Friday, May 24, 2013

Open Letter to the My Daughter's School Distrtict, and to Public Education in General

To the Principal and Other Educators Charged With Making First Impressions:

I attended the 6th grade orientation with my daughter last night, and we left the room in damage control mode.  There was nothing that was earth shattering about the presentation that we had, it probably occurs in middle school gymnasiums and auditoriums all across the country this time of year.  Your standard stuff really.  Traffic control, attendance policies, music sign ups, nursing forms.  Just the typical bureaucratic stuff.

Soul crushing bureaucratic stuff.

My daughter, who came in excited about joining the choir and changing classes, left with new anxieties about being able to join the choir and how she was going to get to school.  Her math score was 1 point below the line where she has the privilege of joining choir(really?) and 10-20 minutes of the presentation was dedicated to discussing pick up/drop off procedures.  Still, this isn't the crux of the damage control.  This could be handled by a simple reassurance that we'll get her a waiver for choir and that we'll figure out the drop off procedure.  The real problem is much worse.

First impressions mean everything.  First impressions establish the direction that an endeavor will start with and hopefully build momentum upon.  Let's now itemize our first impressions from last night.

  1. Pickup/dropoff is one of the most important things, it is a mess, and your security guard will be writing tickets.
  2. Creative education is not as important as arithmetic speed.  If your math speed isn't up to par, you can't choose to pursue your musical passion.(Side note:  as a professional in the mathematics field, I've never EVER needed to do arithmetic at speed.  I get that the test is to measure memorization of basic facts, but there is a point of diminishing return)
  3. Passing periods are timed, have punishments and lockers are hard.
  4. The security guard is there to take down locker decorations.(This guy is starting to sounds like he sucks)
  5. The nurse's office is really tricked out.
  6. If you don't get a physical, can't come to school.
  7. That you expect students to spend an hour a night on homework.
  8. You guys have some good clubs.
  9. You follow the PBIS model.
  10. 7th grade math is hard because it involves complex problem solving.
You had the largest gathering of parents and students that you are going to get for this class last night.  Is this really the best use of that opportunity?  Items 1 and 6 are important bits of housekeeping, but are not age appropriate for a 6th grader to spend their time thinking about.  Item 2 is just wrong.  An opportunity for creative education should never be subjugated to a lesser role.  As for item 3, my daughter thought locks were cool and probably still does.  For any kid that did have anxieties though, I doubt this was as helpful as a simple walk through would have been.  Items 4 and 5:  that can come up at any time, probably didn't need to dedicate first impression time.  Item 8:  good.  Let's talk about the exciting stuff and opportunities.  Items 7 and 9, time spent and reward systems are just bad science.  Don't take my word for it.  Start with Drive by Daniel Pink and then read some of the more scientific literature.  Measuring work by the hour leads to negative outcomes and explicit rewards kill motivation. Item 10 just makes me shake my head.

I don't want to be that guy who itemizes problems but offers no solutions, so here's what I would have emphasized:

  1. You are moving up in the world.  You now have the privilege of learning how to solve complex problems.  It will require your effort, but we'll help you.  And you will succeed.
  2. You are older and have proved that you can be responsible so now have personal freedom and personal space.  We're giving you a locker and time between classes to spend as you choose.
  3. As you are learning how to use this personal space and time, you will encounter difficulties(making good choices with school property and interpersonal issues(bullying)).  We will guide you through the right ways to handle this.
  4. Because you have proven your skills with core subjects by graduating elementary school, you now have to opportunity to take some specialty courses in music and art(you should add that).  When you leave here for high school, you will get even more.
  5. And we have some really cool clubs and sports.
All the rest can be a memo to parents.  We're the appropriate audience for administrative tasks such as transportation, health care and food.  These are not the topics that I wish to spend precious evening hours with my daughter reviewing.

Next year I am sending you my daughter.  She enters your school sincere, honest, pleasant, enthusiastic, curious and creative.  I will do everything within my power to ensure that she stays that way.  Please do everything in yours to foster that same development.  I want to be writing you in May 2016 to let you know how wrong my first impression was.

Thank you and take care,

Josh

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