Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Rant about Schools

It's the beginning of another school year.  Sue has already been teaching for several weeks, as have most of her colleagues in Arizona.  Elsewhere, they're gearing up for the traditional post-Labor Day start of the academic year.  It just occurred to me that 50 years ago next month, I was starting kindergarten.

Lately, it's become a bit of an indoor sport to bash public school teachers:  threaten their retirement, undermine or banish their unions, cut (or threaten to cut) their pay, you name it.  It won't surprise you that none of this amuses me.

Throughout my career as a college professor, I have had the privilege of teaching people who aspire to be teachers.  Not one of those students has been lazy, or lacking in motivation, or unfeeling.  On the contrary, they are driven by a sense of mission, they care about children, and they care about being good teachers.  Nobody--and I do mean nobody--goes into the profession of public school teaching thinking that it will be a cushy job that they can do for 25 or 30 years and then retire early and comfortably.  Some of my music students have started out trying to hedge their bets as performers by also qualifying to be teachers.  And while a few them have dropped performance to become teachers, most of those students don't finish the education degree.  They realize that you must have a passion for teaching if you are going to teach.

Are our schools perfect?  Far from it.  But the knee-jerk response is to blame the teachers, as though they were the only ones or even the most important ones shaping our schools.  Sadly, they are not.  If they were, our schools would run a great deal better than they do now.

You have to look at the whole system:  what about administrators who generally make things more complicated than necessary or who like quick fixes or who mistake good procedure for good teaching?  For example, it's pretty common around here for administrators to say, "If I come into your classroom, I expect to see your objectives for the day written on the board."  In itself, there's nothing objectionable about this (although I never do it in a college classroom), but do we really think that writing an objective on the board is the same as good teaching?  That's like saying that knowing your destination is the same as safe driving.

How about the school boards and other elected officials who pass policies that make life more complicated for teachers without improving education?  Ask any teacher about this:  they are buried under a mountain of busy work that doesn't contribute to their success as teachers or to their students' success as learners.  Some policies are needlessly complicated and exclude students from great opportunities:  two students from Sue's school got accepted into a prestigious summer program for actors in New York City.  You'd think the school would stand up and cheer and do everything possible to help the kids go:  they'd get to spend a week in New York studying dance and acting with professionals, get to see theater, and generally have an enriching experience.  It was a remarkable opportunity for two kids from South Phoenix, one of the poorer areas of the valley.  Rather than encouraging the students, school policies created all kinds of obstacles.  These are poor kids.  They can't afford a plane ticket or tuition in an expensive New York summer program.

One of the two boys was going to graduate in May.  Since the program took place in the summer after graduation, he couldn't receive any help from the school to cover the tuition or travel costs--even though the department has funds from things like ticket sales that they use for scholarships.  I actually don't know whether he was able to find the money to go on the trip or not.

The other student was a rising senior, so he could get some help.  In order to get at the funds, though, the drama teacher had to file paperwork to get this registered as a field trip.  Everything seemed hotsy-totsy, until it emerged that a field trip, even for one student, requires a chaperone--and the chaperone has to pay his or her own way.  She's finding all this out weeks before the trip, even though she started the process in March.  Well, after helping him raise money for his trip, she didn't have the heart to tell him that it was off, so she decided to be the chaperone--spend her own money to get from Phoenix to NY, stay for a week in a hotel, buy meals, the works.  Yup.  She's just sitting around waiting to collect retirement checks.  (I seem to recall that there were other glitches along the way, but I don't remember them accurately enough to recount them.  One problem, I recall, was that administrators would declare that something was "against policy" but couldn't produce the policy in writing.)

This is just one example.  There are thousands of others, and admittedly, this isn't the worst story out there.  It's just the one I happen to know about.

Finally, there's the world around us and how it affects schools and everyone in them.  Schools are not separate from society.  Public schools have to teach everyone who wants to come.  They can't turn anyone away, no matter how difficult their problems are (charter schools and private schools can be selective--a huge advantage if you're looking at things like overall test scores).  Because everyone goes, all the problems and challenges that people face in our society are right there in the schools.  Our expectation is that somehow teachers are supposed to be able to fix what no one else can.  Here's the latest example--Sue told me about this child at dinner tonight.

One of the students in the dance program has been particularly difficult.  She is unwilling to participate, is belligerent, uses the worst kind of foul language, and is terribly disruptive in class.  By chance, Sue and her colleague ran into the school social worker at lunch, so they asked about this girl.  It turns out that the child lives in a group home, which means that she's the state's responsibility, and the state can't find foster care or an adoptive parent for her.  How did she get into a group home?  Well, her mother is a drug addict (so she probably has some deficiencies because of her mother's drug use).  After her parents divorced, the child lived with her father.  But at some point, the mother kidnapped the child.  She abused the child.  Her boyfriends sexually abused the child.  Eventually, the mother got money for drugs by selling her child for sex.  (I have trouble telling this story:  what kind of monster turns her child into a prostitute?  what kind of monster has sex with a child--and is willing to pay the child's mother for the opportunity?)

To be fair, we don't know what kind of services this child is getting--if any.  That's because of confidentiality rules.  I hope that someone is helping her to cope with all the baggage she has from that nightmarish childhood.  Meanwhile, she is expected to function normally in school--and she just doesn't have the tools to do it.  She doesn't have the social skills or even the peace of mind to pursue learning.  And obviously she doesn't trust adults.

Oh, and by the way, people now want to tie teacher salaries to student performance--including the performance of that deeply troubled child and the many thousands like her across the country.  Social workers couldn't help that child; whatever psychologists or therapists she's seen haven't helped her; but the teachers (who have no training in any of this, mind you) are supposed to help her learn so that she performs at grade level.  Could you do it?  I know that I couldn't.

Are there some bad teachers?  Of course there are, but frankly, not very many.  They don't last.  The vast majority are hard working, dedicated people.  They have to be to face the daily obstacles that stand in the way of good teaching.  Some of those obstacles are unavoidable, but a lot of them are of our own making.

Somewhere in your past, there's a teacher you still remember fondly.  I can still name all of my elementary school teachers in order from kindergarten through sixth grade:  Mrs. Delzitt, Miss Emmons, Mrs. Cheesbrough, Miss Ballenger, Miss Hayes, Mrs. Dennison, and Mr. Galvin.  I might have some of the spellings wrong: you do forget some things over a 50-year period.  I thank all of them and owe each of them a lot for what I am now.  Next time you're tempted to bash "teachers," remember the ones who inspired you.

It's convenient to blame teachers.  They're the front line of our schools.  But as I've said elsewhere in this blog, when public services and government don't work, ultimately it's our fault for putting incompetent people in charge of them.  Remember:  we have met the enemy, and he is us.  Until we fix the world that surrounds our schools--instead of somehow expecting the schools to take care of it--we won't be able to fix education.  So let's get to work.

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