Myths About Public Education

For 18 years, I juggled being a mom to four amazing girls with being employed in public education. In a large school district, that might not be such a big deal. In a small school district, it can be simultaneously rewarding and exceedingly frustrating.

During that time, I rode that uncomfortable picket-topped fence almost daily.

I had incredible, amazing, life-altering experiences as a teacher, and I had horrible experiences as a teacher (most of which I brought on myself in some way). I had fabulous mommy experiences and I had some really sucky mommy experiences.

Now that I’m off the fence and playing in my own yard, I still experience the frustrating tug of balancing being minimally involved in my kids education with being a protective mama bear.

There were many things I learned along the way both as a parent and as an educator. The most significant to me are the mixed signals sent by public education. Most of the mixed signals are the result of state and federal funding agency mandates handed down to districts who must then show evidence of having met those mandates, most of which were generated as a result of public outcry to politicians.

I call these the myths of public education.

Myth: Parent involvement is critical for your child’s success in education.

Truth: Schools typically prefer parents to show up for open house and similar activities a few times a year, sign a piece of paper saying they were there and thus involved, then get out of the way and leave the school alone.

Explanation: Parents who are involved many times are seen as pushy, over-protective, and prone to cause headaches for the school. An involved parent may see things that could stand a little improvement, and as a result, they create more work and cost the school district money. It’s best to leave them out of things unless absolutely necessary.

Solution: I’ve often wished we could all tuck our feelings deep down inside and simply focus on what’s best for students. Education is supposed to be a service oriented business, not a factory. As a massage therapist, I must listen and respond to my clients needs and wishes if I expect to be paid by them or have their repeat business. Really good school administrators have the ability to separate their personal feelings from the job and TRULY listen to what students and parents have to say. Sometimes outside observers see things that those in the trenches can’t see. I’ve experienced both kinds of administrators–those who really listen regardless of whether they agree with me or not, and those who won’t shut up explaining why they are right long enough to hear my concerns. Service oriented businesses listen to and respond to their customers if they wish to stay in business. A service oriented business would never insist a customer keep quiet or have their children face the consequences of parent involvement.

Myth: Special Education wants to help your special needs child have the best possible and most successful educational experience allowed by law.

Truth: Most schools are concerned with the bottom line….money.

Explanation: You need to know your rights and be prepared to face some opposition if your child’s accommodations are going to be costly. It’s not that they don’t want to help your kid, it’s just that sometimes money doesn’t go as far as they would like, and what doesn’t get spent on your kid can be spent on other things down the line. It also entirely depends on how you approach them. Being nice goes a long way, but sometimes you’ve just gotta put on your big girl panties and do what’s best for your kid. Hopefully it’s a peaceful, easy process. Sometimes it isn’t.

Solution: See the first myth above. Remember, education is not a factory. It’s a service oriented business.

Myth: Highly Qualified equals good teacher.

Truth: Most REALLY good teachers are born, not made.

Explanation: No amount of education and training can prepare a rocket scientist to teach teenagers if he’s not people-oriented in some way. Conversely, while content knowledge is important, a truly talented teacher can effectively teach almost anything, even if it means they study their gluteus maximus off to stay about one chapter ahead of the kids.

Solution: Take the parts of No Child Left Behind that are working and move forward. Throw the rest of that crap out the window. HQ is basically a good thing, yet it needs to make room for recognizing when a school is better off hiring a good teacher rather than a highly qualified teacher.

Myth: Students determine the atmosphere of a school. Some groups are just bad.

Truth: Leadership at the top determines the school climate, and positive energy flows downhill.

Explanation: Kids show up with a wide variety of life experiences. A few arrive from the Leave It To Beaver home, yet most do not. Awe, who am I kidding…the Leave It To Beaver moms are homeschooling these days. Most kids arrive with some sort of stress in their life (more prevalent in some groups than others), which means their energies are probably scrambled and learning will only happen once they believe they are safe.

Solution: That happens when a teacher creates a positive space that allows students to feel safe. THAT happens when teachers arrive at school to a work place that feels safe. I don’t mean full body scans and security cops sort of safe. I mean safe as in the boss respects them and empowers them to do their job. Safe as in things are consistent and predictable and make sense. Safe as in, when the teacher is scrambled and stressed to the point of fight or flight, there is someone who has the ability to help them calm that stress response and reorganize those scrambled energies.

That means the boss shows up with a positive outlook, emitting energy that supports, heals, re-directs, and simply works. It also means the boss encourages and facilitates communication between parents, teachers, and students. Bullying is never allowed, especially between adults and students. Adults are example setters, not mirrors of student behavior. Parent feedback is welcome, even when it is critical.

Parents are the customers; educating their child is the service. Schools would do well to always remember that.

What other myths exist in public education? What are the solutions?

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