New children in old schools

Clearly, this system is not working — and, through their behavior and words, students are demanding a change.

by Lily Gallo — 

Each new generation of students continues to challenge the structures of the old ways. If it is true that children ever sat primly in silent rows while obediently transferring hour-long lessons onto their slates, few are willing to do so now. Their choices to do things differently are among the many wonderful gifts our children offer the world — things like unwillingness to quietly follow an uninspired leader and the refusal to surrender their personal power.

In a typical classroom today, one teacher instructs 25 students. A certain number of these children will already know what is being taught; another group will not begin to comprehend the subject matter for another two years. Yet a third group will be daydreaming. Others will be bored and disconnected, some fearful of their teachers’ anger and others afraid to speak because they might be wrong.

A percentage of the 25 students will be more knowledgeable than the teacher, but reluctant to demonstrate their abilities. Some will worry about where they will get another pencil, while a few others are hoping to avoid the harassment they experience every day at lunch.

Clearly, this system is not working — and, through their behavior and words, students are demanding a change.

Schools have made many adjustments in an attempt to address the changing needs of students. They have tried smaller class sizes, elimination of art classes, enforcement of punishments, bribery for good behavior, over-labeling and under-labeling children as special needs students, segregation of male and female students, the requirement of additional teacher training … the list is long.

Unfortunately, this list does not include a solution. Many school systems still believe that by juggling this and pinching that, they can form a patchwork quilt that will cover them through another cold school year, and many believe that this is the best that can be expected.

As a teacher, I have sat through many horrible and hilarious staff meetings during which we have attempted to improve schools for students. One meeting that comes to mind was an hour-long debate over blue pens and bathroom usage. The adults were equally divided — one camp felt that writing in blue ink was the worse sin while the other felt that frequent bathroom usage was more detrimental to students. However, there was only room for one more stamp on the behavior card, and we had to come together to make an enlightened decision. We could not fight all the student transgressions and had to select only three to concentrate on — but which three, oh help us please, which three?

The principal led us through this thought-jungle with some inspirational words. “We are all capable of making a difference in the lives of these young people!” she would yell out, when all seemed darkest.

We were renewed by this message and fumbled on. We lamented, “When they leave the classroom to use the bathroom, they miss valuable classroom time.” Yes, this seemed wise, until it was sensitively countered, “Well, there are students who really need to go.” Blue ink was wrong because they were told to use pencil, and if they broke that rule, then what other rules would they feel permitted to break?

Eventually, we ran out of time and the debate, unbelievably, was scheduled to be continued at the next staff meeting. It needed to be a school-wide decision, as the rules had to be equally enforced.

It is interesting to witness our attempts to preserve the old beliefs — that the adults are in charge and must appear as a strong, unified force whenever the children are present, intent on enforcing the rules regardless of their randomness, importance or effectiveness.

Until we realize that the students are wonderful teachers themselves, we will be blind to their lessons. Together, and without hierarchy, adults and children create the world around them. Schools attempt to separate a process that can only succeed as a whole. Learning takes place everywhere, between all people and all things, equally and diversely. Schools must undergo major changes to embrace and benefit from these truths.


Lily Gallo is a former teacher and director of New Home School, a school developed for students who are emotionally and educationally unsupported by traditional school systems. 480-200-8956, or 

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 4, August/September 2006.

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