A sobering reality has become the “new normal”: Members of a once revered profession now often hesitate as they attempt to fulfill their basic duties. Teachers at large are not only facing criticism from state and federal governments, but also from parents, the media, and society.
There were about 90,000 fewer teachers in training in 2012 than in 2008. This statistic should be alarming to those of us currently working in the field of education, because it means that as experienced educators retire or leave the profession, we will be left with fewer qualified individuals available to take on the challenging role of teacher and/or administrator.
The culture of American public education has evolved over the past 13 years, and the blame game has emerged as a primary issue. Parents and communities have been known to blame schools and teachers almost entirely for the subpar academic performance of American students, often with no regard for their varying socioeconomic, cultural, familial, and educational backgrounds. In short, public education has become the proverbial whipping boy for all of the failures of society to produce children who are educated at a level comparable to that of Asian countries (some of which “weed out” students, sending only the best and brightest on to pursue secondary education).
It appears that with the current standardized testing mindset in this country, the public seeks to blame educators for the disparity that occurs when student A, whose parents are both college-educated and focused on her instruction from preschool through high school, scores at the advanced level while student B, who has never met his father and has grown up in poverty and attended five different schools over the course of seven years, scores at the below-basic level. In a society that prides itself on fairness and equality, why are schools and teachers held solely responsible for the academic success or failure of students? Schools have a responsibility to educate all students, but not all students walk through the door having been dealt the same cards.
As a nation, we need to step back and take a serious look at why our students are performing at lower levels and realize that education begins in the home at the earliest stages of life. If children are raised within an unstructured and consequence-free environment, this lack of accountability will infiltrate our classrooms and stifle our ability to develop competent leaders for the future.
Perhaps the better questions are: Why are negative behaviors in schools increasing and test scores decreasing? What responsibilities are we expecting teachers to carry out that were not formerly placed upon their shoulders? What are the issues facing today’s students, and by extension, their teachers? Are any of these factors being taken into account by the states who are demanding more accountability or by parents who are finding fault with the system?
While it seems that the stakes continue to rise both for our students and their teachers, the expectations for the amount of parent involvement and engagement, and the government’s understanding of any of these details, are being lessened. In a bygone era, parents supported the schools and the teachers, viewing them as an extension of their parental authority, hence the concept known as in loco parentis. If a child misbehaved in school, not only did that child receive consequences from the school administration, but he/she incurred further discipline at home. Today it seems as though parents often question the schools and teachers when a child misbehaves. Additionally, they seemingly expect the schools to “fix” their children or “cure” them of their problems.
The Case of Ben Fields
Consider the recent case of Ben Fields, a South Carolina school resource officer who was fired as a result of removing a 16-year-old female student from her desk after the student had been asked to leave the classroom by a teacher, school administrator, and Officer Fields. The student involved in the incident had violated South Carolina’s “Disrupting School” law by using her cellphone during class.
The underlying questions in the case of Officer Fields are: Where are this student’s parents? Are they engaged in her life? Is she held responsible for any of her actions either in school or outside of school? It seems that in an ideal world, the parents would support the school in the decision that was made to remove their daughter from the classroom and back the school by prohibiting the girl from having a cellphone and by imposing restrictions within the home. Alarmingly, this appears to be yet another case in which the historical authority of school administrators and teachers to maintain order within the classroom has been thwarted in the name of “student rights.” What about the rights to an education free of disruptions for all of the other students in that classroom? Who is their advocate?
These are serious questions. They represent a manner of thinking that is unpopular and often swept under the proverbial rug in our present society; however, they must be asked. If the United States is ever to reach a level of academic performance comparable to the perceived success of Asian countries, the sanctity and seriousness of education must not simply be brushed aside. Although we would never personally advocate such a practice in this country, Singapore, which has one of the most superior educational systems in the world, still employs intensive corporal punishment for student misbehavior. Education there is taken seriously and viewed as a privilege as opposed to a right.
Sense of Entitlement
Our educational performance in the United States will never improve until we begin to place less emphasis on the prevailing sense of entitlement that has invaded our society (and subsequently our classrooms), and more emphasis on celebrating the values of personal responsibility, family, and hard work in school and careers.
Schools represent a microcosm of society, with policies and rules to govern their operations and the actions of the students within their walls. If students choose to defy authority and violate the rules repeatedly and without remorse, the logical consequence is removal from the educational setting until they become willing to comply. Sadly, schools are becoming a dumping ground for a generation of families (not an all-inclusive statement) who do not value education, who feel that they and their children are entitled to any number of privileges without contributing anything in exchange for them, and who believe they know better than those who have been trained and certified in the art of teaching.
Attack on Physics Teacher
Consider the case of the ninth-grade student at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, NJ, who attacked his 62-year-old physics teacher while other students ignored the incident entirely and/or walked out of the room. If you watch the video, you will see a teacher who did not even attempt to defend himself. Educators are clearly so fearful of losing their jobs and licenses that they believe the only option is to allow themselves to be taken advantage of, beaten down, and disrespected. Had this teacher retaliated, he likely would have been criticized for doing so, or worse yet, had his teaching license revoked. Stories like this have become all too common; we must do whatever is necessary to prevent this from becoming the norm in our schools.
In many American schools today, there are students who, in many cases, may have no heat or running water at home, have little, if any, food to eat, and have limited or no adult supervision. They may be bouncing between different adults and/or friends of the family who are abused in any variety of ways, and the list goes on and on, unfortunately. As a result, teachers and school officials are stepping up to the plate in the place of parents and families and taking on more roles than they had previously. Educators are tasked with being the parent and the counselor in addition to raising the standards in their classrooms and improving test scores. It is a heroic feat in and of itself when our teachers get through the week while keeping students actively engaged in the lessons, safe, and fed, while meeting their other needs. In many cases, school is the safest place for our students. It is where they know they will be warm and have food and be cared for on a daily basis. If there is one thing we have found throughout our years in education, it is the fact that while we look forward to holiday breaks and summer vacation, many of our students dread those times the most because the stability that school provides for them vanishes.
Students depend on educators for much more than academics, as they see that they are valued and cared for when they are in school. Parents and government officials have repeatedly called for more accountability for educators, demanding more and more “proof” that educators truly are teaching children. Unfortunately, the meaning of the word “education” has been lost throughout the past decade or so. Society has forgotten what education truly means; it is more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The moral compass of our society has been shattered, and the educational system is floundering in the aftermath. As a society, we must come together to restore American public education to the powerhouse that not only put a man on the moon, but developed thinkers like Steve Jobs who put the moon into the palm of our hand.
Jeff Keeling is the principal at Commodore Perry High School and Michelle Young is the principal at Commodore Perry Elementary School in Hadley, PA.