Commentary: The art of teaching

By Roger Barbee

With the proposed budgets for next year being discussed in public meetings, much has been said and written about the need for more monies for the school system. One part of that debate I wish to discuss is our teachers.

When I hear or read comments such as, “They make enough already and don’t have to work during the summer,” or “What’s their beef? They get all those holidays off,” I know that the speaker or writer has no understanding or grasp of what a teacher does. It seems to this writer that too many people, because they are parents, feel qualified to evaluate teachers. However, that is like me saying, “Hey, I live in a house so I am qualified to build one.” In my mind, the logic of these statements does not hold. I will use a few episodes I experienced this semester at a local, public high school to show some of the issues of being a teacher.

Imagine that you have been given the task of planting and raising a combination flower and vegetable garden. You are to plant and grow tomatoes, squash, hot peppers, green peppers, sunflowers, roses, and beans in your plot. As you plant, you notice that several of the plants are damaged or broken or diseased, but you have to plant what you are given. Your plot only gets two hours of sunlight a day, and there is no fertilizer to be used. Also, the surrounding area of your plot is full of honeysuckle and poison ivy, but you are prohibited from removing either. You will be evaluated on how much you produce, and 40 percent of your evaluation will come from the number of tomatoes you grow. How much could any person produce under these circumstances?

The teachers at the school where I am a substitute for the semester are teachers because they are interested in sharing knowledge and changing young lives through that knowledge. They are not perfect and will be the first to tell you that. However, the ones that I am close to work hard as public servants. Yet, they are like the imagined person given the gardening task mentioned above. As any person knows, it is next to impossible to grow most of the mentioned plants without plenty of sunlight, but so many teachers are given tasks like the one for the gardener. They also are expected to take, like the gardener, broken or damaged goods and produce a fine product.

Teacher teach as a way to share gained knowledge. However, in today’s public school, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on how his students perform on SOL testing. The teachers I communicate with are not in the classroom to teach the test, but so much of what is required of them is centered around the mandated tests. They are not opposed to testing, but want something with more rigor than 50 multiple guess questions.

Teachers are employees who are charged with implementing policies that they do not make. For example, a decision will be made on an administrative level that is referred to as a behavioral plan for an unruly student who, let’s say, is guilty of cursing at or in front of a teacher. The student is dealt with in some fashion, let’s imagine a three-day out-of- school suspension, and then allowed to return to the class where the offending behavior happened. All the teacher, an employee who needs the job, can do is the best he or she can with the revolving door of such behavioral plans. Yet, the teacher is not a teacher to be cursed, mocked, ignored, or disrespected in any manner, yet it happens all too often.

Teachers want academic study in their classrooms. They want students to arrive prepared and respectful of the quest for knowledge. Yes, they have classroom management skills, but too much time spent on correcting behavior means less time spent on academics. Too much time spent on preparation for mandated tests means less time spent on academics. Too much time spent having the telephone in classrooms ring is another interruption to academics. For the teachers I share with, their classroom is a place for learning and pursuit of knowledge, not a place for a student to mark time until enough credits are earned for a diploma. Teachers want their classroom to be a special place for students. Yet, they are employees with families who must follow policies that they had little or nothing to do with establishing.

I understand that readers of these words may have their unpleasant experiences with teachers — either as a student or a parent. I do not argue that because issues do come up. However, in my experience since January in one of our high schools, the teachers are given a Herculean task. They are given a task similar to the garden one mentioned earlier — one that is difficult if not impossible.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.