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Voices from the Classroom: The international factor

Assistant teacher Elisabeth Morgan

Assistant teacher Elisabeth Morgan

I’m not a mom, and I’m not a certified teacher, but as an assistant teacher and a nanny, I spend most of my time around children. Naturally, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how they work and play, and how the adults in their lives dictate a balance between the two.

Keeping up with last week’s Voices from the Classroom series, I was struck by one of Renee Peck’s common denominators after reviewing the many interviews with teachers from around New Orleans. “Whether it’s due to a more global world, the advent of technology or sheer ennui,” she wrote, “students in the 21st century don’t seem to have the same work ethic as those from the past.”

I think about the fidgety children in my class today, and the complex discipline systems that we’ve devised to maintain control… and it’s true. The teachers who I know in New Orleans do spend a lot of their time and energy creating enough peace in their classes to be able to teach.

This isn’t the case for teaching in other countries. It seems that specifically American children are veering away from a certain work ethic of the past.

“For us it’s different,” explains one of my colleagues, who is from Burkina Faso. “[African] teachers don’t concern themselves with systems of discipline. When a child comes to school, they know it’s time to work.”

Similarly, in the French school I worked at last year, I was struck by how well-behaved young children were in my classes. Standing in front of thirty 5-year-olds, I could have given a lecture on the American Revolution and maybe one or two of them would have started goofing off — only to be immediately banished to the hallway.

Journalist Pamela Druckerman, in her recent parenting memoir Bringing Up Bebe, chronicles her experience raising her children in Paris as an American.  In the French school system, she explains, “there’s a lot of emphasis on learning how to follow instructions. [My daughter’s] first year, I’m jarred to see that the whole class usually paints exactly the same thing. One morning there are 25 identical yellow stick figures with green eyes hanging up in the classroom.”

You would never find the identical stick figures in a charter school in New Orleans. On the contrary, sitting through an art class here is as competitive as watching a soccer game at recess. The more expressive and creative the child is, the more prized attention they receive from their teacher.

Celebrating individuality, competition, and experimentation in class is very American. It makes sense; we are a capitalist society and, especially in recent generations, it’s the innovators who are making the most money. I think that teachers all strive to see the individual and cater to their expressivity and needs, but sometimes this makes it more difficult to reach a level of uniform classroom behavior within a class of twenty individuals.

So going back to the art class… when it’s time to clean up the watercolors, teachers shift the praise to the students who manage to reel in the excitement the most quickly. This fine balance between celebrating the individual, while simultaneously maintaining a uniform, cohesive, and solid work environment in class, seems to be the biggest challenge for the 21st-century American teacher.

On a larger scale, I see this phenomenon mirrored in the implementation of the Common Core Standards within a city that has adopted a mostly chartered school system. If each charter school in New Orleans is seen as an individual — a child with a different personality, background, and temperament —  then the biggest challenge for this city is to adopt this new centralizing force in a way that will still prize the individual above all.


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