Because they are looking in the wrong place.

A recent article written by Ryan Fuller, a former space engineer now teacher, stated that, “Teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s harder. To solve engineering problems, you use your brain. Solving classroom problems uses your whole being.”

Poppycock! The answer is simple – so simple, in fact, even a kindergarten student understands the solution.

According to the article’s author, some of teachers’ greatest hurdles are as follows:

  • How do I engage students?
  • How do I make students responsible for their learning?
  • How do I keep students “on task”?
  • How do I make my class interesting?
  • How do I make sure students understand the content?
  • How do I inspire students?
  • How do I relate to students?
  • How do I keep – or get students back – on track?
  • How do I do…. everything?

The author believes students want structure, want to learn and want to be prepared for life – and he is correct. But on the bullet-points beginning with How do  I… he is wrong. Though he supports “student-directed classrooms,” he believes that it must be teachers who are responsible for doing all and being all (on top of being mother, father, teacher, preacher, friend, confidant, counselor, mediator and a few other side jobs). This not just faulty thinking, it is impossible. In fact, this “I can do it all” thinking rarely works in the real world, so how can we expect it to work in education – a system top-heavy with so many variables that it is “almost” impossible to reach ANY goal? (I say “almost” because it is possible, but we need to begin thinking “smarter” not “harder.”) As they move from grade to grade, we must better prepare students to accept the challenges ahead, and take some of the “how do I…” off of our shoulders.

We must learn from our data and statistics. We know that the sooner our youngsters develop good classroom and study habits, the more successfully they will  grow and develop through the years. Can we all agree on at least that? Or is that up to interpretation as well? How often do we have a new class come to our room in September that knows policies and procedures backward and forward, acts appropriately, interacts with others using a high degree of engagement and are just wonderful to have in our rooms? It does happen, and when we tell them how wonderful they are and how nice it is to have such a good class, what do they tell us? “Oh, Mrs. Jones taught us all these things last year, so we already know what to do.” From the mouths of babes! They understand! How much do we love Mrs. Jones?! She prepared her students for success in the next grade. Get us early enough (before teachers allow us to “get away with” any bad habits), fine tune the behaviors you expect in us to exhibit and we will get it.

Be honest, how many of you were focused not just on teaching curriculum this year, but on making sure that your classes moved up knowing what will be expected of them – on more than just a level of curricular understanding?

All other variables aside, if we look at a graph (that any 6th grader can draw), we would see that childrens’ scores decrease as they go from K through 12th grade. We also know that the level of student engagement and excitement is also higher in the earlier years. Just ask any kindergarten teacher. What are our major complaints of middle and high school students? Attendance, behavior, organization, cooperation? These behaviors are all thoroughly covered in kindergarten.

So what happens? Students change according to the structure provided by each new teacher in each new year. If we maintain a sense of continuity from K-12, we stand a much better prospect of success than trying to “reinvent the wheel” in middle through high school where each teacher has their own limits and thresholds for what will be permitted in each particular class. Teachers who have the “I don’t do that, I do it my own way” approach creates so many variables it is almost impossible to obtain any valid conclusions. Simple Scientific Methodology. Too many variables doesn’t work. The experiment cannot be recreated by the next scientist (or teacher).

Too many “late” (6th & 7th grade) middle school and high school teachers are doomed – particularly in urban setting – because of the “allowances” made by previous teachers regarding proper classroom behavior. This is where Mr. Fuller is wrong. It is definitely not harder than rocket science. It just requires that all teachers be united and stay on the same page.

The later we get to students, the less likely they are going to be able to perform at the levels we are setting for them. As Mr. Fuller pointed out, “students want structure, want to learn and want to be prepared for life.” Yes, they do. And when they fail to live up to these expectations, we can only blame ourselves. We are Dr. Frankenstein who has – by omission, rather then by commission – created the proverbial monster. We dropped the ball… dropped it, and kept dropping it by allowing poor behavior, texting in class, wearing ear buds, playing around, missing and late homework, passing grades where they shouldn’t exist and more until it is impossible for the next teacher to have any hope of success. How many of us have heard, “But Mr. So-and-So didn’t care it we ate in class” or “Mrs. Wonderful never took off points if homework was late”? So where do we turn to fix this loss of engagement and responsibility that we are suppose to infuse into our 7th or 9th graders? We go to the one person who “got it” and was able to give it away.

The one who “got it” (following my parents) was Mrs. McKinney, my kindergarten teacher. She really got it. She taught me how to walk into a room, how to hang up my coat, how to find my seat, how to get ready for class to start, how to pay attention, how to get ready for lunch, how to play “nice” on the playground, how to nap successfully, how to get ready to end the day, and how to go home. I learned so much in kindergarten.

My 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade teachers “got it” as well, but nobody had it like Mrs. McKinney. By 5th and 6th grades, my teachers were “losing it” and I made sure – via my behavior – that I knew they were losing it. Structure, learning and life preparation became lax. I knew it and the teachers knew it, and yes, I was a piece of work. There was only one thing for me to do, and that was to live up to their expectations. Students demand structure in their classrooms, and if they don’t get it, they begin to fail. I did just that.

Luckily, my parents saw this and off I went to parochial school. There the structure, learning and life preparation were all restored. I was back on track. It was a simple process. The nuns spoke very much like Mrs. McKinney, they were clear and concise in their direction and we knew that if we did not follow the procedures, policies and protocols of the school, there would be consequences.

Though human cloning is still a long way away, I propose the first person to be cloned should be Mrs. McKinney. Next I propose she be put into every class in the country all the way up to 12th grade. All students would then be the beneficiaries of her guidance, her direction, her clarity, her simple wisdom, and her desire to make sure we all turned out as good as possible – regardless of home lives, siblings, personal flaws, learning impediments, and any other obstacle that stops students in their tracks today.

Mrs. McKinney is what happens when you start early and do the right thing. We are still, for the most part, starting early, but as our students complete elementary school and move on to middle school we are dropping the ball. We need to turn our attention back on EARLY INTERVENTION.

To prove this, let’s look at other sectors of society where early prevention pays far greater dividends than trying to put the horse back in that barn after it has gotten out.

Recidivism – a person’s relapse into behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention. By not seeking prevention action in the early years, recidivism rates for various behaviors become the following:

  • Crime – > 50%
  • Alcohol – >50% (though I have seen much higher)
  • Drugs – > 60%
  • DWI – > 40%

Early prevention is the only way to lower these incidents. This is why we have so few smokers today. We have been relentless in explaining the pitfalls of smoking. Unfortunately, schools have an almost 0% recidivism rate. Once we lose them, we usually never get them back. So let’s try not to lose them in the first place.

Since grades (as well as acceptable behaviors) are highest in the lower grades (elementary schools in particular) let’s start there. Let’s duplicate what those kindergarten teachers did so wonderfully in our early years and continue doing that for the next 12 years. Let’s not wait until students leave our – and I really hate this term for just this very reason – “dumping grounds” of middle school to try and fix things. Keep up what was started in kindergarten. Let’s think back to our kindergarten teacher and try to stay on the same track that she (or he) would want us to stay on.


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