The first day of school: the perennial parent arrived back early and unwelcome from vacation to shut down the house party of summer.
And yet…there is something about a crisp notebook filled with blank pages and a fistful of carefully sharpened pencils that reminds us that new seasons bring fresh starts and renewed spirits. We come to our new desks, set up our new supplies, crack the spines of new books (well, new to us, at least). The world is once again our oyster. And maybe, this year will finally be the year where one of us figures out what the heck that phrase even means.
We all deserve new beginnings. We humans are fragile creatures, and we learn best by doing. That means we make a lot of mistakes, but doing so is good for our brains, which in turn is good for the survival of our species.
Schools, therefore, must become places that welcome mistakes as opportunities to teach. By reframing those line items on The Permanent Record (or the daily color-coded bulletin board of public shamings, two variations on the same concept) as missteps or learning experiences, we can begin to foster a culture of trust and mutual respect.
What does this mean? A complete overhaul of school culture and policies as it relates to discipline and assessments? Radically different schools and classrooms and bureaucracies?
Well, maybe eventually.
But I am talking about a more individual sort of revolutionary act here. I’m not talking about a revolution of systems here. I’m talking about a revolution in attitude.
Really? A revolution on the first day? What does any of this have to do with the first day of school?
Everything. Bear with me.
We students, parents and school employees (districts and politicians would call us all “key stakeholders”) each can begin to change our own little corner of the universe. Look, we can’t all be boycotting on a massive scale like our friends in Newark. We can’t all be marching on capitol buildings and city councils. We can’t all fight every battle.
But we can change small things so that we can foster understanding, teamwork, and -dare I say it? - solidarity between parents, teachers, support staff, admins and most importantly STUDENTS.
Those who work in schools can begin their fresh pages by tucking all of their data (from tests, IEPs, grades, discipline files, etc.) carefully inside the back cover of the notebook. Yes, please, know it, but more crucially, interpret it! Know what it means. Know the real correlations and causations.
But then forget it. Know all of the kids by name, not numbers. Parents and students won’t respect you if they are only a number to you. Trust me, from the middle class on down, we are treated like numbers instead of individual humans everywhere we go. It is worse for people of color. Worse for the poor. If you don’t want to be treated like you are a part the worst, most cruel, dehumanizing, systemically racist and class-biased, overblown and corrupt bureaucracy, you should probably behave in a way that makes it clear that you are one of the good guys instead of mirroring that which you claim to abhor.
The best way to do that is to keep The Data in its proper context, which is secondary to the real data: names and up-to-the-minute biographical data.
In other words, if you smile genuinely, shake hands warmly and firmly, know people by name, care about their lives outside of school, and give people the benefit of the doubt, you’ll find that you will be pleasantly surprised.
If you expect everyone to engage with you negatively, well, that is a self-fulfilling prophesy. There are no bad kids, but kids sometimes make bad choices or do bad things, which is a fancy way of saying kids make mistakes. So do parents.
Let’s make sure every student and family gets the fresh start we all so desperately need.
Students really do need that fresh start. As adults, we all remember that one year where we grew up a lot physically over the summer. This year, my sixth grader has returned to school to find that he is taller than his principal and at least a few teachers.
Yet we often fail to see the other ways kids grow dramatically over the summer. Three months is a large percentage of your life when you are only a decade or two old. We adults need to remember what that feels like.
Remember that year you reinvented yourself with the new hair, new clothes, new friends, new nickname? Remember how important finding yourself through trial and (mostly) error was to your personal development?
Kids deserve blank pages. Lots of them. Think of it as scratch paper. Our job as parents and teachers is to keep an ample supply and be there to take their hand each time they tear up a draft.
But please, oh please hear me on this, dear students. Use your paper well. Just as trees are sacrificed to make your paper, there are sacrifices made to supply each and every opportunity you are given.
Make no mistake: you have to work for it. The fresh starts are not infinite, and while they are ideal, they are rare.
You have to show people that you deserve one. It isn’t fair. But it is true. So meet us part way, students.
Give your parents and teachers a fresh start.
Remember that we do have a lot of wisdom and experience and expertise that you can use to your benefit.
Remember that we are well-meaning and want what is best for you, but we are humans, too, and we make mistakes. Give us the benefit of the doubt. We may be misguided, but most of the time, we are trying to help you.
Please be patient with us. We still have so much to learn and so much to unlearn.
Your teachers are anxious too. That stressed-out, high-intensity stuff you students feel right now? Your teachers care about you. They worry about you when they are at home. We adults all worry about how you will fare in the cruel world we have failed to make safe for you.
And your teachers also tell the world about your accomplishments. They yap all over social media about the stuff they are preparing for you. They are annoying at dinner parties because they talk about their students All. The. Time.
They may seem like your worst enemy, but your teachers aren’t out to get you. They are just trying to get you on track. And even if you and your teacher never really click, find what it is that you can learn from that teacher and that situation. File it away. Those are the kind of life lessons that can’t be seen in a standardized test score. Claim those life lessons; they belong to you and you will refer to them more than your class notes.
And parents, please: let’s give our kids and the schools a blank page. Teachers are trying to teach under increasingly surreal education policies that threaten both their livelihoods AND our kids’ well-being. Admins are starting to wake up slowly. Not all of them, but some of them are, and where some dare to lead, other frustrated admins will eventually follow.
They will be more likely to speak out against bad policies if they know the parents have their back.
Those teachers you think are just cogs in the machine may well be trying to dismantle it quietly from the inside. Laws and zero-tolerance policies on approved teacher speech may be forcing them to mislead you or leave you uninformed about testing and other education policies.
Budget cuts forced by decades of underfunding and shortsighted tax and education policies are responsible for the lost teachers and programs. If you are mad at the teachers and admins for being understaffed or underfunded, you are misdirecting your anger.
Parents can give schools a fresh start by getting informed. Come to meetings, volunteer, make appointments to meet teachers, administrators and staff. Read local news about schools and local politics. Reach out through email, by phone or with notes to stay in touch with the teachers. Find a way to incorporate connecting with school into your schedule. Every family has different abilities, different concerns and different needs, but everyone can get involved in their own way.
Be a part of the team that is educating your kids.
Look over your child’s work, and focus on the positive. Let’s ease those first-week jitters (or daily jitters for far too many kids these days) with positive reinforcement. Let’s correct those missteps by using them to help kids troubleshoot their own lives rather than wasting our short hours together with punitive measures that rob us of precious family time. Especially when our overworked and stressed out kids are crying out of sheer exhaustion and frustration.
Home needs to be a refuge, and for many of us that means opening our doors to other kids in our lives. Keep the generic cheesy poof canister filled and some extra homework pencils in a cup on the windowsill. Offer to walk that neighbor kid that is always alone and 15 minutes late to school so his worn out mom can get 3 hours of sleep between her first and second jobs. And don’t be afraid to ask others to help you.
Together we can keep our kids off the streets and in school.
When I was a girl, the first day was often about making friends, hearing the rules, getting used to the schedule, and learning the ropes. As an adult who studies social science and human behavior and culture, I recognize that as the work of building community.
That is what we do every year on those first late summer days, as we carry our reams and binders of blank pages, our sharpened pencils and our boundless imaginations through the doors, down the halls and to our new desks.
What kind of communities will we be building in the 2014-2015 school year?
It is an important question on which to reflect this week.
The communities we choose to build today with our tiny, individual revolutions of behavior and attitude are the foundations on which all future large-scale changes will be built.
It is up to us to build a community so strong it can withstand outside pressures. The corruption, the structural racism, the class bias, the divisiveness, the segregation, the corporate interests, the politics: they all matter. They are killing us. The people in charge are setting fire to civilization and hiding in a panic room with a string quartet playing while the rest of us and our children burn.
Their strategy is brilliant: make record profits off of the exploitation of the masses! It is a tried and true classic.
But it has one weakness.
It only works until we realize we can work together to put out the fires.
The sooner we stop playing our assigned roles in this system and realize we are all on the same side, the better.
We have to stop letting the broken system direct our own attitudes and behaviors. Maybe we have to work around some education policy that looks like it was dreamed up by Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte, but we don’t have to go and sprout another butt where our brains should be.
If a system is designed to divide and conquer (and I think it is pretty clear by now that modern education policy in America fits that charge), then treating others with respect (instead of as our adversaries) is an act of open rebellion.
The framework cannot contain us if we exploit its weakness: it only works if the majority of people are hateful and negative towards each other. When we start treating each other with respect and patience, we start building bridges and gaining allies. We start standing up for each other. We start finding our own voices and following and supporting leaders who come from amongst our own. Leaders who value us as equal humans deserving equal opportunities. Leaders who cannot be bought because their fight is our fight.
Maybe the 2014-2015 school year is the year we finally start extinguishing the flaming strangers all around us so that we can rise from the ashes en masse to build a culture of respect in all our schools.