Friday, February 10, 2006

In Praise of Determined, but Weary Teachers

Time out for a word of clear and unqualified praise for public school teachers in America, especially those who attempt to instruct in urban areas like Dallas.

Teachers don't get a fair shake in our society.

And frankly, I've had enough of it.

For the sake of full disclosure I need to say that both of my daughters are public school teachers.

But I would be writing this if they were truck drivers or lawyers!

Before the last school board election here in Dallas, a bright young candidate dropped in to visit and to get my perspective on the public schools.

"What is the biggest challenge facing our schools?" he asked.

"That is a simple one," I remember replying. "Poverty" was my one-word answer.

The look on his face was incredulous.

"Yes, poverty is a problem, no doubt," he said, "but what about education? I mean the school system can't fix poverty!"

I went on to tell him that, while I agreed that the schools can't "fix" poverty singlehandedly, until school districts and communities faced the realities of poverty, public education would remain locked up in a frustrating, organizational stall.

When children live in poverty, especially the deep, generational variety, learning and instruction are nearly impossible.

When our little ones arrive at school hungry, sleepy, emotionally troubled, and generally stressed to their limits, very little learning is possible.

Teachers can't be blamed for poor student performance given these conditions.

I know not all teachers are up to speed in talent, education or motivation. This has always been true of a few teachers. But, teachers aren't our problem.

Social and community reality--these are our problems.

Tack on parental irresponsibility, the absence of any expectation of discipline or rigor, parental abandonment, the crumbling nature of the American family and overloaded, bureaucratic administrative drag in education leadership at every level, and your begin to round out the picture facing our teachers and their students every morning.

Poverty exacerbates each of these other social challenges.

Teaching to a standardized test will not get the job done.

If we really and truly want to see our children achieve again, a comprehensive, holistic approach is required.

That will mean a national campaign to reduce poverty and to limit its current, pervasive impact on our children. Included must be adequate funding for decent housing, accessible health and dental care for everyone, employment skill improvement, parental support, mental health services, livable wages, code enforcement, economic development and education, both public and secondary.

Those charged with school administration must be willing to go back to a zero-based evaluation of every decision to make sure that students are on the receiving end of every strategy, tactic and resource allocated and expended.

What we need is a community commitment to our children and to their families.

Everyone must step up--churches, synagogues, mosques, temples; city, county, state and federal public funds; individual, corporate, foundation philanthropy; and a concerted, national media and public relations campaign that will not allow us to forget.

Everyone must expect more. That means all of us must challenge elected officials to care, really care. If they don't, then we need to act to find and to elect those who do as replacements.

Until we get on with this or something mighty near like it, let's commit to give our teachers a break!

Unless you've been there, you don't have a clue how demanding and impossible their jobs can be.


Paul said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am in a second grade classroom in a Title 1 school. You are so right!

Momdee said...

Also, lack of discipline at home...whether it is b/c parents are working too much just to make ends meet or b/c they want the finer things in life...the result is still the same...absent parents in too many homes. Teachers have mounds of paper work, long hours after school, workshops during much of their summer break, and many of them work a second job when available, b/c teacher salaries in many areas are right on the edge of the poverty line...and their children often qualify for free lunches!

Amy Boone said...

As a former teacher, "teacher posts" always capture my attention. My favorite educator, Lucy Calkins, once said the question that should be asked of schools, districts, curriculum boards, school boards and ultimately the powers that be in government is WHAT ARE THE NON-NEGOTIABLES? I've thought of that often as my children are proceeding through the public schools.

Mike said...

Full disclosure: my wife is a public school second grade teacher.

Having said this . . . you're right on target! She has had homeless children in her class -- right here in Abilene, TX. And she routinely has children whose lives are impacted by poverty (the long, generational kind especially) in other ways.

The current political climate may claim to care, but actions speak otherwise: We want OUR children to be taught how we want in OUR schools. What happens to other children -- well, what concern is that of ours?

But the mission of Christ demands that we pursue the holistic approach you're talking about,Llarry. Keep pressing, my friend.

Anonymous said...

I got in a debate today about this very issue of poverty. My opponent (friend, really, but opponent here) held up that poverty rates have remained relatively set around 12% regardless of the administration in office. He said this proved that "social programs don't have an effect." I disagreed, citing some of the poverty stats from prior to LBJ (around 19% in '64, I think) and some recent data about how many more people are on the poverty roles now that prior to Bush.

Larry, what do you say to people who claim that there cannot be an effective federal response to poverty? This fellow's particular argument was that churches should respond to the poor, that government's role is mainly to maintain a big military (and, it seems, keep their tax-hands out of his wallet). I disagreed for a variety of reasons, but would love to hear your take.

Larry James said...

Anonymous, your friend is simply incorrect here. Poverty rates declined under Bill Clinton. They have risen dramatically under President Bush--a million annually for the past 4 years and more on the way! You are correct about the Johnson era--19% reduction in poverty and more would have come had it not been for the distraction of the war in SE Asia.

Government efforts can and do have an impact on poverty rates either negatively or positively.

If you look at the scale of the problems in any of the various areas, you will note that your friend's idea about churches picking up the slack is faniciful and nice, but simply impossible. You are likely right about what's under his argument: his own fear relative to his wallet. That fear is short-sighted and epidemic these days. The poor continue to suffer and grow in numbers.