Tuesday, August 13, 2013

It's Back-to-School Time!

This month is back-to-school time all across the good ol’ USA.

Teachers across the country are groaning as they prepare to take on an entirely new load of students. 

My mother is a high school English teacher (hmmm… why do I enjoy writing so much?) and this semester she has about 140 new students.  That means she has 140 new names to memorize in the next couple of weeks.  That means that each time she assigns homework she has 140 assignments to correct.  When she assigns essays she has 140 essays to correct.  When she gives tests she has 140 tests to correct.  When she gives essay tests… well, you get my point.

And it’s all done outside of work.  And that’s in addition to any school activities or clubs she helps with.  And in addition to notifying parents when their children are falling behind.  And in addition to assisting students who need extra help with their work.  And in addition to dealing with the interpersonal issues that students are having.  I won’t even get into the effects on the teachers’ emotions as they watch and listen and provide counsel to students as they go through high times and hard times.

Yeah, teachers are soo overpaid.  They are soo lazy.  Let’s cut more funding to education. 

Sorry, that’s my rant, not hers.  My mother is mostly quiet on the subject of teachers being overworked and on government budget cuts.  I got to witness the challenges teachers and school employees face first-hand a couple of years ago when I worked in one of our area high schools as a study-hall monitor for a semester. 

And Dubuque, Iowa has it pretty good as far as education spending goes compared to the rest of the country.  We recently built a new middle school and a couple of new elementary schools.  The district did have some layoffs a couple of years ago but as far as I understand most of those teachers have been rehired in one way or another.

But across the country our nation’s school system is struggling.  Think Madison, Chicago, New York and countless other cities across the country that have made headlines in recent years because of cuts to spending and community support.

Just listen to this episode of This American Life from June 14, 2013.  Start at 38:00 (better yet, listen to the whole thing because it talks about some amazing things - including at  27:30 an eye-opening interview with an old schoolmate of mine who is a reporter for Rolling Stone and was at Guantanamo Bay) where Ira Glass is talking to Jason Pitman, a 38-year old teacher who won an award for teacher of the year in the 2012/2013 school year.  It was also Jason’s last year as a teacher.   Here you have an incredibly dedicated young teacher who’s helping to teach science – a subject which our country is severely falling behind in – and he is quitting because he has to fundraise to keep his program going every year.

The US school system is in desperate need of a makeover. 

I was never a good student. 

A couple of weeks ago my mom asked me to go to their house and look through some old school papers she’d found in a filing cabinet.  Among the many adorable things we found (like a letter telling Patrick Swayze that he’s just the most awesomest actor ever and a tattle-letter I left on the kitchen counter one morning before school to let my mom my brother had been picking on me) was a First Grade report card.  In the category of Completes Work on Time it had a comment “Annie has trouble completing her homework on time and seems more interested in the work that her classmates are doing.” Sigh

Even in First Grade I couldn’t sit down and do my homework.  That trend continued into high school and then into college. 

It was never learning that I had a problem with – I love to learn and continue to educate myself in topics that I feel uneducated about.  What I always I had a problem with was doing required readings and being taught subjects that I had no interest in learning.  It was like being force-fed vegetables without being told the health benefits.  I was never told why I needed to learn these things.  I was never told why I needed to be actively focusing in school instead of daydreaming of a story I wanted to write.

I absolutely understand the importance of students learning a wide variety of subjects, and even though I didn't have an interest in learning certain things in school, doesn't mean I don't think it was right to try to teach me those things.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like our school system does little to get students excited about learning. 

And you know what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older? 

Learning is pretty. damn. exciting.

I’m not blaming the teachers because they are merely the tools that our government uses to convey its highly-standardized curriculum and they have to do what they have to do to keep their jobs and some teachers do an amazing job of getting their students involved even with the limitations the system places on them. 

But this system of standardized testing, and metrics, and basing school funding off of student performance on standardized testing… well, I’m sure that people far more knowledgeable on the subject than I have written copious articles about the problems with this system and ways we can fix the system**. 

But plain and simple – it’s not working. 

We’re leaving behind a large number of our students by failing to take into account that not everyone learns in the same manner.   

I have to adjust to this in my career as a Trainer.  My training program has to encompass a wide variety of learning styles in order for it to work for my staff.  I’m always revising and tailoring it to fit individual trainees. 

It’s sometimes exhausting and the most “students” I’ve ever had at one time is 3.  Imagine doing that with 140 students.

I recently learned about the Swiss education system when my family visited a couple of weeks ago.  I have to say, when I heard about it, claiming dual citizenship with the mother-country sounded like a damn good idea.

I’m interested in what my international friends think of the school system in your countries – do you think it works for your youth?  How does the school system work in your country?  Is university pretty much compulsory in order to get a good job?  Do you do apprenticeships?

Anyone else in the US think that our system is flawed, or did it work for you?

Let’s talk about it!

Much love,
Annie Jay

**To start, here are some awesome TED Talks on education:

Ken Robinson - How to Escape Education's Death Valley
Geoffrey Canada - Our failing schools. Enough is enough!
And for even more - TED Talks About Education

And this interesting interview with Mike Rowe from Real Time with Bill Maher 


  1. If you haven't already seen it, check out an awesome documentary on the US school system called "Waiting for Superman".

    1. I'm definitely going to have to check that out!

  2. The school system here is pretty terrible overall: teachers should be paid what movie stars make. Seriously. My grandma taught special ed (ie the disciplinary cases) in a small country school for most of her career: even the most unruly high schoolers respect her because she's terrifyingly calm and firm. Ha. But she told me once that teaching has changed so significantly since she started (50 years ago) that only people "called" to teaching should do it. She equates it with a religious calling, because there's SO much crap involved that has nothing to do with teaching kids.

    Oh, and my husband gives me all sorts of crap every summer in August: I LOVE LOVE LOVE school supply season, even though I haven't been in school for ages. I love www.thegreatcourses.com because I can buy college classes on DVD when I have time to learn more. :)

    1. Totally agree, I knew people when I was in University that were applying to Teachers College because they had a Liberal Arts degree and didn't know what else to do with it so they decided to become teachers even though they didn't really have any desire to become one, it was like the profession by default.

    2. You definitely hear a lot of people who "fall back" on teaching. I love how in that audio clip the guy is like "Well, if all else fails I can fall back on my dream job".

      I agree that teachers are supremely underpaid for the amount of real time work that they put in. Between: grading homework and tests; developing lesson plans; taking classes on their own to keep up their certifications; parent-teavher conferences and meetings... the list goes on and on.

      It really does require a person to have a real love for it because of all they're expected to do!

  3. I don't get the whole "return to school in August" thing. We go back in September (no way Canadians are giving up the summer!)

    Each province has it's own education system and unfortunately perhaps they're not as supported as they should be.

    I, too, would totally move to a Scandinavian socialist country. 'Cause socialism's my thing.

    1. Ahhh I used to be so jealous of my cousins in Wisconsin because they always used to start back in VERY late August or early September. It seems that every year though the schools in our area are moving closer and closer to year-round schooling.

      And of course you Canadians aren't going to give yo your summers - you have hell for winter! ;-p

      Do you know if your central government dictates any of the curriculum at your schools?

      And Switzerland is actually very Democratic - more so than the US. Citizens vote on many of the laws that the central government wants to put into place.

      But yes, Socialism in theory is pretty rad. If only this world were Utopian and didn't thrive on greed!

  4. Oofta! This is the last time I post comments from my phone. Sorry for all the typos up there!