Name: Randall J. Johnson
About me: I’m a dedicated but exhausted middle school teacher from Wichita struggling to pay back $30,000 in college loans. Can’t afford yet to have my own family.
In my fifth grade classroom I teach children to respect themselves and each other and to put that respect into the way they behave. You’d think their parents would have taught this to them, or other teachers, or someone, but even if the parents try, they’re running up against so much. Corporations sell all they can to children, all the time, every day. Kids get that. They know they’re just numbers. Pretty soon they start to act that way.
The world I want for the kids in my class is one where people know how to respect each other as individuals. In my class I teach this by showing trust. I run a democratic classroom. The kids make as many decisions as I’m allowed to let them make about the way we run the class. I can’t change the curriculum and we have to teach to the standardized tests, but other than that we decide together how we learn.
Kids being able to trust themselves because I trust them…it doesn’t start right away. I spend the first three months teaching them how to listen to each other, the next three how to work with one another to reach compromise. By the end of year most of them feel more empowered than ever to make their own decisions and take control of their lives. Then they graduate and go to sixth grade where they’re placed in rows and told to keep their ideas to themselves. Too often, they do.
That kills me.
I want to find or develop a program that will democratize school classrooms, teaching kids to respect themselves and translate that respect into actions. We don’t need special alternative schools to do this! This can work in public schools, private schools, anywhere we have the privilege to connect with kids.
We need a step by step program that over the course of a child’s development will give that child the tools to think for him or herself. We MUST start this program young—kindergarten, even pre-K. I’m not talking about just giving classroom teachers a memo about “personal empowerment” or having a motivational speaker come to say nice things at a school assembly. I’m not proposing anything new agey, no peace and love, unicorns-and-rainbows…. I’m just talking about reconsidering the way we relate to children in a school setting and giving them the tools from the earliest age to become responsible individuals who have the self-control and self-motivation to develop into healthy, productive adults.