In Defense of Teachers, Part 2

“All fallen leaves should curse their branches for not letting them decide where they should fall.” – David Bazan

The problem that I see with our current attitudes toward public education cannot be blamed on any one entity.  I truly believe the real solution to educational reform begins, not at the federal or state governmental levels, but in the homes of our citizens.  Please don’t misunderstand me; I feel that our governing officials have good intentions.  After all, who doesn’t want to see successful, independent, and intelligent young people?  However, the government’s main concern is the bottom line – numbers: percentages of passing and failing, of graduating and not, of how much money per capita is spent to get the results that make us look competetive with other industrialized nations.  These are valid concerns, but the truth is, an independent thinker is hard to quantify.  Every revolution begins from the ground up, and educating our children is no different.

First, let me dissect the consequences of maintaing the status quo.  What I believe many teachers are observing is a generation of increasingly less motivated young Americans.  Students are increasingly dependent on others to make decisions for them, provide answers, and supply needs.  Independence of thought or action is a foreign concept, and, unfortunately, our education systems work to reinforce this mindset.  We can see this attitude evidenced with my own generation of “Boomerang” children who returned to their parents’ homes after college without goals or a desire to be independent.  This is simply a symptom of a bigger problem in our nation.

Now, I will try to put this as apolitically as possible: We have created a society of dependence on others which perpetuates this attitude.  On a grand scale, the government, in the name of providing for the cannots, provides much for the will-nots as well.  With regard to schools, there seems to be a pervasive attitude that the school will provide everyting a student needs to be successful in life, both tangible and intangible.  We’ve gone from helping those who need it with free lunches and school supplies to such extremes as providing healthcare and extensive counseling.  Some schools have eliminated extras like field trips because they have been told they cannot make students pay for these extras.  Our attempts to level the playing field for those who need it have swung to an extreme that was never intended, and our students’ education suffers.

I want to emphasize that I line I am walking here is a thin one.  We must understand that any extreme position here is the wrong idea.  I also do not want to put blame on students – they are learning what we are teaching as a society.  As stated before, the solutions begin in the home.  It does, as one prominent politician said, take a village to raise a child.  That village begins with the family, though.  Character is taught at home and practiced at school, but when a student has never learned discipline, self-respect, and humility, he or she cannot achieve in school.    Those not born with intrinsic motivation must learn it, but the schools cannot compensate for what’s not given at home, no matter how good the teacher.

That leads to the next point, which is that a student’s intellect (which includes character) cannot be fully measured by a test, nor can a teacher’s effectiveness.  I understand that we must have a measuring rod in education, but we also must weigh that measure carefully when looking at the big picture.  It is a fact that some students do not test well.  It is also a fact that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.  This is especially true in middle school, where students have very little reason to perform well, and some are easily swayed by their emotions or attitudes toward the teacher or school.  Some of the best teachers I know have low-scoring years, and some of the worst consistently have high scores.  When we are required to teach to a test we cannot review ourselves, when standards of curriculum change with each academic year, and when the standards of achievement change with each election year, we are left with little option but to push the curriculum the best way we know and pray what needs to sticks.

My last point is this: If teachers are the most influential measure of a student’s success, as the studies report, educational reform should be led by teachers and by administrators, not by legislators.  As stated above, they have good intentions, but a government, with all of its other problems to solve, cannot micro-manage classrooms.  The people most qualified for that job are the ones on the frontlines, the ones who have dedicated themselves to people-building.  And, they should not have to run for school board or congress to do it. 

I don’t have all the answers, and I’m sure my thoughts will offend some.  Please forgive me.  I am tired of sitting around a table in my twenty-minute lunch talking with like-minded folks about what we are seeing.  And I am scared for this generation.  We need change, and we need it soon.

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In Defense of Teachers, Part 1

When your newly-elected governor feels compelled to state to the press, “Hey, I’m not a teacher-hater,” one should be alarmed.  Why should he have to even make this statement?  Well, the past year has not been kind to teachers, locally or nationally.

Take, for instance, a few pieces of education legislation that are currently in the news.  We are quickly approaching No Child Left Behind Apocalypse – the year in which all students are expected to achieve at proficient or advanced.  This includes all regular education students as well as special education students and those who speak English as a second language.  In the state of Tennessee, we now also have the results of the Race to the Top Initiative, which stipulates that teachers will now be evaluated, in part,  on student test scores.  Tennessee has also proposed eliminating teacher tenure, which currently allows a teacher security from losing his/her job without explanation.  Today, a middle Tennessee county school board voted to cease recognizing the teacher’s union.  When the union protested the action, the county suspended teacher bonuses and changes in benefits.  While I am not the biggest fan of that particular union, the move equates to a slap in the face to teacher rights.  When we add to these the recently revamped curriculum standards and changing in testing format, teachers are under the proverbial gun.  Sprinkle on some teachers behaving badly, and you’ve got a recipe for a witch-hunt.

So, as a teacher, I’m getting a little defensive.  I wanted to take a moment to clarify a few apparent misconceptions with regard to teachers, if not vent a smidge. So, here you go:

  1. Your child’s teacher does not hate/pick on/target your child.  Let’s be reasonable for a moment: teachers do not make enough money to spend their lives student-bashing.  We have to jump through more hoops, deal with more red tape, and stand up to more scrutiny than our pay grade stipulates.  Teachers don’t become teachers with the goal of getting a power trip over a bunch of 13 year-olds.  We do it because we love them – yes, love them – and we want to see their successes.  We do get frustrated with students, but only because we pour so much energy into seeing them succeed, often to see it thrown back in our faces.  But, if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t get frustrated.  We see potential, we see a path to success, and we want to see each child walk it.  That’s our passion.
  2. Your child’s teacher is over-qualified and underpaid for the position.  While the media might sway you otherwise, teachers must get continual, professional education to keep their licenses.  To advance their pay grades, they must get higher degrees as well.  On that note, they are among the lowest-paid professionals for the level of expertise they carry and number of hours they work.
  3. Yes, there are some bad teachers – and we know it.  There are bad teachers like there are bad police officers and bad office clerks and bad fast food workers.  There are even bad presidents.  Truth is, there are bad people in every profession, and teachers want the bad teachers out just as much as you do.  However, the bad teachers are few and should be dealt with in the same way as other bad employees – individually.
  4. There are great and potentially-great teachers leaving the profession in droves due to low pay, little respect, and endless red tape.  If we want to attract and keep the best people as educators, we need to begin treating them like a valuable commodity.

So, with all of that said, we are left wondering about the solution.  Stay tuned: I’ll talk about that soon.  My purpose is not to incite anger or even blame, but to call attention to fatal flaws in our educational system and cultural beliefs, in the hope that we can change our thinking as a society.