I know we teachers take a lot of punishment in education, so it's hard to be critical of the system without placing blame or judgement on the wonderful people who make a career of nurturing it. That said, it's clear something's wrong with at least some aspect of public schooling. We all know it, but it's such a massive creature, with so many moving parts, the diagnosis changes depending on the view.
You want to break your heart? Ask any group of people about something hurtful a teacher told them. Everyone has a story, but kids who were "tracked" through AP courses in high school have 1 to 3 stories, kids at my school have multitudes.
For 6 years, I've been healing the wounds inflicted by public education from inside alt-ed. As an English teacher, I get out of the way when students use their voice, and provoke them when they don't. I become "crazy" in order to become the biggest target. I hear others and amplify what I hear, and acknowledge my own meta-cognition so they can acknowledge theirs. I have the courage to wade into vulnerability that comes from learning, admitting my ignorance to almost everything. These are all fancy ways of saying, "We sit in a circle and chat." My job is to facilitate discussion by posing questions, modeling humility, untangling conflict, and praising patience.
But the biggest part of my job is being calm and thoughtful, thereby cultivating thoughtfulness in order to transition students from operating their "lower brain" and shift into the curiosity and exploration of their "upper brain." The lower brain controls dangerous or stressful situations, which my class is not, but might be for those who enter it from a dangerous direction. I have no idea which student that is, and so we all have to check in, use our voice, and let ourselves be known to each other.
Which gets me to my master's research. There are gaping holes in student wellness in school. Again, my view is limited by my perspective from inside an Alt-Ed classroom, but I would like to know if educators with views from the general high schools agree, perhaps even wealthier high schools.
I toured such a school last year. Novato High School in Novato, California. The school is bathing in opportunity and represents the absolute best any parent could hope for their teenager. There are classes for dance, music, voice, ceramics, art, digital art, 3D art, comic book writing, creative writing, and more. The resources are seemingly endless. It really is public school heaven.
When I toured the school as part of a public school credential program, I discovered their use of a unique tool that I immediately wanted for my small alternative community. Each freshman at NHS takes a psychological survey that assesses their talents and abilities. A "strengths" assessment that reveals where each student naturally excels. They then include this data in their attendance software so it widely available across the school to diverse utility by the school staff. When I was there, a history teacher demonstrated software that groups students automatically by strengths, choosing students according to compatible styles and talents.
I brought this back to my staff. The test, offered by the Gallup Organization, costs $20 per student. I called and pled my case, resulting in a discounted $12 per test. I paid it myself, 20 students for $240. My partner in crime, our art teacher Evrim and myself, we took the test ourselves and started to compare notes about our strengths. She is a cultivator, noticing development and nurturing it in her students, but she is not a public person and detests the spotlight. I'm a positive beacon, seeing the silver lining everywhere and in everything. I'm comfortable on stage stage. We couldn't wait to share this with our students.
To our surprise, there were multiple problems. Primarily, we didn't anticipate the reading level of the test itself being too high for some students. Some students struggled with this, and we realized it would have been a good idea to front load the vocabulary. A solvable problem. Also, the school works in 6 week cycles -- some students were scheduled out before we could get our act together and teach the curriculum that helps them understand how strengths work and what theirs are. But the biggest surprise, the one that felt most devastating, was disinterest. The whole exercise in discovering their talents, learning about their natural greatness, was shockingly off the mark. It felt like we'd done something wrong, left out a piece of the puzzle, or mis-anticipated a hurdle toward understanding.
What we realized, which shaped our next steps, was that we had perhaps ignored some truths that we knew about physiological needs. For anyone unfamiliar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, it works like a pyramid. Each level represents a human "need" and is supported by the one below it, until alone at the top is our final form, the glorious "Self-Actualization" found by the few who attain total enlightenment. It makes sense that something as critical as "safety" be located below "food" -- you don't feel hungry while running from a Grizzly bear. You aren't thinking about your ugliest breakup when your sizzling steak arrives at the table. Needs work from the bottom up.
What I hadn't noticed at Novato High School that day was that these students were physiologically "ready" to reflect on their strengths. "Self-esteem" occupies the second-highest position on Maslow's Pyramid. Many students at my school, reeling from the effects of their sympathetic nervous system, are simply out of position for the vulnerability that comes with discussion of identity.
This is all a thesis so far. The data collected reflects students are indeed grappling with issues at the bottom of Maslow's, but what isn't clear is how to handle that. How can school teachers plug up holes for students that exist at home? As we are increasingly connected digitally, and certainly in this COVID-19 reality, students are more in touch with their teachers through technology. The walls between school and home have worn down a bit.
But there are issues we can address. For instance, we offer "free" and reduced lunch, but not until noon. There are 4 hours of class to get through on an empty stomach, and every attempt we have made as a staff to address this has resulted in negative action from our district. Everything impedes district lunches, even food we buy ourselves. The granola bars and PB&Js eaten by students occupies the space that would have been occupied by their lunch. The fewer students order their free lunch, the more lunches go to waste, and the greater the loss incurred by the district's food program.
We offer counseling, but students opt out. How can we put the focus back?
There are looming questions I am hoping to address in the coming year, but the reality seems to be that something has to change in order to support students better. The alternative to all of this is what we see: students struggling in fight or flight mode, being suspended from campus or simply staying home. In 2018, the number of students "chronically absent" who missed over 10% of class was over 60%. That number is insanely higher than the national average of less than 5% for general schools and less than 15% for "alternative" schools like ours.