Editor’s note: Mark Collins is an Evanstonian who has been a longtime art teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

It’s time to reassert the fundamental purpose of our schools which has become increasingly muddled leaving many students unable to fully explore and reach their academic potential.

I write as a public high school classroom teacher with over 25 years of experience in a large, racially, socially and economically diverse community adjacent to Chicago.

Our perception and expectation of schools has shifted. Their mission has moved well beyond academics and now often includes overseeing the shaping of students’ moral, political and social development.

In some cases, schools are even expected to directly correct society’s shortcomings and deeper challenges. In my experience this effort has been largely unsuccessful and counterproductive. Unsuccessful not because our schools haven’t tried or because students aren’t participating.

Instead, it’s because our schools are not experts at nor fundamentally capable of broadly impacting the economic, cultural, and, ultimately, familial forces that actually determine one’s foundational development and classroom success. It’s worth noting that children are in our learning spaces for only a third of each day and only 180 days a year. Considering these factors, it’s clear that preparation for attaining academic success is due almost exclusively to causes and forces outside of school.

The politicization of our schools illustrates how far they have strayed from their intended purpose. Issues no doubt important to the social and civic health of our country are now commonly contested in the classroom.

Because these topics are often contentious, teachers and students are frequently asked, or even expected, to take sides. Although many choose to openly state their thoughts, many others choose not to for fear of being labeled, ostracized or worse.

What happens? Voices go silent, a troubling irony considering that of all our public institutions a school should be among the essential locations in which the honest and rigorous exchange of ideas is both guaranteed and freely practiced.

We must remind ourselves that today’s “kids” will soon be adults and therefore contributing to (what we hope will be) a cohesive and dynamic society. For this responsibility, our children deserve comprehensive intellectual preparation.

So, how to move our schools to a place where their obligation to challenge and prepare all students is well understood and attainable?

First, schools should make it clear that their foremost purpose is supporting the exploration and acquisition of academic knowledge – evaluating, debating, absorbing and questioning it – between teacher and student.

Of equal importance, schools should restate that this interaction occurs primarily in the classroom – a school’s “sacred space.”

Credit: Larry Gavin

Academic knowledge is infinite in its content, diverse in its meaning, present in all aspects of our lives, and, if shared in a dynamic and open way, endlessly fascinating and impactful. To this end, our communities and the broader society need to uncouple their schools from those issues over which the schools have little to no reasonable control nor the fundamental skills or training to address. 

Second, treat every person who enters a school, but especially its students, as individuals first.

See them as possessing a free and open mind always capable of academic growth and personal improvement. Endorse a mindset that sees value and potential in each student and prioritizes the individual over, but not exclusive of, the group.

Third, honor that we all naturally identify and bond with others. Our group affiliations are linked by many things – personality, culture, what we look like, hobbies, geography, language, shared histories, etc.

Yes, belonging to a group is an essential element of our humanity – it brings us happiness, connection and a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves. But group identity is a complex formulation and it should therefore be up to the individual student to freely decide with whom they chose to associate.

Fourth, require school administrators to teach with regularity. Theoretically, members of a school’s leadership got into education because they liked young people, were highly knowledgeable about a specific subject and enjoyed the unique opportunities that a classroom affords.

If we agree that a classroom is at the core of one’s learning experience, then school leaders should be there too, actively demonstrating their love of teaching, modeling best pedagogical practices and participating directly in the growth of students and faculty. They will be better informed and more effective at promoting learning as a result.

Fifth, hire teachers who in addition to their proven scholarly interest are well-rounded and highly capable.

Search out those who believe in the common good; who support fundamental democratic values – equality, the rule of law, free speech, etc.; who value a diverse and upwardly mobile society; who are compassionate, team players and socially confident. Find these individuals and then free them up, empowered, to do their job at the highest level and with the greatest impact on the intellectual and academic journey of all children.

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  1. “If we agree that a classroom is at the core of one’s learning experience, then school leaders should be there too, actively demonstrating their love of teaching, modeling best pedagogical practices and participating directly in the growth of students and faculty. They will be better informed and more effective at promoting learning as a result” Great statement, its all about demonstrating love and nurturing the potential. We need more culturally responsive leaders Mark. #GoodRead 🧡💙💥

  2. Thank you for sharing your well-informed experiences and thoughts. Hopefully you can inspire and motivate other teachers who are in the classroom day in and day out and year in and year out to also share their experiences.
    And your article might even motivate some people to step up and run for school board. My mom and stepfather taught middle school in a community with similar characteristics as Evanston and Oak Park River Forest and the issues present 50 years ago are still present today and sadly will continue into the foreseeable future. In Evanston we are spending over $200 million annually and growing; on our 2 school districts yet academic achievement continues to flounder. (And yes I understand the COVID impact) But why should D65 be lowering its academic standards when this action will have the most negative impact on black and brown students.?