Saturday, March 27, 2010

Back to the basics in the classroom

When I was a student many years ago, teachers were allowed to teach, and students knew why they attended school: to learn. We were not seat warmers and trouble makers. Sure there were kids who did not want to sit all day and learn. They were disruptive and sassed teachers just to see how much they could get away with without taking a trip to the principal's office where they were quickly dealt with.

If a student was absent from school the parent knew the next day or same day. Teachers were not afraid of students. Parents did not threaten teachers. The majority of parents wanted to know what their child or children were doing in school.

In the classroom we were taught the components of a complete sentence; how to read a sentence correctly, understanding the reason for punctuation and how to use it; how to write essays with a beginning, middle and end. My English teachers from elementary school, all the way through high school, were drill sergeants in dresses and heels. 

We read out loud in class, never to ourselves. Proper PE dress was a requirement. Getting on the gym floor wearing regular clothes instead of blue shorts, white blouse, white tennis and white socks meant a zero grade. Participation was another requirement. No sitting on the sideline. No excuses were acceptable. Math, socials studies, history and other subjects were taught just as vigorously. Not all of the teachers were ideal for the classroom, but students did manage to learn in their classes. Classroom progress was expected, and teachers were expected to deliver.

We were not taught to pass a test. We regularly took exams and quizzes, covering subjects we had been taught in prior weeks and months. I experienced this kind of teaching from elementary to high school. Remembering my teachers and their "take no prisoners" attitude followed me to the classroom every day. As a substitute teacher, I was not familiar with the lax style of teaching I see in the classrooms today.

I witnessed first hand how lax teachers, students, and principals have become. I had teachers leave instructions telling me I should not expect too much from certain students. I was shocked to see blackboards used for display. When I was a student the blackboard played an important role in the classroom.

I saw teachers sleeping in class. Students took charge, doing what they wanted. In some high schools boys played cards or dice, girls groomed each others hair, makeup and painted their nails. My sense of appropriate classroom decorum would not allow for that waste of time. Though I witnessed a lot of disturbing behavior, I also learned that students wanted to be challenged. When I challenged them academically, demanding respect in the classroom, they responded positively.

That is what the schools have to get back to: teaching and challenging students. But first, take-no-prisoners initiatives have to be put in place to weed out ineffective teachers and principals. New hires should be asked: “Are you willing to dedicate yourself to teaching and being effective? Do you want to this job because of the pay and benefits, or to make a difference?” I think the questions are important. Interviewees can lie but the lie or truth will manifest itself.

I remember a newly hired teacher taking a leave of absence to have surgery soon after her insurance kicked in. As it turned out, she was a poor teacher, who took lots of absences. The principal was not happy with her, but she could not fire her. She only took the teaching job so that she could get the surgery that she couldn't pay for out of pocket.

Teachers should be evaluated every six months, rather than yearly. Poor evaluations should lead to termination, or a severe warning to improve their skills. Union protection for poor teachers and principals have to stop for the sake of the students.

In addition to setting strict rules for teachers and students, parents have to do their share, given they are the key to their kid's learning and behavior at school. Parents must participate in their kid's education, making sure they are completing homework, demanding to see report cards, requesting periodic meetings with teachers.

Ultimately, students are responsible for their own education and behavior in the classroom. Students want structure and guidance. Many of them perform much better when they are taught at home to do their best. Home rewards and encouragement are extremely important. This would be an idea situation, but all too many students come from dysfunctional homes where the parent or parents have little to no interest in their education.

Unfortunately, the school system is forced to be parent, nurse who dispenses medications, counselor, adviser and disciplinarian. Many schools have become extensions of those dysfunctional homes. One solution does not fit all, but getting back to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, parent participation and a dedication to teaching is a good start.

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