What's Gone Bad in Public Education

June 12, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Time was, and this certainly predates me, when a teacher got a nice, shiny apple as a token of appreciation from an admiring student.

These days, the apple might just as well be rotten and tossed at the teacher from across the room.

The decline in respect for teachers is well-documented. It closely mirrors the well-documented decline of numerous institutions in society.

Just last week, students attempted to poison teachers in separate incidents in Howard and Baltimore counties. An auto shop teacher at the Howard County School of Technology in Ellicott City found that someone had sprayed potentially lethal carburetor cleaner into his can of soda. Three fifth-graders in a Baltimore County elementary school also put rubbing alcohol, ammonia and bleach in a teacher's drink while he was away from his desk. The youths in both cases face criminal charges.

I won't try to decipher what has happened here. But there is a dichotomy at work in the rising disrespect shown to teachers. The irony is that while our regard for teachers has plummeted, the demands we place on them have increased dramatically.

Today's teacher -- at least the great majority of truly dedicated professionals -- is a work horse for a society that wants an educator, a baby-sitter, a family therapist and a minister all rolled into one.

We want this person to monitor the lunchroom and teach our kids that lying and thievery aren't virtues to boot.

For an elementary school teacher in Howard County, perhaps the most put-upon of all, the average day is a barrage of activity, a great deal of which has little to do with the classroom or educating children.

There are, more than anything for these teachers, a lot of meetings to attend.

Meetings with staff.

Meetings with supervisors.

Meetings with parents.

There are meetings about curriculum, meetings about tests. There are even, and I don't mean this facetiously, meetings about meetings.

And that does not cover what most of us think we're paying teachers for, which includes up to seven hours a day of instruction, daily planning and grading students' work.

The fact is that a lot of these traditional classroom activities are being crowded out by the extraneous things that are being piled on teachers.

Having de-emphasized basics as a foundation, we are now in the process of reinventing the wheel by imposing innumerable standardized tests and graduation requirements on our public schools.

No longer are students simply required to do well in their academic subjects.

They are subjected to a battery of state-mandated tests that begin as early as the third grade.

Students must also do community service as a condition of graduation. And they go to classes to learn about sex, right from wrong and respect for one another.

Jim Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association, which represents county teachers, has heard the lament of his members and it goes like this:

"Leave us alone! Give us time to teach!"

It's not that all the new mandates are worthless. Their purposes are certainly well intended.

The problem is that there seems to be little realization of the cumulative effect all these activities have on teachers and, as a result, on students.

According to an HCEA survey of county teachers, most only want four basic things:

* Support for their efforts to make students accountable for high academic standards.

* Help when disciplining students.

* Steps to streamline curriculum.

* Limiting the number of meetings and re-focusing teachers' time on students.

Mr. Swab isn't optimistic that teachers will ever get all those things. Unfortunately, he says, our teachers are caught in a political maelstrom.

"There are many groups in society that believe what they think is important should be taught in school," he says. "So they fight to have those things included."

It's very simple. What better way to shape the world we live in than to control what is taught to our children?

The problem with so much tampering from outside our schools is that the basic mission has been lost within. And as that happens, attempts at reform are meaningless.

We have allowed the role of parents, which is to shepherd their children's education, to be almost entirely taken over by the state.

We have to return to some balance.

It may seem an inconsequential thing. But during the five days of this school year that remain, take the first step by considering the good works of teachers and showing your appreciation.

Skip the apple. Just say thanks.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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