It was a perfect day. A bit cloudy, not too hot for a bike ride. My wife, daughter and I rode up to a local pizza place to buy an ice cream, and to a monumental moment in a child’s life: the removal of training wheels.
“OK, sweetheart. I’m going to give you a push for a bit and then let you go, Ok? Here we go…and I’m…letting…go…now…”
And that was it. Off she went, furiously and somewhat shakily pumping her little legs, and freedom was hers. The final training wheel removed from her bike, to sit forever in my garage as a reminder of the day. And, on the way home from the ice cream shop, my thoughts, as they often do, drifted educationally. In the midst of this bittersweet parent moment, I couldn’t help but ponder the question: When did education become so damn hard?
I mean, the bicycle thing followed a pretty predictable pattern. Riding a bike was introduced at a very basic level with a little red tricycle when she was three. It had a handle to help me guide her. Then, along came her first two wheeler, complete with training wheels, a basket, tassels and a bell. That would be her bike until this past Christmas, when, after much deliberation, Santa brought her a “Big girl” bike. There was even some remediation when we realized that the jump from training wheels to a bike with gears and hand brakes had been too soon, and her little bike came back out of storage, this time with only one training wheel. I switched wheel back and forth a few times, to ensure she had the hang of it. Then, on a perfect July day, I performed one final small task with an inconspicuously carried wrench, and helped my little girl achieve greatness.
This really is the most simple of educational patterns. First I introduced the concept, then I guided her learning in the tricycle stage. Next, I let go of some of the learning, allowing her to advance on her own with the help of tools in the form of training wheels, eventually removing those supports. When I realized I had introduced a concept that was beyond her, I took her back a step, returning to a slightly less supportive model. Finally, when she was ready, I removed the supports again, and she reached her goal. Introduce. Support. Increase independence. Remediate if necessary. Succeed. Simple.
Well, education is never simple, that’s for sure. I had only one student who could work at her own pace and take the steps required in an order that suited her. There was no stigma attached to remediation. There was no shortage of resources. There was no constant pressure to produce report cards or to create data. There was no paperwork, no checklist to follow, and above all, no one questioning my expertise or ability. I’m her dad. I get to teach her to ride a bike.
This really seems to me to be what has truly changed in the classroom in the past few years. The idea that teachers are no longer the experts and that every decision needs be examined and defended. Class size and composition has been an issue forever, but how we handle those complexities is now open for public debate. Classroom resources have come and gone, but education spending is a constant point of contention. This scrutiny has led, naturally, to the need for more data, more paperwork, more checklists, and ultimately, a greater part of a teacher’s soul being taken up with defending their practice. All in the name of “accountability”, that undefinable, unattainable demand of so many policy makers and politicians. No matter the hoops you jump through as a teacher, someone farther removed from the kids and the classroom than you are will always find another one. Jump and jump and jump again.
Well, this summer I had a reminder of what education is supposed to be like in its purest form. Education is an act of love and kindness, caring and compassion, heart and soul. It is an event celebrated by student and teacher alike, and at the end of the day, all any educator wants for their students is that they successfully ride that bike, whatever it may be.
On a related note, my daughter also passed her swimming class this July. Her report card comments, written by her teenage instructor, read like this: “Great swimming! Your front crawl has improved so much! Just remember to get your arms all the way out of the water! Keep up the hard work on your kneeling dive and have a great summer!”
And that was all anyone in my family needed to hear.