At the recent Republican convention, Donald Trump Jr. made his, and presumably his father's, stance on public education quite clear. He proclaimed:
The other party gave us public schools that far too often fail our students, especially those who have no options. Growing up, my siblings and I we were truly fortunate to have choices and options that others don’t have. We want all Americans to have those same opportunities.
Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now they’re stalled on the ground floor. They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers, for the teachers and the administrators and not the students. You know why other countries do better on K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school.
That’s called competition. It’s called the free market. And it’s what the other party fears.
They fear it because they’re more concerned about protecting the jobs of tenured teachers than serving the students in desperate need of a good education.
We have all learned to walk. Many of us have taught another to walk as well. We stand before a young one and hold her hand. We model the behavior and patiently practice the act of walking, sometimes for weeks. Sometimes only for a couple of days. And there are those prodigious walkers who, one day, bolt up and begin to run. For some children, the process of learning to walk is slow and tedious. For others, natural and fluid. But eventually, most all of us learn to walk. But picture with me, if you will, what motivates a child who is, as far as we know, most content sitting and being carried and cuddled, motivated to walk. For my daughter, there were a few factors.
She fully and completely trusted her dad and me, so when we encouraged her to take those steps, she had full faith that we would not be leading her astray. She wasn't born with that trust. We earned that trust through eleven months of being present, exhibiting love, and establishing consistency. She knew that we had no other motive than that which was good.
We coaxed her. We would stand nearby, holding out our hands and using our loving voices to prod her along. We used not fear, nor demands, nor punishment, nor shame. We used love. Thus when the time came, she was learning to walk because she trusted us. And she was ready.
Then my son came, and his journey to walk was motivated by love and encouragement, but it was also motivated by a desire to be like his big sister. So he had a role model that he loved and trusted to push him along.
Some learn to walk at the age of nine months. Some, fifteen months. And most every child somewhere in between. But what if there was a standard expectation for when a child was expected to walk? What should we do if that loving, encouraging, best-interest-in-mind parent failed at the timeline? Well then, we fire them. Clearly. We take their children away and we give them to a set of parents who will do it better. "That's called competition. It's called the free market."
Public education is not perfect. In fact, it is flawed. And it is flawed not because it's a poorly run business where we aren't firing poor educators. It's flawed because we lived in a flawed world where we are working specifically and directly with people. Little people. Little people who are learning to navigate this big, hard, scary world. And while I strongly agree that salesmen who don't sell should be fired, and servicemen who don't service should be fired, I find it hard to support the notion that teachers – those people who are called to educate the young minds of our nation – be fired because they couldn’t get 100% of their clients to quota.
No president in the history of the United States has been able to solve the issues of poverty, nutrition, unemployment, national security, mental health, crime, drugs, and incarceration yet because no human can accomplish such a feat. Yet any given teacher in any public school in any state in our nation can attest to the fact that we have a classroom full of kids who fight those battles day in and day out. Without hesitation I can witness to a classroom where I have students who do not eat between Friday at lunch and Monday at lunch because their free meal at school is all they ever eat. I can assure you that I have a kid whose parent is unemployed, due to disability, ineptitude, or laziness. I can assure you that I have a student whose father or mother is deployed and serving our nation to protect our national security. I can assure you that I have a student whose parent is serving as a fireman or a police officer, and that student fears the worst. And the worst comes from the crime and drugs and incarceration that other kids in that same classroom know all too well because their parent is incarcerated, doing drugs, selling drugs, mentally unstable, abusive, or absent. So in that classroom of 25 kids, Mr. Trump, you will pardon us if we didn’t adequately equip each and every child to solve for x.
I respect private schools like the one that Trump Jr. attended. And I deeply respect those parents who can send their children to those private schools. I think they serve a great purpose in this nation. But so does public school. And that purpose is to do the best we can with who we can while we can.
Public education is not a business. When I was a young, twenty-something Republican stepping into the field, I admit that I, along with the likes of Trump and Trump Jr., thought it was. I didn't understand why we didn't fire teachers who couldn't get all thirty kids to walk at the same speed and at the same time and for the same duration. And then I gained experience. And in the nineteen years since, thanks to my exposure to the inner-workings of the system, I can say with great confidence that no amount of reform that creates free-market education will fix our nation. What will reform our public schools is this: love. Encouraging, understanding, patient, coaxing, empathetic love. And no government sanction or Republican party candidate or his son can implement that. But God help our nation as we teachers remain steadfast in our mission to, despite all obstacles, teach.