You can't go home again, but you can stop by.
This past Friday, I had the pleasure of participating in an event called Learning Adventure Day at the high school in Plainville, where I once taught English full-time and at which I still coach. For those not conversant with Connecticut geography, Plainville is a small town about a dozen miles southwest of Hartford. And for those not conversant with Connecticut at all, it's about 3000 miles east of Los Angeles.
Learning Adventure Day at Plainville High School is a project that allows students a school day to explore different fields and talk with people who work within them. Architecture, cosmetology, graphic design, even marine biology (you know, like George Costanza's field of choice). My contribution would be a day's activity centering on writing and publishing, and since I mainly talked about writing, I was fortunate (as were the students) that two other guest published authors provided their own perspectives, which were different from—and in many ways more practical—than mine.
All told, there were three student participants. Let me put that number into perspective: careers in architecture drew seven; cosmetology, 20; graphic design, 21; and marine biology, 33—without Costanza, I presume. Of course, some of the programs provided the allure of an off-campus experience (a TV station, an aquarium, even a ski area), whereas mine provided the somewhat less exotic allure of a rainy day in a classroom.
Before this begins to sound like a complaint, it isn't one. The kids were wonderful—bright, curious, and receptive. They were serious but never glum, and they certainly possess a better idea of the world than I did when I was in high school, though that may be a low bar. And I was especially fortunate to have with me an actual honest-to-God classroom English teacher to provide me with the details I needed to survive in a building where I had not taught for two decades. Not only was she a cordial host, but in the end, as much a participant as the rest of us. We all have teachers we remember fondly: for a lot of students, she will be one of them.
But this is not about one teacher, nor is it about my fantasy day of unearthing the past: it's about the state of education today, how good it is, and how little we care about it. Teachers are leaving the profession by the tens of thousands, not because the kids are bad or because the pay is low. They're leaving because teaching kids—what they signed on for—is often impeded by endless and intrusive paperwork usually formulated by distant "experts" far away from any school building—academics whose connection to teaching is theoretical at best, tangential at worst.
And that has filtered down so that well know the drill:
•School boards ban books they've never read and decide what is and isn't the history they've never studied.
•Public school opponents like Betsy DeVos rise to the level of Education Secretary and use her platform to cripple, disparage, and undo public education.
•Elected officials declare science irrelevant and promote conspiracy theories that require no logic or proof or intelligence—idiocy that directly opposes the process of actual learning.
And the classroom teacher is required to fix it.
A sea change is needed, but maybe it's coming.
In Plainville, which has always been a town that valued education, political viewpoints shift, but the value of education seems solid. What I saw last Friday, on an admittedly "different" kind of day, was a fully-involved staff of competent educators, administrators, and support staff working collegially to provide young people with the knowledge they need to move ahead with their lives. The staff have fought through the bleak days of distance learning and Zoomed classrooms and come out the other side with enthusiasm and vigor. It would be shameful for them to be driven from a profession they love because the rest of us think we're better at doing their job.
Believe me—we're not.
To my former students who have left the area but occasionally read my blogs: that school you remember as a pretty good place is even better. And despite the Pink Floyd lyrics we all gleefully sang decades ago imploring teachers to "leave them kids alone," the kids are in good hands. If, however, we could rework those words into the equally ungrammatical "hey, experts, leave them teachers alone," I'd happily sing along.