I've just read another story this morning about a couple of teachers doing something stupid in front of students. I say "another" because I can't believe how many of these I've read recently. It seems FoxNews would have the public think that teachers are little more than violent, uncontrolled pedophiles preying on our children.
And while it might be obvious to point out that these teachers are the exception rather than the rule, there is still painfully little good press for public schools these days. In case you haven't heard the latest funding debacle, Governor Swcharnegger's balanced budget plan for California next year includes pink slips to 20% of the teachers (not administrators) currently employed in the school system. I'm sure that will do a lot for classroom size, student management and learning.
School is getting to be a harder and harder environment to work in all the time. Granted, school has always been a place where kids assert a degree of independence and, particularly as they get older, spend a fair amount of time unsupervised. I had an acquaintance tell me the other day that she'd heard in the last 10 years or so that our public schools are turning out dumber and dumber kids every year. She cited some random statistic (you know, 90% of statistics are made up on the spot), and sounded very authoritative. I've thought about her remarks the last few days. As a person who has, and will again, make her living by teaching public school and who will send my children to public school, I feel a very personal stake in how it all works out.
Schools do need work, and though throwing money at a problem won't solve it, correctly applied money could do a lot--better equipment; technology that allows teachers to communicate quickly, effectively and transparently with home; clean, well-lit buildings; a student-teacher ratio that doesn't exceed 25:1 (and much less before 3rd grade); assessments not merely based on testing; revamped and respected vocational programs in high schools . . . .
I could go on, but I won't. I think that any one of you could look at your child's public school and see a place where improvement is needed. In fact, schools that function the best are schools that have a lot of local control with a powerful community of parents, administrators and teachers pulling for common goals. In my mind, this control is why charter and private schools have gained so much ground in recent years. As they are not tied to federal funding, and therefore the accountability standards of No Child Left Behind, the schools are run as the community sees fit, not as bureaucrats in Washington mandate.
The elephant in the room that nobody is talking about is classroom management. Oh, the discussion on out-of-control classrooms is masked under more funding for "teacher training," but it doesn't address the heart of the issue. College (particularly for science and math teachers) is already rigorous and certification requirements are getting worse and worse all the time. What teachers are unprepared for when they walk in the door to the classroom is the chaos that often awaits there. And while the best teachers know the fine art of classroom management (a skill almost impossible to acquire if you don't have a feel for it) and can keep a classroom in line, there are far too many kids coming to school socially unprepared for the school experience because their homes have set them up to fail long before their school careers begin.
Let me explain:
Children who spend hours a day watching television--particularly television filled with commercials and programming only valuable as entertainment--will have a very difficult time concentrating in school, even if they have no disorder to speak of. School will not be funny enough, exciting enough or instantly gratifying enough to compare to the lives of the people they see on TV. And don't even get me started on the sex: even during commercials for programs (usually sports) that have NOTHING to do with sex.
Children who watch any kind of programming where adults are treated with a great degree of sarcasm, sassiness and disrespect will interact with the greater world this way, thinking it is appropriate. Or if not appropriate, at least hilarious to their peers, and sometimes all they are looking for is a laugh.
If your son or daughter takes a cell phone to school then they are more likely to cheat on tests, pass texty notes during class and be in violation of school policies. I believe kids are losing the ability to concentrate on and follow the nuances of a face to face conversation because of cell phone use and text messaging. I currently tutor a student who thinks nothing of listening to music, IM-ing on her computer, texting on her phone, surfing the web and watching television all AT THE SAME TIME. But to ask her to concentrate on her science for 15 minutes? It is like pulling teeth. She is impatient and antsy. She is also 100 pounds (at least) overweight. She is 13. What kind of a future does a child like this have, even though she is generally very sweet?
Dress codes are nearly impossible to enforce when parents allow their children to leave that morning wearing tight or revealing clothes. As for the boys? Their own tee-shirts now are riddled with suggestive and disrespectful sayings. Even young boys. These things are so detracting from a learning environment that even the best management makes it difficult to keep a class of hormonal teenagers in line.
If you have allowed your children to be in charge entirely at your house--calling their own shots about bedtime, what kind of groceries you buy, no consequences for naughty behavior, etc. then they are likely to be sassy, temperamental and argumentative at school.
If a normal child (meaning no disease or disorder) under the age of 14 or 15 is morbidly overweight, that is almost always a parenting failure. Kids this overweight have health problems that keep them from full participation at school, sleep apnea that affects their brain development and social issues that can dog them for life.
Kids who are never required to be still, play by themselves, or focus on a task for more than a minute or two will find school boring. On the other hand, kids who have been read to frequently and taught that hard work is a joy, will begin to understand the long term benefits of daily attendance at school.
Lax parents often complain of teachers not being kind enough to or forgiving enough of their slacker children. I agree that teachers need to treat children with respect, kindness and even charity. But I don't agree that teachers should dismiss rude behavior or lower their expectations because a child's home is run that way. How forgiving do these parents think cops, judges and bosses will be? Particularly in this age of VAST amounts of information, school has to do far more than just teach information (they can never teach enough), they are attempting to teach young people to function in a social framework, which, love it or leave it, involves conformity to appropriate social norms.
If you think your child is lazy at school because he is brilliant--you are probably wrong. I have had many parents give me this excuse over the years when the truth was that junior could hardly tie his shoelaces without a diagram and someone to hold his hand (I'm not talking about kindergartners here). In the last ten years I've worked with probably 1000 students (a small sample compared to more veteran teachers), but I can only think of one or two students that I thought fit the "brilliant so I misbehave/tune out" scenario. Chances are, your kid is just pretty average like most other kids. Sure, he is the world to you and you see his gifts in a way that others don't, but just make sure you are honest about his limitations too. Others will be. And don't expect your child's teacher to treat her as the most special kid in the room. Each child is worth more focus than they can reasonably get at school. It is YOUR job to give the kind of attention your child needs, not her teacher. Even the very best teachers are frustrated by the logistical demands of trying to help each child as much as they need helped.
Even a few years ago (when I first started teaching in the late 90's), a teacher in an average school might have a handful of kids in a classroom of 30 that were difficult. This could mostly be dealt with by seating charts and teacher proximity. But when a teacher with 35 students and 33 desks has ten or fifteen students with classroom behavior issues, it becomes nearly impossible to keep problem students separate from one another.
A generation of children is being raised up with too few checks on their behavior. The best parenting advice I ever got was from my mom when she said, "Somebody is going to be in charge at your house. It may as well be you: you are the grown-up." Yes, public schools need to be smaller, better equipped and staffed with better trained teachers, but they need to be attended by children who have been taught to respect adults, concentrate on tasks that are difficult and understand that there is a real difference between public and private behavior.
I am a great believer in a (relatively) free public education for every child: I think it is at the heart of any democratic society. But if our homes are failing, then our schools cannot succeed.