Thursday, March 20, 2008


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.


Christie said...

Wow! You don't pull any punches do you? Thing is, I'm in 100% agreement. Also, I'm planning to start the process of getting my teaching certificate current. I'm also toying with the idea of teaching school in a couple years. Your words were sobering. But there's something in my personality that wants to "fix" problems. Maybe teaching will be a good outlet for me. Hooray for your honesty!

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Yeah, and I really need to qualify my remarks and say that sometimes even the best and most loving parents have kids that are rotten at school. Still, it seems like when I meet parents I usually think to myself, "I'm not surprised." Either for good or bad.

What did Elder Oaks say at conference, "Our kids are entertaining themselves to death." I think he meant both spiritual and physical. I think I would like to add "intellectual" to the list.

Yankee Girl said...

I love this post. Your discussion about the responsibilities of parents is so needed today. Love it (as usual). said...

I agree with most of what you said here. I happen to have been one of those brilliant underachievers... (I barely graduated high school and now I have a 4.0) teachers treated me like I was an idiot so I believed them. I didn't realize that I actually had what it took to succeed in school. I agree that parenting makes a HUGE difference in what kind of a student a person is... the thing is it isn't the kid's fault if they have crummy parents... if they do then school may be the only place they have to get what a normal kid would get at home.

The thing about bad teachers is the serious amount of damage they do to a kid. I remember thinking that all adults were right and that if an adult didn't like you if they were mean to you, it was because you were a bad person... this didn't do very much for me. My senior year I had an art teacher who told me I was a complete failure and that I would grow up to be a loser living off welfare in a trailer. Nice.

I am super lucky that I have absolutely no complaints with the school my kids are in now, it is well run and both of them have THE BEST teachers.

KarateMommy said...

Great post STM. I'm wondering if you might have some needed suggestions for helping a child learn to sit still/focus/pay attention/be interested before entering the school scene?

Science Teacher Mommy said... I think in your case it was a question of finally getting motivated by finding a course of study that interested you. I think there are a lot of people like that, and that is why schools need to NOT be cutting programs like music, debate, student governmenment, art, drama and vocational skills. This is the place where kids who don't do as well in the more "academic" subjects find joy and interest in school. (I didn't say "sports" because they never get cut, at least the mainstream ones, but they have their place too.)

I agree that teachers can make a huge difference--good and bad. There is nothing more distasteful to me than teachers who are overly sarcastic (more than teasing) with children, particularly young ones. And no matter how provoked, teachers should never belittle, predict and preach. The teacher needs to always remember they are the adult in the classroom. :)

But, otr, don't you have to admit that if you had been well-behaved in class, or hung around with kids that were, it would have been much easier for your teachers to do their job? I'm not talking about sitting silently and never doing or saying anything: the classes I taught were always interactive, with lots of hands-on stuff. I'm just talking about being actively engaged in the learning process.

And you are also absolutely right about it not being the kid's fault if they have crummy parents. This was the theme of my teaching experience in Texas, actually, because of the school I was in. I still maintain though, that no amount of money poured into a Title One School will truly compensate for the damage inflicted before the kids ever come to school. I don't care how many hours of math and reading a district mandates for 1st graders: it will not change things for MOST kids if they are hungry, abused, unloved or exposed to graphic images almost constantly.

And Karate Mommy, I'm glad you are in and "settled" and back on line. I wish I had all the answers. I think what I do share is mostly learned by observing what others do, though my own children are pretty small. Here is what I think. I'm not sure if it is very scientific, but anecdotal evidence is good.

* If you watch TV, have a definite starting and ending time to the program and turn the TV off afterward.
* Talk to your kids about what they saw on television and ask them to retell the story or share what they thought about it.
* Never use TV as background noise at your house. If the main activity is something other than watching TV then it should not be on.
* Things like video games and other electronic stuff should be used as either a reward, or a rainy-day thing, or after a certain amount of physical activity. Limit video game hours the way you would tv.
*make sure that content of video games, movies, etc. is VERY carefully screened. If the characters say it, your kids will too. Just make sure you are okay with that.
* allow your children to be babysat by non-family members. This will teach them to make sure they respect adults who are non-parents. Unless another adult is just way out of line (shouting at your kid, being really disrespectful, or making unreasonable demands), try not to contradict something they have said to your child in front of your child. This is especially true with your spouse: if your kids see that mommy and daddy disagree about how to parent, they will translate that to undermining relationships with other adults as well.
* Give your kids ample time to play outside. All of that imagining they do with little structure and few toys (like the way kids are always running around with sticks and making up strange rules for complicated games), is very good for their brain development and teaches them to be high self-monitors. Really. Too much hovering and structure just teaches your kids not to know their OWN limits, they only know YOUR limits.
* Encourage work/chores before or interspersed with play. If they complain, they don't play. Even if they complain a lot. Talk about your own work that you enjoy to do.
*Plant gardens--this gets your kids outside and also helps them to see that good things often take time and patience.
*Church is a great teacher. From the age of 18 months or 2 years, expect kids to sit through an entire sacrament meeting. Encourage them to listen and try to understand. Get your kids to nursery and be "tough" about them staying there. I understand that some kids just WON'T go, but in my experience, these kids are the exception and not the rule. Most kids have some difficulty initially, but stick with it.
*Sleep. There are all kinds of published books about sleep, but kids from about age 3-7 need 10-12 hours each night. Staying up late should be for special occassions, not the norm.
*Nutrition. I think most moms know what we should be doing here, we just need to stick to what we know is healthy.
*Read whenever you can to your kids, but try not to just do five minute snippets here and there. Let the kids pick a stack and take turns with their books. Read them all, deliberately, asking your kids to sit on the couch with you the whole time and listen to every story. It is entertaining, true, but it is also some really intense learning, especially if you interact while you read. When kids recall something they've seen in a book, point that out, praising learning from books.

I promise, all this is not meant to sound like I'm perfect, you're not, because I think if I have a day where I'm doing about half the right things then it is a good day. Also, what works in one family is not likely to work in precisely that form in another.

In general, many parents, especially LDS, do a great job. Hands down, the school I worked at with the best behaved kids, was a community where the concentration of LDS people was also the highest.

Sorry. I should have just posted again. Other ideas, parents? said...

Actually some teachers really liked me because they said I "challenged them" I would ask a lot of questions... the classes with teachers who responded well to my questions are the classes I did well in. Some teachers (most) would get annoyed and tell me to stop asking questions at which point I would lose interest and start talking to my friends. In college I have certainly had some of the best and some of the worst teachers of my life... the subject matter hasn't made any difference to my grades - one big difference in the beginning was my new belief that I am intelligent... I never thought I was before... once I made those first couple of A's I realized I could make more regardless of what the teacher was like.

There was a girl in my Chem. class who was in early learning and was taking the class as a prerequisite. She was doing the internship type thing that teachers have to do and she already hated kids... everyday she would come in and complain about the "stupid" kids she had to put up with... it made me want to vomit. People like her give teachers a bad name... I think most teacher are very very good and it stinks that they get painted with the same brush.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Good comment. I once had an English ed teacher in college say, "If you are here because you love lit-er-ature" (snobby accent) "then you are in the wrong place. You will only succeed as a teacher if you love children first." I really took that to heart.

Sorry if I sound like I was shooting my mouth off. I do that. said...

Every one needs to do it sometimes.