It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature, especially in school

Mother Nature is not kind.

The travails and woes of the individual are irrelevant to the remorseless devices of nature. Except for those currently being schooled in Kansas, nature is about the business of improving species through competition for resources in narrow ecological niches. Compete, or be replaced by the more competitive, such is the fate of most living organisms.

Only humankind purports to have improved systematically on this protocol. The horrors of war and indiscriminate violence notwithstanding, humanity claims to cherish the individual. Perhaps it will be our legacy that even those perceived as “weak” were nurtured. Even those that would surely perish in nature contribute, and sometimes mightily, to the common good.

Still, Mother Nature cares not a whit.

Designated wetlands surround my sub-development. There, at least to some degree, flora and fauna grow in accordance with the laws of nature. The seeds fall where they may on the nearly impenetrable clay that is prevalent in this area. The trees are seldom separated by more than a few feet.

These are not the well-ordered orchards of my youth where each tree was given ample space to dig deep into the earth for nutrients and spread ample foliage to collect sunlight. Those fruit trees were not compelled to overwhelm their neighbors to survive. Those trees were placed in circumstances where each could prosper.

Not here in my neighborhood, though, because here the competition begins almost immediately. Most of those trees sprint skyward on tall, thin trunks. First tree to gain maximum altitude wins. Their adaptation is to deny other trees sunlight by creating a canopy. To survive in the forest, trees are forced to choke the competition.

Even this is a shortsighted strategy, though. For later on when those harsh nor’easters arrive in winter, those trees fortunate enough to have won the race to unlimited sunlight find that their roots are not deep enough to hold agains the fury of nature. It is often the highest trees that we see knocked down come spring.

Nor are the trees grown in this scenario good for much but kindling small fires. There is no stout lumber here, no future shelter to be constructed, not even much shade for sultry summer days. The trees here survive, but they do not thrive. Overcrowding does not work for trees, nor for much else in nature, for that matter…

How have we come to think that it will work for our children?

Welcome, once again, to a classroom.

The year starts with classes that number in the mid-thirties crammed into a room that was designed to seat 25 comfortably. Optimal nurturing is not an option.

Teachers are directed to be up-and-about, always among the students, guiding their efforts, supervising their activities, and reinforcing desired behaviors. Too frequently, it is impossible to take a step between the rows without stepping on a foot, jostling a student, or kicking a book bag. It is impossible to turn to one student asking for help with invading another student’s space. Hence, activities are directed from the front of the room, not from preference, but from necessity.

Unlike the indifferent sun, teachers must concern themselves with every soul in their care. Teachers must not allow the academically gifted to prosper at the expense of the weaker students in the class. Nor can the stronger students be allowed to arrive at maturity with shallow roots lest they succumb to the first real difficulty they face. Conversely, the teacher must also impede the unruly behavior of students who would disrupt the education of their peers.

Teachers must not arbitrarily dismiss the weak. Ultimately, teachers must ensure that each student has access to the light of knowledge. The job requires the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, and a tacit understanding that “disposable income” will remain forever at the end of some distant rainbow.

Three dozen children compete for the attention of one oft-frazzled adult. Some seek attention by standing out academically, but some challenged students choose other less-productive ways of gaining attention. The half of the class closest to the “mean” decides, often haphazardly, which option to exercise.

So many students – so little time. Our children need a host of resources that our school system is conspicuously lacking. Take your pick: space, teacher-time, time-on-task, current materials, timely feedback, personal security, adequate furniture… Prince George’s County has yet to prove itself a “can-do” jurisdiction when it comes to educational effort; rather, it is the home of “make-do”.

When the bulldozers came to clear the land for my house, the vagaries of construction spared one middle-aged oak. Some 40 feet tall and scarcely a branch below 30 feet, the trunk of this tree basked in sunlight for the first time in decades as the neighboring trees were felled. A few years have passed. Now that tree sports thick foliage along its entire trunk. This tree has nearly completely recovered. I like to think I have much in common with that old tree.

Over 40 years ago this young Prince Georgian succumbed to the combined stresses of a low socio-economic status, unbridled competition and societal indifference by joining the ranks of high school dropouts. The years that followed were enlightening with regard to the importance of a formal education. Decades later the anger about being allowed to slip through the cracks has dissipated. At that time, mine was just one more mind to feed.

Classes were overcrowded even then. Teachers were overworked and underpaid even then. The caseload for administrators and counselors was overwhelming even then. Nearly, half a century has passed and it is clear that little has changed save the quadrupling of the amount of information today’s students must absorb and a virtual universe of e-skills they must acquire in order to compete in a post-industrial economy.

Given the increasing number of tasks the schools are expected to perform in the same eight hours a day, where are the extra resources to accomplish them?

After decades of mediocrity in education, is it not time for our schools to resemble orchards more than forests? Is it not time for the community to provide the resources necessary to nurture all children? We had best strengthen our resolve, or to paraphrase George Herbert, we shall have no harvest but a thorn.


[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on December 20,1999. It has been slightly revised and updated. ]

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