Students & the System


Students & the System

Christine Ruffolo


Amongst other things, COVID-19 revealed how fragile the American educational system is, and how unadaptable it is to changing and evolving times.  Designed to churn out compliant workers, it conflicts with the world around them — a burgeoning economy of self employment (one marked by passion, creativity, and innovation), as well as a mass exodus of the workforce (including teachers).  It is akin to covering your eyes to the reality of the situation and then self-soothing with the repeated mantra of ‘everything’s fine’.   This is how many of us made it through the day, and this is what so many of us with eyes open kept pointing at with frustrated absurdity: “It is not OK.  Do you see this?”

Everyone was overly stressed and underprepared.  Socialized seventh graders became high school freshman.  Nobody was sure what to do and who to go to for help.  We were stuck in a calamity loop, students looking to teachers, teachers looking to admin, and everybody deferring elsewhere for a potential solution.  After waiting and redirecting and nothing changing, what we all kind of found out is that we’re on our own.  Choose what you’re going to tackle today, and avoid/ ignore the rest.

The coping skills of individuals and groups wildly varied, and thus the system meant to manage these beings and circumstances reacted in turn.  A lot of things were allowed to happen that typically were not allowed to happen.   There was not enough supervision, not enough energy, not enough attention given to the things that kept asking for attention.  And so the line got pushed.  This is what happens when there aren’t any consequences for dysfunction.  Neglect keeps ratcheting behavior in an apathetic direction.

The thing about neglect is, those that are neglecting will always point to all the things they are doing and are looking at.  Enrollment, graduation rates, test scores… there are metrics to convince of success.  Aside from the multiple levels of ‘exceptions’ that fluff up said data, the simple question becomes, “Who is paying attention to the kids?”

To be clear, I am not referring to ‘reports’ that can be pulled from the tracking system.  I am referring to how many people are actually observing and interacting with students.  Teachers and teaching assistants typically check these boxes, but since classes are getting bigger and the ability to teach to the standards is what they are essentially being evaluated on, everything gets skewed toward performance tasks and student compliance.  There isn’t much room for sincere, ‘how are you’s’ and staying there until the person (or persons) feel heard, cared for, and reconciled.

A good friend aptly described their daily routine as:

Thanks for turning this in.  Nice job.  How’s your trauma?


It came out with a laugh that knowingly exposed an exhaustive truth.  A non-human system cannot help in a situation rife with social-emotional catastrophe.  The SEL (social emotional learning) pdfs and resource links offered were not useful.  They felt belittling coming from people who reside in student-less offices and off-campus buildings.  Those in safe and buffered posts do not willingly enter the fray to see exactly what’s going on.  They look to the numbers to show them.

Documenting what they did to serve an acknowledged need without entering the room is the hallmark of American educational bureaucracy.   To assume you are helping without actually helping is a maddening act, particularly for those whose experience proves the opposite.  What they actually help with, and are indeed talented at, is the justification of their existence — the numbers tell a compelling story, particularly of what is going right.  The binary provides a veil between empathetic experience and projected reality.

Less tardies do not mean kids are happier.

Higher graduation rates do not mean those graduates are more prepared to venture out into the world.

They simply learned to follow the rules.  And the rules did change when enough failed at hitting the benchmark.  The books are lined with asterisks, drowned out by applause and pats on the back.  The politics that we find so grotesque have taken root in the school systems charged to develop its young people into contributing citizens.

Here’s what to do when a shooter enters the school.

Here’s what you can get away with.

Here are the requirements you need to complete in order to leave.

But what if we focused on the student experience while they were still here?  What if we were proactive in making school a place they want to be?  They currently come for their friends.  They come to foster relationships.  They seek out that safe place, that teacher that will listen to them, who will pause or hold off the lesson as long as necessary to unburden the person in front of them.  Teachers hope for the same.  That secretary, that janitor, that principal who’s door is always open and acts toward resolution.

I don’t know what any of the Directors or Coordinators of such and such do.  I don’t know where to find them or what one might consult them for.  I recognize that they perform a specific, targeted task.  The specialization of school administration makes them invisible, and it is hard to trust what we can’t see or relate to.  I wonder if they feel welcome in the classroom.  Or if they have the time.  I do know that placing tremendous demands on a human makes them ultimately less human, and that schools need as much humanity as possible to not entirely derail and leave your children to the robots.


Who’s perception matters most?

What are they looking at?

How can every vantage point become more valuable?


Can we collect the most significant data with simple conversation?

Do we have enough of a relationship to foster speaking freely?

Perhaps removing the word ‘stakeholders’ and replacing it with community can be a viable place to start.


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2 Responses

  1. Hi mate,

    I appreciate your frustration towards the education system. I can assume you’re talking mostly about underfunded public schools in lower socioeconomic areas (this is still millions of kids). While it’s true teachers are ‘under the pump’ as we say in Australia, they are usually highly empathetic, compassionate and patient people who spend as much time as possible with their students. Of course we can gripe and generalise all day (some people really do this) but other than asking school leaders to say the word community, what are you proposing your readers do about the problem? Perhaps a follow up part 2 would be useful to address the solution.


    1. I’m not sure how common knowledge it is, but I AM a public school teacher. I teach high school health and PE, so I am within the system I am describing. And yes, WE ARE compassionate and patient people, as are many administrators that used to be teachers. Saying the word community means nothing. Utilizing the word AND knowing what it entails also means very little unless you use it as a guidepost to action. A community values ALL voices and ASKS instead of tells. Stakeholders is a term referring to business, which is what the school system has become. The bloated bureaucracy resides in detached office buildings, dictating whats and hows. They look at numbers. We work with children.

      I honestly don’t think readers can or will do anything about the problem. This is more of a notification post than a call to action. BUT, if you are sincerely asking for a to-do list: go to a school board meeting. Spend some time in a school. The parents hold the highest rank in the hierarchy, but very few want to exercise this power. Advocate for reduced class size. Cap district office growth and demand that moneys get used to fill positions that actually interact with kids and are in the room where learning is supposed to take place.

      I’ll take one more step because we don’t get many comments here and I’m riled up: There’s your starter list for addressing the issue and finding solutions. Any takers?

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