It’s hard to believe that the frog is starting kindergarten in the fall. As we get closer to the start of her formal education, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about both education for her and the educational system as a whole. Another thing that’s been thrown into the mix is the fact that we moved from a neighborhood where she wasn’t guaranteed to attend a good, or even safe school to one where she is sure to go to the excellent school within walking distance of the house. Living in our old neighborhood caused me to really think about my criteria for a good school. The biggest thing in my mind isn’t the teachers, special programs, or even the test scores, but where the kids are coming from. A good school for me is a school where most of the kids come from a stable situation. I think this is really important because a class full of (mostly) happy and well-adjusted kids is a class where the teacher can focus on helping them learn rather than on addressing disruptive behavior or helping them feel safe in school.
I’ve come to realize that my definition of a stable home is very different from lots of other parents like me. Stability, for me, is a kid sleeping in the same place each night and taking things like food, cleanliness, heat, and light for granted. They have seasonally appropriate, clean clothes and access to health care. Having these basic needs met implies a caregiver with a baseline level of sanity, but this is sadly not always the case. Consequently, my definition of stability also includes the kid living in a home without violence, untreated mental illness, or addiction. It’s also important that they have least one individual who has provided consistent love and guidance throughout the child’s life. I’ve noticed that most parents like me who have advanced degrees and/or professional jobs tend to judge a home as unstable if it’s a single parent and/or low income home. What I think many of them forget is that the incidence of mental illness and addiction are the same across ethnic and socioeconomic groups. These problems are compounded by a lack of resources to address them, which is why I think they tend to manifest themselves more strongly in individuals in more vulnerable situations. It bothers me that there are people out there who honestly believe that someone who might not have a lot of money is incapable of providing the stability a kid needs to thrive. Sanity, pride, and strong values don’t have a price tag and it’s ridiculous to think that they do. Ironically, the parents that most strongly voice these classist judgments or speak ill of others that adopt a more hands-off approach to parenting have the kind of unruly, poorly behaved kids I wouldn’t want in my daughter’s class. This behavior, in my mind, indicates home that is unstable in its lack of structure and discipline, but that’s a subject for another time.
Assuming most kids come from reasonably stable homes, what else is required to make a good educational environment? I’ve met lots of parents who have thoughtfully made different choices for their kids’s education than sending them to public school. There are people that send their kids to private school or opt out of the educational system all together and do homeschool. There is a whole movement on child-lead or “unschooling”-type education in response to the high-stakes testing that’s become part of the public school system. I agree with the proponents of these educational models that kids learn in different ways and that a heavy dose of direct instruction is harmful to young children. I also agree that visual art, music, sports, and dance are a vital component of education that have virtually disappeared from public schools. Research seems to indicate that a kid’s level of academic readiness is highly individual as is the way in which they develop and master these skills. I think most competent public school teachers are aware of this, but are restricted in how they address these differences by testing requirements and, in some districts, by class sizes.
My kid is starting to read, write, and do simple math so I think she’s ready to be in a more academic environment, but some of her equally intelligent classmates in preschool aren’t. Other pals are in the same place academically, but aren’t able to sit still for long periods of time. Ms Frog is a more sedentary kid who has to forced to move around. She is able to be still and focus on something for a long stretch of time if she’s interested. These qualities, and the fact that there’s quite a bit of structure and discipline in our house will probably help her succeed in the direct instruction-heavy environment that the early grades have become. Other qualities might harm her, though. She tends to be a perfectionist and doesn’t shy away from questioning authority. We’re trying to help her accept failure, but neither one of us wants to raise a robot. Politeness is important, but it’s different from meekness; the former is having the self-respect to treat others kindly while the latter is fear of speaking up. I consider blind acceptance of authority to be a dangerous thing and am consciously trying to raise an outspoken kid. I worry whether this will brand her as disruptive or disrespectful at school, but I’m willing to make that gamble. I think she’s smart enough to learn the difference between disagreement and rudeness, but I’m not sure whether this will play well in a school environment.
Some would argue that this is the case for putting our child into an alternative educational environment. That she’ll be bored in school and her outspoken nature will get her in trouble. This isn't an option both for practical and philosophical purposes. Practically speaking, we live in a rural community where there aren’t too many choices. We can send her to public school or we lose my income so I can homeschool her. I think having me as her primary teacher would ruin our relationship and ultimately result in a poorer educational outcome for her. It works for some types of parent-child relationships, but not ours. Although I have my problems with the educational system, I think it’s a very important element of my child’s socialization. As an adult member of this society, I’m agreeing to abide by certain rules and conventions of behavior to participate. I’m also making choices about how to exercise my autonomy and live in a way that’s consistent with my values in a world with its share of pointless rules, annoying people, and authority figures I don’t always agree with and/or respect. The same is true in a school setting. There will be teachers my child doesn’t like, lessons that don’t interest her, and rules that seem illogical. She will have kids in her class who come from a variety of backgrounds and have different levels of ability. There will also be kids who she dislikes and those who dislike her. Some kids will also come from households with a very different set of values than the ones we have. I see these all as positives. She will have to figure out how to follow the rules and find enough common ground with each kid in her class for them to form a cohesive enough group to learn together. The ability to do this is good preparation for the kind of adult I want her to be; someone who can navigate most of the situations and get along with most of the people she encounters. I see going to public school as the easiest way for my child to learn these important life lessons and it will be interesting to watch how she does this in the years to come.