Ipads and Headphones and Schools, Oh My!

Let’s say it again: America’s schools have some serious problems.

Pundits and policy makers tackle these problems from the top down. They  assume change will eventually trickle its way into the classrooms of actual children and improve the education they get.

I think change need not wait for the trickle-down improvements to finally take hold. I think there is a lot we can do right now to make the experience of children better. Take headphones.

This year the children in my middle school classes each received the use of a brand-new ipad. Wow. That’s really something. All the kids are impressed. (Well, not all the kids – the new kids don’t have ipads yet. No one knew they were coming, you see, so there were not enough ipads for them to have one). Anyhow, the ipads did not come with headphones. This means that children of parents with adequate means – financial or organizational – now have headphones so they can listen to broadcasts in the privacy of their personal space when the teacher assigns them to do so. You can concentrate better with headphones on.

Children who don’t have headphones need to borrow them from the teachers. There’s one problem with this. The teachers weren’t given classroom sets of headphones. If they want their students to have headphones they need to buy a supply for the class. With what money? Well, they could take the money from their paltry classroom budget – the budget that is supposed to also cover pencils, paper, scissors, tissue, folders, notebooks, a fan, books – or they can use their own money. Some teachers, myself included, have not purchased headphones yet. I have shopped around a bit but haven’t yet bitten the bullet. Headphones are expensive – even the cheapest ones.

Last year I spent hundreds of dollars on the students. I was kind of hoping not to do that this year. In fact, many teachers I know started the year saying they hoped not to dip into personal money as much this year as they did last year. And it’s only October, after all. If I start spending my own money now, what will happen in the winter and spring after the inevitable spending freeze is announced? Of course I know I won’t be able to stand this inequity much longer. That’s why I’m planning to head to DollarTree this weekend. Rumor has it they sell headphones.

Enough already about all this. Why air such dirty laundry in public? What does this have to do with pundits and improving schools? EVERYTHING. This has everything to do with fixing American education.

The energy of public school teachers all around this country is unnecessarily sapped by problems that could be avoided. Many of the problems are not big ones. The thing is that  lots of little problems eventually add up. Eventually these problems fuel the burnout of teachers. Teachers need tremendous energy to create outstanding curriculum and focus in on student learning.  The daily confusion and dysfunction that goes on in schools depletes that energy.

We can do better. We can make sure teachers have what they need to do a good job. We can make sure they get the training they ask for. We can also make sure weak teachers get better or are counseled out of the profession.   We can create schedules that provide for student and teacher needs. (We can even make sure teachers have enough breaks in their day to use the bathroom. Teachers share battle stories comparing how long they have had to wait to use the bathroom – remember, most teachers in elementary and middle schools are still women). These things matter. These are the problems that we can solve right away that would improve schools tomorrow.

Teachers need a clear head to meet the many challenges that come their way. Instead they go through much of the day inwardly stressed. Time. Time. Not enough time to do everything they have been asked to do – let alone everything they want to do. The wonderful collaborative projects they planned over the summer. The exciting interactive websites they want to share with their students. The colleagues they want to get to know. The counselor they want to call because Johnny in fifth grade seemingly hasn’t had a shower in months. Headphones and iPads and tissue boxes and trying to find time to get to the bathroom rob our children of the focus of their teachers.

I think we can start improving our schools tomorrow. We need the determination to do so. We need to stop business as usual and talk about what we are going to do to make things better right away. What if all the schools in America set next week aside for problem-solving. Send the kids outside to play in the gorgeous autumn air and ask the teachers what they need to do their job really well.  Make concrete plans for fixing schedules, collaborating on projects, dealing with teachers who under-perform (we all know who they are without the help of complex evaluation systems), getting supplies. We would lose a week of instruction, yes, but we would more than make up for that loss in gains in teacher energy  throughout the year.

We could wait for trickle-down improvements to make their way to the classroom much more patiently if what we have now could just run more effectively.

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Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.