Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Teachers - are they the enemy?

That's How the Logic Goes

I just recently received an e-mail from my mother (who works inside a good public school system, but still sees many problems) which had attached an editorial (you can catch a hint at what is said in that here).  It basically talks about how we have turned America's teachers into the enemy, and why we shouldn't have.  It is a great read (even the little snippet you get), and drives the point home well.  So, today I must ask, are teachers really the enemy?

I have talked about the state of our public education system before, and in that, I addressed the teacher issue. So why re-hash what has already been done?  I'll tell you why.  It's just too important.  Additionally, this isn't just a re-hash.  This is a topic that should be talked about separately, as a lot of people are pointing fingers at the teachers and blaming them for the state of our education system.  Seems quite reasonable.  Teachers are paid to educate students, right?  How hard can it be?  The kids are failing, so therefore it must be the teachers!  Or that's how the logic goes.  But is the logic right?

It Takes a Village

Let's say for a moment that you are a middle school teacher.  How do you think your day is laid out?  Let's say school starts at 8:30 am and ends at 3:30 pm.  So, you come in at 8:00, pour yourself some coffee, and set up the classroom.  Start teaching at 8:30, go until 9:30, start back up at 9:35, etc until lunch.  You are lucky and your planning hour is right after lunch, so you get an extended break.  You grade some papers for about half an hour and then take a 1 hour lunch.  You start teaching again at 1:30, and finish up at 3:30.  You grade papers until 4:00, and then go home and enjoy the rest of your day (maybe put an hour in here or there).  Rinse, repeat, and all that for 5 days a week, right?  Sounds pretty easy.  But you could be wrong.

Any teacher that is tenured (which usually takes about 2 years to accomplish), can get away with that schedule.  Any teacher worth their salt usually works a lot more.  Most of the teachers I had (whom I give half the credit for my current level of intelligence - the other half goes to my parents) worked much more than that.  They would lesson plan, research, study, or just talk with the students that needed it on their planning/break times.  They would grade on their own time.  Students were always top priority to my teachers and they would stay after, come in early, or do whatever they could to help out a student.  Most worked in excess of 60 hours a week, and that was without all the seminars and conferences that teachers have to attend.  But I had some excellent teachers (although even back then, they could see that trouble was brewing and administrative issues were causing some of them to really feel like a different career path might be a better option).  So, what's going on?  Why is it that public perception seems to be one thing, and the teachers are saying another?  You ever heard that it takes a village to raise a child?

Vantage Point

The reason is complicated, and comes with many different viewpoints and impacts that are very far-reaching.  Let's go back and say you are a teacher again.  Let's be realistic and look at what a middle school classroom setting is really like for most teachers.  Most of the kids in your classroom are decent, well-behaved kids who get a "C" or better.  They show up, do their work, engage in the class, and for the most part, do what they need to do.  That makes up about 50% of your students (this is most schools - there are worse and there are better out there).  Then you have the kids that excel, but seem bored with the class.  They don't engage, or show much interest.  They may be failing the class, not because they don't know the material, but because they are bored and don't feel that the material is challenging enough to warrant any kind of effort on their part. That may be about 10% of your class.  The other 40%?  Those are the kids with an academic, mental, or behavioral problem that is being addressed by an IEP (or maybe it's not, but they have them).  For those that don't know what that is, it stands for Individualized Education Plan.  They are designed to ensure that those students that have certain problems (ADHD, autism, dyslexia, etc.) receive the special attention they need to be successful.  Ok, I'll admit, the make-up of a classroom changes depending where you are and other factors (and, I just made those percentages up).  This is for example purposes.  The job doesn't get that much easier if you change the percentages - more on the other challenges teachers face to follow.

Now, you, as a teacher, need to make sure that every single one of these kids performs at a state-defined level.  Not one can fall below or you are a bad teacher.  That kid sitting in the middle constantly disrupting class?  Yep.  The kid that can't read well because the letters are jumbled?  Him too.  How about the kid that just doesn't want to be there and could care less what you say?  You better make sure he passes the state testing (and the mandate is 100% by 2014 or schools lose funding - like completely).  Oh, and by the way, 9 weeks of your class time is now taken away from you for that said testing.  9 weeks out of 40.  Nearly a quarter of your school year!  And, a lot of those students behave badly because they know that they can get away with it.  You try and bestow any discipline on your classroom?  The administration probably won't back you because the parents will try to sue!  Welcome to the world of the teacher, lonely and taking on the world.  And I know a lot of them that do the job with a smile on their faces!

So, what about that administration?  Why aren't they making sure that those teachers and kids are passing the exams (which, by the way, is a whole other problem - you get a lot of students that know only enough to pass exams because that is what they are taught to because, well, the state mandates it)?  Well, they are dealing with tons of teachers, paraprofessionals, students, parents, news media (sometimes), school boards, and now, state testing.  That, on top of low budgets, few supplies, outdated books (that are so boring even the teachers hate reading them), IEP meetings, parent-teacher conferences, keeping up with credentials (attending a lot of training functions and conferences), and just the admin of running any kind of facility.  Parents are mad at teachers, teachers are overwhelmed and under-paid and are just beat down.  Kids know the whole system isn't working right and so take advantage whenever they can.  Government keeps asking why kids are failing and they shove rulebooks and more testing down the administration's throat.  And the entire country wants to know why their kids aren't learning a single thing.

Kids?  They just want to be playing.  At this level, they aren't worried about their future (and don't seem to be worried about it at any level anymore).  They spend most of their time not doing their homework, not paying attention, and making it difficult for anyone else in the classroom to do anything similar.  They are kids after all, but when do we start holding them accountable for their actions?  Probably when the parents start doing their jobs.

Don't Feed Your Kids Celery

Probably the biggest problem I see with the education system is the parents.  And, this is probably the viewpoint that, as a politician, will win you the least amount of votes.  But, it needs to be said.  Parenting as of late, well, sucks.  I don't mean all parents, of course, and there are a lot out there that are doing great things with their kids.  And I also don't mean that if you don't feed your kids celery and keep them away from the TV, that you are a bad parent.  There are lots of ways to be a great parent.  But, if you can't take an interest in your kid's education, and hold your children accountable for THEIR actions (it's not the teacher's fault that your kid isn't doing their homework and is disrupting class), then I consider you a bad parent.  If that offends you, well, too bad.  I am tired of my daughter's education suffering because you can't work with a teacher to keep your kid in line at school.  I, as a military supervisor, am tired of getting that (now) adult and having to treat them like a kid because they have never been held accountable for anything until now.  Your lack of action is creating havoc in our society at the most basic levels.

If, by chance, you are a parent who takes an interest in your children, ensures that your child upholds their responsibilities, and takes enforcement actions when your child does wrong; then thank you.  Teach it to your neighbors, friends, and anyone else who can't seem to figure it out.  I really, truly, honestly thank you from the bottom (and top) of my heart, because you are creating a better future.  You are doing one of the few jobs, that when done right, is harder than teaching and I celebrate you for it.  There is no paycheck for being a good parent, but you get the satisfaction of seeing your kids become what you taught them to become, and that is worth more than all of the money in the world.

Bottom Line

So, what is the bottom line here (now that my good parent tangent is over)?  Are teachers who we should be attacking?  I say yes, and, well, no.  I think that teachers that don't do their job should get fired.  And how do we know if a teacher is doing their job?  Well, do they stand in front of the class and tell them what to do and how to do it (according to certain guidelines of what the kids need to learn for that year)?  Do they answer questions and give one-on-one support when needed?  Do they, at least every once in a while, pick up on when a child seems more withdrawn than usual or seems to be struggling, but not asking for help - and then take action on that observation?  Do they engage the children, get involved with what is happening in the kid's lives?  Are they willing to stay after or come in early to help the students?  Are they reaching out to parents, giving them every opportunity to get involved in their child's education?  Are they, in a word, teaching?  If not, give them the chance to fix it, and then get rid of them if they don't.  But don't base your judgement of a teacher on how well a particular student's test scores or grades come out.  There are just too many things going on in child's life to hold a teacher solely responsible.

So, before you go on a rampage at your child's school because little Johnny just got an "F", please look at all the factors that went into it.  Adjust your child if you need to.  Adjust the teacher, if that is the actual cause.  Adjust the administration, school board, government if that is what is going on.  But make sure before you do that, look at yourself and make sure that you aren't the one that needs adjusting.  I think the world could do with a bit less adjusting other people and a bit more self-adjusting.  Change yourself, and change the world.  And yes, I am also talking to the "Man in the Mirror" - are you?