Sunday, March 20, 2016

Kate Could Tell You What Educators Do

What do America’s frontline educators really do? It’s a question you might not normally need to ask. But in recent years the trend has been to reduce everything they’re supposed to do to what can be “measured” with a simple standardized test.

A or B or C or D?

What do educators do?

This question came to mind again when Kate, a teacher friend of mine, posted a message on Facebook last week:

Today has been a very difficult day... I mentioned the other day my student was murdered on Friday morning. Well today one of his very best friends found me to let me know how I had influenced his life. She told me that this young man would comment with "well Mrs. Blanton said" all the time. I have felt heartbroken for his family and friends but find peace in knowing I was part of his life. As I write this tonight I think about all the times over the past few weeks I have questioned my chosen profession. I have asked myself if this was a career I could sustain. It's things like this that remind me no matter what anyone has to say or what anyone thinks of my relationships with students I do make a difference to these kids. They are my kids and will always be my kids. Keep that in mind when you judge what others do!!

Sadly, I don’t believe our politicians or education “experts” really understand what educators like Kate try to do. I don’t think the bureaucrats who compile test data have the whisper of a clue.

I know my colleagues, John and Bruce turned out excellent musicians by the score during their careers. I can’t toot a kazoo, myself, but I used to marvel at the sound they coaxed from their bands.

I know my wife, a speech therapist, spent a year working with a second grader who had never spoken in school—finally convincing the boy he could speak and that it was safe if he did.

I know Coach Mike taught kids in five or six sports to win with grit and determination and also taught proper skills and technique. I know his wife Janet did the same.

I know Mrs. P. taught kids to run hard during cross country meets and not just to remember the three branches of government and their duties. Although she also taught them that.

I know my friend, Mr. S., a history teacher, stayed after school every Friday and ran a guitar club for free.

I know what real educators DO.

I happen to be Facebook “friends” with more than a thousand former students. I know what they tell me teachers like Mr. P. did. Kelly, one of those former students, told me once Mr. P. “taught him what it meant to be a man.” (Measure that with an A, B, C, D test if you can.) I know what Ms. W. and Ms. P. and Ms. R. and Mrs. L. did. I know what Jennifer and Mandy and Paul and Calvin and many of my other old students, now teachers themselves, try to do. I know, as they now understand, that working with all kinds of kids is a complex and daunting business.

Kate knows this too.

I could list two or three thousand former students—Allie, Natalie and Natalie, Eric, David and Joel, filling pages—who were easy to work with and fun to teach.

Yet, I also know all kinds of kids enter the classrooms of this great land and I know some are much harder to save or to help. Monday, I know teachers will be back at it again, doing their best to help kids whose mothers and fathers drink far too much. I know counselors will try to figure out what to do to protect kids they suspect (and will later learn for sure) are being molested outside of school. I know principals and assistant principals will try to sort out the mess when youngsters with serious problems come to school high on various drugs. I know what kind of battles school psychologists and school nurses will fight every day of the week —to save kids.

I worked with principals like Mr. L and Mrs. B., who put in long hours in an effort to save every teen. I know how draining it is to do what good educators like Kate and my old bosses did.

I know Mrs. T. once helped cut a third grader’s hair, after he came to school with random tufts sticking out all over his head. His drug-addled mother had taken clippers to his head the night before and tried to shave a design.

So Mrs. T. had to help the embarrassed nine-year-old out.

Like Kate, and everyone else who has every spent time in a real classroom working with real kids, I know what educators try to do. But I don’t know some of the worst, because I worked in an affluent school. I know in tougher parts of this country there are educators at work trying to tamp down gang violence that spills into school hallways from the streets. I know in some places, where poverty is rampant, that counselors try as hard as they possibly can to show teens there is a path—however narrow and twisted it might appear—that can lead to college and success.

I know in poor neighborhoods that schools often provide reduced cost lunch—and increasingly breakfast, too—for children whose families are in need.

I know there’s no standardized test to measure the impact of warm scrambled eggs and toast.

I know there are teachers who have bled and died to shield students at Chardon High and Sandy Hook.

I admit I worked with some “bums” during my career in the schools. I know not every educator does what he or she should do. But I know dedicated men and women predominate in every school. I know millions pour blood, sweat and tears into their work, day in, day out.

I know tears are as elemental as pen, paper and books.

I know Rachel, who works with special needs children at my old school, never sits during the day to rest. I know it’s impossible to do her job right and dare take a break. I once watched Officer B., our school resource officer who cared about kids, too, spend time each morning for a week to show a child with severe disabilities how to twist a doorknob and open a classroom door.

I wish I could go on and on and list all the examples I saw during my own teaching career. I used to stand in the hall at my school and marvel at the artwork posted on bulletin boards by Bethany’s and Diane’s art students. They were teaching teens to do self-portraits in black and white.

And I was amazed by the work these teachers elicited from teens.

I know Ken, a former student, told me at lunch not long ago about getting into a summer camp—because of his shop teacher, Mr. B.—and how ten weeks spent in in the far north of Minnesota changed the arc of his life.

That’s what educators do. They change the entire arc of young lives—and you can’t “measure” that.

I taught for three decades, myself. So I can predict what will happen Monday in America’s schools. I know a kindergarten teacher in Kansas will step in to help a six-year-old who has wet his pants. I know a fifth grade teacher in Arizona will protect a girl who is bullied by peers. I know an eighth grade teacher in Massachusetts, like Mr. S. at my old school, will counsel a pregnant 14-year-old and help her see a positive path forward in life. I know an Oregon school psychologist will talk to a suicidal eleventh grader and help a boy step back from a precipice off which no one wants him to step. I know a dedicated Florida counselor, like my old friend Joe, will talk to a seventh grade boy about bringing up his grades—about using his talent and becoming a success. I know not every student will listen; but I know others will.

I know Jeane will be hard at work from the moment she arrives at school till the moment she leaves again for home, teaching seventh graders proper rules of grammar and the tricks and the trade of syntax—so that they learn how to write with greater clarity and skill.

I remember Mrs. H., who did the same for me when I was in seventh grade… half a century ago.

I have already mentioned many excellent teachers in my book. (Cheri and Trish and Steve and others know who they are.) I always wish I could mention hundreds more. I know Mrs. Z., just down the hall from my room, and Mrs. B., and Mrs. D., in the lower grades of my old district’s schools, turned kids on to reading, turned them into lifelong readers. I watched Mrs. A.’s class in action one day, after I retired. I saw her third graders present findings on Martin Luther King Jr. and dozens of other American heroes, during Black History Month.

I know all of us who have worked in the schools can feel in our hearts what Kate tried to do, understand how she set out to help one young man, how she feels the tragic loss of a valuable young voice. 

Unlike those who so easily criticize teachers today—and there are too many to count or to stomach—we know what kind of effort Kate must have put into her job, the kind of supreme efforts millions of educators will devote to their work Monday and every other day of the year.

The young man who so respected Kate, who liked to quote what she said, could tell you what educators do if only he could speak. 
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1 comment:

  1. Great article. I personally appreciate the particular aside: those who so easily criticize teachers --- AND THERE ARE TOO MANY TO COUNT OR TO STOMACH.... :)