Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

Perhaps Horace Mann, considered by many to be the grandfather of public education, said it best:

“Education…beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men – the balance wheel of social machinery.”

In previous Leaders Forum visits, we have addressed issues on dealing with poverty, recognizing the intelligence and motivation of our Technical College students, closing the achievement gap by first closing the opportunity gap, and other issues leading to our quest for Universal Pre-K education and the promise of at least two years of free college. We have visited both the social and economic benefits of doing so, but for now let’s focus on one specific academic issue.

A Primary Focus: Behavior, Respect, and Educational Decorum

In a recent legislative town hall meeting on education, one of the participants brought up, what I consider, a priority for our Pre-K curriculum – teaching social skills and proper behavior in an educational setting from day one. Call me old fashioned, but I truly believe that one of the biggest deterrents to academic success is classroom disruption. Learning to sit properly in a desk or at a table is not an unreasonable expectation. Being quiet and attentive during class discussion time is not an insurmountable goal. Learning to respect a productive work environment is doable, especially if we start teaching it in Pre-K. In many schools, good behavior is a way of life. In others, just the opposite is true. What a difference.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that home, demographics and socio-economic status are the largest determiners of the above, which brings us to our major focus – the need for fully funded Universal Pre-K, including transportation. Think how different the life of a kindergarten teacher would be if students came prepared both academically and behaviorally. Think how different the life of a less fortunate six-year old would be if he or she had mastered social skills, had a fighting chance academically and was in an environment conducive to learning. Universal Pre-K isn’t going to cure all of our ills, but it’s a logical place to start.

Consider this. We can –in fact, we must– overcome academic and behavioral deficiencies without being judgmental. We know that many of our students come from horrendous backgrounds, so teaching and modeling something different is paramount. Our goal is not to criticize, but to allow them to experience the benefits of order and discipline. It is the mission of every school to produce graduates that are intellectually and emotional prepared to live happy and meaningful lives. Early intervention offers our greatest hope.

Let me share a conversation with a student that solidifies our point. I was subbing in a school with block scheduling, mentioning the advantage of having work time while the teacher was in the room to help. The student relayed that one of his classes was quiet and well ordered, allowing him to concentrate and work effectively in an academic setting. Another was chaotic, which adversely affected his ability to learn. Most students appreciate a quiet, well-ordered learning environment.

This may sound like we are advocating that every student flourish in a traditional classroom setting, which is not the case. Current structure and curriculum may require them to spend some time in that setting, but even in hands on classes like auto mechanics or industrial arts, when the teacher is teaching, we can expect students to be quiet, attentive and respectful of the teacher and the learning climate. The same holds true in extra-curricular, co-curricular or any educational setting – structure and order in a climate of mutual respect should be a way of life. The major focus of our discussion is that teaching academic integrity should start in Pre-K and permeate our entire structure.

In previous Leaders Forums, we have outlined economic benefits of education and here is another one to add to the list. At the town hall meetings, we hear of the need for more counselors, social workers, etc. We also hear that their overwhelming workload hinders them from fully serving their students in need. The more time and resources we invest addressing social and academic behavior in Pre-K, the less we require later.

A TV commercial from ten years ago puts things in pretty good perspective. An auto technician stresses the importance of changing oil often as prescribed. He reminds us that not doing could result in major engine damage, costing thousands of dollars. His closing statement summed it up. “You can pay me a little now or pay me a lot later.” So it is with Universal Pre-K Education – investing now will help prevent more costly options in the future.

Leave a Reply