published Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Cleaveland: Stop picking on teachers

Clif Cleaveland

Recently, several state governors and legislatures have declared open season on teachers, who are attacked for everything from their salary and benefits to the academic performance of their students.

Hostile, political rhetoric has displaced calm, adult dialogue in identifying and solving the complex problems facing our public school systems.

During the past decade, I’ve had repeated opportunities to visit public elementary and high schools in Hamilton County. Our school district features a broad spectrum of facilities, from new to outdated, whose students range from disadvantaged to affluent.

I have been uniformly impressed with the passion and commitment for teaching and the expertise that educators in a variety of settings bring to their classrooms. No doubt there are scattered throughout any school system teachers who are burned out or simply going through the motions in their daily work, just as there are disengaged physicians, attorneys, merchants and administrators.

My visits have taken me to the alternative middle/high school, inner-city third-grade classrooms and vocational high school programs. Teachers have informed me of the difficult backgrounds from which many of their students come: single-parent or guardian households, impoverished homes or no home at all. I have seen students too sleepy to hold up their heads or dressed in tattered, unwashed clothes. Without school-based nutrition programs, many students would go hungry.

Despite its complex challenges, our largely urban school system is fortunate compared to other districts within our state. Recent conversations with a sampling of high school students from across Tennessee inform me of worn-out, unsafe buildings, of academic programs that suffer from shortages of qualified science and math teachers, irrelevant textbooks, inadequate libraries and unequipped labs. Students who want to progress to college find curricula that are pitched to getting a quota of students through standardized tests.

Teachers have become lightning rods for complex social issues that bedevil our larger society. Poverty, disease, malnutrition, crime, drugs, gangs, lack of parental engagement — these undermine the vital process of education even before a child sets foot in a classroom.

Yet in the several hours of a school day, a teacher is expected to shape a student to meet a certain testing threshold. In several instances that I have witnessed, this is akin to pushing a very large stone up a steep incline, day after day. And yet the teachers do this day after day. There are easier and more profitable ways to earn a living. Fortunately, there are professionals who are inspired to teach young people.

From discussions and my reading, I suggest:

* Extend the school day to include after-class activities in a safe, secure environment. Sports, music, study hall, the learning of new skills would supplement formal classroom activities.

* Establish health and disease prevention services at schools along with counseling and social services. Each school becomes a full-service, community center.

* Develop elective summer programs to blend instruction with day-camp activities.

* Assure competitive salaries and safe environments to retain current faculty and to attract bright students in all disciplines to careers in teaching.

* Bus elected officials to visit every school in their jurisdiction to learn firsthand the needs of teachers and students.

Except for the latter, these programs would require substantial, financial investment, which translates either into higher taxes or shifting funds from other areas such as military spending. President Franklin Roosevelt defined taxes as “the dues that we pay for the privilege of living in an organized society.”

We can choose to invest in our students and our nation’s future or we can continue to discard too many young people into bleak, nonproductive futures.

My 12 years of public school education were directed by talented, demanding, underpaid teachers who were highly regarded by their communities and to whom I am forever indebted.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at Cleaveland1000@comcast.net

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