So much has been said about how invaluable teachers are in people's lives, but a recent quote from U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige says it pretty well and is worth repeating in part here:
"Most of us can remember a favorite teacher. President Bush loved teachers so much that he married one. I had two favorite teachers: my parents. By day, they taught other children in Monticello, Mississippi. But on nights and weekends, they taught my sisters, brothers and me. Books filled our house and so did love ... Their example inspired me to become a teacher as well. And it was while working in the classroom that I discovered the truth in the words of World War II General of the Army Omar Bradley when he said: 'The teacher is the real soldier of democracy. Others can defend it, but only he can make it work.' Very few people have the influence over our lives that teachers do. And that is why the President, Congress, and I are determined to meet the goal of a quality teacher in every classroom by 2006."
For all the respect teachers are given today, theirs, however, is not a profession given to rose-colored glasses. There are problems galore in our public schools, including several major concerns expressed by teachers themselves about their roles and responsibilities. We as a community need to understand and address these and other concerns if we are to be effective partners with teachers in making sure every student in our schools has every opportunity to succeed.
A recent survey by The Business Roundtable for Education of 2,000 K-12 teachers in San Diego identified the top five major worries teachers have about the conditions they face every day in their classrooms. By no means is this list inclusive, but the following factors critically influence the quality of teaching and learning taking place in our schools today.
1. Standards-based teaching and high-stakes testing replacing quality education. Advocates of the state's performance and content standards and the standardized tests that assess the extent to which students are meeting those standards would argue that standards and testing, in fact, do assure quality education. However, the concern many teachers and others have is that standards can be inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of some students and that the state standardized test does not reflect true learning nor the standards in which they teach.
Not all students are equipped to learn at the same level or within the same time period. Yet our standardized testing system presumes students do or should attain to specific levels of academic achievement.
Teachers in this survey are concerned that there could be too much emphasis on "teaching to the test" while ignoring other things that contribute to a quality education. It appears teachers as they address the issues of teaching the standards are struggling with the balance between teaching the standards as a checklist for academic achievement and what they truly believe in their hearts makes for a quality educated person.
2. Lack of time to teach and plan. Given the many responsibilities teachers have outside their classroom, many say they don't have the time they need to plan their lessons or even to teach effectively. Despite all the rhetoric about academic achievement, the fact is that many teachers continue to be saddled with collateral duties at their schools teacher committees, staff development, playground supervision, advising student clubs and organizations, and the like. All worthwhile to be sure, but these activities are not factored into the standardized testing scores that determine the fate of a school and its teaching staff.
3. Campus safety for themselves as well as their students. This factor would have been conspicuous by its absence with the rash of school violence in recent years. Now, the specter of terrorism must be added to the campus safety question along with disturbed students who, until now, have been the perpetrators of campus shootings. Our communities face both internal and external threats to public safety and schools are becoming increasingly dangerous places. Teachers realize that schools are but microcosms of the surrounding communities they serve. Little wonder this issue made the list.
4. Lack of morality and integrity issues that students bring to school. Increasing numbers of young people today are not being grounded in morality and character development and it shows. Tolerance, respect for authority and other people as well as how to resolve problems peacefully and civilly are skills and traits lacking in many young people. This, predictably, creates major discipline problems for teachers and site administrators who are having to deal with inappropriate behavior in far too many instances. The homes of many children are at times dysfunctional living environments that provide little, if any, supportive training. As a result, teachers not only must be instructional leaders, but the primary or sole molder of their students' character as well. It is a daunting challenge, to say the least.
5. Students not being as prepared as they could be when they leave my classroom. Far too many students have been and continue to be promoted to the next grade without having mastered even the basics of the course materials of the previous grade. For the teachers inheriting these ill-prepared students, it poses additional stresses on all concerned the lagging student, teacher, and even his or her classmates. Teachers are concerned by the lack of intervention learning resources available in their schools. Many suggest that the "one-size-fits-all" approach that a standards-based curriculum requires continues to be responsible for a large number of students who don' t respond and therefore are shunted upward to the next grade, to become somebody else's concern.
To be sure, the characteristics of today's society makes teaching far more challenging than in the days Secretary Paige and his parents taught school. So many outside factors impact what takes place or doesn't in the classrooms.
We as a community highly esteem the role and work of teachers. It makes sense, then, to listen closely and take into consideration what those on the front line of learning are telling us.
Their future and ours depend on it. I'm taking notes. You should, too.
Hovenic, Ed.D, is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.