The Plight of Education

     I was privileged to be a professional classroom teacher for fifteen years. I can say without fear of controversy that it was the most fulfilling, frustrating, rewarding, disappointing, exciting, boring, challenging, easiest job I ever had. That’s quite a mouth full if you consider my profile and notice I have had a more than a few jobs.
     I got into education quite by chance. My family moved from Casper, Wyoming, back to our home town of Baytown, Texas, in 1991 after the passing of my father. For several years prior to that time, I had been in auto sales as the general sales manager of a Honda dealership. After nearly twelve years, I was pretty well exhausted from the stress of the auto industry and its instability. Dealers live from one monthly statement of profits to the next, and the carnage becomes very evident very fast when business starts to slip. At one dealership after the best sales year the store had ever had, I was honored in January as being the greatest thing since sliced bread to happen to the dealership….and in March I was fired because… “Well, February was pretty slow, and you ARE the sales manager!”
     After one particularly dreadful day of attempting to sell a car, I was absentmindedly reading the Houston Chronicle employment ads (which most car salesmen read daily), and an advertisement popped out at me:

“Ever thought about a teaching career?
Do you have a college degree?
Call the Pasadena ISD for information!”

     Having a college degree and possessing the incentive that only desperation can produce, I called the PISD office. And the rest, as they say, is history, as it launched my teaching career which continued until I reached the magic age of retirement and….well, that’s another story.
     The rest of this treatise will be a few observations I have made about the educational process. The conclusions I have drawn are not based on any scientific empirical study, but simply the result of my reactions and thoughts while experiencing various events and actions. These events and actions usually swirled around what I term (depending on my attitude at the time) the “Unholy Troika” or the “Holy Trinity.” That is to say, schools generally require an uneasy cooperation between administrators, teachers, and parents. These groups are the three legs of the stool, so to speak, and as such, a meaningful effort toward success is required from all three “legs” for the school itself to see any progress in the product it produces…namely, successful students. Let’s look at each of these groups with a jaundiced, albeit opinionated, eye of practicality.

     Let me put it to you at bluntly as I can. There are many, many adults today who have proven they are biologically capable of creating a child, but, having done so, do not have a clue as to how to be parents. In the defense of parents today, however, I must also add that theirs is not the first generation to lose their parenting skills. The decline of parenting skills began in the early sixties when noted child psychologist, Benjamin Spock, wrote his infamous child rearing guidebook advocating a hands off approach to child discipline and letting a child “express him/herself.” Spock had perfect timing, since his book correlated with the Vietnam War and the reactions against it and the ensuing drug use explosion that occurred either because of or in spite of the war. An acceptance of drugs which began as a California phenomenon quickly spread as more young people sought “expression.”
     These young people invariably grew older, and as they begin to create a new generation, their philosophy of less controlled parenting begat a new group of young people who were even less inclined to establish boundaries of control than their free-thinking parents. At that time we began to see another phenomenon, parents who not only would not condemn their children in the event of anti-social conduct, they would actively defend their children’s right to break generally accepted levels of behavior. The upshot of all this is that no longer can a school administrator or teacher depend on the support of a parent when a situation calls for the discipline of a child. The parent has become the defense attorney for the child, challenging any form of discipline from the school. It makes no difference to the parent whether the child was guilty of breaking a school rule or committing a moral or legal violation.
     Case in point: A few years ago our school had a book sale to raise money for some project. Students were shopping the many books lying about the room and paying for them as they left. One third grade girl who had her backpack proceeded to surreptitiously stuff books in her backpack to the tune of $200.00 in value. As she walked out of the room, she was stopped. She denied having any books in her backpack, and it was obvious that she was attempting to get the books without paying. She was taken to the office, and her father was called. He arrived in a few minutes and met with the principal and his daughter. The principal explained the problem. The father offered to pay for the books to settle the situation. The principal, however, said that there needed to be some sort of disciplinary action for the attempted theft. The father at that time became very upset and could not understand why the principal wanted to discipline his daughter for theft when he, after all, had offered to pay for the books. Did this child learn that thievery was wrong? No, she learned she could get away with it.
     It is not always a careless parent. Sometimes because both parents work or a single parent works extra hours to stay afloat financially, children are shunted from babysitter to caretaker while the parents are away. Often the extra working was not always defensible. In our school we had students who qualified for free breakfast and lunch, yet their parents dropped them off each morning while driving new, expensive vehicles. Parents are now expecting teachers to teach their children basic interactive behavior. Once when I called a parent and explained the behavior problems her child was having, the parent said simply, “Well, he’s your problem during the day!”
     I know this all sounds like a blanket condemnation of parents, but it isn’t meant to be. There are still parents who value their children’s proper behavior and successful education. But I will defend the proposition that the percentage of parents who embrace parenthood will all its responsibilities is rapidly declining. And this conclusion applies to any ethnicity or economic level. I taught at one school which was predominantly upper middle class and another in which 90 percent of the students qualified for free breakfasts and lunches. The observations remain the same.

     Administrators in any other profession would be called managers, but “administrator” has a bit more clout to it, and more than anything else in education, sometimes image is more important than substance. In education, administrators can be divided into two groups; those who are based actually within the school buildings, such as principals and assistants, and those who are based in some remote office building and operate with titles such as “director” or “superintendent.” The actual chain of command is very military-like with your lower officers (principals, etc.) being actually in combat on the front lines and your upper echelon officers (directors and superintendents) being far behind the front lines and not as sensitive to the needs at the front.
     Principals (I will refer to in-school administrators as “front line” administrators) are caught between two loyalties: a desire to serve the upper echelon with its daily stream of policy changes, orders, directives, budget changes, and instructions, and a desire to keep the troops (teachers) happy and make sure that his/her area of concern on the front line of education is well organized and reaching its objective. However, because the front line administrator usually operates with one eye toward promotion within a group of competitive administrators, his/her peer/adversaries are surreptitiously observed for any signs of unfair advantage or unusual successes. Seeking any kind of education advantage (and assuming the budget allows it) the front line administrator is an easy target for the one group of people in education who could teach grizzled, old, high-powered, used car salesmen a thing or two about sales. I’m talking about those who are called educational specialists or educational marketers. These are people who have cooked up an instructional strategy which seems to work, created material and a marketing strategy for the idea, and then hustled with the admirable skills of a snake oil salesman every front line administrator in a thousand mile radius. Armed with glowing testimonials about the amazing results of using their product, they waylay unsuspecting front line administrators with images of skyrocketing school results on mandated tests, and the administrators take the bait like a trout takes a fly…with the same results. “Bold new concepts of teaching” come down the pike every year, and each August administrators announce a new “initiative” that guarantees fantastic results. It is very akin to the fashion industry…last year’s bright idea is now passé, and this year’s idea is now in fashion. And just like in fashion, it is an incredible waste of time and money.
     Speaking of money, the educational industry is no different from any other major corporation which operates on an annual budget. Given a selected amount of funds to make it through year, woe be it to any administrator to show financial creativity and finish the year under budget. “Use it or lose it” is the modus operandi when it comes to school finances. You would think that upper echelon administrators would remember an economic fact that has been present since the first cave man traded a big rock for a small diamond…consumers respond to financial incentives. Example: should a front line manager spend less than his budget for the year, he should receive a commensurate financial reward. The concept, unfortunately, of financial incentives for superior performance is still embryonic in education.      Lastly, in regard to administrators, I will refer back to a term I mentioned when I first started discussing administration…image. Case in point: The district from which I retired (and I loved my district) painted a dark, bleak picture of our financial situation for the approaching year of 2009-2010. It cut staff, reduced teacher numbers, and promised the worst may be yet to come. All the while the upper echelon administrative staff ballooned ever larger in number with assistants to every conceivable director and assistants to every assistant. The district spent thousands of dollars creating more and more sophisticated computer programs. In every classroom in the district, the goal was to have a computer video projector and “smart” board (an interactive blackboard) at the costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars. New, spacious schools were built which rival luxury hotels in decorum and style. All these things were wonderful….but they were not necessary for high student achievement and especially not necessary during a time of economic downturn when the district was actually laying off staff. But the fancy gingerbread was good for image.

     Ah, yes, teachers! The troops who are on the front lines of educational combat! Caught between an ever-growing (at least perceived) enemy (society) and ever-more-demanding commanders (administrators,) teachers are being pressured to the point that today only one in five teachers lasts more than five years in the profession. Educated, idealistic, and dreaming of a classroom of happy, learning children supported by loving parents and assisted by nurturing administrators, the new teacher is jarred to reality with the effects of a cold shower by undisciplined children, defensive parents, and distracted administrators. Society has trained our children for failure. Television and movies have made a mockery of any family or social values; video games encourage violence and disrespect for authority; broken homes, remarriages, cohabitations, and separations destroy the foundation of family bonding so critical to a young person. The internet, an incredible educational resource, can become, without parental guidance, a limitless resource of antisocial behavior.
     Students enter school with no stable foundation, and the teacher becomes the surrogate parent with the responsibility to teach, not just reading, writing, and arithmetic, but social behavior and interactions. Teachers are challenged with keeping students focused on learning for an entire eight hour day when many students have difficulty staying focused on anything more than ten minutes. Teachers have been forced to become song and dance entertainers to hold the students’ attention.      And yet, somehow through all the distractions, skillful teachers pull it off and are able to drag their reticent, resisting students through the year’s educational objectives and prepare them for the year ahead. Teaching is not, although it may seem that I described it so, an impossible task. It does, however, require a level of commitment that is not found in many professions. And therein lies the problem for the future. Teachers during their early formative years, just like any other social group, experience many of the negative effects of society that I described above. Many are entering the profession with an eye on a steady income and three months off in the summer and are lacking the increasingly high level of dedication required to be successful in the classroom. I offer myself as an example, only because I am representative of most teachers who entered the profession fifteen or more years ago. In those early years, my eight hour work day usually stretched to 11-12 hours, plus research for lessons on weekends. I was constantly taking instructional classes to improve my teaching skills. I did not mind the investment in time because I wanted to be a skilled, professional teacher.
     Many new teachers of today resent being required to do any extracurricular training or activity. When forced (in their minds) to do so, their resentment spills over into a lack of improvement in their teaching skills. Because they were undisciplined in their own childhoods, they have difficulty maintaining discipline in their classrooms and disciplining themselves to stay focused on the educational objectives and administrative requirements. Following a simple teacher dress code becomes a perceived violation of personal civil rights. With less success in the classroom, their frustrations grow, and before long, they are gone.
     But just when even a dedicated teacher is ready to throw in the towel and call it quits, something happens that makes you decide to stay on a little longer. Three months ago, in May as the school year was winding down, I received two phone calls from former students. The students lived in different cities and did not know each other, but both had the same message. I had been their teacher years ago, and I was the best teacher they had ever had (perhaps a biased opinion from a very limited number of my former students.) Both invited me to come to their high school graduation ceremonies and sit with their families. I remembered the students clearly, and also I remembered their parents were loving, involved, and supportive of our school and me. I was truly touched, and it left me with a another warm memory.  Though conflicted with internal discord and external influences, the education profession will survive primarily due to the efforts of men and women who have paid the price for success and committed for the long term. Perhaps in the future society will recoil from an era of disastrous social upheaval and provide for our children the stability and social bonding they so desperately need. I was privileged to teach in a district which I felt held the needs of the children in high regard. Its administrators were honorable and dedicated, and my fellow teachers were the finest in the land. The memories from my teaching career will never fade. It was my finest hour.