The Schools Our Kids Deserve


Paula left us much too soon, earlier this week. But for those of us who were privileged to know her and work with her — we know — she was the real thing, a teacher who walked the talk. She used innovation as a tool not as a buzzword. She will be greatly missed. Our collective job now is to honor her legacy and beliefs in our lives as educators. ~Joe Brooks

Everything I need to know I learned in preschool. Well, at least in my son’s preschool.

I studied early childhood education at CCSF and I interned and sent my son to our department’s lab school. I think it was the pinnacle of his educational career. Two things stand out in my mind the most: one being that everything they did and offered the children was with great intention to promote all areas of development. It was truly a model of comprehensive and thoughtful education. Secondly, it was one of the only times in his education that he was truly engaged: actively taking risks, exploring and discovering in open ended ways, questioning, and expressing himself in all modalities. And he had an opportunity to bond with caring adults in a truly undiluted sense.

Then in third grade things began to unravel for him. It wasn’t just our move to Southern California. Education made a huge shift and testing and assessments dictated the pace and content of teaching, standardization became the buzzword and then… then came the anxiety and the stomach aches, and the headaches, and all around belly aching. It was the start of a drawn out attempt at avoiding school, despite all my very conscious decisions around his education. 
I don’t only speak from the perspective of a parent. You see, I am a teacher also and the majority of my son’s education has paralleled my own teaching career. I can tell you that my son’s dislike of school broke my heart. To have a child who actively tries to avoid school while I on the other hand am trying to engage students into loving school is a major internal struggle. I suppose my son’s experience with public education is what has made me strive to be a better teacher, trying to be the teacher that I would want him to have. I have spent the majority of my teaching years in a middle school environment. I have a host of observations and thoughts on how we organize secondary education.

Middle school is a dinosaur and a mean and ugly one at that. Why do adults create such large and impersonal environments at the most fragile time in a young person’s life. We take all these students from the warm womb of elementary and thrust them into a huge pecking order, swarming to figure out who they are in this new context amidst the awkward changes of their bodies and a completely new set of expectations from teachers and their parents. We lose students in the abyss of middle school and it is a downward trajectory from here. It is clear what is needed: smaller campuses, programs that personalize, adults who know you for more than 55 minutes at a time, a place that makes you feel as though you belong and have something to offer.

Yet why we have been so remiss to create it? We can and must do better. I believe in creating a responsive environment that builds community and continuity with the adults in student’s lives and allows them to gain the skills for them to navigate these difficult years; that thoughtful and comprehensive approach that all students deserve not just preschoolers.

Our next issue is changing the paradigm about what it is to be a teacher and a learner. When the conversation about reform surfaces, I hear buzz words like: bzzz…best practices bzzzz… data based instruction bzzzz….more technology. Schools look to each other to see what is “successful” to replicate and to imitate.

But what is missing here are key words: Innovate. Empathy. Compassion. Where is the brave conversation about what schools could be? What does education mean in the 21st century?

Seeing beyond what exists is what the task requires. While we still deliver content with bells in cells in 55 minute compartments, isolated from each content area in a one size fits all model (with a dabbling of differentiated instruction here and there) , we do this with the knowledge that this isn’t how anyone learns best. We can do better, but yet we choose to do the same.

We need to keep the conversation alive and strong. We need the breath of vibrancy to resuscitate public education, make it come alive for young people and redefine learning.

To be truthful, our youth deserved this yesterday. I don’t think we need to make them wait any longer.

About the Author Paula Cohen, a veteran teacher with Los Angeles Unified School District, and Community Works Institute (CWI) faculty member, left us recently after a tragic and courageous battle with cancer. Paula believed above all in the power of community and education as a way to achieve that.

Paula Cohen leaves behind great inspiration for all of us, but especially for younger teachers in need of innovative boundary breaking role models. In her work as an educator, Paula Cohen never met an “impossible” she couldn’t overcome. She brought unlimited heart on her sleeve enthusiasm to her teaching, her students, and those of us fortunate enough to know and collaborate with her. Paula will be missed but her spirit and inspiration lives on in everyone who works to build a better more just world.

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