Discussion Starter: Did You Learn More In School Or On Your Own?

You might suspect this is a loaded question, setting up an attempt to challenge the value of your K through 12 education. That isn’t exactly my intention. I realize you learned much through your formal schooling. So did I. For this Discussion Starter, I’m asking you to consider what you learned in school versus what you learned independently. I’m discounting skills or knowledge acquired in post-secondary education specific to your profession or trade. Instead, think about the general education obtained in your youth. How did you acquire most of this?

Determining this isn’t easy. I’ve had difficulty parsing it out. I did learn the foundations of literacy in school. Maybe my parents could have taught me how to read and write, but my elementary school certainly managed this more efficiently. I learned basic mathematics, although my school was up against a barrier here. I don’t think anyone could have taught me how to do math beyond simple algebra. People have limits. I know mine well. Outside skill instruction, I got exposure to the basics of history and the basics of science. Other than that, I only remember a handful of disconnected facts.

My school district wasn’t bad. It was and continues to be about average in all measures for schools in my state. I recall having some okay, even enthusiastic teachers. I remember more about the lackluster ones, like those who fell asleep in class. Some of those who stayed awake were worse. Despite them, this district gave me the foundational skills needed for everything else I’d learn through reading. That is really important. Most schools manage this. Those that don’t tend to be under-resourced schools serving exceptionally needy populations.

However, I wanted to be somewhere else each day of high school. I’ll admit having a bad attitude. Perhaps no school would have motivated me. Mine definitely didn’t. I’ve heard similar tales from friends my age regardless of where they went to school. Is it just the types of friends I’ve chosen? No, because I’ve also heard it from recent undergraduates who really want to become teachers and are much more optimistic than I’ve ever been.

I’ve thought about the specifics of what I didn’t like. Just being in the building all day grated me. Reviewing for the first few months of each year was another problem. In the mid-1990s, I endured the emerging trend of cooperative learning. Little turned me off as much as working in groups. One thing school taught me: I really dislike having to work with other people. Recently, I got some feedback that hinted at such sentiment being more common than I’d thought. I’ll write about this in the coming weeks.

In my last post, I asked for thoughts about potentially changing roles for teachers. Personalized learning came up. I’m not convinced personalized learning will work, partly because I’ve watched how schools muddle implementation of other programs. Additional factors weigh against it, enough for another article. It might work for skill instruction for some students, maybe even for content. The push behind it does seem to be part of an agenda, but regardless, what if it improbably ends up working? Research might never tell us convincingly one way or another. Even if research points to effectiveness, teachers aren’t likely to accept it.

I’ll tell you this: I wish something loosely akin to personalized learning or some other system of highly individualized modules would have have been available for me from elementary school onward. I can’t emphasize enough how much I would have preferred being able to move on when I was ready, being able to take more time as needed, not falling behind after absences, not having to talk with other students, and not having to sit and listen to a teacher. I’ve always preferred reading about how to do something to having someone tell me or show me. This might not work for some students (and the commercial versions of it on the horizon might not work at all), but I’ll say with confidence it would have worked for me.

As I’ve thought about it, I feel the bulk of what I’ve retained and been able to use has come from studying on my own. I can thank my school for some of the skills needed for this (and for having a functional library), but I really think the preponderance of my general education happened outside a classroom. And I didn’t even have internet access back then. Maybe my sense of this is wildly distorted and I’m wrong about the balance. I think otherwise.

But what about you? Do you feel content with what you learned in K through 12? What about your thoughts on how you learned, such as the methodology used? Would you have preferred working at your own pace (if you didn’t)? Do you feel you learned better in classrooms than through your own efforts? Did you learn more through your parents, or even through incidental learning across settings? Share in the comments.


Discussion Starter: Did You Learn More In School Or On Your Own?

My Uninvolved Parents

I’ve seen the gamut of parental involvement during my career. Some parents couldn’t have been bothered to answer their phones. Others would lose their composure if they didn’t get daily phone calls from their children’s teachers. The range I’ve seen has made me reflect on how my parents handled my school experience, or perhaps how they didn’t handle it.

I can’t quite compare my education with that of the students I taught. I can’t compare their parent’s reactions with those of my parents. Having exclusively taught students with disabilities, I worked with parents who had legitimate reasons to be extra vigilant regarding their children’s education. My parents didn’t have such motivation.

While I was in elementary school, their involvement was at its highest. This is true with most parents. I recall my mother helping me with projects. She seemed to fret over my work more than I did. She had always been a very nervous person. For a few brief years, my schooling contributed to her nervousness. I think she might have been as concerned with what others would think of her as a mother as she was with my actual performance. My father was detached from the whole affair. He only became involved if I got into trouble. I always had the sense that he didn’t care what I did so long as the school left him alone about it.

Their involvement decreased as I got older. My mother became consumed by a job she hated and didn’t seem to have much attention to spare. My father grew more distant with each year. By high school, I no longer showed them my report cards. They didn’t think to ask, so I got away with it. Eventually, they stopped asking me much of anything about school. On the rare occasion they asked me about homework, I simply said I didn’t have any. That was good enough.

True, their lapse in attention wasn’t necessarily their choice. They were distracted. Also, I purposely obfuscated by withholding information. I could tell their attitudes and priorities regarding me had changed, though. My mother’s preoccupation when I was in high school was with my circle of friends and my dating life. She disapproved of all of my friends. Although I really didn’t get into much trouble, she was convinced my friend base was guiding me towards prison. My father viewed my education as an inconvenience. He ran his own business and would sometimes ask if I planned to go to school on a given day. He’d offer me the opportunity to skip if I could help him with his job. I don’t think this was about bonding. I think he legitimately felt that me helping him was more important than me going to school.

They did lean on me about college. Part of why my mom worked was so she could save for me to go to school. My father wasn’t going to contribute. He spent what would’ve been my tuition on his auto-racing hobby. My mother resented having to work because of this. She must have fumed when I ended up getting a grant that covered everything.

Other than urging me to enroll and helping me by filling out their portion of the FAFSA form, my parents really had no part in my college life. I lived at home to reduce costs, but they rarely asked me anything about school. When grant money dried up, my mother kicked in, though she didn’t need to kick in much. I paid for a portion of each semester. I also paid outright for summer and winter classes, books, transportation, and my share of the utilities. My total undergrad bill was barely more than $4000. Let me emphasize this was for the entire program, not just one or two semesters.

I graduated. I got a job. I started a lucrative career. I out-earned my parents and have long since paid back what would’ve been the cost of my board during college. I’ve paid back the entire amount my mother paid towards my tuition. Meanwhile, I’ve managed to function as a self-sustaining adult. I think I turned out okay despite their lack of involvement.

Was I able to do this because there is something special about me? I don’t think I’m particularly capable or talented, so probably not. Were the times just different when I was a student? They were, but not by much. Is this evidence that so-called helicopter parenting isn’t necessary? Maybe. I’m just one example. I can think of examples from my personal life of adults who can’t function without help from their parents, so this is case-by-case. I think my parent’s lack of involvement helped me develop independence, which makes me think the helicopter parents could be failing to foster this and thereby might be doing a disservice to their kids. I can’t say any of this with certainty.

How would’ve any of this been different had I been born with some kind of disability? I can’t predict how differently I would’ve developed. My guess is my mother would’ve become much more involved, but probably not in a helpful way. She wouldn’t have had the nerve to challenge the school about anything, but she would’ve been a pest with constant redundant questions. My father would’ve been every bit as detached—maybe more so. I figure the added strain would’ve been for the worse for all involved. I suppose this strain has been there for the parents of students I’ve taught, rendering comparisons moot.

My Uninvolved Parents

Graduation Redundancy

I graduated from high school twenty years ago this week. Since then, I’ve attended nearly twenty additional graduation ceremonies. A few of these were for friends graduating from colleges. Far more were for the high school students I taught. I suppose I’m somewhat of a graduation veteran. During these two decades, I’ve pondered the relative impact of these ceremonies. While doing so, a curious trend has caught my attention. It might be altering their impact.

This month, students across the country will graduate from high school. Completing high school only happens once. It’s a stepping-stone for many, but a major event for others. For as much as I dismissed high school, I’ll admit feeling slightly overcome when I realized I’d reached the end. The actual ceremony resonated with a mixture of finality and new opportunity—like a commencement should. I was almost embarrassed by how much it affected me. I can understand how potent the feeling must be for those who genuinely struggled to earn their diplomas.

Or maybe I can’t. I fear the potency might get diluted for some students. June isn’t just for high school graduations any longer. Middle school graduations have become quite common. Many districts host elementary school and kindergarten graduations. By the time some students reach their senior year, they’ve had plenty of practice walking the aisle.

When I graduated, I hadn’t previously walked in any other ceremonies. I had one graduation. It came at the end of my public education. It was a coveted event symbolizing an educational culmination. Graduation wasn’t something routine I’d experienced at every interval of my schooling. The idea of graduating from anything other than high school or college hadn’t occurred to me prior to starting my teaching career.

I learned about these additional ceremonies when I started teaching in an urban school district. Their existence puzzled me. I reached a cynical conclusion about why they might exist. In particular, I applied this reason to the middle school ceremonies. The district in which I taught had a pitiful graduation rate. Almost half of the students dropped out. I figured the middle school ceremonies might have developed as a way to celebrate accomplishments before students quit. Less cynically, I thought they might serve as a way to emphasize the importance of schooling. The ceremonies would stress the significance of the transition from middle to high school. I was reaching for a reason.

My reasoning got upended when I found out suburban districts were holding similar ceremonies. These were schools without such significant dropout rates. Many held ceremonies at all junctures between buildings. Students generally don’t quit during middle school, so the ceremonies at younger grades probably served some other function. This didn’t mean urban schools didn’t hold them for the reasons I suspected, but it suggested other reasons must also be at play.

Further reasoning was nearly as cynical. I began to think the additional ceremonies were indulgences. They were at least as much for the parents as they were for the students. They were opportunities for parents to snap pictures. They were excuses for parents to buy little suits and dresses. Parents could see their kids in tiny caps and gowns. They could buy glossy portraits to display in their living rooms (I briefly suspected a cabal among school picture companies). Each additional ceremony was another reason for parents to gush over their little angels.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t relate. If parents feel the ceremonies are important, good for them. My family was content with a high school graduation. Everyone I know who is my age seems to have reached adulthood intact with only one ceremony. If students today need the extra recognition as a form of encouragement, then I guess they should have this. I’m not callous enough to say this is dismissible nonsense for a succession of self-centered and over-indulged generations, but I could see how one could argue as much.

The entire phenomenon confounds me. To begin, how had I missed its encroachment? I’d been out of high school a mere five years when I learned about these extra ceremonies. In that span of time, who had decided they were necessary? What had changed? I wasn’t certain if schools had started the trend by offering them, or if parents had pushed until they got them. Either way, by the time I found out about them, they were firmly entrenched in the culture of many schools.

The concerns I have about these ceremonies—especial those for middle school students—have not to do with indulging anyone. Schools indulge students and parents in much more profound ways. My concern is about assigning too much worth to the wrong achievements. I suppose the recognition of milestones is good. Finishing middle school is a milestone. However, is it an achievement worthy of a cap and gown ceremony? Should anyone be proud of someone who graduates from middle school? Shouldn’t this be more or less expected to happen? Could schools be reducing the perceived worth of high school graduation by making it one in a series of ceremonies rather than the point of public education? More practically, might middle school graduations be setting a precedent for students to expect to be rewarded for simply being present?

I’m probably over-thinking this and coming off like a delusional curmudgeon. I’ve already admitted my age in this piece, haven’t I? Perhaps I’m exaggerating how much importance is assigned to each ceremony (although apparently out-of-control parent behavior at graduation ceremonies has become a trending topic in recent weeks). I could think of additional cynical condemnations of these ceremonies. What I should do is recognize that kids now expect to be recognized more often and for less than when I was a student. Parents expect this recognition as well, and maybe more so. There’s a precedent, which is difficult to take back. I’m not certain taking it back would achieve much. The ceremonies might benefit all involved in some way I’m not seeing.

Let the students and parents have their ceremonies every three or four years (as if it this were up to me). Let students bask in the chance to feel good about themselves. Let parents watch their little angles through the screens on their phones. I think it’s weird, but what I think isn’t going to postpone anyone’s party.

Graduation Redundancy

Losing My Faith In The Field

The title of this article is misleading. I entered my teaching career with worn and tattered faith in the field. Being jaded before the start might seem like the wrong way to come to a profession. In truth, I might not have tried to teach had I harbored more respect for teachers and teaching.

As a teenager, my aspirations were low. College seemed like a scam to my teenage mind. I didn’t feel I needed to chase a degree. People did this to get jobs. They sought jobs because they wanted money. They wanted money so they could surround themselves with possessions and security that didn’t interest me. I figured I could adjust my expectations and skip the formalities. At the urging of friends and family members, I applied to one school. I got in. I applied for financial aid. I got a grant and a scholarship. Without a better plan, I gave college a try. I stuck with it long enough to get a degree. Choosing to get this degree in education was a default. I didn’t know what else to do.

What drew me to teaching was how accessible it seemed. I got this sense from my experiences with those who taught me from elementary school through college. As conceited as this may sound, I figured I couldn’t be any worse at teaching than any of them had been. Stated another way, I thought if these people could manage to become teachers and make it through each year without getting fired, so could I. They inspired me, but not in the way they may have intended.

My faith began to disintegrate during elementary school. From there, the rest of my story becomes a retelling of what prevented me from finding it again. Between 1st and 4th grade, I had a succession of teachers given to shouting at children. As a child, I found this odd. The oddness wasn’t just that they chastised students for being loud by yelling at them. The true oddness was that they seemed so bothered by the antics of children. One large male teacher berated his students, becoming frothy and red in the face when doing so. He resorted to insults and sarcasm, neither befitting of an adult paid to teach 9 year olds.

The anger in these teachers convinced me that they were no different from the adults in my family. This disappointed me in two ways. First, I had little respect for my family members. Several had tempers that frightened me while others had a propensity for lying. I found myself wondering how my teachers behaved when they weren’t at work. They might have been under less stress and thereby happier. In contrast, they might have been less reserved and even more hostile. Noticing parallels between my family members and teachers led me to the second disappointment. I had accepted this notion that teachers held a special position in society and that they had earned it by being exemplary in some way. As I noticed how easily they became angered and how much they resembled my family members in this, my teachers became mortal to me. To a young person, this was profound. More revelations were to come.

My stepsister was a decade older than me and attended a local university. When I was in 6th grade, one of her college friends got hired as a substitute at my elementary school. This disturbed me. I knew my stepsister’s friends. These were not smart or wholesome people. I’ll admit being somewhat shocked that a school would hire one of them. Already unimpressed with my teachers, I now saw them as being older versions of this young woman. I was generalizing unfairly. I was assuming too much about competency in relation to behavior outside work. Nevertheless, the impression lasted.

Throughout high school, I scratched my head at how teachers could get away with slacking the way they did. I watched teachers fall asleep during class. A few teachers screamed at students with much fiercer ire than I’d seen in elementary school. I recall a newly hired teacher coming to school with hickeys on her neck. She told us to keep busy while she sat at her desk and essentially passed out. Too many of them couldn’t be bothered to exert an effort. Some couldn’t be bothered to show up. Even as an adolescent, I wondered how people who got the summer off could miss so many days of work. Along the way, I had some dedicated and respectable teachers, but I had at least as many who phoned it in. No, high school did not restore my faith.

College was worse, but in a different way. I’ll admit the quality of my instructors improved. A few were terrible, but a greater proportion was at least competent. My college years shredded my feelings about education not through my professors, but through my classmates. Unsure about a major, I went with the suggestion of a friend: special education. I’d been working with developmentally disabled adults at the time, so I was familiar with the population. My friend convinced me I’d be able to get a job. If I was going to leave with a degree, I reasoned it should be in something that made me employable. I finally declared my major. Next, I met my peers. I watched them trample my broken, crumpled faith and kick it into the wind.

I’m not brilliant. If I were, I probably would’ve found something to do other than teaching. However, the people in my undergraduate education classes indirectly explained so much to me. I shook my head at how vapid they were, all while piecing together answers to long-held questions about the education business. Why should anyone be surprised at the state of public education when these smiling fools were the ones running classrooms? Many, perhaps most of these people were going to become teachers. Parents were going to entrust their children’s education to the rather dim bulbs sitting around me. I realized the people around me were the successors of those who had taught me. I also realized that teaching mustn’t be especially demanding, or maybe the entrance criteria weren’t. My pedestrian coursework reinforced this. I found myself alarmed simultaneously by the quality of teacher candidates and the low threshold for admission to the field.

I ended up graduating and getting a teaching job. My enthusiasm wasn’t exactly gushing. Prior to accepting my first position, I looked for something else to do. Finding nothing suitable, I sighed and went with teaching. The job was at a large urban high school. No one wanted to be there. Everyone from administrators to students wore a scowl all day. Teachers hated their jobs. Many hated their students. The supposed professionals in the building were at constant odds with one another. I thought this tension was a symptom of this dysfunctional school, but I found similar tension in every subsequent school in which I worked. Some had it worse than others, but I never found a place that cultivated high employee morale for long.

Along with low morale, I noticed every school was teetering on the edge of an organizational disaster at every moment. Another illusion of youth is that teachers and principals are in control of what is happening throughout the school day. Working in schools, I realized much of the time, no one really knows what is going on. Communication between professionals is shoddy, decisions are made on the fly, and much of what happens is an afterthought or reaction rather than an informed choice. Over and over, I found myself embarrassed to be associated with the organizations that employed me. I repeatedly had to apologize to parents because of something a school did or didn’t do. I struggled to look outsiders in the eye when I explained to them what I did for a living. I had no faith to give me confidence.

I guess I knew all along. Disheartening experiences confirmed my bleak assumptions. Each time some aspect of public education let me down, I acknowledged I had been right. I didn’t enter the field to improve it. My belief that the field could be improved was gone years before I started in earnest. Because of this, I saw the field as an opportunity to collect a professional salary while having scant skill or expertise. I entered because I figured the field would have me without much effort on my part and because I couldn’t do anything to further discredit it. Maybe I’m discrediting it now by revealing my experiences and sentiments. If so, I don’t feel I’m doing anyone a disservice. They have done that themselves.

Losing My Faith In The Field