The Wonderful School

Most nights, as I read (again and again, in some cases) books to my kids, I find some that have withstood the test of time, and others that have not. Some, liberated from my parents' garage, have been completely forgotten and I encounter them for the first time, again.

Such is the case with May Justus' The Wonderful School, a Little Golden Book written and illustrated by Hilde Hoffman. The colors are joyous and full-page, the characters in my 1974 edition are diverse and laughing, and the text is straightforward and spare.

After reading it to my daughter a few times in the nighttime rotation, I couldn't shake it. Here's a bedtime book about a school so wonderful that the listener will look forward to the idea of school. When is the last time school was the stuff of a lullaby? Not since Mary came to school with her Little Lamb in tow. The book opens with parents happily dropping off their kids, who run right into the waiting arms and classroom of the teacher, Miss Tillie O'Toole.

Why I am going on about a kid's book? Don't I know that schools today are almost impossible to capture for analysis and reflection? Anyone who writes about education seems required to machete their way through the complexity. But this small book opens up a path -- why? Yes, every classroom is different, and every school is different. It is like chasing a tigertail, trying to pin down what is wrong today. But at their heart, doesn't every school want to be a wonderful school? How do we, as a systemic educational force, inexorably move away from this vision?

This question most recently came to mind as I read about the plan in New York City to dismantle its latest version of school governance. Much of the responsibility of the school, from hiring to firing to curriculum design, was previously in the hands of the principals. The new scheme will make systems even more vertical, giving superintendents the purview and the power over many schools at once. The effect, or benefit to the classroom is hard to discern. Throughout the country, administrations seek to reinvent the wheel that is education with the capital E, trying to build that better mousetrap that will save the kids, save the money, save the system. I am not poking fun at these different iterations, but I do wonder where this is taking us. Are the places being made wonderful? Is joy a considered metric?

I reach towards the story of the wonderful school because it presents a picture of what is positive and useful in school. What happens in a classroom can be unique, powerful, heartbreakingly close. In your life, with whom else will you have this hybrid relationship? The adult that isn't family but isn't a stranger, whose only job is to impart ideas, develop understanding and to inspire. There are many articles rampaging about the Peril Of The Bad Teacher, and pieces that seek to elucidate the ways and the costs of teachers' failure in the face of new systems, new accountability, new assessments. But what exactly teachers are failing at seems to shift every year. That the kids aren't learning, that they aren't ready are common refrains, but what is absent is a clear idea of what learning looks like. Standardized requirements, like the Common Core, are a step to clarify this miasma, but the how in terms of the learning remains elusive and variable across school systems.

In The Wonderful School, very little of the school happens in the school -- Miss O'Toole and her charges are out in the world, crossing streets, swimming, eating together, listening to frogs, choosing apples at a market, splashing in the rain. Everything, and every place becomes a wonderful school when guided by a strong teacher, who is trusted to know what she or he is doing.

I am not a Tillie O'Toole by any stretch of the imagination, but I try to be as conscious as possible in my teaching, I have found a mantra that works: it's not about me; it's all up to me. That is to say that teaching isn't and shouldn't be about my personality or opinions or even beliefs. It is about the students figuring out their own understandings, while I model what a thinking, inquiring person does in the world. At the same time, everything that happens in the classroom is my responsibility and I take it -- it is the power of educating kids that I get to decide how and in what ways we will open up and respond to text, to ideas and to each other.

It is this balance that seems to be often overlooked in the plans that keep surfacing to reshape and organize the classroom from the outside. A wonderful school begins in the classroom, not in a PowerPoint for school or district administrators to consider, or boilerplate from a think-tank, or even the requirements for a do or die test. The solution does not lie in removing the teaching from the teacher.

Can teachers fix everything, like poverty, class inequality, generational illiteracy, a broken heart? No. But that isn't and cannot be a teacher's job. Teachers should be trusted to be that adult that knows things and will share that expertise and knowledge in a useful way. A wonderful teacher will offer, and keep offering opportunities to think and ask and explore.

At one point in The Wonderful School, Justus writes of a broken kite: "but Miss Tillie fixed it with sticks and string/ Until it went up like a bird on the wing. /Miss Tillie O'Toole could do most ANYTHING!" Can you remember, or recall a child's ability to have that much faith in someone? A teacher should make things within his or her power better. In fact, we are trusted to do just that. Teachers are given kids for hours and hours of a school year and something happens. We see students sometimes more than their parents or guardians will in a day, in a week. Students will never have that kind of time again after they go on and up and outward to the next thing. For even just this reason, the time a student spends in school is precious and should not be wasted, mislaid, or underused.

Perhaps at the beginning of this is that teacher training needs to change -- how we as a society create, expect and support teachers to do their job is currently a fast moving cloud of policy and politics. We need to make good teachers for our wonderful schools. Or perhaps the start is that school systems need to accommodate and consider the micro in the macro -- how and in what ways political moves may affect and alter a teacher's ability to do their job. As an educating body, we have been drifting in the weeds, dodging the slings and arrows of educational fashion. We need go back to school.