Category Archives: Opinions on education

What Has Happened to Education?

Or I guess my real question is has it always been this bad and I just didn’t know it? You see, I went to a high-end private school and received an excellent early education. At the time I didn’t know anything different, so it was just school, and I thought school was school for everyone.

I’ll spare you the long and detailed story of why, but I didn’t go to university until I was in my 30’s and even then, teaching was not my first choice of careers. Heck, it wasn’t my 5th choice but here I am, a teacher.

I didn’t hear the term critical thinking until university. My response was an audible laugh and “you mean thinking???” Everything I had ever been taught about what thinking was was suddenly being called critical thinking…as if there were a different kind of thinking.

Fast forward 8 years. At this point I was working the most amazing, most fulfilling job of my life (and I’ve had a lot of jobs). I was a middle school teacher and I had never, ever been so happy in my life. I had never even imagined life could be so fulfilling.

Sometimes I would encounter things that confused me a bit. Because I was in my mid-thirties but brand new to teaching my boss checked in on me often. One day she wanted to ask me about how I was teaching reading and she used a term I had never heard before: close reading. I told her I had never heard that term before and a look of oh-my-god-what-have-I-done-placing-this-woman-in-a-classroom came over her face.

She explained to me what close reading was and I was like oh! You mean reading. Yeah. I know how to read, and I know how to teach reading. She insisted it wasn’t just reading. It was close reading. I teach a combined class of 7th and 8th graders and we can take up to an hour to read two pages in book. Every time the author uses interesting words, I stop whoever’s reading and we discuss word choice. We discuss figurative speech, symbolism, and theme. We discuss character motivation. We relate what the character is going through in the book to personal experiences my students have had. I don’t just listen to them say the words. I teach them how to read. To read, one must feel and understand the meaning of the words. Other than that, it’s just saying words. So yeah. My students learn how to read.

If teaching a student to understand the meaning behind the words is called close reading, then what the heck is plain ol’ reading? I got my answer to that. A year or so later I had a student in my class that was a very poor reader. This student had a younger sibling and I asked that child’s teacher how she was with reading. The teacher responded fine. She’s a good reader. Now understanding… that’s another thing. She can read the words, but she doesn’t understand what any of the words mean so she doesn’t get anything from it. I just looked at her, cocked my head and said, “so she can’t read?” The teacher responded, “No she can read she just doesn’t understand any of it.”

So here we’ve got a problem with word meaning. I don’t care at all if the kid can pronounce masters level words, if they don’t know what the words mean then they’re not reading. It’s like the word belief. It can mean two different things. If someone asks me, do you believe in the bible. Well, yeah, I believe there is a book called the Bible, but do I believe in the Bible as in it’s the inspired written word of a god? Then no I don’t believe in the Bible.

I couldn’t believe this fellow teacher was telling me a student was a good reader, but she couldn’t understand any of the words. It threw me into a bit of an existential crisis. What are we doing to children if we’re basing their reading level only on whether they can pronounce the words or not?

Another creepy story from education: I had an 8th grader that once several years ago had been held back, so by age he was a year older than his classmates. At the beginning of the year he didn’t know how to multiply. Now I’m not saying he didn’t have his times tables memorized. I’m saying he didn’t understand multiplication. He was 13! How was I supposed to be teaching him pre-algebra if he couldn’t even do basic multiplication?

Everyone at the school but my own husband told me this student was a lost cause. I was told to not even try with him. Just give him a calculator and teach him how to use it. Everyone said if he’s this old and hasn’t learned his times tables by now he never will. My husband was on my side. He believes in me.

The parents were on board. I can’t dismiss for a second how much help they were at home. They worked with him daily and they got a math tutor for him.

I never let the boy slide by even once in the classroom. All year long I expected him to do the same work his classmates did. Yeah, sure, it took him longer than everyone else, but I made him do it. I made him not only memorize his times tables but understand them. Why is this the answer? This goes back to the same issue with reading. I don’t care if a child can spout out math facts to me if they don’t understand what they’re doing and how the answer is what it is then what’s the point?

That student not only learned how to do multiplication he finished my pre-algebra class, moved on to algebra and passed that class too. The boy almost every other teacher I know told me to give up on, the boy everyone said was a lost cause is now thriving in school. The child that was just barely passing any of his classes (and that was with very creative grading) is doing well in in all of his classes now. He needed someone to believe in him and challenge him while everyone but me wanted to give up on him.

One more story: Since I work in an international school environment, I get new to the school students all the time. Their parents were transferred here for some reason or another, they went to school in different country until now, and here they are in my classroom today. By the time they get to me many of my students are attending their 4th or 5th school.

One time I got a new 7th grader (12 years old) that could not write at all. His handwriting was nearly illegible, and his “sentences” were just groups of words on paper. His spelling…oh!…his spelling… any 8-year-old could have done better. It was really shocking.

I spoke with him about it and he told me at his last school they never, NEVER wrote with pen and paper. 100% of their schooling was on laptop. He was completely dependent on spell check and grammar check at all times. He had no idea how to write if given a pencil and a piece of paper. How long had he attended this school? Three years. Ugh. The last time he had held a pencil in his hands was 3rd grade. I confirmed this with his parents. It was true. No pens, no pencils, no paper at his last school. None.

Oh, my goodness! I had a challenge before me. I had to get this kid up to level.

Coincidentally, at the same time someone posted in an international school teachers’ forum I belong to about computers in classrooms. It was a general what do you think about technology in the classroom kind of post. I commented that I’m all for technology in the classroom but sometimes teachers/schools go too far. Then I explained about this student.

Wow! The comments exploded. Everyone told me I was wrong for wanting to teach the student to write. I was told it was a waste of my time. I was told if he was this age and couldn’t write he’d never learn. (I’ve heard that before). I was insulted and numerous people wrote in a condescending way implying I didn’t know what I was doing and the only thing to do for this child was to let him continue to use a laptop in my class.

What bothered me the most was the apathetic lean they all seemed to have. I couldn’t believe how many teachers from schools all around the world were telling me to not waste my time on this child. He was a lost cause.

Is this really what education is?

Here’s a sample of the child’s writing from the first week of school in August.

Here’s a sample from September

And here’s a sample from October

All it took was kindness, understanding, and dedication from me, the teacher. I had a meeting with the parents, we came up with a plan, and we put it in place. The October writing is not perfect but just look at the improvements made in just 7 weeks of school with a teacher that is encouraging? If teachers give up on students or even worse won’t even begin to try with students, then what are we creating for our society? When teachers discourage other teachers from trying to help what are we saying?

Is this what education is these days? Teach to the lowest level and when they can’t even do that just call them a lost cause and ignore them? Has it changed or has it always been this way and I just happened to be one of the luckiest students on earth to have amazing teachers that cared about my education? I was taught to think and to read and that’s what I teach my students to do. I always thought teachers cared and that’s why they did it but I’m not so sure anymore.

My experience in this world of international school teaching has led me to believe a whole lot of people just choose this path as a way to get paid to party all around the world. In between drunken adventures with co-workers they go to the classroom and put in as little effort as possible to save up energy to party again tonight. Even the teachers that aren’t just in it to party still put in minimal effort to try and actually help their students. The really high-level schools only cater to high achievers and kick out the students that don’t make the cut and the other schools have teachers that call children that are a bit behind lost causes.

It’s really depressing. Don’t worry about me. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I love my job. I love teaching and I love making a difference. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a student that came to me struggling succeed in the end but this isn’t about me. This is about our children and our future. What you should worry about is the fact that I’m pretty sure I’m not the norm. I’m the outlier and that’s not good.

How Not to be an Asshole About Language

Last night I finally had an encounter with someone that got me fired up enough to really write. I’ve come here to write several times since arriving in Benin but never gotten around to doing it. I’m back.

There are nice people all over the world and there are assholes all over the world. I find them both everywhere I go. This post is not a commentary on Benin culture. I’ve been here 4 months and so far I have absolutely loved it. This post is commentary on human beings.

In my travels I’ve found that when in a foreign country and not quite speaking the language yet you encounter two types of people and these two people exist in every city, every village, every country worldwide:

Type One:

Hi! Welcome to my country! How long have you been here? Are you learning the language? Oh yeah? How long have you been studying? How’s it going? Can we speak a little? Wow! You’re really good! I can’t believe you know so much after only studying for x amount of weeks! I’m impressed. Keep it up! If you ever need to know how to say something feel free to ask. I look forward to keeping up with your progress.

Type Two:

May or may not say something in English first. Immediately speaks high level of their language then looks at me and expects me to respond. I say I’m sorry I don’t understand. He/She says I’m speaking your language you should speak mine. I’ll only speak in English but you should answer me in French. I explain I’ve only been studying you’re language for x amount of weeks. I can’t do that. He/She says how dare you come to my country and not learn my language. I tell him/her they are being rude to me and I don’t appreciate it. Then there’s the inevitable insult and statement about how I am disrespecting his/her culture and how rude I am for coming to a foreign country and not learning the language. He/she repeatedly says insulting/condescending things to me and repeatedly tells me that I’m the rude one for pointing out how rude they are being.

Don’t be type two. No one likes him.



Let’s talk about learning

Most specifically language learning.

So let’s talk a bit about how rude it is to tell a person they must just have a knack for learning languages and it must be easier for them. I think I can explain it best through a story.

When I first went back to college I had not taken a math class in 17 years. And even 17 years earlier math was not my strongest class. I was put in the bottom level of remedial math and I had to work hard to understand it. For 2 semesters of remedial math and then on to algebra, pre-cal, and stats I spent anywhere from 2-5 hours a day in the math tutoring lab. All the tutors knew me on a first name basis. Shout out to Eddy! Love ya!

Math was so very difficult for me. I cried so much in that tutoring lab they probably all thought I was a basket case. I really, really struggled with it. But I worked and worked and worked to understand it. While my classmates would only show up in the tutoring lab an hour before class on the day of a test I was there almost everyday until they kicked me out at closing time at 10:00 and I went in to school early to study several days a week.

I ended up with an A in all my college math courses but one and in class I could almost always answer the questions because I had studied the stuff so much. All my classmates would get mad at me and say things like “you always know the answers…it’s not fair…. Math is so easy for you” I would laugh at them and explain how many hours I spent in the tutoring lab every week just to understand this stuff and how it in no way was easy for me. They always ignored what I said and just went on saying that it was unfair that they got bad grades because math was hard for them.

I feel the exact same way when people tell me that languages must come easy to me. It’s like this complete dismissal of all the hard work I put into learning a language. It’s hard. I study hard at this stuff. I went to Guatemala and worked 4 hours a day one on one with a tutor for  almost 2 whole months to learn Spanish. Let’s break down the numbers: a college 3 credit Spanish course is 45 hours in the classroom per semester. That’s 45 hours with a teacher over 15 weeks. I studied 140 hours in only 7 weeks. That is a fuck ton of work. And it’s hard fucking work. For anyone to say I must just be good with languages is completely disrespecting the work I did. In addition to the tutor I have also listened to over 120 hours of mp3 lessons and done countless hours of studying online.

Shall we even talk about Chinese? It is fucking hard for me. Learning Chinese has been more difficult for me than Organic Chemistry was in college. The first month we lived here I studied Chinese 80 hours with a tutor. For the next six months I studied 8 hours a week, for the next six months I studied 5 hours a week, for the next six months I studied 3 hours a week, and since then I have studied 1.5 hours a week. In less than 3 years I have put in over 500 hours of private one on one tutoring hours. How many credit hours is a college degree? Oh yes: 120. So I have studied Chinese for almost enough hours to have earned an entire 5 university degrees. And you want to tell me languages must be easy for me???? I have made it through books 1, 2, and 3 and I am now 25% through book 4. Not to mention the fact that almost everyone I know only speaks Chinese, no one in any shops speaks any English and I am forced to speak and understand it all day everyday. How dare you say that I must just find languages easy to learn. I must just have a knack for languages. I am “blessed” with a talent for learning languages.

No. I fucking work hard. That’s the answer. I fucking work really, really hard at it. It is not easy and for you to say it is completely disrespects all the work I have put into it.

I am sharing this story because I see people make these mistakes all the time. When an amazing musician performs people will talk about how “blessed” he/she is or how naturally the music comes to them. I assure you that person practices many hours a week. I know musicians that practice 8+ hours a day. That’s why they’re so good.

Sure are there maybe people out there that language actually is easy? Maybe. Are there people that math is easy, or music is easy, or art is easy, or whatever it is they excel at is easy for them? Maybe so but for most of us we have to work really hard to be good at what we do and ignoring our work by assuming it is easy for us is not cool. Everyone that I know that’s really good at something got there through hard work and practice.

Starting in less than a year I’ll be moving to a new country and learning yet another new language. I enjoy the challenge. I like the feeling of overcoming an obstacle and I also know that learning new languages is one of the best things we can do for our brains. But please, oh please, do not tell me that learning languages is hard for you and easy for me. I will be working a full time job in a new country where I know no one, taking extra language courses on the weekends, listening to French mp3s on the way to work and the way home, studying every extra moment I can find in the day to learn the language and be able to communicate with the people around me. I will be working hard. It will not come natural to me and for you to say it does is simply rude.