Saturday, April 28, 2001

Buried by Paperwork

Guest column: Fads, paperwork bury teachers and students

By AL MARKISH, For The Capital
The writer, an Odenton resident, taught at Arundel High School.
Published April 22, 2001, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 2001 The Capital, Annapolis, Md

Retirement last June, after 31 years of teaching, has left me with a smile only a surgeon could remove. Why the joy, you ask?

It's simple: I've seen a job that is at best difficult and demanding gradually become a masochistic exercise. With no power to fix it, I've felt like Kafka's beetle, stuck hopelessly on my back.

I'm not alone. Most teachers I know express similar sentiments.

Everyone knows that you can't teach if no one is listening. Discipline in schools is abysmal.

Administrators argue that their use of progressive discipline -- a series of measured responses to recalcitrant conduct -- modifies undesirable behavior. In reality, it means that nothing of any consequence happens until the kid has drawn blood. While a paper trail of teacher referrals
documenting the child's misdeeds accumulates, the child continues to disrupt.

School reformers pontificate unendingly about raising standards. That's bull. If teachers set high standards and grade accordingly, large numbers of children fail -- and then the teachers' competence is questioned.

The basic problem is that many students won't study or do homework because they're too busy doing "real work" -- flipping burgers at McDonald's to pay for their cars.

(And why do they need cars, you might ask? So they can get to work, of course. You see, we've failed at teaching logic as well.)

But why worry? If they fail they can always take the class at night or summer school or with some other teacher who sets "fairer" standards. The last person blamed is the person most responsible -- the student himself.

Each year schools and teachers are asked to do more -- often with less. Drug and sex education, conflict resolution, technology training, mentoring troubled students -- the list goes on.

The mission to educate is being crushed by a tidal wave of tangential mandates that often have little bearing on whether Johnny can read and write.

What does matter is the amount of time teachers have to prepare to teach, to be creative, to plan with colleagues. Good teachers, like fine wines, need to mature. But it's a maturation process born out of thousands of hours of hard work and experience. The end result is great, but it takes time.

That time is being stolen by useless meetings, administrative duties, conferences and phone calls. Some of it is necessary; a lot of it is not. Responsibilities have changed; the number of hours in the day has not.

How can we prevent the system from collapsing under its own weight? If I were the education guru for the state, I would recommend that we:

End tenure for teachers as it currently exists. It breeds incompetence.

Recycle administrators. Every five years, we should put administrators back in the classroom for a limited stint of teaching.

Require that all observations of teachers be unannounced.

Give teachers a role in evaluating other teachers.

Reduce the role of administrators. Their primary responsibility should be enforcing school discipline.

Ensure that a pencil is in one hand, if a computer mouse is in the other. It's ludicrous to lavish computers on the schools when high school students can't read or write a sentence.

Redefine disability. Special treatment should be reserved for the truly disabled.

Give teachers input in evaluating administrators.

Streamline the bureaucracy. There are a lot of people in education who draw a paycheck and teach not a single child.

Cut teachers' clerical responsibilities.

Raise the standards for summer school and night school. Has anyone ever failed a summer school class?

Get behavior problems out of the schools. It shouldn't require a two-or three-year paper trail to rid the school of a student who spoils it for others.

Scrap the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. It's a waste of time and resources.

There are children in high schools who can't write a coherent sentence because they haven't been taught the rules of grammar or proper sentence structure. Effective writing has been sacrificed in the interest of creative writing. The mantra has been, "Make the child feel good about himself." It doesn't seem to matter that Johnny's essay is in Neanderthal-speak.

The same is true in mathematics. The focus is not on whether Johnny can make correct change, but on whether Johnny feels good about making correct change.

Good teaching is a fine art, not a science. It is a combination of intensive planning, experience, personality, pride in one's work, and character. It is a delicate balance of personalities, backgrounds and viewpoints.

Teaching is difficult to quantify or validate by test results, and it is often impacted by influences beyond the teacher's control. Many students do well in spite of poor teachers and badly despite great ones.

Under the right conditions the right people make it happen, but it's never easy. Teaching is an honorable profession and, like the people it serves, must be nurtured. I believe to do otherwise is to gamble with our children's future, not merely their academic eligibility.

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