I recently wrote a column and concluded (among other things) that school districts not meeting the recently imposed and upgraded state learning standards often consist largely of children of dysfunctional families that live in poverty situations. However, most school districts have pockets of poverty, students from dysfunctional families and students with physical, emotional or behavioral problems. I have two daughters that are elementary school teachers in school districts in other states, and I am appalled at the classroom situations they must handle. They have removed students from their classrooms for throwing chairs at them, or while kicking and screaming profanity or after biting or lunging at them with scissors. And it is a lengthy, difficult process to get such students into special needs programs and nearly impossible without parental permission. Parents sometimes refuse to seek recommended medical help or neglect or even refuse to medicate the child as prescribed. This may protect the rights of parents and avoids labeling the child but can be very destructive to the learning environment for the majority. Absenteeism is also a major problem in many school districts. My daughters have had students living with a single parent in a car or homeless shelter. Some live at home or with a relative but move several times a year. Many students have several siblings with different fathers. One of their parents — or both — can be incarcerated or unemployed. Alcoholism and drug addiction are often a problem. This past year, one student missed 50 days of school, and several students have missed 10 or more. Complicating these factors are large class sizes, lack of teaching aides and lack of teaching supplies. I am amazed at how many hundreds of dollars per year of their own money my daughters spend on supplies. I am also amazed at how many extra hours are expected during evenings and weekends and on vacations and even summers. One daughter spent several days already this summer and the other spent ten, preparing their buildings for remodeling, on committee assignments or doing expected administrative tasks. Last summer one daughter was asked to go to a four-day conference with no remuneration except for actual expenses. I once heard a teacher say, “How can we raise roses when all they send us is manure?” That may be an overstatement, but there is some truth in it. If farmers raise crops for market, they have the luxury of discarding bad ones. Teachers must do their best to teach everyone that is sent to school, even if effectively, it is part time. Wasn’t it only a few short years ago that teachers were hailed as heroes and the national talk was about raising teacher salaries so that potential educators had incentives to enter the profession and good teachers would remain in it? One daughter’s school district has not had a raise in six or seven years and just this month received a contract for a 2.5-percent raise but accompanied with a cut in benefits. One daughter is a reading specialist working with students below grade level. She has had only a few small raises in the last several years. However, she has had reduction of retirement and insurance benefits and loss of job security. She worries that despite excellent ratings to date, budget conscious administrators will skew the subjective portions of her annual evaluations and let her go in order to hire a less expensive new teacher. No wonder teacher morale is down. It seems as though recent media talk is on holding teachers more accountable for their students’ learning and getting rid of teachers whose students’ scores don’t meet state standards. Yet the oft revised and increasingly difficult state standards are more difficult than ever to meet. Should teachers be accountable for the performance of students in the above referenced situations? Instead of labeling such teachers a failure, should they not be praised for raising the learning levels of students, regardless of whether their classes meet state standards? I don’t blame school administrators, or even school boards, as much as I do state legislatures and bureaucrats who cut and slash educational funding, demand more teacher accountability and require learning levels higher than ever before in history. I recently saw a T-shirt that read, “Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, make laws about teaching.” I also believe that laws are made and millage votes cast by good people who don’t understand the issues. The situation is ultra complex, but breaking teacher unions, eliminating tenure, requiring far more of teachers and the students, increasing class sizes, decreasing budgets for teacher aids and supplies and decreasing teacher raises and benefits are not part of a logical solution. Nor are media reports decrying teacher ineffectiveness or citizen comments that teachers are lazy, overpaid and have too much time off. Would you want to go into teaching in such a work environment? This situation does not bode well for our nation’s future.
Don Breckon is a Platte County resident, former president of Park University and an occasional Citizen columnist. He is retired and lives in southern Platte County and remains active in civic affairs. Breckon may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.