Tuesday, January 10, 2006


There are days when I'm glad I chose writing as a profession and not, say, teaching school children. As a writer, I have solitude as a constant companion during work hours, with only that fickle lady, my muse, to deal with. But even she can be wooed with fresh coffee. But look at what public school teachers have to deal with. I'm thinking specifically of a recent incident at a Clarksville middle school where a teacher laid a hand on a student's arm to prevent him from leaving the class without his permission.

The incident became big because the student's mother chose to make it so. A complaint was made, charges were filed, because "strong force" she said had been applied on her son. And so it came about that a hand on an arm became tantamount to assault, and a teacher, 34-year unblemished teaching record notwithstanding, received a reprimand and the incident became front-page news at the local daily.

I sometimes wonder how public school teachers find the will and motivation to continue doing their jobs. You have to hope that most of them, or at least some, found their way into this, one of the "noble" professions, for the right reasons: to make a difference, mold impressionable minds, impart education, be a catalyst in at least some students' lives. And you wonder how long it took for them to feel deflated by some of the realities of their job.

Look at what is on their plate: A low starting salary and a continuing one that is hardly commensurate to their qualifications or the work they do; a society that expects miracles from them; raw material to work with that is diverse in every way imaginable — diverse in terms of ethnic and religious background, and diverse in terms of socio-economic background — kids who come from low-income, unsupervised households; kids from middle-class households who are unsupervised because their parents are too busy; kids from the other end of the spectrum — from households with high-strung parents who over-manage and over-schedule their kids' lives.
And let's not forget the federal standards that ask teachers, in effect, to put all these different kids onto the education assembly line and produce products with a decent education. If you ask me, teachers ought to be paid a king's ransom.

But I haven't yet come to that category of Obnoxious Parents, a category that needs a couple of paragraphs, and can't be dismissed in a sentence or two. Apparently, there is a new breed of parents that has sprung up in recent years; a breed that has taken parental involvement to new heights, that sees their child being always in the right and school authorities in the wrong, and that is combative and confrontational with teachers.

Time magazine carried a report on this trend last year, and asked teachers to name the hardest challenge they faced in their jobs. The answer was not limited resources or standardized tests or unruly students but dealing with parents, which is saying something.

As a parent of two school-going children, I know the difficulties. You want to stay involved in your child's school and life because the times demand it. For an increasing number of parents, however, it seems to have gone from simple, lower-case parental involvement to bold-type, upper-case PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT, often to the detriment of the child.

Part of being a columnist is to be negative, and I don't want to be unduly that. I know that there are fine teachers in every school district and motivated students and moments of quiet glory when things click together marvelously. But when members of the public sit around and tut-tut about public school education, as we sometimes do, we would do well to remember that schools can only be as good or bad as the societies around them, and reflect, in a way, what goes on outside — parenting styles, attitudes toward education, the after-school hours kids spend on multiple media sources thus hampering their education, and much, much more.

Public school teachers can't tread on water, but we sometimes expect them to do just that.

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