By Arthur H. Gunther III
I am not a teacher, but I know a good argument about education. And the children are losing it.
I live in New York where, as in many other states, the focus is on testing students and teachers because of claimed declining standards since at least the 1970s. The companies that perform these tests make money off what “reformers” say will provide benchmarks for improvement. The general consensus, if we believe statistics, my own media colleagues and often the ill-informed (especially politicians), is that kids today are undereducated, particularly in the basics of language, arithmetic, history, perhaps common sense.
And all this, if true, is because teachers are overpaid, lazy types who cannot themselves pass competency tests, or so say the critics. Of course, no such tests are required of the politicos who demand them nor of those whose own old school records might make us question their argument.
Meanwhile, too many teachers, who have chosen their careers, who perhaps were prepared a bit by teacher’s college but who really learned on the job (like we all do), do not get full respect. At least not enough of them enough of the time. Still underpaid in many areas of the nation relative to other government workers — in salary, benefits and retirement — they are criticized for being off in the summer when what is not calculated are the hours spent after school — nights, weekends — preparing lesson plans and grading tests, and, increasingly, answering parent emails.
I am prejudiced here — there are fine teachers in my family and I know other fine teachers, most of whom have retired but all of whom are recalled by former students often enough that they are lifelong instructors. I know I still make decisions based on what Mr. Gram or Miss Rouy or Mrs. Still, etc., taught me.
And I am prejudiced, too, against the shrillness and lack of understanding of much of the anti-teacher rhetoric because I know that if teachers could get through to someone like me — a real day-dreamer and challenged in other ways — then something right was going on. Yes, this is 2015 and next year will be 2016. Social issues, economic difficulties, family dynamics, drugs, crime — these concerns are so very evident now. That brings more challenge to teachers, but our teachers are up to it. They need support, though.
Many opinions are offered on how to “improve” education. I was once among them as a newspaper editorialist. Missing is teacher respect: We no longer trust our teachers to win the struggle as so many once did, as so many now do, quietly, in frustration but in sure achievement, every day.
What are the answers? There are poor teachers who must go. But so should some doctors, police officers, governors, senators, plumbers, ordinary workers in every field. Schools need money that is properly spent on students. Teachers must direct the reform, not politicians and parents. Parents must get their children ready for school not only by dressing them but giving them a proper, well-structured, loving home. There cannot be two worlds for these kids — stability in school but not at home, in the neighborhood.
We should all want to improve education. Just walk past an elementary school and see the eager, laughing kids in first grade. Soon enough, this great potential will be in the eighth, then the twelfth grade. As we all continue to argue over how to educate the children, they will grow like wild flowers. Time to tend to fertilize the soil. And the teacher, no one else, is the farmer here.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.