Wednesday, October 1, 2008

[LCSD] Parents and professional educators

Spurred by the statements made by parents in the last several weeks, this post of LT's and the comments, I had small realization just now:

Parents, welcome to the world of professional educators.

Let me expand on this a bit: Where I appear to differ from some of the folks involved in this debate, I think, is that I am willing to assume (and in some cases know) that many of the teachers, administrators and other educational professionals are doing everything they can to educate students in the Lebanon Community School District. Yes, there will be exceptions, but they are exceptions and not the rule for a reason.

Teaching doesn't pay that well. No, seriously: For a minimum of five years of college and two degrees (Bachelors and M.A.T. in Oregon), there are much better-paying jobs that have shorter hours and less stress. In other words, teachers are not in it for the money. Ergo, there is some other reason people go into teaching (bearing in mind that most upper-level administrators start either in teaching or at least in education as well). I would suggest that it's because almost to a person, professional educators are in it because they genuinely want to see students succeed. Hell, even as a sub I got a thrill when I saw students master something, or figure something out that had previously eluded them. It seems to me that those moments are one of the thing teachers live for. (And yes, the fact that I got excited when students learned probably means I wouldn't totally suck as a teacher. Probably.)

What that means, to me, is that professional educators are doing the best they can under the circumstances. (See, of course, Tim Helland and Mark Martens for two good examples. I can think of others, but I'll save the name-dropping for some other time.)

And what circumstances are those? Well, this is where my realization intersects with LT"s recent posts on the math situation, Mark Martens' experience with progress reports, and a long-standing belief of mine about modern American culture: Basically, students at the HS level are exposed to a myriad of influences, among them parents, other family, friends, teachers, (perhaps) church and the media (broadly construed to include at least television and the Internet). Not all of those influences weigh equally as teens age; I'd suggest that peers and the media become more important, with parents and church often becoming less important. Combine that with the fact that one's peers and the media are not the influences talking about the importance of education, and it becomes easier to see what kind of environment teachers are working in. And this doesn't even account for what happens when one's parents are not wholly supportive of their child's education. I'm lucky in this regard - the support (and expectations, natch) of my parents never wavered. I know others are not so lucky.

In other words, the environment in which teens in particular are existing and learning is very different than it used to be. And this difference is, in some ways, not good for education. But it's the reality that professional educators are living with.

(And as a side note, just to get it out of the way: A blanket call to go back in time is delusional. It's not happening. A more nuanced call to revitalize certain elements I might listen to, but the mythical 1950s are never coming back. Period.)

The thing is, many, many professional educators see that changed reality (and whatever else you think about Robinson, it's clear to me that he sees the changes and is trying to do something about them). They see the changes. They've read the research. They've learned new methods of teaching to try and work in this new environment (what do you think the TOSAs are doing?). But it's clearly not working in some areas - like math, and not just at LHS, but statewide.

The point, though, is that they're trying. They've always been trying. They'll continue to try, because that's part of why they went into teaching. And, as in every other profession, they'll continue to occasionally fail, because it's hard damn work, and they're working in an insanely difficulty environment, and no one's perfect. And on top of that, there are real and legitimate disagreements regarding the best way to educate students in the 21st century. There is no consensus about the best course forward.

(As another aside, I've been saying for some time that one of the downsides of how things have played out and are continuing to play out in Lebanon is that the real issue - how to change education to deal with a globalized, 21st-century, Internet-laden world - is not being addressed. I think this might slowly be changing, and that it mirrors the last several years of national politics, strangely.)

So, if it seems like things are FUBARED on the HS math front in Lebanon right now, in some ways, yeah, they are. But don't assume it's for lack of effort on the part of teachers or administrators - and, more importantly, don't think it will be simple to find solutions. At the least, we know this is a statewide problem, and we can assume that people all over the state have been working on it for years, not just the LCSD. And as the saying goes (even if I am just making it up): There is always someone smarter than you working on this problem, and if it hasn't been solved yet, what makes you think it will be so easy?

Does that in any way mean parents shouldn't be involved? Of course not - if there's one thing that's clear, it's that parents should be more involved (though I will note that the nature of that involvement is left open to debate). But what it also means is that I think parents need to come to the table with the assumption that the professional educators in Lebanon are doing the best they can. Please note that this does include the possibility that 'the best they can' may not be good enough to produce results, or good enough for parents, or good enough for administrators, or all three (and, therefore, how that leaves the door open for professional accountability). Personally, I think an American culture that doesn't value education is a HUGE and negative influence on learning these days, and that simply going back in time is not a realistic solution. But in any case, it's not fair to teachers to fail to recognize the effort they put in, and in a lot of the comments I've seen made about the math situation, that lack of acknowledgment is exactly what I see. I know were I a teacher, it would not be going over well with me.

So, to wrap up a long post: Parents, if you are frustrated by the state of things, and by how it's proving difficult* to fix things, how do you think teachers feel? Do you think they blow it off? That they don't worry about this? Of course they do - and they'll do their entire careers. Acknowledging that they are trained professionals, and that this is an incredibly complex situation, while simultaneously knowing that parents have an important role to play, seems like a good idea from here. Lebanon's getting an ugly introduction to how hard the field of education can be to work in**, and so far, it seems like plenty of folks are not reacting that well.

*Neither this sentence, nor anything in the whole post, should be construed as suggesting that it's not OK to work with or replace teachers who are failing to do an adequate job, however defined. But it's also a lot more complex than 'their students are failing, therefore they are a bad teacher'.

**To be fair, I also want to point out that there are undoubtedly other things going on here - Finch's apparent unwillingness to communicate being one of them. So I'm not trying to suggest I've identified Everything That's Wrong With Lebanon. Rather, I wanted to try and get one aspect that I think has been under-discussed.


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