A topic that repeatedly comes up in education are standards. Whether it is the misinformed outlash that has been brought about by the Common Core or the scores that arise from the standardized testing, most conversations about education seems to hover around the same place: standards. We could talk about this subject all day and not get anywhere. For now, let’s put aside the fact that the number of content standards in each subject is insurmountable and cannot be covered in any real depth and the fact that teaching at the speed required to touch all the standards would leave a majority of the students in the dust. Let’s just focus on one major flaw: teaching content first means putting kids second. Every major educational reform enacted has focused first on what we are teaching, with very little thought given to who we are teaching. We will not experience true change in education until we, as a country, realize that teaching and learning are more about addressing the needs of the whole child than what we are teaching. We can stack the deck with the most grounded and well-meaning set of standards and continue to have dismal results. That is why every time I hear a legislator talking about education reform in terms of standards and testing, I shake my head and flip the channel. The truth is that not one bit of it matters until we first honor the humanity of our students.
The classroom and school culture is one of the greatest factors in determining the ultimate success of the students in the building. Creating a powerful culture of learning is impossible if we do not honor the individuality and brilliance of the class constituents. Our environment cannot be made right if we do not first start with the relationships that we have with each other. I have watched as many well-intentioned teachers have pushed through content and have force fed information in an attempt to reach the ever-moving finish line. The result: students who feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and left-behind along with a wavering and often chaotic class culture. When we as teachers feel like we are leading our students on a death march, we can be assured that those on the march are feeling the strain. In an effort to get our students to learn, we are actually marching the joy out of learning.
So often we hear teachers and administrators say that they want to create students who are lifelong learners. How can we create lifelong learners if we have sapped the joy out of learning?
Seasoned teachers know that true learning only happens when we have created a culture that supports learning. We need to create classrooms where we put students first— where the needs of the students come before all else. We need to realize that the only way that a lasting impact can be made is when we get the students to come to the table of their own learning. The basic needs of our students must be met in order for this change to take place. This means that we need to address the students as unique individuals not just empty vessels that we need to fill with knowledge. Positive relationships built on trust are the greatest currency that we can use to bring about a lasting shift in the habits of our students. Instead of creating prizes and gimmicks to motivate students, we need to build classroom cultures where students are motivated because they want to become the best versions of themselves. Whose education is it anyway?
So the next time that I hear a politician or educational consultant yammering on about how they found the thing that will change education, I will turn away knowing that it won’t make a bit of difference unless we start putting kids first. As Aristotle once said: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”