Phil Gulley: A Lesson On Education

A lot of it happens during summer, and theory has nothing to do with it.

August 20173 Comments

I have a psychologist friend who takes it upon himself to keep me apprised of America’s mental health. Recently, he cheerfully informed me that American children are unhappier than ever. I’m around a lot of kids, most of whom seem pretty chipper to me, but I’m not dissecting them to study their emotional innards like he is. He has several theories for the rise in gloom, though I have my own thoughts—too much indoor time, not enough time for unfettered exploration, and too many parents living vicariously through their children. The solution, of course, is ending school in May and starting it back in September as we used to do. Every child should experience the joy of stepping out of school on a spring afternoon, knowing an entire unplanned summer stretches before them. Of course, we’ll have to resist the temptation to enroll them in every sport known to man and stop worrying about creating “meaningful moments,” trusting kids can do that for themselves if we get out of their way.

A woman I know gave up her teaching career, pronounced herself a consultant on childhood, and began giving workshops for school corporations, raking in five times what she had made in the classroom. (Schools headed south about the time we started referring to them as corporations.) She meets with school boards and superintendents, who cast off last year’s educational theory like old underwear and sign on to hers, turning teachers and students into a hot and muddled mess. She was no wizard in the classroom, but now promises to motivate thousands of students, provided they follow her plan. As far as I can tell, having read her program, she believes in “the teacher being an impactful presence in the classroom.” She used the word “impactful”—which has never seemed like a real word to me, no matter what Merriam-Webster says—three times in the first paragraph. No word should be used if people want to smack you for using it.

The school-choice crowd believes competition is the cure for what ails our kids, though I suspect it’s a slick way to divert public funds into private pockets. An oft-mentioned advantage of charter schools is their sensitivity to parental demands, as if that were a good thing. I received a first-rate education from teachers who didn’t give a flying fig about parental demands. If a parent had demanded something from my algebra teacher, Rosemary Helton, they would have been shown the door. Mrs. Helton feared neither man nor beast, only ignorance, so combated it daily.

One evening during my freshman year of high school, I opened our front door to find Mrs. Helton, wanting to know if I had finished my homework. When I hesitated, she led me to our dining room table, and for the next hour preached on the glories of math, until I gave my heart to algebra. I attended her church of numbers for two years and never once saw her ease off the pedal. She paid no mind to any deficits we possessed, insisting anyone could learn algebra, which like all things of beauty was simple and pure. Today, her unwillingness to make allowances for the less-able students, her insistence that math was within everyone’s grasp, would cause experts to shudder. I was one of those less-able students, so I  whined to my mother, also a teacher, who told me to quit complaining and do my work. All my life I’ve been surrounded by women keeping my hand to the plow.

I returned to my high school last year to speak to a class about writing, and noticed several of the teachers wearing jeans. I never saw Mrs. Helton in jeans, though she sometimes wore sweatpants. In addition to teaching math, she also coached girls’ tennis, moving between her two roles without a costume change. Being taught math by a short, portly woman in sweatpants gave the whole enterprise the feel of a sporting contest. We were on Mrs. Helton’s team and she was our coach, urging us on to victory.

During our summer break, which was then three splendid months and not the handful of weeks in July children get now, I would see Mrs. Helton at the town park, teaching tennis to any kid who showed up carrying a racket. Talk about an impactful presence—she stalked the sideline, pointing out angles, working in a little math, refuting the myth that it had no value in the everyday world.

I think about Mrs. Helton whenever I hear someone propose a new theory of education. If you had asked her theory, she would have thought you’d lost your mind. “Theory?” she would have barked. (She barked a great deal.) “You keep at it until you know it, that’s my theory!”

We need fewer theoreticians in education today and more people like Mrs. Helton. And for God’s sake, we must keep out the politicians, who are incapable of running the Statehouse, let alone the schoolhouse. Unfortunately, today’s officials want to do everything but the one thing we hired them to do—impartially manage the affairs of state.

The Rosemary Heltons still exist, but my Lord, how we’ve complicated their task with our endless meddling, with our insistence that our children are either gifted or troubled, with our refusal to ditch the televisions, video games, and smartphones that have given them the attention span of a gnat. So I’ll propose my educational theory: Let the teachers teach, let the principals oversee, let the superintendents be part-time, insist the parents do their jobs so the teachers can do theirs, and impeach any politician who piles on regulations while cutting funds. There, that was simple, wasn’t it?

While we’re at it, let’s put to rest the lie that a child’s education ends the moment they leave the classroom. My summers were a steady diet of earth sciences (rock collecting), engineering (treehouses),  astronomy (stargazing), and economics (funding my Dairy Queen Buster Bar habit). Summer is the finest classroom ever devised for the young mind.

I don’t want to become some geezer always lamenting the sad condition of modern life. The world is still a marvel to me, a wonderland of potential and progress. But that doesn’t mean change is always advancement. Additional time in school isn’t an improvement if that time isn’t better spent, any more than extra money spent on a wedding assures a solid marriage. Perhaps we should pause and reflect on the question posed by the celebrated wordsmith, George W. Bush: “Is our children learning?” Apparently, not since Mrs. Helton died.

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