Zero Tolerance Kindergarten
a School Story
Sending your first child off to Kindergarten is emotional. Your baby has grown up and is headed off for "real school." They line up with their backpacks and lunchboxes and look adorable. It is hard to believe the day has arrived so quickly.
When I sent my first child off to Kindergarten, I was already planning an alternative school with a few friends. I wasn't expecting his assigned public school to be the ideal, child-centered model I wanted. However, I didn't know that Kindergarten had become so academic since I had been a teacher six years earlier.
My son could read when he got to Kindergarten, but he had great difficulty learning to write. I stopped trying to teach him because I thought I was messing it up. I had been a 5th-grade teacher and didn't know what I was doing. Although my son was soon reading like it was the 7th month of Kindergarten, his teacher honed in on his lack of writing skills. Instead of helping him learn to write, she let me know that students were expected to arrive at school already knowing how to write their letters. She had several ways of showing her disdain for my child, who did not fit the mold.
The first red flag was when she tried to diagnose him. She decided that he likely had ADHD and was having trouble paying attention (how you can teach yourself to read without paying attention is beyond me!). I did not allow her to have him observed for an ADHD screening. I was in the classroom frequently, and he worked hard. He struggled with anything involving fine motor skills, often crying when everyone else was finished, and he was still trying to cut out the little pieces on a worksheet. His attention was fixed squarely on his teacher and nothing else during circle time. There was no evidence for "not paying attention."
I asked my son why he was inside at recess. “Because I’m a bad writer,” he answered, hanging his head.
The teacher's favorite tool was punishment. One day, I came to the classroom to volunteer. The class was still out at recess, so I hoped to get my things put away and hear my instructions before they came back in. I saw my son sitting at a desk, working on something, so I asked him why he was inside. "Because I'm a bad writer," he answered, hanging his head. Those words still haunt me. Why would a Kindergarten teacher want to make a kid feel that way? Astonishingly, the teacher had no response to that comment. Had the roles been reversed, I would have jumped in to correct the miscommunication and reassure the child that they were not a bad writer at all. On the other hand, I would never be in this situation in the first place.
I spoke with his teacher several times, telling her I thought the expectation that a Kindergartener write a 5-sentence non-fiction report was over-the-top and that my son was not developmentally ready for all the writing. She argued that some of the other children were ready. I told her that I didn't see why each child couldn't do what they were capable of; I did not intend to hold anyone back. The conversation just went in circles. She mentioned the Common Core Standards many times, and her goal to have all students meet them.
One day I got a call from my son's teacher. She said that my son had violated Zero Tolerance rules, but the Principal was off-campus, so no one was there to issue a suspension. Apparently, she had put him in time out for something, and he shouted, "You'll pay for this!" She considered that a threat to her personal safety, thus violating the Zero Tolerance policy. I admit I laughed a little. I also wanted to cry, but a tiny part of me wondered if I was being "Punk'D" by Ashton Kutcher. I asked her if she was aware that young children sometimes imitate things they see or hear without really understanding what they're saying. I told her that he was in a Batman phase, and he may have read that in one of his Batman books. Had she asked him what that meant? Of course not.
When I got off the phone, I asked him what he thought it meant. He said it means, "When someone does something bad to you, so they have to pay you money." Seems logical, right? But threatening? Not so much. Case closed, Batman.
I guess that's the problem with using rules made for maximum security prisons in our nation's elementary schools. It's also the problem with a Kindergarten teacher being so concerned about her class "meeting the standards" that little 5-year-old children are having their self-esteem crushed. A child shouldn't think they are "slow" and "a bad writer" before they even enter first grade.
In these post-pandemic times, will we turn toward the cause of mental health and finally stop this madness, or will we make things worse in our quest to "catch up" from all the "lost time" we spent saving our lives? Because God forbid a student should graduate a year or two later than planned! That would be unconscionable.
This is just one of many school stories to come; the beginning of our terrible journey with the public school system. There were some highlights when we left school and tried alternative paths. Please follow me on Medium to see all the upcoming posts if you are interested.
I am still fighting for changes to education. I work with homeschooled children outside "the system" so I can teach the way I know is right. I also connect with others on LinkedIn to carry on conversations and occasionally hold online talks.
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