If school is a form of child care, then so be it. Let’s care for our children — while there’s a pandemic going on, during National Bullying Prevention Month, and always.
The Differences Between School and Daycare
New York Times opinion writer Bryce Covert describes the historical dichotomy between school and daycare. There was a time, she tells us, when moms needed to work, and daycare centers provided a relatively safe place for children who were too young to be planted inside of a classroom. Younger children needed a closer and more constant eye on them than a classroom teacher could be expected to provide.
Society made the assumption that going to school was a privilege for older kids, and that the best gift we could afford any child was an opportunity to have a seat in the classroom. An education was the path to a coveted factory job or to achieving the American Dream, depending on the neighborhood. Daycare was only supposed to be a placeholder until kids grew old enough to attend their local school where they could join their tribe, practice their social skills, and learn the importance of standardized testing and fitting in.
Where the Education System Falls Short
However, Alicia P.Q.Wittmeyer, Culture Editor of the New York Times, points out that our state-run education system didn’t work so well even before the pandemic. Classes were held during only some of the hours that parents were at work. School holidays didn’t necessarily coincide with grownups’ vacation days. When school wasn’t in session but duty called, parents had to make other child care arrangements or let their children figure out how to fend for themselves.
Latchkey kids seemed better off than children who lived with food insecurity. At least, their parents or guardians had jobs. They were doing their best to take care of their families. They could figure out how to disentangle their children from the unwanted influences of the outside world at another time. Besides, free-range kids would learn independence, courage, and resilience. They’d probably be just fine.
The system sort of worked. For some kids. Sometimes.
Covert and Wittmeyer are both correct. Child care and classrooms at school have historically served two different purposes. But, really, they are supposed to share one priority: ensuring that the children in their care are safe and secure.
An Educator’s Primary Responsibility
Once daycare providers and teachers have made sure that every child feels accepted and nurtured, they can move onto more ethereal goals: they can keep them intellectually challenged; provide them with opportunities to express themselves creatively; give them chances to set and accomplish goals with other team members; and, perhaps, let them explore vocational options.
But the most important role that any adult plays in a child’s life is to provide them with unconditional acceptance and a sense of belonging. Educators have to care. They have to be the soft place to land.
Whether children are old enough to flourish independently in a classroom or still young enough to require constant supervision, they need adults in their environment who will protect kids from harm.
These adults are charged with preventing danger before it happens. They are supposed to place themselves between a potential abuser and any intended target. They are supposed to let every child in their care know that rules are in place to keep everyone safe, and that only behaviors that fall into the prescribed range will be acceptable.
They are supposed to stop aggressive, troubled children from wrecking their peers. They are responsible for preventing bullies from derailing lives.
Teachers of children in all age groups will, first and foremost, recognize when their charges — even those who haven’t yet learned how to ask for help — are in trouble. They will intervene even in situations that feel scary, unpredictable, or overwhelming. They will put the well-being of students first — ahead of their own goals, issues, worries, and hopes.
Whether they work in a daycare center or a school — in an affluent or working-class community — educators will recognize that their primary responsibility is to ensure that parents and guardians pick up the same children at the close of the day as they dropped off at the beginning — and that aggression, hostility, and bullying play no role in breaking the spirit of any young person whose welfare is their responsibility.
Let’s expect educators at daycare centers and school to understand what they’re really getting paid to do. And let’s hope they can do it.
The pandemic will change the way educators work. But it shouldn’t persuade them that their true role has changed.