On Appreciation

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Blogs that rant, denigrate, reduce all positions to sharp dichotomies, and elevate every problem to a crisis get attention and often good readership. It may seem trite to write about appreciating the good, but when we’re too quick to declare our systems catastrophes, we lose some of our best.

This article about how the 1980’s report “A Nation At Risk” misinterpreted data about student achievement, leading to hyperbolic laments about the sorry condition of American schools, made me think about how failing to appreciate ourselves and our schools often leads us to lose what we value most. The legacy of that report is the current climate of blame for teachers and schools, and the shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on testing.  Here in England, complaints about the poor quality of schools abound and, in response, systems and services seem to change with every political whim. For example, England has recently lost the Connexions Career Service as a national career guidance agency, and I wonder if part of the reason is that many never took the time to appreciate what they had.

After six months of living in England, I have learned to appreciate things from home that I never imagined I would miss. I sleep deeply through the long, dark, British nights, all alone in my double bed without a husband to constantly kick me awake, but I have found an appreciation for the kicking, as well as the many other interruptions to my deep sleep cycles…from the excitement of wild, midnight thunderstorms to the neighbors’ s damned coon hounds baying in the wee hours to the anticipation of the surprise 5 am recorded snow day call: Hello, this is Warren County Schools…(heart leaps!…back to the kicking)

Here in England, I have learned to appreciate good public transportation, free health care, neighborhood pubs, and predictable weather (despite local assertions to the contrary. Nature, as it turns out, doesn’t care whether we appreciate it or not.) I’ve found that the constant moisture in the air does wonders for my normally dry skin and hair. I appreciate our multi-cultural neighborhood where, living within a few blocks of two mosques, I can now be assured that my children will never look with American suspicion on neighbors wearing headscarves.

Tennessee may be a place traditionally known for its poor schools, but I now appreciate my home school where students using wheelchairs and augmentative communication devices and with recognizable genetic differences like Down Syndrome, travel the hallways between classes with the rest of the student body. When I began observing schools in England, I was surprised to learn that segregated special schools are still common here, and in many other countries in the world, since we closed most of ours in Tennessee more than twenty years ago. I have never taken the time to appreciate the rough country boys who don’t turn their heads to stare when a fellow student walks through the halls flapping his hands or making moaning noises, because they know it’s just something their classmate has done throughout their years of attending classes together. Last year, I didn’t take the time to appreciate our student body when it elected a young women with Down Syndrome as part of our traditional Homecoming Court, to ride in a formal gown on the parade float with the other school beauty queens. It seemed like nothing unusual since she was as pretty, fashionably dressed, and well-liked as any of the other girls elected. And yet, here in England, I know many people appreciate the well-qualified teachers and passionate administrators who keep the tradition of special schools alive, so I am learning to appreciate the complexities of education as well.

I wonder if a lack of appreciation for Further Education (FE) Colleges here has been one of the factors leading to recent reductions in FE funding. I have certainly heard slights and grumbles about the quality of the English FE system. But I have visited many colleges while I have been here and seen individualized programs and a broad range of opportunities available for young people of all ability levels. I have also visited a Studio School and a University Technical College, two new types of institutions, that are now sharing the budgets with traditional FE colleges. While these new schools have impressive infusions of money and partnerships with corporations like Rolls Royce and the National Grid, I haven’t seen anything in their offerings that couldn’t have been offered by FE colleges, given the same influx of resources and incentives for innovation.

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for a good rant, when warranted. I want radical change in the direction of education and I know that teachers, administrators, and parents have to stand up and make a scene to have our voices heard. I just hope we are careful in our complaints and don’t enjoy the attention that comes from protesting so much that we decide to decry everything that those on the opposite end of our perceived dichotomies propose. I just hope we all find some opportunities to realistically look at what we have and protect the pieces that are worth our appreciation.

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