Lambs in Public Education

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by Brenda

Lamb - 7I am convinced that my third grade teacher Mrs. Sype was an angel who walked the earth in mortal clothing. In a roomful of nine-year-olds she never raised her voice and she loved her students. You could see this in everything she did. Every day after lunch we would happily snuggle into our desks and she would read to us from her favorite books. Day after day her soft voice would transport us from the magical world of James and the Giant Peach to the heartbreak of Where the Red Fern Grows. Every year for twenty-seven years when she got to the end of that story she would weep so bitterly over the death of those dogs that a student would have to finish reading for her. Every single year.

Mrs. Sype loved books, and because I loved Mrs. Sype I too came to share her passion. One day she pulled Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder from her personal stash and said I might enjoy it. From that moment on I was hooked. I spent every spare moment with Laura, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, and the Black Stallion. These books led me to The Hobbit, Gone With the Wind and many other dear friends. Over the years I poured through the library and soon found myself in the company of C.S. Lewis, Neal A. Maxwell, and Bruce R. McConkie. In all of these books I found humor and beauty and truth. These ideas distilled upon my soul like the dew from heaven. They fed my hungry mind and spirit.

Then, in the eleventh grade I came across a different sort of teacher. He was no angel, more like the offspring of Mr. Spock and The Absent Minded Professor with one white eyebrow that shot up into space quite violently to prove it. Mr. Tilzey taught physics to disaffected teens, a job which required a special skill set and Mr. Magoo levels of disregard for what was cool.

That class opened up a new world to my plaid flannel-wearing sarcastic teenage self. We learned about forces and energy. Built mouse trap powered cars and balsa wood bridges. We bounced lasers and made hydrogen balloons explode. And because I could not get enough of this excitement, I found my way to his classroom during lunch and after school. Once there, instead of being annoyed by the interruption, he instead took the time to talk with me and set me on the shoulders of some of the greatest scientific minds of all time. Einstein, Neils Bohr, Hubler, Kepler, and DaVinci. From that lofty altitude I began to see the handwriting of God scrawled across the cosmos and in the organization of the smallest particles. Once again nourishment for my mind led me to food for my spirit, and it was sweet.

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While neither of these teachers were members of my faith, Mr. Tilzey got me asking questions, questions that led to an understanding of the physical processes of this world and how that links with spiritual progression. Mrs. Sype gave me the keys to answering those questions through reading literature and scripture. Those two teachers taught me that there is beauty and truth all around me, they added wisdom to the things my family had taught me, and in the process fed my mind and spirit in ways that have blessed my life.

Both of these gifted teachers were employees of our public school system, the topic of hot debate these days. I’ll be the first to admit that much in public education is a mess. As an administrator, a school board trustee, a band booster, and football Mama, I spend most of my days in the trenches. Bureaucracy, budgetary woes, political rhetoric, student apathy, security concerns, curriculum drama, standardized testing, secularism, and so on; it is no wonder that many concerned parents search for alternate options.

As a people with so many obligations and busy schedules, and the magnitude of the challenges of our current education system it is easy to simply stand on the sidelines and leave the issues to others. The problem is that when we do that, we leave the door open to influence from sources that are there for their own gain and not necessarily working towards the best interests of students. To improve the system we must engage and the stakes are high.

Life for so many of the children in our nation today is anything but a fairy tale. Parents with substance addiction, fractured families and neighborhoods, crime, hunger, and abuse in all of its forms are rampant in our populations. In my hometown schools and many others, there are programs where teachers watch for chronically hungry children who get their entire nutrition for the day in the lunch room. It is heartbreaking when you realize how many there are.

Then there are the single parents struggling to make ends meet, underemployment, poverty, and a plethora of other difficulties that is the daily reality for a great many children. Public school is a place that can be a refuge from the storm, a stepping stone to a better life. In some cases a good public education is their only hope for escape from a lifestyle which otherwise would perpetuate into adulthood.

ryerson public school playgroundEven without considering socioeconomic and cultural conditions we need to understand that the great majority of the upcoming generation is being educated in public schools. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that nearly 50 million students in the U.S. will attend public elementary and secondary schools this year. So even if you have no children, or they are grown, or you have chosen to educate your kids in some other way, public education is still your business. Public education is a driving force in what our society will become in the future.

This is not how it should be. Families should raise children not governments, but unfortunately too many parents have either deserted their posts and are not coming back or are living in situations where survival is all they have the energy to focus on. This puts schools in the difficult position of being expected to teach everything from honesty to history, from social studies to sexual education, and to do it in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.

Not all is doom and gloom. Along with the challenges are the kids who strive for excellence, parents who are involved and sacrifice time and means to volunteer, teachers who put student success ahead of big paychecks, coaches who inspire, art and music programs that change lives, and many, many people who just want to do the right thing but they need help. Lots more help.

As members of a church that take the charges to love thy neighbor and feed my lambs seriously, what could our responsibilities be in this less than ideal situation? Latter-day prophets have given us guidance in regards to this and other civic matters.

In 1986 Ezra Taft Benson said (empasis added),

We must become involved in civic affairs. As citizens of this republicwe cannot do our duty and be idle spectatorsWe must make our influence felt by our vote, our letters, and our advice. We must be wisely informed and let others know how we feel.

In October 2000, the First Presidency included in a letter to the general church membership on political neutrality the following statement (emphasis added):

As personal circumstances allow, we encourage men and women in the Church to serve in public offices of either election or appointment — including school boards, city and county councils and commissions, state legislatures, and national offices.

President Hinckley has said (emphasis added),

I urge you with all the capacity that I have to reach out in a duty that stands beyond the requirements of our everyday lives; that is, to stand strong, even to become a leader in speaking up in behalf of those causes which make our civilization shine and which give comfort and peace to our lives. You can be a leader. You must be a leader

This leadership is sorely needed in the halls of our public schools. You can lead by volunteering to be a mentor, joining the PTA, and speaking out and showing up when policies in your local school are headed off the tracks. You can lead by running for office; you may not be elected but you can get a message out in the process. You can lead by writing your elected officials and by holding them responsible at the voting booth. By organizing groups to clean, and paint, and raise money for much needed infrastructure improvements. You can encourage bright young people to become teachers; you can become a teacher yourself. You can volunteer to be a room parent, a reading buddy, a friend. You can send an encouraging note to a teacher. You can pray for the kids and adults working day-in and day-out in public education. The options are as varied as the talents you possess and they are needed, terribly needed.

Fairfax County Public Schools Students and Teachers at Disability Mentoring Day

There are fifty million lambs in the United States alone who need teachers like Mr. Tilzey and Mrs. Sype. They need parents and community members who care about feeding their minds and in turn their souls. So, whoever you are: old, young, no kids, ten kids, home-schooler, charter founder, retired general, chicken farmer, executive, or janitor, you can lead and make an impact in the lives of the coming generation. If you don’t, the agendas of other interests who are not so selfless will, and we will all live with the consequences.

Feed my lambs, love thy neighbor — both are principles that require action — and those precious lambs are worth the effort.

About Brenda

Brenda (Truth, Beauty, & BLT’s) is the mother of four tremendous children and wife to a very patient and witty man she lovingly calls “Buns”. She enjoys flying kites, thinking about things that make her brain hurt, and is pretty good with a slingshot. She spends her time searching for truth, beauty, and humor wherever she can find them.

7 Responses to Lambs in Public Education

  1. Bonnie says:

    This was good for me to read. As a home educator for 8 years, a public educator for 1 (I know, I’m a total dropout), and a parent with children in public education for the last 12 years, I’ve genuinely struggled to figure out how to do this. Your voice helps those of us who have been severely burned by public education (both as a teacher and as a parent) to get over ourselves and see the bigger picture. The reality is that education boils down to a relationship between teacher and learner and material that must be present for a good experience to result. If we remember this, we can better explore our various stewardships. Certainly, what I have done for several years (abandoning my children to a system I don’t trust), was the worst thing to do. But I’m repenting now.

    • Brenda says:

      I think anybody who spends time in this arena gets burned one way or another. I certainly had experiences as a student and parent and so I empathize with the hurt that some have experienced.

      I have utmost respect for those who home-school responsibly and have at times been one of those absent parents in the public school process. But the more I became involved with my kids the more I saw how important engagement is, not just for their sake but for all the kids. It’s one of the reasons I became so adamant about trying to improve on the good and minimize the bad parts.

      Now that I’m in the thick of it, it is apparent that one of the main barriers to improving what we have is the lack of participation by thoughtful parents and community members. I know they care but it is sometimes difficult to find meaningful paths in to give feedback and help. Even so, if you have to blaze a new trail it worth it.

      We’re all a work in progress, thank heaven we get to learn and do it better going forward. :)

  2. Liz C says:

    Excellent! We’ve had others question the legitimacy of our concern over public education options (since we educate at home), and the attitude expressed so well in your piece is my main answer: I know what’s going on for my kids. I want others to have similarly beneficial years, and want to spare as much anguish as possible!

    My experience with teachers in the public system ran the gamut of really dreadful, to totally sublime; I remember each, but still have such a deep love of the few teachers who were flat-out LOVE in my life!

  3. Ray says:

    I’ve worked in education in one way or another almost my entire adult life, including years in “the trenches” trying to do something opportunity-changing in some of the deep trenches. I don’t mind homeschooling in principle, and I have no problem with the concept of people pulling their children out of public schools and teaching them on their own. I have friends who do that and are masterful at it. I also have friends who should be locked up for what they have done to their children in the name of protecting them from the world. I have observed that homeschooling runs the same gamut as public education when it comes to the quality of the education itself.

    As to the point of this post, I couldn’t agree more. Too much of the homeschooling rhetoric writes off those who are in the public education system. This is going to sound a little harsh, perhaps, but I have a hard time with someone who abandons someone else and then turns around and castigates those whom they abandon. Public school teachers and students alike lose MUCH when adults who care and children who care leave, and they lose even more when those adults and children turn around and condemn them to an even harder struggle than existed already.

    Again, I defend passionately the right to homeschool, but it’s easy to forget that the choice to do so is founded on a degree of luxury – of being “relatively rich” (meaning having something others don’t have, including simply opportunities and choices), and my heart hurts when those who can afford to homsechool (and I don’t mean that in strictly economic terms) criticize those who can’t.

    No matter what decision one makes in this regard, I would prefer more compassion for the little ones who have no choice – and a little more ministry among them.

    • Liz C says:

      I find many of those who are critical of the current systems are those who have been damaged by it, and aren’t at a point in their healing where they can be supportive yet. I also don’t find criticism and castigation in the same places, though.

      It’s hard to find ways to engage and minister within the system, but it’s so vital!! Children deserve every opportunity, every kindness, every gentleness, every good and deep adventure.

      I’ve had fun working with public school teachers to develop integrated plans (much like a public school version of a homeschooler’s cross-discipline unit study) to help kids connect with and engage in history (that’s part of my real-life job, and I work with museums, historic sites, and individuals as well.) It’s so much fun to help create a plan that gets kids immersed in something new, see those connections spark, and sit back and watch them expand and blossom.

      I’ve been able to work as a mentor for a few teens in public high schools, supervising their senior project plans and helping them broaden their research and research application skills. When I travel and teach, I also have teens in my workshops who hail from all of the educational options, and it’s a treat to nurture their interest and get them off on an interesting path.

      Those are small ways I’ve found to support children; sometimes, that support also ends up supporting the school, but I’m mostly interested in supporting the actual children, so it all works out. :)

      • Ray says:

        “I find many of those who are critical of the current systems are those who have been damaged by it, and aren’t at a point in their healing where they can be supportive yet.”

        Amen.

  4. Ali says:

    I pulled my kids from our public schools this school year and put them in a charter school. It has been the best decision for our family. I was unhappy with our district ( 5th largest in the nation) an the bureaucrats and politicians making decisions for my kids instead of educators. That being said I truly liked our school and loved the majority of our teachers and appreciate the sacrifices made on my kids behalf. They truly cared about my kids and their well being but many times their hands were tied to teach how they wanted and knew was best due to the district policies.

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