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Teach Your Children Well

Most of our political discussion on how to improve public education seems to focus on ways to encouraging excellence in teaching (merit pay, better training and continuing education credits, and rewards for student achievement on standardized tests), but after readingthis storyfrom Monday's New York Times, I'm not sure finding good teachers is the challenge. The Times reports on a school in Brooklyn, which takes students from the poorest neighborhoods and provides them with a more intimate education than they would receive at a typical public school. The success of the school is unquestionable, but the article points out that it comes at a price and may not be sustainable in the long run. The heroic teachers that work at the school regularly log "14-hour days," and as a result, there is high turn over, as teachers are, understandably, unable to maintain that schedule on a typical teacher's salary as they begin to have families of their own. The principal in the article suggests that in order to maintain this successful educational model, the school will need to either hire more teachers to cut down on the hours each teacher must spend ensuring the students not only complete their class assignments, but also do all they need to do to apply and prepare for college, or pay these teachers more so they are able to afford things like childcare as they get married and have their own kids.A comment made by the Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, though, strikes me as revealing of a prevailing public attitude about teaching that stands in the way of the reforms requested by this principal. He says, "When people are part of the world of changing things for children, they don't view it as work." Three things:(1) "changing things for": There seems to be an assumption in the policy focus of education reform that if teachers teach, students will simply learn. But, anyone who has taught knows that, while good teachers are invaluable, no one can change a student's world for them. They must take it upon themselves to do the work necessary to actualize their potential. Thus, we need to find ways of not only encouraging good teaching, but also encouraging good learning, with students and parents equally implicated in the educational process. (2) "children": This is closely related to the first point, but the idea that high school students are "children" in need of the same attention as elementary school students is strange. Many of the students at the high school in question came from terribly poor elementary and middle schools (likely due to a broken local tax-based funding system), and having not acquired good learning habits early enough, they require even more attention to set straight an already crooked course. If teachers are going to change the world for children, we must target children by investing in early childhood education at the pre-kindergarten level.(3) "work": Perhaps the most shortsighted, but alarmingly pervasive, part of the Chancellor's statement is the idea that teaching is not considered "work." Unfortunately, the hackneyed adage, "those who can't do, teach," is quite entrenched in our educational culture so much so that many people feel that our already underpaid teaching workforce is actually overpaid. After all, how hard is it to do multiplication tables in front of a bunch of third graders? Until we realize that our teachers are just as skilled and dedicated, albeit in different ways, as those in more lucrative service professions, like healthcare, their 60-hour work weeks will continue to be undercompensated at an hourly rate far below minimum wage, making it impossible for them to even afford for their own children the same education they are providing for other peoples' kids.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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"Teach your children well", and the key word here is "your". The article referred to the herculean task of teachers remaking not only the school lives of these children, but in effect, also remaking the home lives of these students, so the kids could learn. This is not a sustainable task, however society believes that it should be. Your points are well taken, Eric. These students should have received a better education as elementary children if all schools were equitable; sadly they are not. Also the operative word is not "for", but "with". Teachers work with students, but parents are still their primary teachers, be it for good or for ill. Teaching is labor intensive, and anyone who has ever taught knows this to be true. For all those people who believe it is a simple task, I challenge them to be with a group of 25 kids daily instilling not only subject matter, but all the other things their parents should be interested in as well, like self-discipline, responsibility, and civility. As always, the key to quality education rests with principals, teachers, and the society at large working in concert to turn out our most important products--knowledgable and responsible citizens.

I wouldn't teach in a govt. school if my life depended on it. Our poor educational system, it seems, is captive to larger societal ills. Perhaps we are expecting more from formal educators than we should.Wouldn't it be nice if all kids from pre-school forward came from stable homes that instilled the work/study ethic necessary for success in school and life?And, of course, we all pay in the end for this sad state of affairs.

Well said, Joseph. Our wish our politicians would acknowledge the responsibility of the larger society, rather than trying to varnish over it with more bureaucracy.

A fine remedial English teacher told me that research strongly indicates that the children who grow up to be readers are the children who see their parents reading. Granted, there are more causes than witnessing their parent(s) reading, bu seeing-parents-read does seem to be a necessary if insufficient factir, It follows that we must teach the illiterate parent(s) to read, but I doubt the country would be willing to pay for such a program. Maybe the churches could help with volunteer teachers. But even that would cost a very great deal of time, and money.

P. S. Sorry about that unnecessary comma, Jean. (And the mispelled word, etc. I need help.

I think that I agree with everyone, especially Denise. Teachers cannot be expected to offset the societal ill of many uninvolved and negatively involved parents. I work in healthcare and can see the the effects of our eroding societal network in the emergency room, the geriatric units and behavioral health units. These problems cannot all be solved by more legislation and throwing more money at them. Our society is only as strong as we are as individuals.

I agree that it would be nice if we could wave a wand and suddenly inspire parents and society at large to invest their own time and resources in the education of our children. However, I'm afraid that such wishful thinking is exactly that. The historical facts seem to indicate that as government investment in social programs has steadily declined over the past fifty years and services (including healthcare) have become increasingly privatized, spontaneous altruism and individual responsibility have not picked up the tab for those unable to afford boutique care. This has only exacerbated the gap in education, health, financial aptitude, etc between the "have's" and "have not's". I think we are getting to a point where only large scale investment in social services will make up for the widening deficit in skills. As Ann points out, parents who can't read well (or do math well) can't be expected to teach their own children skills they were not taught themselves (for whatever reason). This may mean that teachers will have to pick up the slack, but it does not mean we should expect them to do it for free or to take on the "herculean task" of trying to instill habits in "children" who may be past the age for effective intervention. It is then, I think, incumbent upon us (especially those who can afford it) to invest in education for the sake of our society by voting in favor of things like school tax levees that raise necessary funds to increase teachers wages, hire more teachers, create government sponsored pre-K and after school programs, etc. We can't just expect the single inner-city mother who works two jobs and may not have finished high school herself to drill her third grader on multiplication tables every night, but we also shouldn't expect our teachers to work magic by making something out of nothing. We need to give them the resources to do their job. Maybe then we will create a generation who can realistically take on the burden of teaching their own children well, but we can't give up on the role of formal educators. They are necessary. But right now they are being taken for granted.

The cmplexity of the problem leads me to reply that "The poor will always be with us" and that education is the key to getting them out of that "do-loop", and of course there in lies the problem. Perseverence.

Without resources, good ideas cease to be sustainable. We need to start being creative to allocate resources effectively to our teachers. But, as with healthcare and other social issues, they will not be adequately addressed until the impending doom is felt by the average citizen.

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