Not long ago the School Board held a series of teacher listening sessions allowing the rank and file teachers to voice their opinions on any subject without Administration or union interference. Sessions were held at Lincoln High, the Rapids Area Middle School, Mead and Howe elementary schools.
Each school had their own set of unique issues, but they also expressed common consistent topics. The universal issues captured the most attention and desire to find solutions.
Uncertainty was the dominant issue. Professional anxiety about their careers, uncertainty about their futures was a major concern. Most teachers enjoy what they are doing, and some are very passionate. They didn’t choose teaching for the “big bucks,” however, it is a career that is generally chosen for its consistency and predictability. You entered the field, did your job well, put in your time and could look forward to a great pension, and some good benefits. After all, who ever heard of a teacher being laid off?
Things have changed; we have a community whose major employer is in bankruptcy, a history of population exodus, shrinking student enrollment, an increase in poverty and loss of jobs with mill closures. Technology and foreign competition have lowered the demand for paper.
The School District has had to take dramatic action to respond to the current climate. Teacher layoffs and attrition have had an influence on morale. Teachers also cannot plan for the future, the comfort of consistency and predictability has been erased. Teaching is no longer a sure thing. The board is going to have to reestablish credibility with regards to staffing, to keep its educators. With President Barack Obama’s No Child Left Behind Waiver provisions looming on the horizon this will be no easy task.
Another theme was the disintegration of the family unit. The dysfunctional family problem takes on many variations. The key seems to be that this is something that is out of the teacher’s control, but affects the teacher’s ability to perform in the classroom. Here’s the list of possible causes; drugs, alcohol, physical abuse, technology, poverty, joblessness, divorce, homelessness — I’ll let you plug in the others. It only takes one child to disrupt a classroom. At Howe, several of the teachers were comparing notes on how many times per week they were being hit, bit, kicked and spit upon by their students (now folks, this is not normal).
Also, you have kids who are not sleeping well, not eating, not living under the same roof two nights in a row, or worse, living out of a car. Compounding this are years of excessive rules and regulations (such as having to be politically correct all the time) that have eroded teacher control, respect, and authority in the classroom. How does a teacher teach a child who hasn’t eaten or slept, been abused, and lives in a dysfunctional environment?
It’s the parent’s responsibility to present their child to the education system socially and intellectually prepared to learn. Failure of the family unit is not the teacher’s fault, and often it’s too late for the school system to repair. Some of these kids are so bad that the teachers refer to them as feral children. Lack of teacher respect by students and their parents, and classroom safety are also features of this issue. We have to remember that the vast majority of students are good kids, however, there appears to be a significant number of problematic students, which affect the teacher’s classroom performance.
The reputation of teacher’s in the community needs to be repaired. The Capitol demonstrations that occurred during the Act 10 deliberations, although well intentioned at the time, evolved into civil disobedience, and to some, crossed the line, to vandalism. The net result is that the long term effects of the Capitol demonstrations have backfired into a PR problem between teachers, parents, and the community. Not everyone supports the behavior that occurred in Madison, and the teachers would like the School Board to implement a solution that would repair its tarnished perception with the community. It’s funny how the Law of Unintended Consequences works.
With back to school approaching it will be interesting to see how well your School Board has listened, and what solutions they implement.
Jim Scott is a Grand Rapids resident