Back in December, I went to the Madison Park Community Center on a Saturday morning to assist with an effort to collect oral histories around Montgomery County. Madison Park is an African-American community north of Montgomery that was founded in the late 1800s by fourteen former slaves and their families. That morning, person after person who I interviewed said the same three things of Madison Park in their youth: everyone was expected to handle their responsibilities, everyone looked after everyone else, and everyone valued education as a way to personal betterment. Their teachers were also their neighbors, I was told, and their neighbors had the same authority as their parents— because all children knew that the whole community wanted the best for everyone in it. The people of Madison Park worked hard together, had fun together, learned together, and prayed together, no matter anyone’s income, occupation, or social status. Their values reflected their hopes that cooperation hard work combined with knowledge and skills could lift up both individuals and the community.
During more than fourteen years of teaching in a high school, I’ve learned that teachers can give students instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, foreign languages, the arts, and other subjects, but children get their values at home. The Catholic Church teaches that “parents are the primary educators,” and to that I would add: “whether the parents accept that as a responsibility or not.” Every day, the children in our lives watch and listen to us adults to gain their own sense of how they should behave, how they should treat other people, and what they should regard as important, and no influences are stronger than the ones at home.
Though my upbringing wasn’t perfect, I’m thankful for the values that my parents taught me with their lives and their actions. From them, I learned to take care of business first, and have fun second. Sometimes that makes me “a dull boy,” but I never regret the results of taking care of my business. They also taught me self-reliance, that anything I know how to do for myself will help me. Any skill will be useful at some point, even though I might not know it until the time came to need it. Finally, they taught me to know the people around me and to address the needs closest to home. My mother was active in our school PTA and was our room mother, my father was our scout master, and my parents led our neighborhood watch program. We were the people our neighbors called when they required immediate assistance. These lessons, learned not from words but from consistency and actions, taught me that life won’t always be easy or fun and that I can’t wait on somebody to do something. Furthermore, I learned that my actions on behalf of others are not done to benefit myself. If you ask me, no way of viewing the world could be any better: handling our own responsibilities first, relying on ourselves as much as we can, and looking to our community for what is beyond our own reach, knowing that the community will answer.
Beyond our duty to instruct students in our classes’ subject matter, teachers can meet society’s expectations that we are positive role models in their students’ lives— but only if there is value placed on education within the children’s own homes and communities. Unless the adults in a community, the ones that the children see every day, value education as something useful and transformative, and unless those same adults regard willful ignorance as every person’s worst enemy, teachers and schools can only achieve so much. If education is regarded as mere job training, then everything that is not a job skill becomes irrelevant. Thus, if the school is regarded as a place full of irrelevant facts and skills, then what occurs there is only a compilation, not an accomplishment. But if education is regarded as a holistic method for widening one’s vision of the world, for becoming a better person, and for accessing a plethora of opportunities, then schoolwork and learning have value in real life every day.
The key to improving education is not to redesign a new curriculum nor to purchase new software, but for adults to value education so openly and so vigorously that children will, too.