Published in the June 7 – June 20, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Marty Cheek

At the swimming pool on a recent Saturday morning, I enjoyed a chat with a first-grader, a young gentleman who was enjoying cooling off in the water with his mom. Our conversation made me start thinking about school and education a bit differently.

When I said I had to go to work, he asked me what I did for a job. “I publish newspapers. What’s your job?”
“I don’t have a job. I go to school,” he said.

“Well, maybe going to school is kinda like going to your job. Maybe your job is to learn,” I said. He gave me a questioning look.

We chatted about that idea for a bit. He didn’t seem to like the thought of school as a job. But a child stepping daily into that classroom, sitting in a desk and learning new knowledge and skills that will play an important role in shaping who he or she is and what his or her future might turn out to be — well, that’s got to be the most important job in the world.

There were times during my K-12 school years where I felt the campus was a jail. I couldn’t escape. I and the other inmates had to serve our time until the bell rang. A tall fence around the school perimeter kept us from our freedom. We sat stiff and restless at uncomfortable desks and listened to teachers drone out a lecture about some subject it was obvious they felt no passion about. Teaching was a sadistic way to inflict pain on students.

Then there were other teachers who loved sharing their passion and making students understand new knowledge and build new skills. The vocation of education was an art for them.

In the 1990s, Bill Moyers did a show on PBS called “A World of Ideas” where he had a thought-provoking chat with prestigious authors. Among them was writer Isaac Asimov. The wise, old author of science-fiction and science described how schools today are essentially the same as prisons. The students face a K-12 “sentence” of time where they often have to face hours of boredom and humiliation. Just like real prisoners, school students looked forward to “getting out,” he said. The freedom of summer vacation beckoned where they could take off the shackles of the campus and enjoy life a lot more.

Ron Woolf, a board member of the Morgan Hill Unified School District, once talked at a public event and asked the audience to think about a teacher who influenced their lives. I immediately thought of my geometry teacher in high school. He was a young educator who looked like a high school sophomore himself. I believe I was in the first class he ever taught. Someone must have given him the advice to show the students from Day 1 who is the boss.

I felt excited about learning geometry. Then he marched into the classroom with a tough guy prison warden bearing. He demanded we open our textbooks and he promptly started the lecture without any warm welcome. Up to that point, I had loved mathematics. Numbers and equations were toys to play with. Algebra to me was a fun challenge much like figuring out a puzzle. But as the new geometry teacher began lecturing us, I felt fear. I could hear the thinking inside my head say: “This ain’t going to be fun. I’m going to hate this class.”

Years later after I graduated from college, I met him again. He seemed to have softened a lot. But consider what I learned in his geometry class — I learned to hate math. I learned to dread solving the problems in the textbook he assigned us. That attitude planted inside my brain made me spiral down and get farther and farther behind in learning an exciting subject.

A potential future for a young girl or boy gets lost when a teacher makes them learn to hate the process of learning. It’s sad to think of the brilliant engineers or physicists or writers or historians that might have been, but that road was never taken because of a teacher they suffered in school.

My chat with the first-grader at the pool made me think that maybe the metaphor for educating young people should not be prisons but rather a business office. Maybe the focus of education should not be punitive — if you don’t learn the required knowledge or a skill, you’ll receive a bad grade and possible humiliation from your parents. It should be about producing moral, intelligent citizens who will be tomorrow’s caretakers of our society.

The best teachers treat their students less like prisoners under their jail guard and more like future civic leaders gaining the knowledge and skills to create a better society.