Happy New Year!
This time of the year is really the best time for educators. It is a time that reminds us of the unique opportunity we have to start anew. The beginning of school—which used to be in early September but has increasingly moved to August—for many districts was a time for a little adrenaline rush as we faced the possibilities and perils of a new year. But it is also the time for us to remember that education is really the only profession that allows "do overs." We get to put all the frustrations and disappointments we had last year in a little box, set them aside, and start over.
The Curious Case of Teachers and Students
It is also the time for us to remember that while most jobs age you, education keeps you young. While you may physically get older, the children remain the same. This year’s fourth graders are as new and fresh as last years. They are the same age. And while you are a year older, you don’t have to age. It is said that Merlin, the magician of Camelot fame, actually aged younger. Every year he lived he got younger. And he was a teacher! He was an earlier version of the title character played by Brad Pitt in the recent film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, who was born old and got younger as he aged. I have always thought that is essentially what happens to educators—if we let it happen. Teaching children keeps us young. I don’t know of another profession that allows that. So children, in essence, work their magic on us as well by taking old, sometimes cranky folks and letting them touch their childhood every day.
"Magicians and Conductors"
I have always had a fascination with magicians who leave us with the question "How did they do that?" In my most recent book, Giving Wings to Children’s Dreams, I entitled the chapter on teachers as "Magicians and Conductors" because I think that is what teachers are. They make bad things disappear and good ones appear. They are also a bit like alchemists who transfer base elements into something precious. The transformative quality of teaching is its strongest asset. It is the only profession I know that builds on dreams.
But the beginning of school also allows not just the teacher to have a moment of grace, it also allows the children that as well. I have also always praised the American system of education for allowing "do overs" for children. Our system is built upon the premise that you are allowed the start slow, make mistakes, and still emerge successful. Every year should be a new start for children. They can put away past failures and start anew. I am a product of that. I was late to learn to read, not getting there until third grade. (I have often joked that I get up thanking God for social promotion because I would be the oldest first grader in America today if they hadn’t passed me on until I landed in Mrs. Spurlock's third grade class!) So I carried the label of slow learner until I got to junior high only to discover that I was really an underachiever. Finally things fell into place for me in high school and they called me gifted. While I was the same child, the labels changed. How many of the children we have who seem to be something might really be something else? Every year we get a chance to discover what that something else might be.
Underdogs and Overachievers
I once had a chance to speak to half the U.S Senate and I reminded them of this unique aspect of American public schools. I went on to point out that if they had been held fully accountable for how they were at the age of 14, most of them wouldn’t be sitting there that day. They laughed but several came to me later and said that I had made a great point. The sad thing is that because of much of the recent legislation and efforts towards accountability that has pushed "high stakes" testing, removal of "social promotion" and the weakening of the system of second chance opportunities much of our system of second chances is being lost and we are becoming more and more like a lot of countries that shuffle their children early into straightjackets that they cannot escape. By having the opportunity for remedial courses, no tracking, GED’s, and community colleges, American students have been given the grace of forgiveness that makes us uniquely American. That just doesn’t mean the possibility of a more successful life for children; it means our country has access to talents that may have been wasted in a less forgiving situation.
Our history is replete with stories of those who dropped out of school only to make billions later. Even our most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, essentially failed at everything until he became president. Our great inventors had thousands of failures to go along with their success. We are a country of underdogs and overachievers and school is the place where we can give the dogs their day and help everyone achieve.
So we work in times that challenge us and the work that we teachers do, and while our work is not always celebrated, we are still lucky to do what we do. And even in some places we find the profession scapegoated and reviled, we know what the truth really is. America is great, not in spite of its schools, but because of them. We have provided the workers, the leaders, the citizens who built this country and we will do it again—each year with the fresh start and the new beginning we are given and that we give our children. I think that is something to celebrate. Happy New Year!
Paul D. Houston
Paul Houston is Executive Director, Emeritus, of the American Association of School Administrators and President of the Center for Empowered Leadership. He is also the author of the book Giving Wings to Children’s Dreams: Making Our Schools Worthy of Our Children (© 2010 Corwin Press).