Fergus Publishing, Sioux Falls, SD (2013)
Of late, there's been a lot of discussion about how to deal with education. Factions argue about whether "throwing more money at the problem" will fix our slumping ratings as we try to compete with other countries for the best educated citizens. Politics is involved all over the place. I invite every single person who cares about this issue to read Peggy Mastel's book "Recess is my Best Subject" because here is where the rubber meets the road ... in the land of the substitute teacher.
Which schools do best? What are the problems that keep kids from learning? How many of the problems kids have are related to the educational philosophy of a given school's principal or superintendent? How do teachers get the children in their classes to behave? What effect does class size have on a child's ability to learn? What happens when special needs children are segregated from the other classes? Is it better than when they're not? How do teachers reach the children of the poor who are needy in so many ways?
Peggy's is a very personal story of the day to day adventures faced by an elementary school substitute teacher. New schools every few days, sometimes every day, each with it's own set of rules and procedures, each with teachers who leave instructions for the subs, with varying degrees of critical information, class sizes from large to unmanageable, and children who have become used to the routine who figure out quite quickly that in some areas, the sub isn't as smart as she should be (what is the drill for going to lunch at this school -- all the kids know, but did anyone tell the sub?).
There's a lot of information here about how children at different ages behave and learn, something most parents only partly understand; after all, the teachers spend more time getting the children to learn than the parents do in most cases. We see Peggy in a classroom full of kindergarten children, trying to keep them all on track and focused, doing fun things and educational things, and learning practical things, and in South Dakota this includes tasks like figuring out where they put their mittens, getting them out of, and back into, snowsuits and boots, etc. We see how the children act when they're in kindergarten, when it's too snowy or cold to go outside at recess. We see one set of children when they're in first grade, another in second grade class and up, seeing how they learn to socialize to the point where peer groups start taking over in 5th grade. The patterns established affect their education from then on, and when you combine that with the raging hormones of adolescence, it's no wonder schools have the problems they have.
This isn't the core part of the story, but it's all useful information and at the very least, should give parents some small sympathy for what teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. A regular classroom teacher who is there all the time can do a great deal to keep classes on an even keel, but as all of us remember who went to public school, substitute teachers do not see the same children. Subs see those children when the kids aren't trying to impress -- when they don't think anyone important is looking. In some ways it says a lot about how well or how poorly parents are performing as well as how responsive administrators and legislators are to the problems for which they are partly to blame.
There are other stories embedded in this book. The system by which substitutes are chosen and the folks who decide to sub rather than become full time teachers is an underlying story. Peggy's own situation is haunted by tragedy, a tragedy that working with children makes both better and worse. Every day is a new tightrope walk, with different students, schools in wealthy neighborhoods, schools in poverty-stricken areas of cities, schools where it's not clear the children have food at home, schools with huge numbers of non-English-speaking populations, classrooms with children in wheelchairs who cannot communicate, and with children so damaged by emotional disabilities that just getting them not to run away or injure other students is a major challenge. Teaching is not for sissies, but subbing is the teaching equivalent of extreme sports, as dangerous and challenging as taking a bicycle down a snowy ski slope. The difference is, in extreme sports, you only hurt yourself.
Education is not happening in these classes, and the reasons are buried in the stories Peggy tells. How to fix the situations she describes will have to be taken on by professionals in the field, but the boots-on-the-ground tales in this book tell us it should start happening soon, because we are losing major opportunities to get children to appreciate education at those key times in their early development where personalities are formed (this is my take, not Peggy's -- she is just relating the reality).
And through all of this, it's the children in the stories that we remember. The ones Peggy really would have liked to help, but as a sub, she had to move on. Their struggles are what make this book more than just a criticism of education in today's world -- it's more of a cry to help those children so they can learn and grow to be capable adults, and be happy.
Whether it's fixing how substitutes are found (and making the job less perilous for those willing to do it), changing classroom sizes, re-segregating some children who won't allow others to learn, or coming up with entirely new approaches, this book should be mandatory reading material for parents, for anyone who wants to see children flourish and become interested in learning at an early age, and anyone who wants to take on the challenge of teaching.