As I watch another school year start and see the children pouring off the buses to go into their school, I wonder - how does that child view the school and what awaits him in the year ahead? Is it Disneyworld, full of joy and wonder, or a factory which is dull, grinding and meaningless, or off to work in the coal mines, hard, joyless and dangerous? After all my years of teaching, I firmly believe that a child's emotional experience in school is way more important in the shaping of the adult that they are to become than any actual academics that is being taught. Unfortunately, I don't believe that this concept is understood by many legislators and others that have direct control over how schools are run, which has sometimes negative ramifications for how the schools actually function.
The words that should be associated with school are the same words that are used when real learning is taking place: interesting, exciting, fun, fascinating, profound, relevant, purposeful, happy, pride, pleasant, positive,uplifting, energizing, with an overall feeling of the joy of internal growth. What you often get from many children when asked about school is often the opposite: boring, unpleasant, stressful, fear - of punishment, of failure, of ridicule; anger, confusion, embarrassment, dangerous, shame, frustration, pointless, with an overall feeling of a deadening of the spirit. How do you want your child to feel as they march off to school - daily - yearly? What effect does the school experience have on a child over a period of years, whether it be positive or negative? I have found it to have a very profound and lasting and life-shaping effect and is much more important than many people think. More attention should be paid to how a school is structured so as to foster the positive experiences of the first set of words above and mitigate or eliminate the negative, second set of words.
The irony is, if the powers that be would fixate on how to make the schools a more joyful, interesting and pleasant place instead of being obsessed with test scores, the test scores will actually rise, and I mean like the Phoenix type of rise. There are several pedagogical points to be made here. The first is that if children are interested and happy, instead of bored and angry, the learning rate and retention span of academics goes way up. Also, discipline problems drop like a rock, freeing up lots more actual learning time for everybody. Second, punishment is a poor motivating tool and a series of positive success experiences coupled with praise is a hundred times more effective and reduces the need for punishment greatly. Third, there are seven different types of intelligence, and if schools would expand their menu into music, drama, art, industrial arts, life skills, home economics, life math, etc. then every child will be able to find something that they take joy in and are successful, the glow of which spills over into areas that they are less successful at.
Lastly, what needs to be remembered is that many children who come to school don't have academics as their primary need. Many children come from homes and communities under extreme stress and need love. They have had enough harsh experiences and don't need more. They need positive, pleasant ones instead. They need a caring, responsible and loving adult in their life, which is sometimes lacking. Schools can and should provide this above all else, and partner with struggling parents to provide a safe, happy bee-hive of learning and positive experiences, that will produce productive and positive adults, even raised under the most trying of circumstances.
A joyful school is a real school. No more dropouts, no more gangs, no more violence, no more poverty. A good school is the antidote for all of these things. A joyful school is home and sanctuary and incubator for a greater society. Set the teachers free to do what they were trained to do and what they are instinctively inclined to do, which is to love and train children. The factory and the coal mine are not working models for schools and should be ditched. Laughter, praise and smiles are a sure indicator that a school is running properly - for the children, for the adults in the system and for the parents.