Sunday, February 7, 2010

Kindergarten, Merit Pay, and Parenting

Last week one of my kindergartners informed me I looked as if I had two black eyes. That means no more purple, sparkly eye shadow for me, I guess. Another precious child stated that I looked pregnant. And I can't count the number of times I've heard, "Mrs. Hoogerland, you forgot to..." to which I want to snarl, "I didn't FORGET... I am not READY yet, and I am in charge, NOT you!" But I don't. I smile sweetly. And to be fair, each morning when we sit in our Morning Meeting circle and share Good Things, there are at least 6 children who look adoringly at me and say, "My good thing is I have the bestest teacher in the whole world!" or something to that effect. I am not completely immune to these sorts of comments, especially when they issue from a red-haired child with a lisp who also cannot say their "r"s. It is no matter that this statement is patently false, or that the owner of this opinion has never had another teacher, and therefore cannot objectively make this judgement. No; I'll take it.

I'll take it because it makes the early mornings and late evenings worthwhile. Because it makes the days when I feel NO ONE IS LISTENING TO A WORD I SAY don't really matter after all. I will take those warming Good Things and hold them in my pocket during the trainings, the meetings, the workshops, and the book clubs, where everyone smiles vapidly while high-talking, exclaiming, sharing baby pictures, and pretending they do everything right and that their hair is really that color.

I am greedy for the hugs and the smiles from these children, and most of all for the moments when their eyes light up and they "get" it! They know how to read a word or they ask a great question or make a connection or prediction to a story. I love knowing that most of the time, they just want someone to let them know they are understood and heard. How much time we adults waste trying to solve their little problems, when all they need is someone to say, "That must have hurt. I'm sorry that happened." while giving them a squeeze and a sympathetic smile. Then off they go, perfectly fine and ready to face the world again.

My biggest challenge has been the Unlikables. There are a few every year. When I go in and make the biggest effort possible to seem to adore these children, to believe in them and pretend I love them, they respond almost instantly. And this? Makes them more likable. It is an important circle to begin, and it is my responsibility. If I fail, then school may always be a trial for these children, and they may fail as well. The Likables will always thrive, because their way is paved by whatever it is that makes the world an easier place for them. It is the Unlikables that need me the most.

The Unlikables are explained in many ways. Not enough love at home. Not enough structure at home. No consistency at home. Poor nutrition, hygiene, and exercise at home. Permissive parenting. Authoritarian parenting. Neglect. Not enough physcial, mental, emotional, and social stimulation at home. Too much TV and video games, not enough books and outdoors. Not enough whole grains, fruits, and veggies. Too many hydrogenated oils, sugars, plastic food, and preservatives. No modeling of appropriate behavior or choices.

And yet, and yet... we expect these children to grow up and be responsible adults? When does THAT happen, if the above is what they experience at home? Are teachers truly meant to "fix" all of this? Will the threat of "merit pay" make teachers fix these children and therefore fix their test scores? Only if we are also paid to enter our students' homes and make the necessary and permanent changes that are so desperately needed there.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it is parents who need merit pay? If parents received merit pay for feeding their children well, making sure they play outside more than they play video games, talking to them, listening to them, reading to them, and understanding them... then I think we just might see test scores rising. Of course, test scores wouldn't show the real benefits, but they might satisfy the complainers. If parents had to be as qualified to have children as we have to be to drive, hunt, fish, teach, and countless other licensed activities, it is likely that our entire society would be much better off.

If the only parents were qualified parents, our health costs would be reduced. Our schools would thrive. Our population would not be over-whelming to our natural resources. Our prisons would be few. Our family values would suit both democrats and republicans. Some may speak of "rights" when it comes to something like this. But since when do rights come without responsibilities? Parents get in over their heads before they know it, all because they think they should have children, but they are unprepared for what is required to do this job well.

I work my very hardest every single day to not only teach the required reading, writing, math, and science, but to teach children to make eye contact, practice empathy, use their imaginations, think for themselves, and most of all, to question and wonder about the world around them. I get them for less than 9 months, and I expect all of this and more of myself. I cannot change their diets of sugar, hormones, dyes, and preservatives. I cannot affect the time they spend on the couch living listlessly in a virtual world while the real and fascinating world is out there, disappearing before our eyes. I cannot convince their parents that children must have limits, boundaries, and choices all at once. I am incapable of proving to these loving parents that parental love is not friendship, that parents have a crucial job to do, and no, they will not receive merit pay for it, but they will give a gift to their child and the world that is immeasurable.

I do not need merit pay. I need to hear from a 5 year old that I am the "bestest teacher in the whole world". but most of all, I need parents to be the "bestest parents in the whole world".


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