Teaching as a career has been my life’s choice for the last 30 years. I have loved every minute of being a teacher. I taught in or directed Children’s Church and Sunday School long before I had my own classroom. I love watching children discover new things and discover their own ability to learn. I can’t imagine anything more rewarding.
Teachers, however, are only part of the learning process. From babies to adults, people are learning all of the time, and only a fraction of that education comes in the classroom.
A child’s earliest learning experiences are the most important ones in shaping the way a child will look/feel about learning. The first five years of life are critical. The learning that takes place in these early childhood development years shapes the child’s behavior, their desire for knowledge, their health, happiness, mental health, self-image, happiness, growth, and the level of learning achievement they will most likely experience in school. Family values are imparted during these first years.
It is the time in a child’s life when basic attitudes and values are imparted from the adults around them about what kind of life will be valued. Children get an idea of who they are and what their role is going to be in their family, school and community.
According to Facts for Life: Early Childhood Learning, “Recent research confirms that the first five years are particularly important for the development of the child’s brain, and the first three years are the most critical in shaping the child’s brain architecture. Early experiences provide the base for the brain’s organizational development and functioning throughout life. They have a direct impact on how children develop learning skills as well as social and emotional abilities.
“Children learn more quickly during their early years than at any other time in life. They need love and nurturing to develop a sense of trust and security that turns into confidence as they grow.”
As much as society has made it popular to blame teachers for children’s lack of learning, and blame school systems with low scores, the truth is, we are only a fraction of a child’s learning experience. Life has been teaching a child long before they ever come in contact with formal education. Before a child ever enters kindergarten, they have been marked by their parents, siblings, and anyone else in the home with attitudes about their own worth, their own ability to learn and their attitudes toward school. What has been instilled in a child in those first five years of life either help make the child an excited learner, eager to try new things, or often convince the child that they are stupid, that formal education has no value, and that school is something they will just have to endure rather than something they will enjoy.
I am not offering my own opinions here, but summarizing decades of research that arrive at the same conclusions.
After a child is in school, the teacher has to try to work with a classroom full of children that all have different learning abilities, different behaviors that are considered acceptable in their individual homes, different attitudes about school, and different developmental abilities. It is a challenge every single year to try to present learning opportunities to children in a way that they will understand, enjoy, and want to take responsibility for their own learning success. If the family and teacher are on the same page about what they want for the child – high expectations for learning, a lot of the battle is already won.
When a child knows they are going to be held accountable for their own behavior, completion of work, respect for the teacher and the educational process, they are far more likely to put forth their best effort and be successful learners. However, when a child’s family or caregivers have an attitude that everything that happens or doesn’t happen is the teacher’s fault, or the teacher’s responsibility because they are getting paid to teach, and hold no personal accountability for themselves or for the child, they are teaching children that it’s okay to give minimal effort, have sorry attitudes about the world in general, and blame everyone else for their own lack of success. It is nearly impossible to overcome that kind of attitude in a child that is supported by all of the adults they hold dear.
Even brilliant children tend to be underachievers when they have an adult support system at home that doesn’t care whether they do their best at school or not and talk trash about school in general. All a teacher can do is present the material children need to learn (as required by district, state, and national standards), try to provide learning opportunities that embrace the entire class, give their best effort, and the rest is up to the individual children.
Life is the best teacher of all, but unfortunately life often teaches the most profound lessons when we are adults and we learn through what went wrong. I can’t even count all of the people I’ve heard say, “I wish I had tried harder in school.” “I wish I had studied when I was in school.” “I wish I had realized how important an education is while I had the chance.” “I wish I knew then what I know now and could go back and do it all over again.”
A successful life certainly doesn’t mean that everyone needs a college education, but it does mean that every person needs to be educated in the things that will enrich the life they want to live, and give them the skills they need to flourish in what they choose.
While one person’s dream may be to become a neurosurgeon, another one’s dream may be to work on race cars. While one may want to design clothes for the runway, another one may want to be a stay at home mom who takes care of the family finances and pays the bills. Personal choices are endless in this world. And the real measure of success is if the person is content and fulfilled as a human being in the life they have chosen.
Often, we don’t anticipate exactly what we need to know until we are faced with a real life situation that demands something of us that we still have to learn. There’s one thing for sure from birth to 104 – a person is never through learning, and life is the best teacher.