Two years and some odd months later, I’m back! Those were some long months of learning myself and the prevailing methods of the American education system, at least through the lens of my Atlanta middle school placement. Much of my reflection was turned toward action-oriented classroom items, many of which were difficult to write about…the problems of poverty and schools manifested in ways much different than I expected! Only after being out of my school do I understand better my experiences (and the children’s experiences) there. It is a continued journey.
While many attribute my struggles to “classroom management” I feel that academic expectations and philosophy play a larger role. In particular, I tried to implement constructivist learning with students who hadn’t been allowed to make many choices or discoveries in school experiences. I expected greater levels of independence, problem-solving, and academic resilience than existed and so did not scaffold tasks sufficiently for my students. I don’t know that I blame the achievement gap, either. As a whole, I think young people learn more about how to play the educational system than to take joy in learning. A novice teacher who focuses on the latter encounters a host of challenges that began far before she stepped foot on campus.
I am fortunate to now be working at a Montessori school, where education looks, feels, and indeed is very different than in a traditional setting. The tangible differences between a Montessori and traditional classroom are telling of the underlying intangible differences. Children work at work tables or on rugs on the floor rather than in solely individual desks; there is no teacher’s desk or large blackboard. Manipulatives are not stored away for some later date, but always available and freely accessible to the children. As such, children learn that they are in control of their learning, not an adult at the front of the room. Their needs and interests matter more than what is convenient to me, their families, or the state. Best of all, they come to me having had this experience of responsive schooling for five to six years.
There are great traditional teachers who do as much and more, but why let the exceptional classroom experience remain the exception? So many solutions within our schools are well-intentioned, but piecemeal, attempts to inject research-based findings into an ineffective system. Teachers should be supported to implement a constructivist, system-wide method of education that responds to children, and children should spend their days moving, discovering, learning with and from peers, making choices, and learning about their world. Children want to experience success and learn the wonders of the universe, not to earn rewards and esteem or avoid punishment.
Let’s rethink how we educate children. What do children learn about themselves through the ways in which we structure their experiences and spaces? Do they know they play a pivotal part in the world not just in the future but today as well? Young people are powerful, curious, strong, and invested. As educators, let’s do our part to preserve those gifts.