John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About .

There's a viral post going around where a parent is trying to explain to a kindergarten teacher ahead of time how he or she should teach. I'm not opposed to that. Parents have every right to share what they think. However, here's a different perspective. Here's my open letter to a second grade teacher. 

To Whom It May Concern:

My son is a curious kid. He's high-energy and artistic and he loves thinking deeply. He's a sensitive soul and sometimes the smallest amount of criticism can feel crushing.  I could tell you the ideal way to teach him. I'd probably tell you to avoid the stickers. Opt out of homework. Go with qualitative feedback instead of grades. Forget the Class Dojo points and the Firebird Dollars and think instead about being ethical.

But here's the thing: I won't. I'm not going to tell you how to teach, because I've realized something humbling as a dad. I might be an expert on my son, but I'm not an expert on kindergarten or first grade or even second grade. I don't have the professional experience you have. I don't have the contextual knowledge you have.

I'm also realizing that the amazing things about kids is that they learn in different systems - ones that are more closed and more open and more traditional and more constructivist. I'm not sure how both of my boys ended up reading by the end of kindergarten, but I'm telling you that I couldn't have done it at home. I get it. There are things that you'll do differently, but I'm really okay with filling in the gaps at home.  If, for example, he doesn't get enough reading-for-pleasure time at school, he'll do it at home.

I'm realizing that the diversity in experience is a part of how a child grows. So far my son has had to cope with different rules and expectations and systems than we have at home. That's a part of learning. That's a part of growing up. I know, I know. Kids are supposed to pursue their passions and run with their questions and all of that. However,  one of the best parts of school so far is that my son has learned that he won't always have his way in education.

Furthermore, I don't expect you to be perfect. I don't expect you to get it right every time. You will have thirty kids who are all different. However, truth be known, my kid isn't always an angel when I'm at home. People say kids are naturally good, but I swear they would have launched nuclear weapons at each other when the three of my kids realized there was only one Popsicle left.

I guess what I'm saying is that I believe we live in a broken world. Systems are broken. Relationships are broken. But somehow beauty breaks through, because there are teachers like you who choose to love thirty strangers and help them grow into critical thinkers. That's pretty amazing to me. So, I'm not going to tell you how you should run your classroom. This letter is mostly just a heads-up ahead of time to say, "Thanks for what you do everyday." It's pretty amazing.


On second thought, I'm not going to send this note. Instead, I'll just send an e-mail somewhere along the line that says, "What you do is amazing. Thank you." I think teachers could use a few more of those letters from parents. 

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An Open Letter to My Son's Second Grade Teacher

When I was a kid, they used the phrase "in the zone" to describe athletes that could stay focussed and do amazing things. When I went to college, the term had changed to "flow." I'm not sure if that's what people are still calling it, but I've seen it all summer with my kids.

The other day, Joel spent two hours fully immersed in writing a story. He was concentrating. He was intense. But he was also relaxed in the process.  It was less like hyperfocus and more like relaxed focus. I watched the same thing happen as Brenna sat with the crayons spread out on the floor sketching out her pictures and dreaming up her own story.  Meanwhile, Micah was lost in a chapter book.

From what I've seen, it can be individual or collaborative. It can happen in a sport or in an art project or in reading a book. I'm pretty sure it was driven by passion and curiosity. It also seemed to require a certain mix of things being challenging and yet not so hard that they gave up. So, on some level, it seemed to be the result of a deeply personal joy they were experiencing. And yet it also seemed to be the result of the environment. Something about the summer allowed it to happen.

So it leaves me with a lingering question:

How do we design schools in a way that maximizes flow?

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How Do We Make This Happen at School?

The media has finally realized that there is a teacher shortage crisis. I have no hard data on why this is the case, but my gut tells me it's a combination of low pay (we're simply not making enough to take care of our families), high pressure (especially unrealistic expectations about student achievement) based upon bad policies, and the general sense that so many of the policies we see are bad for kids.

I am a vocal critic regarding policy. It would be easy to see my criticisms of VAM scores or standardized tests as simply the mad rants of a teacher who has burnt out.

However, the truth is that I speak up about those things, because I love teaching. I love being in the classroom. I love helping guide kids toward wisdom. I love sparking critical thinking and watching as worldviews expand. I love getting up in the morning knowing that I am doing something immeasurable. It's why I'm doing a set of video reflections on why I love teaching:

The truth is that I'm optimistic. I believe that we can change bad policies and that we have to be vocal when faced with injustice. I believe that we have a considerable amount of contextual knowledge that a bad set of policies can't shake. I believe that we are still the most important factor inside the four walls of a classroom. So, when I get critical, it's because I love this profession and believe that things can get better.

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I'm Optimistic Enough to Be Critical