use them and say my acting out is a direct result of my anger over my parents’ divorce; or that my lack of commitment to a long-term relationship is because of my absent father. (Those are examples, not really my experiences!)

While I believe that students do need support and we do need support personnel in the form of social workers and counselors in the schools to help in individual situations, I don’t believe that continuing to call attention to our differences is the answer to what is plaguing public schools. If we continue to make excuses for poor behavior, if we continue to focus on what is wrong with kids, if we allow ourselves to kowtow to these well-meaning programs that are not making ANYTHING better, we will continue to see a mass-exodus of good teachers from the classroom and the best and brightest students will go elsewhere and fight for their education. I just couldn’t do another year of asking my kids who wanted to learn (about 95% of each class) to put up with the bad behavior of those who weren’t being held accountable (the other 5%) over and over and over.

And before anyone thinks that I am just speaking of my situation at my school, I am not. I have spoken with teachers all across the country. This isn’t a local problem, this is a national problem and it’s one that is debilitating public schools and degrading the teachers who want to build communities of learners. I think this is where my focus is heading as an educator. My experiences and successes should be built upon, not put away and ignored for whatever the “shiny program of the day” is for improving education. There is SO MUCH that works! There are so many people who continue to stick to their beliefs and make decisions based on what is best for students. I think those ideas should be explored and discussed and applied. I am currently reaching out to some of the area school and youth organizations here in St. Petersburg, so I can become involved in this community.

If you have read this far, thank you! Please continue to support, speak out, and vote for public schools. In my 25 years of education experiences in college and beyond, my beliefs about education have not changed: all children deserve a free and public education so they all have the opportunity to grow into successful citizens and community builders!