Watching my son graduate from high school put me in a reflective mood. I thought back on my years as a traditional public school student, and I found myself hard pressed to recall any teachers that were particularly good examples of caregiving, moral modeling, or ethical mentoring. I don’t remember elementary school at all, really, and what I remember from middle school is a series of awkward, embarrassing days where my skin was bad and my arms and legs were too long for the rest of my body. I was so uncomfortable in high school that I changed to another school after sophomore year – one that permitted me to take junior and senior year together so I could finish early. Would my experience have been different in a charter school? I think so.
Creating a High School Drop-Out
When my son was little, I saw him having the same struggles I did in his traditional public school. Teachers screamed at students and teachers were constantly frustrated and angry with him, because he was neither calm nor well-behaved. He had teacher after teacher telling him (and me) that he was a behavior problem, a disruption to the class, and a hindrance to other students’ learning. I suspect that if he had continued on this way, he would have dropped out as soon as he possibly could. His teachers simply did not have the time or the tools they needed to support his learning differences, with more than 20 kids in a class.
Making the Move to a Charter School
I enrolled my son in a charter school after third grade, and I suddenly found that we were in a community of caring administration, faculty, and staff – the majority of who embodied compassion, morals, and ethics with every move they made. In particular, my son had one teacher who – I believe – is largely responsible for putting him on track to graduate. When he was in this teacher’s class, she was a first year teacher. However, what she lacked in experience, she made up for in caring. Because of the flexibility granted to public charter schools, my son was given the support he needed to manage his behavior and become an asset to his class.
Teaching Good Character
In the eight years since my son was in her class, this teacher has made it her personal mission to focus on character with every lesson and every subject, leading the school in a demonstration of values. She showed a particular affinity for turning around kids not known for their good character in spectacular ways. One year, she had a class with a reputation for poor behavior and bad choices. She spent months working with them, caring for them, bringing out their strengths, and encouraging them to discuss ethical and moral dilemmas. The unit culminated in a school-wide Peace Week, organized by the so-called problem class. These older students demonstrated their values by mentoring younger students and teaching others the lessons they had learned about treating all life with caring and respect.
I am confident that the traditional public schools have many wonderful teachers and administrators, but I think they are thwarted at every turn, making it impossible to do their best work. The charter school environment made it possible for my son’s teachers to share their best qualities with their students, demonstrating that the teaching of values requires a true partnership between faculty, administration, and parents.