Redefining Education: My take-away

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by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

I’ve enjoyed putting together my Redefining Education series of articles and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. It’s been an interesting journey.

There have been some articles I wanted to jump up and down and shout “READ THIS!” from the rooftops and then there were others where I was stunned and dismayed that anybody could be that far off. Regardless, this past week has been an education for me.

The first lesson I’ve learned is that many people have a very different opinion of the school system than I do. Although I’d like to say I’m right and they’re wrong, I won’t. I will say, however, that I’ve seen the system through the eyes of a long-term teacher. Most of the most vocal critics haven’t even seen it as a parent.

When I read things like this it shows me how far apart our perceptions of the schools are: …children need a doctor’s note to go to the bathroom when needed, a federal “504 Plan” to eat when hungry, …

I’m fairly certain that there was a child somewhere who had a bladder issue and they wanted it written into that child’s IEP that she could leave class whenever she needed to. I would imagine there was another kid who had some kind of medical condition that required him to eat frequently so that was written into the IEP as well. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a way of saying to every teacher that it’s a need that needs to be addressed. I think that’s a good thing.

Yet Laurie A. Couture makes it sound as though because one person needed every teacher to know she had a problem, that other children were not allowed to go to the bathroom or to eat. That’s hogwash.

schoolTo me, examples like this tell me our school system needs to do a better job in letting people know what REALLY happens within those walls. If people really, truly believe our schools are prisons where kids are tortured and brainwashed, then there is a lot of work to be done. Because I can tell you with absolute certainty that some of the criticisms that have come out this week were not based in reality – or at least not reality in the schools I’ve worked at.

On the other hand, there were some suggestions that I think are very definitely worth considering. Many people seem to think schools are not teaching kids what they need to know for today’s world. That’s fair. Maybe we shouldn’t be teaching reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Maybe we should change that to art, music, sports, debate, and Spanish. I’m OK with that.

Or maybe we should not have any kind of set curriculum at all? One school could teach art and Spanish and another school writing and science? It would be up to parents to choose which schools to enroll their kids in?

But is there value in having a standard base of knowledge that we can assume all Americans will know?

Are there certain historical events that we, as a society, feel are important enough to make sure everybody has at least a rudimentary knowledge of? Do we want all Americans to know why we celebrate the 4th of July? Is it important that we understand the struggle that caused the Civil War?

How do we go about establishing that set of knowledge?

I think we can all agree that the overall emphasis of our schools should be on learning how to learn. Kids need to learn to think creatively and critically and be able to come up with new solutions to unique problems. But should there also be a set of facts and figures we want all Americans to know?

I’ll be honest in saying that the thought of the importance of that standard base of knowledge never occurred to me until last week. If every parent chooses which things his children will learn, what ramifications does that have for our nation? Some people think it would be better, but I’m not so sure. If we don’t know about our country, will we still have pride in her? Will we still defend her? I don’t know the answers, but I certainly have questions.

I loved Jennifer Miller’s article about parents needing to man-up and take charge of their children’s education.  If more parents would step up to the plate and make sure their children are getting the best education out there – regardless of whether that education happens in the schools or at home – our world would be a better place.

And that thought leads me to the idea of compulsory education. Quite a few of the articles in this series talked about abolishing the law that mandates education so that parents can do what they want. For me, I would love that. And for the other “good” parents out there too. I know those parents would make sure their kids got a good education whether it was mandated or not.

It’s the “other” parents that I’m concerned about. As Clark Vandeventer always tells me, “I want the rule, but I don’t want it to pertain to me.” That’s exactly how I feel about compulsory education, and I think others feel the same way. I’m perfectly capable of making sure my kids get a top-notch education; why should the government mandate I do?

I’ve been a teacher long enough to understand why education is mandated.

There are parents out there who shouldn’t be parents. They most certainly shouldn’t be homeschooling parents. Can we, with a clean conscious, turn our backs on their kids and walk away? Can we look them in the eye and say, “Sorry kid. You were born to a worthless parent so you’re screwed. Nope, I won’t help.”

And that, my friends, is the dilemma we’ve found ourselves in. Part of me says go the tough love route. Pull the welfare. Pull the food stamps. Pull the schools. Make them stand on their own two feet. Buck up or shut up.

But can we do that to the kids? Can I – as a fellow human being – look at those children who, through no fault of their own, were born to drug-dealing, whoring alcoholics who either won’t or can’t take care of their kids?  Can I turn my back and walk away from a kid in need?

I know the schools aren’t perfect. There are many aspects of our schools that could be improved. But for thousands upon thousands of kids, school is the best part of their day. When they walk into that school building they don’t care how pretty it looks or that there are only three working toilets, that school is safe. And it’s the only place in their life that is.

When those kids go to school, they’ve got a teacher who loves them and they know what to expect. They’ve got food to eat; it might not be as good as some would have it but it’s better than what they get at home. School, as routine as it may be, is the highlight of many kids’ lives.

Can we, as some people have suggested, abolish our school system and compulsory education? Can we rely on those drug-dealing mothers to educate their kids?

I’ve lived in countries without a compulsory education law.

  • I’ve seen too many people walk into a grocery store and have to ask someone to read directions to them.
  • I’ve seen too many people sign their signature with a thumbprint.
  • I’ve seen countries with high levels of illiterate people and how society is designed around them.
  • I’ve seen too many politicians take advantage of that illiteracy.

And I don’t want to see the United States of America go there.

Are our schools perfect? No. Are they the best they can be? No.

But, as Dr. Seuss said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”

if you are not willing to learn no one can help you ....

You can read the posts in the Redefining Series here:

Why the School System isn’t Educating Your Child (And What To Do About It)

4 Steps to Improve Education in the USA

You Can’t Reform an Education System Based on Oppression

Educating Kids Through Teacher/Student Partnerships

Let’s quit arguing about what’s wrong with schools and man-up as parents

Imagine something better than school

Is our education system built on miracle teachers?

How to improve our schools from an unschooler’s perspective

Thinking out loud, outside the box

Learning is the new paradigm of Education

Schools & Jails: What’s the difference?

Education for Today’s Global Economy

Wisdom: Knowledge that has been tempered by experience

How to use parental mentoring as a solution for educational reform


books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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11 Responses to Redefining Education: My take-away

  1. Ian and Wendy April 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    Nancy, I loved how you said, “I know the schools aren’t perfect. There are many aspects of our schools that could be improved. But for thousands upon thousands of kids, school is the best part of their day. When they walk into that school building they don’t care how pretty it looks or that there are only three working toilets, that school is safe. And it’s the only place in their life that is.

    When those kids go to school, they’ve got a teacher who loves them and they know what to expect. They’ve got food to eat; it might not be as good as some would have it but it’s better than what they get at home. School, as routine as it may be, is the highlight of many kids’ lives.”

    Yes, yes, YES!!! I have enjoyed reading the posts this week, even though several saddened and actually horrified me. Schools oppress children? I’ve had more than a few kindergarteners cry when they realize the last day of school means more than cake. When it hits them they won’t be coming back, they bawl. I’ve had kids cry when they had to go home at the end of the day. Others who made their parents bring them to school on Saturday or over vacations because they refuse to believe that I wasn’t there and they couldn’t come spend the day with me. Oppressed? Try liberated.

    Seem like a big word for learning your ABCs and how to be a good friend? It all depends on your perspective. Working in the fields picking strawberries when you should be retired, that’s oppressive. Working from sun up to sun down harvesting grapes – that’s oppressive. Having to wait till your brother-in-law can read the teacher’s note to you – that’s another form of oppression.

    That kind of back-breaking labor literally breaks people down, while illiteracy keeps people from reaching their full potential in immeasurable ways. Many of my students were the first in their families to learn to read. Literacy opens countless doors, and that’s what I call freedom.

    As for the notion that are schools are antiquated, and our curriculum outdated – perhaps. I’m certainly not happy with the focus on standardized testing or any of the myriad of effects it has on students, their learning and their teachers.

    At the end of the day, though, reading skills are the key to unlocking pretty much anything you want to know or need to learn. Whether you like it or not, and whether you enjoy it or not, you need to be able to read and read proficiently. Likewise, a grasp of at least basic mathematics is a crucial life skill. No matter what that life winds up looking like.

    Many of us will not be taking part in some global, radically different looking entrepreneurial future (any more than all of us needed to learn Russian, or Japanese…). Many of today’s kids will be tomorrow’s plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, sales clerks, doctors, lawyers, painters, vets, nurses, and teachers. They may never be professionally impacted by a global marketplace at all. Whether a local gardener, or a high powered marketing executive, though, they will all need to know how to read.

    I never touched a computer in school, and yet I have no problem using them now. Whatever we think our kids will need to use, whatever we think they’ll need to know, we’re likely wrong. I’m certain that my parents could never have envisioned the life I lead today or the million ways today’s technology has impacted it (and they would have wanted me to learn Russian or Japanese – not Spanish or Mandarin). What we CAN do is to teach our kids how to learn and give them the tools to do it. And we owe it to all of them. Not just those kids whose parents are with it enough to do it for them. THAT’S how schools end oppression. They give all kids the chance to lift themselves up, out of whatever circumstances they may have been born into. Ok, rant over now. 🙂

    • Nancy April 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

      @Ian and Wendy, ==. Not just those kids whose parents are with it enough to do it for them. THAT’S how schools end oppression. They give all kids the chance to lift themselves up, out of whatever circumstances they may have been born into.==

      AMEN! I will be the first to say our schools are not perfect, but I’ll also say they do give kids a chance for a better future. Is that really such a bad thing?

  2. Nancy April 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    @Lee, I so agree with you Lee! Here’s the crux of the issue: “The problems schools face represent society as a whole: the splintering of families, lack of time for family life, external distractions instead of focused learning and parenting time, lack of patience and an expectation that everything will be automatic like clicking a mouse or that someone else will fix it.”

    As you said, the schools simply mirror what society values. I just now came home from an event where I talked with another mom who felt we needed MORE accountability, MORE standards, MORE testing. If enough parents mandate that, then that’s exactly what we’ll get – even though teachers know it won’t work.

  3. Deborah April 18, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    Some random thoughts…If there were easy answers, we’d have a great educational system. I’ve thought for a long time (back to NCLB at least) that schools are being made a scapegoat for failed economic policies. I remember an article back in the early 80’s about the coming shortage of scientists and engineers. This shortage has never existed, yet we have a special class of visas for foreign workers who have certain special skills that can help address this issue…when in fact, the truth is that American workers expect higher salaries and importing people with those skills is a way of depressing salaries: great for business, but not so much so for people who are trying to earn a living in a country where the cost of living here permanently is very high.

    So, switching gears: I know that educational professionals are (for the most part) doing the very best they can, given their knowledge and resources. I am distressed that so many kids seem doomed to live in a permanent culturally and economically deprived underclass…I am sure that part of what made NCLB so appealing was the notion that the children locked in dreadful conditions could have a better future if nationwide standards were adopted and enforced. From my point of view, as a person who graduated from public school in the mid 1970’s, NCLB has resulted in schools becoming places in which teaching is wedded to coercion, in which every aspect of a student’s school experience is micromanaged.

    I’m a private music teacher…once I was talking with a sixth grade student about the unit they were doing on Ancient Egypt…she told me that she really didn’t remember anything about it because “we’ve already had the test”. I don’t think it’s uncommon for students to think that the point of learning is to do well on “the test”. When my homeschooled children were interested in Ancient Egypt, they spent months reading and learning hieroglyphs and drawing and talking about mummies. I used to think that a bit of tweaking would “fix” traditional education…after years of experience as home learners, I’ve become completely radicalized and have come to believe that the way that we approach teaching/learning must undergo a paradigm change if education is to become meaningful for all.

    Some subset of students will always thrive in school regardless of the instructional/learning methods…but I was told by a teacher in one of my kid’s former schools that “80% will fall through the cracks”. I agree that school should be compulsory…but I do not agree, as many have insisted, that all schools should have the same standardized curriculum. I have some friends whose kids are excelling in their studies…and believe (not think…it’s actually a belief) is 6000 years old…and as a Big Bang person myself, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because a) they’d hold those beliefs just as firmly in a public school science class and b) they have the Internet if they want to do some serious research about the age of the earth…and will be able to find all sorts of conflicting opinions there which will give them some food for thought, and c) there really are enough scientists and engineers…it doesn’t matter if a few people think the earth is flat or made of green cheese.

    I wish I were more optimistic about our country’s ability give our children the sort of education that would enrich their lives and give them the tools for supporting themselves with work that they enjoy, but I honestly do not think this can happen as long as we have such an enormous and increasing divide between the haves and the have nots, as long as we are willing to accept that divide, as long as wealth is determined by the contents of our houses rather than the content of our minds. Am I preaching to the choir?

    • Nancy April 18, 2012 at 10:05 am #

      @Deborah, This ==as long as we have such an enormous and increasing divide between the haves and the have nots, as long as we are willing to accept that divide, as long as wealth is determined by the contents of our houses rather than the content of our minds. == makes me sad. It’s true, but I so wish it wasn’t.

      I definitely think the idea of NCLB was embraced in order to make sure those kids in culturally and economically depressed areas had a chance. I’m all for that – but testing isn’t the answer and never will be. I am stunned that anybody ever thought the testing was a good idea.

      • Deborah April 18, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

        @Nancy, One problem with NCLB was that the people who wrote it thought that it is possible to educate by edict…the beatings will continue until morale improves. Fail.

        • Nancy April 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

          @Deborah, Yup. You can mandate that robots do something, but not human beings.

  4. Laurie A. Couture May 12, 2012 at 9:12 pm #


    In American public schools, in most schools, it is an on going and chronic problem that children of all ages, at all grade levels are denied use of the toilet when they have the need. Toilet use is regimented according to school and teacher convenience, not the needs of children. In fact, in my interviews with urologists, many of these specialists say that even in the case of children who have a doctor’s note, schools still refuse to allow a child to respond to his or her bladder when the child has the need. I ran a volunteer children’s rights website for 10 years. I also have worked with children of all ages in multiple capacities for nearly 20 years, including as a social worker and mental health counselor. The stories I have heard about how cruel teachers are about children’s basic needs, especially the need to use the toilet would be criminal in the case of adults. Although my children’s rights website used to focus on multiple issues in child maltreatment, the overwhelming amount of email that I received was from parents of children ages 5-18 who were denied the right to use the toilet when needed. Some children were forced to urinate in their pants, in bottles, trash cans and in stair wells. For you to belittle the issue without researching it is concerning to me. If you read my book, I include samples of some of the letters from parents. Some of the stories of what children have had to endure might upset you.

    The fact remains, no person should have a right to deny another human being the right to use the toilet or meet any other basic need.

    • Nancy May 12, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

      @Laurie A. Couture, ==The fact remains, no person should have a right to deny another human being the right to use the toilet or meet any other basic need.==

      Agreed. I’ve spent many, many years in the classroom and never, ever denied a child the right to use the toilet. As in any social setting, there are times when it is more appropriate to leave and other times when it is less appropriate. I, and every other teacher I know, tried to help our kids understand that idea.

      I won’t deny that there have been isolated incidents where children were prohibited from leaving the classroom and I have no doubt that you have received some letters from parents about it. However, if you look at the sheer number of kids in this country (world?) and the relatively small number of cases where children were denied, I would say it’s a very, very tiny percentage. To blow it up and make it sound like it’s an everyday occurrence in every classroom and that every child in the schools are being abused is, in my mind, not good reporting.

      The other issue that needs to be addressed here is the whole idea of accountability. As a teacher, it was my responsibility to know where each and every one of my kids was at all times. If there had been a fire and I couldn’t account for a child, people would need to enter the burning building and look for that child. You can imagine the outcry we would have if a child was missing and the teacher didn’t know where he was.

      So – how can we deal with that? In the olden days when people trusted one another, parents would assume the child was safe. Nowadays, that’s not the case. If a child is missing for even a second, the school is held responsible and the public goes nuts.

      That is what has led to teachers needing to have bathroom passes or whatnot – because we need to know where each child is at every single moment of the day. It will be exactly the same at any kind of youth program through the YMCA or whatever. We simply cannot allow the kids to roam freely or parents will get upset.

      Should kids have more freedom in the schools? Yes. I would love it if they could roam around wherever they wanted. But will parents accept that? I think not.

  5. Been There As a Teacher June 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    In 28 years of teaching, I saw was Laurie Caulture was talking about. Certainly it is a minority of teachers prohibiting restroom use during class.

    However, the average elementary school only has three set restroom times: mid morning, lunch, and mid afternoon. Some only have two restroom breaks. Often the teachers will allow two or three passes per month etc. thinking that will solve the problem.

    Ten year olds have on average only 8 oz bladders. That increases two ozs each year to age 14 when the average teen bladder can hold 16 oz of urine which is average for adults. Consider that adults includes senior citizens whose bladders no longer can hold what they once were able to do. The average young adult can hold more than 16 oz or urine.

    Often children and teens eat and drink more than their teachers or parents.

    My first grade teacher told us that we should go (on our own) during morning recess, lunch and afternoon recess. If we had to go during class we would have to pee in our pants and those were her words. I’ve known several teachers through the years that have said those words to students.

    Students in high school have had wet or poo accidents because the teacher refused their request. I know of a few cases where the teacher made it clear it didn’t matter if the student could wait or not.

    A few high schools have a rule that there is to be no going to the restroom during class time. Sometimes there isn’t enough time between classes in high school.

    While I see the point made by those that think Ms Coulture is going overboard, the fact remains that no adult should have the authority to tell a student that if they can’t hold it they will have to wet or poo their pants in class. I had three teachers in all that said those words to the class.

    Certainly we teachers have to have strategies in place to see that students don’t abuse going to the restroom.

    First, make it possible for students to go every hour if they need to go without any negative comment. Students need to get up and wiggle anyway after sitting for an hour. Children sitting for two and half hours without a break may not be even listening to the teacher the last hour.

    I know that for all age groups, this alone will solve 90 % of all genuine toilet requests except those with legitimate serious medical problems.

    If students go every two hours, often they don’t feel the need to go then. This means that now they will have to wait another two hours, four hours in all. That isn’t reasonable, especially in elementary.

    When I took college classes in the summer that lasted two hours, there was a five minute break after the first hour. Surely if college students need that five minute break, elementary and high school students need it as well.

    Often we teachers get so consumed in teaching everything we want to teach that we forget that just because we taught it doesn’t mean the students even heard it.

    The attention spans will increase remarkably if every hour the students can stand up, stretch, go to the restroom, get a drink etc. If it is a safety issue in the school, take the entire class but only expect those that need to go to have to go and “try” to go.

    There is a concept called “less is more.” There is much to that philosophy. In teacher workshops, if the facilitators don’t stop at the hour and give a break, there can be heard mumblings from many of the teachers.

    What is so sacred about two hours or two and half hours. It isn’t a magical number. There are students age five that were born with huge bladders. Some never use the school restrooms their entire school career.

    I suspect that often it isn’t a case of the teacher trying to be mean is it is a case of ignorance. The teacher remembers that he or she only went at lunch even as a five year old or they remember not using the toielts at all at school at any grade level.

    The teachers assume that everyone is just like them. I am old enough and have had several bladder issues where I have learned first hand how if I drank a 12 oz diet Coke, I couldn’t make it a full hour without losing control of the bladder.

    Then I have at other times gone as long as ten hours and still felt no real urge to go, but made myself go.

    Misbehavior’s concerning using the restroom should be given a negative consequence. Yet, I have read countless high school teachers rules where it states that only two restroom passes are given per semester after which all further requests will be denied.

    I read one teacher’s comment to a forum where he stated that a 13 year old boy had wet his pants during one of his lessons. The teacher stated that he never let anyone out of the lesson to go to the restroom. He explained that students of that age should know how to manage their break and lunch times. He then stated that if one of his students had an accident during the lesson, it was the student’s own fault.

    There are about five million people who are teaching school in any given year. I used the membership of the two largest teacher unions to come up with that number.

    I would like to think that all five million of those teachers would never deny a student the restroom if they really needed to go. There are few statements that can be made for a group of five million that will be true for every one of them.

    There is a disturbing fact that some people get sexually aroused at denying other people the restroom and some get even more aroused if a student has an accident. With the Internet, it isn’t difficult to validate that this is a fetish that is more common than most people would assume to be.

    The fact that some teachers would get sexual gratification out of denial of the restroom to minors is enough reason to be document carefully why there is a need to tell a student needing to go the the restroom no to a request.

    If an elementary student needs to use the restroom, on what grounds can a teacher use to state that students can only go at three specified times during the day until they get older.

    Then when in high school they can go every hour if they need to.

    As I stated earlier, if all younger students are taken to the restroom or are allowed to go by themselves if it is safe every hour and high school students have enough time to go to the restroom between every 50 minute class if they need to go, there wouldn’t be many cases of students needing to go during lesson time.

    In high school often there isn’t enough time to go to the restroom and not be tardy to class. In elementary a few teachers only have one time a day they take the class to the restroom and that is after lunch. The ones I know that do this, have an open restroom policy, but I have read of cases where some teachers with only one restroom break did not allow breaks at other times.

    As long as teachers follow those procedures in the previous paragraph, there will be multiple requests to use the restroom during class time and at all age groups. Restroom denial will result in wet pants some of the time including high school students.

    • Nancy June 10, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

      It is a tricky situation, that’s for sure. While I understand there are incidents where a child pees his/her pants, I think it’s a huge exaggeration to make it out that it’s the norm in our schools. That’s my argument with the way Laurie presents her info – she makes it sound like her examples are the norm rather than the (very small) exception.

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