Stifling rules at school

Zach Davis

The other day, my stepsister got some exciting news. She was chosen to represent her elementary school’s third grade class at the Cecil County Creative Writing Forum. Sounds exciting, right?
Well, as it turns out, the forum was a big disappointment. Sixty students and a number of English teachers flocked to my old high school on a Saturday. Instead of actually engaging in creative writing, the students sat around and listened as teachers and local authors talked at them. The highlight of the day was when each student read aloud a piece they had written earlier in the year. When my dad asked my stepsister how the forum had gone, she replied, with typical candor, “Well . it was a lot like school.”
That got me to thinking – what would have made the Creative Writing Forum better? Well, for one thing, the students could have actually written stuff. They could have been given cool little projects, or asked to collaborate with other students near their own age. They could have taken a field trip to some exciting place that gave them neat ideas to write about. Instead, they sat in classrooms all day, listening to teachers giving prepared talks and engaging in tightly controlled, banal activities.
Unfortunately, my stepsister’s account of the forum comports all too closely with my experiences in Cecil County schools. I sat in classrooms doing rote work, copying down information onto handouts as teachers told me my work should exemplify “creativity” and “critical thinking.” I think one of the reasons Cecil County students are bombarded so often with such mundanity is that our teachers have lost ability to act creatively and improvise.
Of course, I can only speak for my county in the northeast corner of Maryland. I was a student there for 12 years and served on the Board of Education as a high school senior. Hopefully, Cecil County is the exception, not the rule. But if it’s not, I’m scared about the future of our educational system.
In Cecil County teachers have a rigid curriculum they must follow. The Board of Ed, and more precisely the curriculum writers who work with the administration, plan out teachers’ days hour by hour, minute by minute, all the way down to which handouts to use and which overheads to project. It’s inconvenient for teachers to get creative with their lesson plans or daily classroom interactions, so most just don’t. Why did this happen? Well, that seems like a chicken-or-egg question. Maybe Cecil County teachers were underperforming, so the board felt the need to step in and tell all teachers to present the same material in the same way. This at least ensures that all students get the same baseline knowledge. Or maybe the board, worried about accountability in the post-No Child Left Behind era, started writing these overbearing curricula, and creativity disappeared as a result.
Regardless of the cause, the effect is a vicious cycle that results in an ever more watered-down, uninspiring and impersonal school experience. The great teachers – the ones I remember fondly as iconoclasts who did things their own way – started leaving Cecil County, or just stopped teaching. They weren’t allowed to teach their own way anymore, and they didn’t want to jump through hoops they felt were pointless and counter-productive.
The board hired new teachers, mostly young ones who didn’t cost as much. To help these new teachers feel comfortable in the classroom right away, the board made the curricula even tighter. More teachers left, and increasingly, the schools were made up of teachers who never had to improvise or think creatively in class. The board told them what to do, and they did it. Every school day was like my stepsister’s creative writing forum: students sat around doing banal activities in subjects they might have been interested in.
Teachers need to be creative and have the ability to improvise. They need to be able to think critically. These skills are hard to teach, but essential for teachers to have. Each student is different, and each classroom is different each day. Teachers need to be flexible enough to communicate with all their students, whenever. If the board’s certified handouts aren’t doing the trick, teachers need to be able to recognize that and find a different way to get the point through. If a class is struggling with a concept or bored with a concept, teachers need to recognize that and change their plans accordingly.
I imagine a lot of student apathy springs not from dislike of a subject per se, but from dislike of a teacher. If your math teacher can’t tell you about algebra in a way that makes sense to you, of course you’re not going to like math. If your history teacher does nothing except read from the textbook and have you fill out silly handouts, it makes perfect sense that you’ll think history is boring. Teachers without the skills to reach out to students in ways the students will respond to are doing a great disservice to the subject they teach and the future generations they’re charged with educating.
Even more problematic, though, is the example these staid, curriculum-parroting teachers set for students. Our public school system exists not only to teach kids specific information, but also to teach kids how to be good citizens of the world. I can’t recite many of the facts I learned from school, but I can certainly point to the insights about life and how to live I gained in school.
If teachers show students that it’s okay not to think creatively or critically, or to be unwilling to improvise, students will absolutely follow their lead. Why waste energy thinking outside the box when your teachers are proving to you that it’s possible to live a perfectly satisfactory life completely devoid of innovation? And the prospect of a future generation without people who think creatively or innovate is a scary one indeed.
We are increasingly becoming a society that needs rules and guidelines and walkthroughs for everything. This is not a terrible thing. It’s only when we follow the rules as a substitute for thinking for ourselves that this trend becomes concerning. We just can’t lose sight of the importance innovation, creativity and critical thinking play in our lives.