After a couple of school years passed during my teaching career, an epiphany broke over my head. High school students can be ruthless in their judgments. Their feelings are usually etched on their wrinkle-free faces. Many of them wear disdain as an all-purpose jacket. Remember, please. I teach ENGLISH. It’s not everybody’s favorite. So, I started telling my students early and often that they can’t hurt my feelings because those precious bits of me are left at home each day — safe, in a jar on the mantle. Of course I’m lying. But sometimes, I need them to know that their disdain for the intricacies of Victorian novels, Renaissance drama and Dickinson’s poetry won’t stop me from demanding their attention, and craving their excellence. If they can’t love writing and reading, at least let them respect it. Right?
But my feelings, alongside my resolve, are a bit battered lately. Not because of my students’ collective disinterest, though I’m sure a good bit of that exists; rather, it’s my own disinterest sounding an alarm.
The best teachers never stop learning. The best teachers keep reading and finding new practices to benefit their students. The best teachers don’t quit, but stay in the fight — and it takes some fancy footwork indeed to dodge the punches thrown by federal mandates, state evaluation methods, and devotion to ‘the test.’
blah, blah, blah… yada, yada, yada….
Education keeps changing. Students keep paying the price for bad policy, bad teachers, and bad societal realities. Too often, folks around the country and around the block confuse public education with strong, stable households as the fix to some worrisome realities. An individual school corporation can no more fix the social ills that plague us than the federal DOE (what folly!!) can. But it’s far easier to develop another “program” and suggest that more funding will fix a problem than it is to actually fix the problem. Consistent discipline and adherence to foundational needs for all students, and admitting that all students don’t acquire what they need in a cookie-cutter fashion would probably help. But the real issues that need fixing are outside the classroom — where sometimes moms and dads aren’t united under one roof; where there’s too little money to make it to the next paycheck; where kids get lost in the shuffle of frustrations over employment, broken relationships, ill health and a host of other struggles. We’ve lost a willingness to acknowledge that the nuclear family has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of any thriving community or society.
Lots of school teachers know this. Lots of concerned parents, grandparents and thoughtful neighbors know it too. But school teachers don’t have enough time in their test-driven schedule of days to fight the societal battle too. They’re trying to teach math and reading concepts to kids who haven’t always had breakfast before getting on that bus, or sometimes even dinner the night before. They’re expected to raise scores for children who often face raised voices and the occasional fist. Painful family circumstances diminish the value of critical reading skills and math proficiencies.
Education isn’t the problem. Broken people like you and me are the problem. Money can’t fix broken people or broken systems. Federal funding won’t eradicate societal failures. Too many of us — parents, teachers, neighbors, concerned citizens at large — sound more and more like Scarlet & Rhett. Thinking about it tomorrow. Planning to fix things soon. But pretty soon, with pressures from federal, state, and local governments to DO something to raise test scores, meet the latest metrics sure to turn the system around, and follow in lock-step a bureaucracized version of ‘education,’ too many of us are going to relinquish the fight, echoing Mr. Butler’s view that, frankly, we just don’t give a damn.
Though we’re not fighting as Union and Confederates over States’ rights, we are, nonetheless embroiled in a thinly veiled ‘civil’ war. Conflicting political ideologies are at fever pitch in these few weeks before the election. People on both sides of the spectrum hurl insults, point fingers, rain down blame and stir fear. What do you suppose our nation’s youngest citizens think of our ‘civility’ in arguing over education, women’s reproductive rights, the outrageous national debt, and the state of our struggling economy? They are the ones who pay for it, you know. It’s the kids — caught in our system, caught in our self-made messes — who always pay. Shouldn’t we be giving a damn about that?