Editor’s note: Mark Collins is an Evanston resident who was also a longtime teacher at Oak Park River Forest High School.
It is time to reaffirm the fundamental purpose of our schools which has become increasingly confused, leaving many students unable to fully explore and reach their academic potential.
I write as a public high school class teacher with over 25 years of experience in a large racially, socially, and economically diverse community adjacent to Chicago.
Our perception and expectations of schools have changed. Their mission goes far beyond academics and now often includes overseeing the formation of the moral, political and social development of students.
In some cases, schools are even expected to directly address society’s deeper shortcomings and challenges. In my experience, this effort has been largely unsuccessful and counterproductive. Failure is not because our schools haven’t tried or because students aren’t participating.
Instead, it is because our schools are neither expert nor fundamentally capable of broadly influencing the economic, cultural, and ultimately family forces that Actually determine their fundamental development and success in the classroom. It should be noted that children are only in our learning spaces a third of each day and only 180 days a year. Considering these factors, it is clear that the preparation to achieve academic success is due almost exclusively to causes and forces outside the school.
The politicization of our schools illustrates how far they have strayed from their destination. Issues undoubtedly important to the social and civic health of our country are now routinely contested in classrooms.
Because these topics are often contentious, teachers and students are frequently asked, and even expected, to take sides. Although many choose to express their thoughts openly, many others choose not to do so for fear of being labeled, ostracized or worse.
What happens? The voices are silent, a disturbing irony if we consider that of all our public institutions, the school should be among the essential places where the honest and rigorous exchange of ideas is both guaranteed. and practiced freely.
We must remember that the “children” of today will soon be adults and therefore contribute to (what we hope will be) a cohesive and vibrant society. For this responsibility, our children deserve full intellectual preparation.
So how do we move our schools to a place where their obligation to challenge and prepare all students is well understood and achievable?
First, schools must make it clear that their main purpose is to support the exploration and acquisition of academic knowledge – to assess, debate, assimilate and challenge it – between teacher and student. .
Equally important, schools should reaffirm that this interaction occurs primarily in the classroom – the “sacred space” of a school.
Academic knowledge is infinite in content, diverse in meaning, present in every aspect of our lives, and, if shared dynamically and openly, endlessly fascinating and impactful. To this end, our communities and society at large must disassociate their schools from the issues on which schools have little or not reasonable control or the basic skills or training to be acquired.
Second, treat everyone who enters a school, but especially its students, as individuals first.
See them as possessing a free and open mind always capable of academic growth and personal improvement. Embrace a mindset that sees the value and potential in every student and prioritizes the individual over the group, but not exclusively.
Third, honor the fact that we all naturally identify with and relate to others. Our group affiliations are tied together by many things – personality, culture, what we are like, hobbies, geography, language, shared histories, etc.
Yes, belonging to a group is an essential part of our humanity – it brings us happiness, connection and a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves. But group identity is a complex formulation and so it should be up to each student to decide freely who they choose to associate with.
Fourth, require school administrators to teach with regularity. Theoretically, members of a school’s leadership got into education because they liked young people, knew a specific subject very well, and took advantage of the unique opportunities that a classroom provides.
While we agree that a classroom is at the heart of the learning experience, school leaders should also be there, actively demonstrating their love of teaching, modeling best teaching practices and directly participating in growth. students and faculty. They will thus be better informed and more effective in promoting learning.
Fifth, hire teachers who, in addition to proven scientific interest, are comprehensive and highly competent.
Look for those who believe in the common good; that uphold fundamental democratic values – equality, rule of law, freedom of expression, etc.; who value a diverse and upwardly mobile society; who are compassionate, team players and socially confident. Find these people and then release them, empowered, to do their jobs at the highest level and with the greatest impact on the intellectual and academic journey of all children.