Why I don’t believe that school is a child’s most important job

January 4, 2012

in rants and reflections

Sometimes the things kids pursue outside of school are even more valuable than the assignments we give them in school.

I used to think school was more important than anything else. In fact, I remember sharing that truism many times in those serious, heart-to-heart conversations with kiddos who were slacking off. I’d put on a disappointed face and use my calm, serious tone: “You didn’t do your project because you were playing? Homework is more important than playing. School is a child’s most important job. Being a good student should be your top priority. It has to come first.”

Who knows where I got that idea–from another teacher, I think, or maybe even a parent. Every adult I said that in front of would nod in solemn agreement. It was a conventional piece of wisdom that we all believed and were trying desperately to persuade the kids to buy into when sports and video games and playing with friends became their focus.

My feelings have changed over the years. Slowly I have come to believe that kids have a right to their own time outside of school, and that we as teachers have no more right to control their evenings and weekends than our bosses should have to control ours. Kids need time to be kids and enjoy their childhood. Now I believe that a child’s most important job is not school, but learning. And these two things are not one and the same.

Learning takes place through play and exploration. Learning comes from following one’s passions and developing one’s interests and hobbies. Learning happens when we talk, wonder, question, daydream, and experiment. Sometimes it comes through worksheets and research projects. But not always. And the things learned through schooling are not necessarily more important than the skills developed apart from school.

I’m not opposed to homework altogether. And I want students to take school seriously. It’s critically important that kids give their schoolwork 100% during the hours of 8 and 3. But school is not the most important thing in their lives. Even if learning is a student’s most important job, children are more than just students, and life is about more than our jobs. Life is about relationships: family, friends, and a connection to God and spirituality. The beauty of life is experienced through play and rest, movement and relaxation. I want to help students create a work/life balance from a young age so that they grow up knowing how to enjoy and appreciate every moment they are given. And that is why I want my interactions with students to demonstrate a shift in perspective. I want my own priorities to reflect that school is not–and never has been–anyone’s most important job.

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrea Kerr January 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Love this!! I posted a link to this on my blog. As a math teacher, I often feel pressured by other math teachers to give homework every evening. I used to be one of those “tons of homework” types of teachers until my own children started school and I realized that it is just foolish to think that kids should spend eight hours at school and then go home and do school work. I’m a selfish mother that wants to spend quality time with my children, not fighting them to do their homework. Thank you for writing such a great article. I’ve enjoyed your blog posts over the last year.

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2 Angela Watson January 5, 2012 at 1:45 am

Thanks for sharing on your blog, Andrea, and for your kind words! I am not a mother yet, but I know that when I am, I will not want to spend my precious evenings with my kids forcing them to copy their spelling words ten times each for a teacher who will make them miss recess if they don’t. The thought of what I want for my own kids is very much in the forefront of my mind now. It wasn’t when I was younger–I just couldn’t imagine it, I guess.

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3 Heather January 4, 2012 at 10:28 pm

I love your outlook! I want my son to be a good student, but not if it means pushing homework on him to the point where he resents it. I believe it will all come together in good time, and he’s still so young. As you said… “Kids need time to be kids and enjoy their childhood.”

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4 Angela Watson January 5, 2012 at 1:48 am

Hi, Heather! Great points. If your son isn’t getting it yet, he probably will naturally in his own time. I posted on that last month in “Artificial benchmarks and forcing kids to catch up” (http://thecornerstoneforteachers.com/2011/12/artificial-benchmarks-and-forcing-kids-to-catch-up.html.) I hate the idea of putting so much pressure on kids AND teachers.

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5 Marlana January 5, 2012 at 12:24 am

This is great! I had never thought about the correlation between kids and school and adults and their jobs/bosses. Great analogy! :)

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6 Angela Watson January 5, 2012 at 1:53 am

Thanks, Marlana! You know what you just reminded me of? In my first classroom, I had a sign that said “You think your teacher is tough? Wait until you meet your boss!” I thought that was so clever–I just knew a no-nonsense demeanor was preparing kids for the workplace! I forgot all about that sign until about two years ago when I read a random article online from someone who quoted it. The author pointed out how misleading the saying is, because the best bosses AREN’T tough. They’re caring and inspiring and empathetic and supportive of their employees. Having worked for both types of bosses, I can agree 100%. I don’t want a tough boss, and I don’t want to be a tough teacher.

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7 Marlana January 5, 2012 at 7:16 am

I agree with you 100%! The best bosses I’ve ever had have definitely been supportive and inspiring. I don’t want to be a tough teacher, either. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold my students to a certain standard or I’m lowering my expectations, it means I’m realistic enough to know that a child is still a child and the quantity of work going home isn’t always the best sign of a quality education.

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8 Cynthia Wylie January 5, 2012 at 11:38 am

Hi Angela. I just found you on Twitter. Bravo on this article, on this line: “Now I believe that a child’s most important job is not school, but learning. And these two things are not one and the same.”

I never did homework when I was in school. I grew up on a farm and I missed a lot of school doing chores and farm work and I received my M.A. from Georgetown on a full fellowship. I wouldn’t consider myself brilliant or my teachers in H.S. even that great. I think I learned more from my chores which was a sense of responsibility and stick-to-it-tive-ness, qualities that are more important in life than knowing obscure facts (which you can look up on Google anyway in two seconds). I read a lot too. Of course I’m a big believer in education – I spent 7 years post high school in universities. But nightly homework for youngsters is ridiculous.

I say ban the homework. Give kids more chores. Encourage them to read. We sell an educational product to pre-k through 1st grade, that integrates technology and nature but is completely hands-on in the school. The kids have “chores” that they have to do every week. They really get into it. I am of the opinion that kids need to feel needed, to feel that they are an important part of the family and school unit. Actually, I’m going to blog about that! Thanks for inspiring my next post. Ha, ha.

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9 Angela Watson January 5, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Cynthia, what an interesting story you have! Thanks so much for sharing it. Your point about chores is a great one. Helping out around the house is a great way for kids to learn life skills.

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10 Laura Candler January 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Angela, this is a terrific article and I wholeheartedly agree with you! I used to think school was a child’s most important job and I would become very upset when parents would take their children out to go on a cruise or something. Yes, I still wish parents would work around school for large vacations, but in my community it might be that a parent had just returned from being deployed or something. I learned to be more understanding and remember that going on a cruise is something most kids will never experience – what an awesome opportunity to see the world and spend time with family! It’s a lot of work on a teacher to help a child get caught up after these events, and some kids never do complete every assignment, but I’m much less grumpy about the whole thing now! :-)

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11 Angela Watson January 5, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Laura, that used to drive me crazy, too! I remember fuming in the teachers’ lounge–how dare a parent take THEIR child out of MY class for a week of having fun! Hah! It never occurred to me that the memories, family time, and travel they shared would be worth far more to the child than any activity I had planned for the week. All I thought about was how *I* would have to put together make-up work packets and spend *my* time catching the child up on everything s/he missed. I assumed the parent was being selfish but the selfish one was actually me.

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12 Tracey January 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm

I would become very upset when parents would take their children out to go on a cruise or something.Thanks for sharing this awesome article…

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13 Roxanna Owen January 5, 2012 at 8:04 pm

WOWSERS! I wish I could have articulated these fine ideas at my last report card conferences. AND I wish my school district’s guidelines, after school care givers, and my student’s parents didn’t insist on the homework to keep them busy after school. I know practicing newly acquired skills is the purpose of homework, and this helps me know how to reteach the concept, I really want to be relieved of the task. I guess that is the part of me that is selfish. Isn’t reading a good trade book for 20 minutes with a parent listening as they cook dinner, enough?

I had a boy taken out of school the first week of December to go to Florida for Pop Warner football championships. His dad said to me when I told him he needed principal approval, “No, I don’t”. I provided a few things in a packet for him to do during his ‘tutoring’ time and hoped they had a wonderful time.
This is a wonderful note supporting a wonderful idea which I would love to read more as folks respond to your blog.

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14 Tiffany January 7, 2012 at 8:00 pm

‘No, I don’t.’ Love it!!! Damn right. We as parents have more say than we believe we do, and need to emphasize that.

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15 Adela January 6, 2012 at 10:22 am

I couldn’t agree with you more! I have had this conversation with parents who wish for me to occupy their children with busy work after school. I tell them that reading is the best homework for any child and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Thankfully, my school board’s homework guidelines are very well laid out and I can used them to back me up if a parent gets bent out of shape. I resent when teachers take up my family time with useless homework. So why should I do that to my students? They have a right to go home and mellow out. To spend time with their parents and siblings. To play and explore. To take up hobbies and learn new skills. I don’t have a right to get in the way of their lives. Life will soon place many responsibilities on their shoulders, let children enjoy their precious childhoods.

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16 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Well said, Adela!

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17 Erica January 6, 2012 at 8:10 pm

I have told many parents who complain that their child doesn’t bring home enough homework that I firmly believe children should have time to just be a kid. That doesn’t seem to assuage their worries or gripes. It leaves me feeling pressured to give the homework. Then, when I turn around, I’m conferencing with the parents who are upset by the homework given. It’s difficult to find a happy medium.

I actually feel ashamed now after speaking with a colleague today. We were distraught that a parent is taking OUR student out of school for the next month for a medical procedure we felt could wait until summer. After all, why should the family vacation be more important than school and the test scores that may suffer due to the extended absence? Loss of perspective. Thanks for setting me straight!

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18 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Hi, Erica! I, too, have had parents request additional homework. I would rather have that happen than force the entire class to do more work because I’m afraid a handful of parents will think I’m too “easy.” If they really insist, I try to give them higher-level thinking activities and creative projects, like self-selected book activities. Some have insisted on workbooks (mostly parents who don’t speak much English and therefore feel like they can’t help with much other than math fact practice-type things) and I have accommodated them. It’s their child, after all.

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19 Celeste January 7, 2012 at 3:28 am

I would become very upset when parents would take their children out to go on a cruise or something. This is a very interesting post..Like it ..

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20 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Celeste, that was my pet peeve! How dare a family take their own child out of school to enjoy life when they SHOULD be forcing their child to sit and pay attention to me! Hah!

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21 Jodi January 7, 2012 at 6:42 am

I agree and this is something that has been on my mind quite a bit with regards to homework. I hate giving them homework as I feel it takes away from valuable family time. I wish I could just say, “your homework is to shut off the TV and unplug the video games. Anything else you do will be beneficial.” Have a great weekend.

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22 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Hah, I love that, Jodi!

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23 Laura@InspiredTeacher.net January 7, 2012 at 8:09 am

I loved this article! Especially this:

“Now I believe that a child’s most important job is not school, but learning. And these two things are not one and the same.”

You make an excellent point that relationships and chances to de-stress are important parts of a child’s life, too– of an adults’ life, too! So often I think we de-value the very great value of play.

Thanks for this reminder! I am tweeting and fb posting this article!

Laura

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24 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Thank you, Laura, for sharing this article! The importance of play and relationships really can’t be overstated. It took me awhile to understand that…probably because the school system never made it a priority. Coming to the realization that school is not a child’s most important job really requires a teacher to take a step back from everything we’re been taught about schooling and make our own decisions about what’s best for kids. That is not an easy step to take, but I think it’s something that all teachers sense deep down, which is why there’s so much frustration with testing. It’s a matter of trusting your intuition over what a legislator says.

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25 Colleen January 7, 2012 at 10:32 am

I agree with you, wholeheartedly. I have been very despondent about the state of education. I am in my 30th year of teaching and am distressed about the emphasis on testing in CA. All we do is review for the test, take tests, go over the test and talk about how we can do better on the test. It’s depressing. I have to go back to school on Monday and change my schedule to accommodate the requirements of NCLB. Through it all, I have had free exploration time for my kids-Legos, art, checkers. I still insist that my students get to remember something about school besides THE TEST.

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26 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm

I can so relate, Colleen. The Test measures only a fraction of the things that are important for a child’s development, yet that’s all we’re supposed to focus on. If it’s not tested, it’s not taught. :-(

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27 Suzy Brooks January 9, 2012 at 6:57 am

Hi Angela – great post! Have you seen Race to Nowhere? I saw a screening of the film early this fall and its message gave me the nudge I needed to re-vamp my homework this year. I still have district requirements, but I’ve become way more creative in how I meet them. We now use a Homework Menu two nights a week, where students choose one 20-minute item to complete. Some of the items I’ve done for years – play a math game, or play a vocabulary game. However, I’m also including heart-pumping exercises, organizational tasks and writing to friends and family members. A popular one has been to work on their individual student blogs – they are enjoying their interactions! I feel better about what I am asking them to do, and I am seeing better return rates! :). Thanks for spreading such a worth message :).

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28 Angela Watson January 12, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Hi, Suzy! No, I have not seen Race to Nowhere but have heard great things about it. I love the idea of a homework menu. Would you be willing to share some examples for me to post on the site? I can give you credit or share them for you anonymously. I think a lot of teachers would benefit!

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29 Suzy Brooks January 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Hi Angela – Race to Nowhere is definitely worth seeing.

Here’s a link to the post from my classroom blog/newsletter – with the menu.

http://blogs.falmouth.k12.ma.us/simplysuzy/2011/10/02/work-at-home/

There’s a download button there, and you’re welcome to share it, or the link, or both! If I update the menu, (my students keep asking me if I can add new ideas soon) then I’ll be sure to let you know.

Dream Big!
Suzy

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30 Angela Watson January 17, 2012 at 11:14 am

LOVE it! Great job! I’m creating a HW page for the site and will add it there. Thank you so much for sharing!

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31 Jeff April 1, 2012 at 9:18 am

While I certainly agree that learning is a student’s most important job, and by extension we should all be life-long learners, as students progress through elementary school to middle school to high school so too should the student progress as students. As a high school teacher I cannot emphasize enough the importance of (gulp) so called objective measures of student achievement: GPA, class rank, rigor of the curriculum and, yes as much as I and most hate them, standardized test scores. The reality is that these measures have more meaning today than ever before, to the student (and his/her parents), the teacher and the school.
I suggest my high school students spend 30 minutes a night, on average, studying each of their five academic subjects. Yes, this means they need to devote 2.5 hours of their evenings to school work. This makes sense not only for all the stake holders mentioned above and, more importantly, for real learning to occur.

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32 Heather aka HoJo April 23, 2012 at 5:48 pm

This is so incredibly true! Thank you for posting. I am a HUGE believer in that homework needs to be limited (particularly in younger grades) so kids can be just that – kids! Homework has a time and a place, but let’s let our students enjoy being young. They only get that opportunity once in their life.

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