By Peggy Wuenstel — It is an interesting paradox of the human mind; we seek both novelty and consistency.
We need to know what is going to happen and we desperately hope to be surprised. This happens every day in America’s classrooms. We write lesson plans, we prepare folders for substitute teachers, and we try to anticipate all the ways that things can go awry.
I have a post-it note above my desk which feeds my love of alliteration. It reads, Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. And then something like Sandy Hook happens and the myth of being prepared crumbles into dust around my feet.
I watched and listened with horror and pain at the accounts of what happened in that elementary school. What I could not do was envision what I would have done if I had been there that morning. We have drilled for these kinds of stranger invasions in my building. The police and administrators have rattled my doorknob to simulate what could occur if it happened here.
But I knew, and my students knew, that the worst thing that we could imagine was not really happening. The pictures that I painted in my mind of fallen teachers and terrified students keep resurfacing as the gun safety conversation continues. Interestingly, the media has paid little attention to their names and faces. We have not come to know them as people. Perhaps we are not prepared for that type of personal connection.
I am similarly shocked by the proposals that have come forward that seem to believe that putting guns into our schools will prepare us for intruders. Having a gun does not mean being prepared to use it and I would never be willing to have one in my school space. I am not prepared to believe that a teacher willing to carry a gun makes our children safer. I am even less willing to believe that volunteer armed guards create the kind of climate that allows learning to grow. I was never prepared for the idea that my job as a teacher would be dangerous, controversial, or maligned. All three have happened. That is the view from the large lens.
In the small lens, the same lack of certainty occurs. We know what we would like to happen. We study what has happened in the past. We check the weather forecast. We stack the deck and collect the supplies. We write the plans and set the table. Sometimes, for good or ill, things don’t turn out like we plan. Writing it down doesn’t mean that we are more prepared, just better documented. When we supervise student teachers or clinical interns, we ask them to write down far more than we do for ourselves because we need to evaluate the thought process that goes into designing and delivering lessons. It’s a road map, but one that allows for, and in some ways expects, detours.
It is another interesting application of the multiple meaning words that fill our English language. We prepare a meal and something is there on the table. We prepare our students for a high-stakes test, for a challenge, for life. But do we really? If they don’t do the work we lay before them, are they equipped to take their places in the world? Sometimes it seems that the more we give, the less they seek. The more we spoon feed, the fewer bites our students take of the apple of knowledge. Does a test score, a report card, a portfolio of work have any predictive value for the preparedness of our students? How can we model, guide and foster without leaving them unprepared when our support is gradually withdrawn?
One of the candidates for the Kohl Fellowship for this coming year raised an important issue in his application. When we use student test scores to evaluate teacher performance we pretend that we are preparing a product for the marketplace. In reality, we are providing the services that help students prepare themselves for the lives they would like to lead in the future. The myth surfaces again. Tying shoes, checking homework, managing time and meeting deadlines are all things that we would like our kids, in school or at home, to do for themselves. The way we prepare them to meet these responsibilities says as much about us as teachers and parents as it does about our students.
There is that day every winter in the Kindergarten hallway when those patient, nurturing teachers decide that those cherubs are now responsible for negotiating the sequence of getting dressed for a cold-weather recess. Most of the tykes are prepared for the process and those that aren’t soon catch on because the consequences are real and the rewards are tangible and immediate, the marks of a great learning experience.
Our desire to make sure that our students are properly attired for their educational journey doesn’t end with snowpants and mittens. It extends to mortarboard sand graduation robes, to business suits and surgical scrubs, combat fatigues and mechanic’s coveralls. What they pack into their suitcase for their journey through life is ultimately their personal responsibility, but we are able to provide some guidance and support in wardrobe selection.
We can’t prepare them for everything, and we probably shouldn’t want to do so. Opening a suitcase, a closet, a mind, or a world will reveal many familiar things that we were prepared to see, but hopefully a few pleasant surprises as well. A loving family, a good education, and a supportive school should also provide the foundation to handle those things for which no one should ever have to be prepared.