Several years ago, I remember standing in the line at Starbucks at 6:00 AM, with my suitcase full of papers to grade, listening to a man in line complain about the quality of our public schools. I remember wanting to scream, “I am here to pick up coffee that I had to write a grant to turn my classroom into a bohemian coffee bar cozy enough to encourage teenagers to do poetry readings!” I wanted to explain, “That article you are referencing in your hand about teacher strikes doesn’t talk about the people I see every weekend at school who are pouring themselves into bringing the world to your children by Monday.” I wanted to jump up onto the bar and begin my “counter” argument, but I knew that was not going to work. The system was broken in many ways but that didn’t mean everyone in it was broken too.
The story of public schools in Italy is much the same. Most of the press is less than shining and decision making is mired in bureaucracy weighted down by an outdated industrial model. That is why I am completely floored that my children have signed themselves up for school!
They were invited to visit the school by the Vice-Principal. They met her at the park and the following day we were touring the school. We thought it would be educational to see how the building felt and how things were run, having spent the majority of our careers in public education in the United States.
As we toured, so many things were familiar. The empty paper towel holders in the bathroom, the echoing footsteps in the hallways, the hush followed by the rush of giggling students, the bell, and the clock ticking in the library. It was a strange feeling to have that familiarity in a building where I could not understand the language, the teachers kissed the children on both cheeks, and the lunch ladies were serving the kids on china plates, while their knees were tucked beneath tablecloths.
The kids begged us to sign them up. They helped us translate the paperwork one line at a time and jump through all the necessary hoops to make it happen. This experience has reminded me of my many frustrations with public education but also my belief in the importance of the health of the system.
I believe it is important not to lose hope when we are fed up with a system. It doesn’t mean we have to stay in a system that is not working but it does mean we have to keep trying to make it better. There are points of entry into every system. For us, in Italy, it was the kindness of one principal and the teachers that are loyal to her.
When I was teaching, I remember telling myself as I stood in the Starbucks line, “Save your energy for the kids. That is how you change the system, one child at a time.” For our children, the public schools in Italy will be characterized by steaming hot pasta served to them daily, double kisses, and shared textbooks. The system will be healthy in their memory, in this little corner of Tuscany, and that is how teachers change the world.