School Budget Vote: The Importance of a Well-rounded Education

    Across the capital region, the health of our public education system is in the hands of voters today. Times have been tough. Everyone is watching their bottom line. No one wants to see their taxes go up; but as the state slashes its share of local education costs, schools have no choice but to cut programs. These programs include special education, advanced placement classes, additional language instruction, athletics (including PE) and extra-curricular activities.

This doesn’t leave much room for electives which allow students to choose their areas of study. Instead the focus is on the federal mandates put in place by No Child Left Behind or the Race to the Top.  Even though much of the funding for these programs has been withdrawn, school districts are still being held accountable to these goals. The flaw of these plans is that schools put too much instructional time into the tests, neglecting other subjects in favor of the RRR’s.

We have to step back from this limited perspective and look at the whole picture. If our schools have the highest scores on the national tests, but our students have the lowest participation rates in AP classes, athletics and the arts, all we are doing is turning out a class of robots, not the critical thinkers we need to keep America a global leader.

When I was teaching preschool, I understood how important it was to provide opportunities for physical exercise, creative play and to allow time for spontaneous thinking- not just stick to a proscribed plan. High school should give students a chance to explore their interests and get involved in teams or clubs which will help them stand out in a field of college applicants. In addition to being stepping stones to an area of study in college, one could argue that clubs and teams build cooperative and/or leadership skills which prepare students for the workplace.

If your school district is holding a budget vote today, remember a good education is more than just the basics. In order to turn out a successful generation of workers, we need to provide a well-rounded education to our children. Smaller class sizes and more specialized subject areas  allow more opportunities for interaction, discussion, critical thinking and problem solving. Don’t look at what it costs this year, but rather at what your investment will mean for the future.

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Albert Einstein quote
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Teachers who Inspire

Yesterday I saw a clip on the news that caught my eye. One of my children’s’ former teachers had been awarded recognition as Teacher of the Week. There was a video of him playing his guitar while his class sang along. Even though it has been almost a decade since either of my children were in his class, he still seems to be doing what he always did- making learning fun and interactive. He taught both of my children in either first or second grade and they both remember his class as one of the best they ever had.

Teachers play an important role in our lives that should not be underestimated. I remember teachers from my own childhood. Some were inspiring, like my elementary school teacher who encouraged me to explore the world, or my Algebra teacher who whet my appetite for problem-solving. There are, on the flip side, teachers you want to avoid at all costs. The high school chorus teacher was so mean that, even though I loved to sing, I switched to orchestra rather than have to listen to him yell.

Some teachers get to the point where they need to take a break and think about why they became teachers. If it was not for the love of the job or the students, they can turn into cranky, boring instructors rather than the caring, engaging role models that students deserve. I spent 10 years teaching preschoolers. I know how hard it is to motivate kids. I always tried  to keep things refreshing and challenging, pushing them to learn in ways that felt like a game. With patience and a willingness to connect with my students in different ways, I successfully produced a class of kindergarten-ready children by the end of each year.

The former students I encounter these days are well into middle school and only have vague memories of their early education; but their parents recognize me and tell me again what a great start I gave their children. It is rewarding to hear how well each one is doing and to think that they put their roots down in my class. Which brings me back to the clip I saw…

It is wonderful to see that a teacher can keep on inspiring children for 25 years. Unfortunately, this seems to be overlooked whenever it comes down to money. When our school budgets come to a vote this year, we should all think of the teachers who motivated us and recognize the true value of a good education for the next generation.

Oh No! It’s Course Selection Time!

On Friday both of my children brought home course selection packets for next year. I can’t believe we are already considering the 2012-13 school year, when this one isn’t even halfway done.  It seems that time is just flying by! In September my daughter will be in  her Junior year and my son will be a Freshman. Next year they will share the same school bus again-it will be a reunion of most of the kids who were on the elementary school bus- minus those who have already started college. Crazy!

Two years ago, I was unfamiliar with the high school and a little intimidated by the number of choices offered. Now I have a better understanding of how the  curriculum works and what the most reasonable options are. My daughter is excited to help her brother pick out his classes, offering a load of advice which no one could pass on to her when she was at that stage. It is a humbling moment as a parent when you look back, wishing you could have guided your child differently- if only you knew then what you know now.

As we study the curriculum guide together, my daughter points out that they always make the classes sound better on paper. This means they either seem harder than they really are, or more interesting than they turn out to be.

My regret for her is that we didn’t push her to take enriched biology. Our rationale was that we didn’t want her to become overwhelmed with work since she was already taking  advanced English, social studies and math. What we didn’t take into account was that the regular science class would be boring.  This year she is taking advanced placement world history, which she loves but finds very demanding. It was the right option for her, though, and leaves the door open for more challenging classes next year.

As I look at my son’s class list I want to give him more knowledgable advice than I gave her. He is  lucky to have an older sibling to help us through the process. It seems that so much pressure is put on course selection- as if the rest of his life depends on it.  I didn’t have to map my life out when I was 14. Of course, I changed majors twice, but was that really a big deal?

What my daughter chooses over the next two years will have a big impact on what she studies in college.  She feels the weight of these classes on her shoulders. I try to ease the burden by laying out the requirements of the next two years in a scheduled format. Mapping her courses out by the number of periods in the day greatly simplified her picture of things. Once we wrote down what she knew she would take, she realized that there were only 2-3 options to choose from and the task didn’t seem so overwhelming. Sometimes the fewer choices, the better. We also came up with a plan to allow her to take AP Biology in twelfth grade, alleviating our guilt over the earlier mistake.

In the meantime, I will be attending some meetings with my son to better inform us about his next 4 years. At least this time I have some experience under my belt and I know that if we run into problems, we can always find solutions. This second time around the course selection process seems much less daunting.