Childish choices and scape-goating teachers ("The View from Main Street" editorial, week of March 3)

Note: this editorial column appeared in the March 3, 2011 Culver Citizen, partly in conjunction with a cover story (also featured on this website) about Culver area teachers' trip to the statehouse recently in response to proposed legislation. References to Cory Monnier's column pertain to a column appearing on the same page of that edition of the paper. --editor.

I debated writing this column until, I noticed the topic of Culver Boys & Girls Club Unit Supervisor Cory Monnier’s debut column (it’s slated as a monthly feature), on this same page (and we should be back next week with another installment of “If These Walls Could Talk,” the historical column on Culver’s buildings).
This week, in conjunction with our cover story, I wanted to say a few words about teachers, education, and parenting. Let me start by emphasizing that, if there’s one thing I’ve concluded after spending the past several days thinking about the issues surrounding recently-proposed legislation in Indiana (see the story on page 1), it’s that all of this is quite complex. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re doing what we all too often do best: oversimplifying a tough issue.
I have no intention of discussing the “right-to-work” legislation around which so much controversy swirled last week around Indiana. I’m not going to stick my two cents in about the voucher bill, either.
Instead, I felt compelled to say something about teachers themselves and the job(s) we expect them to do.
I’ll qualify this by saying I’m biased and unbiased in a couple of ways. My wife, first of all, was a licensed elementary school teacher in the state of Indiana, and even before we married, I heard a fair amount through her of what’s on the minds of teachers. I’m also a product of the Culver Elementary School with a daughter who finished seven years there last year, and both my daughter and I have great memories and warm feelings for the school and its faculty. On the other hand, my wife and I have chosen to home-school our youngest children, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the faculty at CES.
Wherever we might stand on legislative issues, and whatever side of the political fence, I have to say I’m rather disgusted with the current trend towards bashing public school teachers, be it in the media or on the street. This isn’t because I’m under the illusion that every teacher is 100 percent dedicated, that there exists no corruption or aren’t areas in the world of public education which could stand some improvement. That’s true of virtually every profession, including my own.
Instead, I’m appalled at the lack of responsibility so many of us want to take for our own role in our children’s education and well-being as a whole person.
The fact is, a great many public school teachers have been nearing burnout for the past several years now, something many likely won’t tell you in so many words...and this certainly precedes the present legislation under consideration, which must seem to many teachers like pouring salt into a an already-difficult wound.
Teachers are expected to perform virtual miracles. We’re fast approaching the point of being a post-literate society. Children spend a staggering amount of time in front of electronic media -- television, computer and internet, video games, hand-held music and movie players, and the like -- and are shoveled full of processed, high-sugar, high-salt foods on a fairly routine basis. Add to this the rampant phenomena of “helicopter parenting” and some very valid concerns over children’s safety in what feels like an increasingly dangerous world, and we’re left with communities in which children rarely are allowed to simply go outside and engage in active, imaginative play with other children.
Here I echo Cory’s column on this page, and encourage you to read up on the effects, statistically, of the problems I’ve just named, and brush up on how these factors -- among many others -- impact the difficulty of teaching children -- heck, the difficulty of getting them to sit still for more than five minutes without something electronic in their hands! (Let me point out that I’m not opposing all of these forms of entertainment in moderation and with a reasonable, intelligent amount of parental supervision and discernment, which are all too lacking in our culture today).
Add to this a radical shift in what’s expected of children today in terms of behavior and discipline, and how fewer parents actually support the teachers when little Johnny was reprimanded in school (the teacher, it’s presumed, must be wrong -- never the child).
Further, federal legislation has mandated that children with serious emotional, intellectual, and physical disabilities be integrated into regular classrooms. This is one of those difficult issues: we need inclusion, of course, and studies have shown pigeonholing students as “learning disabled” or “special ed” can be marks a child may struggle to lose even when he or she has overcome challenges and excelled educationally. Nonetheless, the presence of this dynamic in a classroom, especially where funding may be insufficient to provide enough aides to assist adequately, may greatly change what a teacher can accomplish in a given day.
By the time my wife left teaching in the public school, she was bringing home regular reports of teacher frustration: new standards (state and federal, rarely local) requiring more and more paperwork, and teachers to prepare students for more and more standardized testing, left teachers spending literally hours each day outside the classroom engaged in work which was of highly debatable value to the students themselves.
Most teachers, if they’ve stayed in their profession, have done so out of a desire to teach. Instead, many seemed to be finding themselves working evenings and weekends slogging through mountains of paperwork, and few of those are actual student papers, or work which would translate into new, innovative teaching techniques. My wife’s closest friend is a public school elementary teacher in another state, and as much as she loves the kids and her work, it’s plain that the problem persists, and crosses geographic boundaries.
That, of course, only makes sense. In looking to “fix” public education and the problems plaguing many children going through American public education, scape-goating and finger-pointing -- and yes, legislation -- seem to ignore the looming elephant in the room: children are becoming increasingly difficult to teach because we, their parents and the adults in their communities, have fed into a rampantly anti-educational, anti-learning, and anti-discpline oriented culture which values the cheap, the tawdry, and the “self-fulfilling” over matters of greater value.
We’ve increased our worship of “stuff” and its acquisition, and the pursuit of our own selfish pleasures, and we’ve baptized such a philosophy in a thousand books, movies, articles, talk shows, TV dramas, and songs, and then celebrated many of these as great works. In effect, we’ve legitimized the worst in children’s own behavior: instant gratification, prioritizing our own pleasure, and the amassing of material goods, all in the name of supposed happiness and “self-fulfillment,” even though we have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
It seems to me, with all that in mind, we’re having a hard time teaching our children to buckle down and listen, to grow up and stop bucking the authority of their educators, and to value intangibles like learning and sacrifice, when we ourselves have yet to learn those lessons -- when we’ve embraced notions that are basically the worst in young children’s behavior (and which kindergarten teachers around the nation work to eradicate in youngsters) and dubbed them “freedom,” “self-actualization,” and the pursuit of “personal fulfillment.”
And so, we take our children to the local public school and drop them off, becoming indignant that teachers find it difficult to enforce disciplines, expectations, standards, priorities, and methods of learning which so many of us undermine daily in our own homes.
The state, of course, can’t legislate away these problems, which I contend are much of what’s at the heart of whatever education crisis does exist in America.
But rather than feeding into the demonization of teachers, the state could put some of its energy into addressing the real crisis of an entire culture becoming increasingly hostile to lifestyle choices in which education flourishes.
Better still, and more to the point, perhaps the answer doesn’t lie with the state, but with each one of us as parents, as family members of children, and members of a community.
Maybe we can consider some of the suggestions Cory puts forth in his column here, at least as a starting point.
And perhaps the answer lies in each of us recognizing the impact of our own choices, and asking if we’re helping create an environment conducive to education for our children...and in which children start their first day of school ready and excited to listen, learn, and grow.