Is This Public Enemy Number One?

The following is a guest post by Rebecca Reeder who (in addition to being a lifelong public school and civic educator) is the grandmother of the kids who appear so often on the pages of this blog.  The following article originally appeared in an abbreviated form as a letter to the editor which was published in the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette on Friday, November 15th, 2013.

836_10202178134885875_508770671_nAs a retired teacher I didn’t expect to be brought to tears by attending the Halloween parties at our grandson’s school, but I was.  Our grandson attends a neighborhood school in an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood in the suburbs of Chicago.  He loves his school, loves going to school, and loves his teacher.  Halloween morning was filled with joy and anticipation for him with his costume tucked into his backpack, and for us as we made the 4-hour early morning trip just to do Halloween “stuff” with the kids.  We love visiting the school and tears were not anywhere on my personal radar.

When we arrived at the school, there were parents and other visiting adults in line to sign in as children scurried here and there to find private places to put on their costumes.  We got the message from another parent that our third grader was last seen in the first floor bathroom giddily changing into his long underwear.  Oh my.

While the onslaught of visitors was being expertly and calmly handled by the ever-able school secretary, the principal was giving the disappointing verdict over the PA system.  The plans for an outdoor parade had to be altered due to the weather.  Plan B was activated and the staff prepared to assemble kids and parade through the halls and the auditorium instead of the sidewalks of the quiet residential neighborhood.  Guests were invited to move inside to the designated place, kids made the last-minute alterations to costumes, big kids assisted their reading buddies, teachers lined them all up, and they were off!

As I watched that little costume parade led by the smiling, dedicated 6’3” principal happily dressed as The Cat in The Hat, my mind began to take me to places I hadn’t expected.  Even though watching my grandson parade in his Luke Skywalker costume was wonderful, I found myself focusing more on the costumed teachers walking with our little ones.  On their faces I saw that all too familiar look, expressing the love and dedication they have for their students.  If given a choice, most of them would not have worn witch hats or clown costumes on a Thursday afternoon, if truth be known, many of them might have grumbled about it in private, but they did anyway. They did it for their kids.  They held little hands and let the neighborhood stare at them, because that’s what you do when you are a teacher.

For some reason, those teachers walking in a line with their charges took my mind to images of Sandy Hook, remembering how those courageous teachers led their innocents to safety, hand in hand, eyes closed, through the chaos that had been their school home. It was then that I was again struck by the question, “When did these civil servants become Public Enemy #1?” It was then that the tears started to flow.  It was then that I emotionally revisited the dichotomy of burden and bliss, responsibility and privilege that it is to be a teacher.  Whether teachers are leading children in a Halloween parade, leading them to the bus to travel home, leading them to music class, or leading them to safety after a horrific and violent intrusion of their childhood, they are always leading.  Can’t we give them our hands, our hearts, our support to help them in that awesome task?

In these days of ill-conceived and little understood “school reform” policies of vouchers, charters, competition, evaluation, AYP, common core, and high stakes testing handed down to teachers and administrators by often misguided policy makers, we have lost sight of so many important concepts about school.  First and foremost in my mind on that Halloween day was that the vast majority of people who choose to be educators are a unique breed, willing to take on the enormous responsibility of helping turn our children into participating citizens, all the while knowing that they will be open to review by the entire community. Figuratively, they hold students hands and let the neighborhood stare at them, every day.   Teachers, like students, actually like anyone, will improve when they are understood, appreciated, and supported, not when they are scrutinized, demoralized, and demonized.

The second concept that flooded my heart and mind that day was that schools are microcosms of their neighborhoods. This traditional neighborhood school serves all kids in the district, not just a select few that can afford tuition, not just the ones that qualify, but all of the children that live near each other.  It serves the village.  That little school opened its holiday celebration to the community by planning to parade down the street where the whole neighborhood could watch and enjoy.  That wise principal and staff understood that it does take a village to raise our children and the neighborhood school is the heart of that village.

On that Halloween day there were no tests, no evaluations, no standards, no competitions among schools.  There was just celebration.  Celebration not of a holiday with obscure roots, or of high test scores, but just a celebration of community.

And that ushered in another wave of tears.

Good ones.

–Rebecca Reeder

*Rebecca Reeder has more than 28 years of experience teaching gifted elementary students and is the Embassy Theatre’s education manager and former instructor at IPFW in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  She has traveled the country to teach students and educators about civics and civic education, and has traveled the world to train teachers in remote parts of the developing world.*