I've always liked that quote because I think it really says what the goal of education should really be. I also think it sets a precedence for why we need to focus on teaching character in schools. While I don't believe that our schools should be responsible for all aspects of education, I also know that too many of our children are not learning critical character and lifeskills that they need. When they don't, not only do they suffer in school but they continue to lag behind in the skills they need to be successful in life.
Tell me if you've heard this argument: the principal or administrator says social skills/character/values education shouldn't be part of school curriculum because it shoul be taught in the home. "It's not the school's place." Okay...then what about...
- In this country, we have a policy that children will be taught in the English language. But, what if they can't speak English because their parents are from another culture or country? School: " Well, we HAVE to teach them English because without it, they'll be behind academically and socially. Besides, if we don't teach them, where else will they learn it?"
- Too many children are overweight and unfit -- because of poor diet, lack of exercise, other unhealthy habits and behaviors. Teaching them about nutrition and the value of healthy living should be the parents' jobs, right? School: "But so much of their learning and being a successful student depends on making good food choices, watching their weight, and getting appropriate levels of exercise. If the parents don't practice good nutrition, where else will they learn it?"
- Food programs -- why is it the schools' responsibility to offer meals at free and reduced costs to kids? Isn't it the parent's job to make sure their children are fed? School: "Well, if the parents are unable to feed their kids, we have to provide meals because so much of the child's abilities to pay attention and function in school is hampered if they haven't eaten. If parent's don't provide for their kids, where else will they get it?"
These are just a few examples of other "non-academic" programs that are offered daily in our nation's schools, yet technically should not be the responsibility of the school system. Yet, we do it...because, in essence we MUST. The health and success of the child academically, phyically, socially DEPENDS on it.
Yet I get this "it's not the school's job" argument regularly about social skills and character ed. Hey, I am the FIRST person who would agree that it SHOULDN'T have to fall on the school's shoulders to teach these "life skills" but the reality is that the schools suffer in all areas because kids lack appropriate school-readiness skills.
Social skills are the #1 factor in our children's personal and professional success. Kids that come into school without adequate school-readiness skills start off behind their more socialized peers academically,socially, and emotionally. Without effective intervention or education, they are likely to remain behind, and will exit the school system inadquately prepared for either college or the job market.
More significantly, poor social skills affects not just one individual learner or subject, but every aspect of the student's learning and the educational environment as a whole. A student isn't more likely to fail academically just because he or she is overweight. A teacher isn't likely to quit her job if a few of her students aren't proficient in English. A student won't start a smackdown with his peers if he doesn't know the components of the FDA Food Pyramid. But, all these things are direct or indirect results of appropriate social skills.
Schools have so much to lose (and ARE losing) if this area isn't addressed. Taxpayer dollars are wasted, teachers are demoralized, school violence continues to be at epidemic levels, students underachieve and the achievement gap for low-income and minority students remains high. Yes, teaching social skills and character HAS become the school's job because we can no longer depend on students coming to school ready to learn and participate in a classroom environment. As one teacher recently said, "with all the interruptions and disruptions in the classroom that stem from students who aren't respectful of teachers and peers, don't appreciate their educational opportunities and can't get along with others, when is the real teaching supposed to happen?"
School's necessary response: "If the kids don't learn good social skills outside of school, where else will they learn?"
I'm saddened, but not surprised.
Public Agenda released a report yesterday ("Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today") that provided some fascinating insight into what teachers are thinking and feeling about their jobs and education in general.
Approximately 900 K-12 teachers were surveyed and the questions were extensive. What Public Agenda found is that 40% of those teachers are "disheartened" and disappointed about their jobs. While many will review this data and immediately say, "Great, but 60% are content!" that's not a fair statement. It's significant that nearly half are unhappy.
But the "why" is even more telling. Those teachers that reported being discouraged, nearly 75% of them blame discipline and behavior issues. And, over 60% of them cite lack of support from their administration as another factor.
For years I've been saying that teacher satisfaction depends a great deal on their working environment. When you recognize that too much time that should be spent on teaching goes instead to "discipline and behavior issues," it's not hard to connect the dots for why teachers are having a tough time. Imagine ANY other "business" where you were losing 30/40/50% of your "work time" on dealing with other people's behaviors or discipline problems -- it just wouldn't be acceptable. You'd get frustrated because you couldn't get your job done, and you'd feel completely dragged down at the end of the day.
Let's put it in the teacher's perspective. I happened on another site yesterday where there was an Op-Ed from Michelle Obama on teachers -- how valuable and important they were, recalling with nostaligia the teacher who always stood out. One teacher's comments were particularly interesting (I'm paraphrasing, but I've retained the general gist):
"...it becomes extremely difficult to teach the core subject areas when the idea of character and life skills are not being taught at home. I feel like I am constantly addressing "life" skills and teaching the students how to act appropriately, before the actual teaching begins. There is simply not enough time in the day to give lessons on lifeskills then manage to actually teach them something academic. Additionally, there is CONSTANT interruption in the classroom because students do not know how to respect themselves, their teacher, or their classmates, which takes another portion of the day to give lessons on this. When does the actual teaching begin?"
This is not an isolated case, as the Public Agenda study shows. This teacher goes on to advocate character education teachers in the classroom, as a separate but standard course of study, subject-matter experts like math or science. That part I don't agree with because isolating it as a separate subject continues to treat it like an unrelated skill. Our character, our values, our behavior should be a constant, no matter whether we are at PE, on the playground, learning math, at the library. It IS what and who we are.
But the general concept is valid. As she continues:
"If the government treated Character Education as another core subject area, then I feel that behavior would improve and student respect for learning would increase."
And, as we know, when we integrate social skills education into the core, other good things happen -- test scores go up; bullying disappears; absenteeism goes down; teachers, students and staff are happier and more satisfied. These problems can't be fixed in any other way -- not by applying more money, creating smaller classes, or building more charter schools. All those things, in absence of addressing classroom discipline issues, won't be enough to turn the ship around. It really IS at the core of the problems in our schools, and now we have another study that helps support what I've said in the past: the 3Rs aren't enough. It's the missing Rs (Respect, Reliability, Responsibility, Resourcefulness, Resilience) that our kids aren't learning that's hurting everyone.