The Disappearance of Joy

What do you remember about kindergarten?

I remember:

  • Those cute little carpet squares for rest time and cubbies for winter coats
  • The Dick and Jane books and the artist’s easels where we could all be Picasso for the afternoon
  • My favorite place: the book nook! And the smell of paste and the thrill of using safety scissors
  • The yellow, upright piano where Mrs. Greene would sing the hello and goodbye songs each day
  • I remember making a Christmas tree out of an old paper towel tube that we glued with different sizes pieces of green-painted pasta

There is a piece dated yesterday in The Washington Post by Valerie Strauss that should make every parent in America angry.

In it, the author shares the story of a Massachusetts kindergarten teacher who became so fed up with the endless requirements, testing, standards, methods, and assessments (which she believes are robbing her students of an optimum learning environment and taking her out of the classroom for inordinate amounts of time), that she gave her notice.

“We (her colleagues) found ourselves in professional development work being challenged to teach KINDERGARTNERS to form persuasive arguments, and to find evidence in story texts to justify or back up a response they had to a story.  What about teaching children to write and read through the joy of experiencing a story together, or writing about their lives and what is most important to them?  When adults muck about too much in the process of learning to read and write, adding additional challenge and pressure too soon, many children begin to feel incompetent and frustrated.  They don’t understand. They feel stupid.  Joy disappears.“  (the bold and all caps are mine.)

Her resignation letter is included in full on the site. This is a teacher who worked for 18 years in the public school system. You can feel the passion she has for her students and her profession in this piece. And you can hear her heartbreak as she tells of her decision to leave.

“I began to feel a deep sense of loss of integrity.  I felt my spirit, my passion as a teacher, slip away.  I felt anger rise inside me.  I felt I needed to survive by looking elsewhere and leaving the community I love so dearly.  I did not feel I was leaving my job.  I felt then and feel now that my job left me.

What I found most interesting about this whole piece was how many times (I count 12) that she refers to the amount of time she has to spend outside of her classroom, away from her students to attend meetings/conferences/workshops so she can learn about new methodologies, assessments, and standards to which she and her colleagues would be held. Take that number and contrast it with the amount of times she makes any mention of additional compensation for the extraordinary amount of personal time spent out of the classroom (I count twice – but note that she isn’t spiteful; she is a realist. She mentions that she and her colleagues simply asked if they could apply some paid leave to compensate for the time).

I don’t have any recollection at all of tests or memorizing math facts because, um, it was KINDERGARTEN. I also don’t recall there being a student teacher to occupy the class while my teacher was off at a conference or another meeting to learn more about how she will be held accountable for every little thing I would learn or worse, might fail to learn.

Let me just say that I have absolutely zero background in education apart from my own schooling (K-12, associate degree and a bachelor’s degree) and a good part of my professional career working for a stellar two-year school in upstate New York in PR, not as an educator. I am not a teacher, but I have one child in the public school system and another one ready to begin soon. As a parent, I want the best for my kids. I want them to love learning just like I did. I can rattle off all of my elementary school teachers easily and recall at least five or six fond memories from each grade. I adored school and yes, I excelled at school. But I attribute that not to some innate gift but rather to the ability of my teachers to motivate me and get me excited to learn. The last thing I want for my kid, or any kid, is for them to feel stressed or pressured into performing for some arbitrary standard that may or may not mean anything in the long term, but that will surely frustrate the hell out of them in the short term.

Let me also say that I am a big believer in testing. How else can we know we’ve mastered a particular subject or concept well enough to progress? I’m not a believer in the “every kid gets an award for participation” thing. In fact, I think that’s the most ridiculous concept. There are tests in life and you either pass or fail or fall somewhere in between. That said, I firmly believe that when learning is forced and play is either compromised or reduced to an extracurricular activity ESPECIALLY IN THE EARLY CHILDHOOD YEARS, that we’re doing a great disservice to our kids. And to the teachers who teach them.

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