Business Casual: Teachers Rule

It’s easy to understand the appeal of being a teacher – opening minds and hearts to the world of literature or science or music or history, helping students learn and discover what is special and valuable in themselves.

But it’s harder to understand the appeal of being a teacher in a school system where teaching takes a backseat to so-called test preparation, to form-filling-out, to busywork handed down from on high, to trying to make one size fit all – whether it actually does or not. The demands on teachers’ time and psyches and stamina some days must be overwhelming.

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating episode and the school board governance issues in Clayton and DeKalb served, among other things, to highlight some of the pressures on teachers that have little to do with actual teaching.

Especially in the Atlanta system, the culture of raising test scores apparently at any cost was not exactly conducive to learning. How hard must it have been to try and interest students in “Macbeth” or the Magna Carta or solving for X when it seemed that all that really mattered to the administration was whether the system was turning out good little test takers.

Clearly, filling in the right boxes on standardized tests was more important than understanding the universality of Shakespearean tragedy or the foundation of American democracy or the symmetry of algebraic equations.

Yet everybody has had the benefit of a teacher who made a difference – someone who took the time to find something in you that was singular, worth encouraging – and loved doing it. Just as everybody has almost certainly had a teacher who was going through the motions, marking time until the end of class, the end of the school year, the end of a career.

Those “bad apples” notwithstanding, I happen to think that teachers – the good ones – are the answer to many of the questions and problems plaguing schools. And that any effort to involve them rather than simply hand them more rules should be applauded.

Because I am a born optimist – not always a blessing – I am finding reasons to be a little bit hopeful.

This year’s state budget included $514.3 million for local school systems to mitigate some of the effects of budget cuts in previous years; funds can be used to increase teacher salaries, eliminate furlough days and increase instructional days.

And there seems to be a burgeoning realization that cookie cutters are not the best educational tools around.

In the next year, Georgia school systems will be making decisions about their structure, based on legislation born of a realization that flexibility has a place in education.

One of the options available to school districts is charter system status, in which every school is run like a charter school to give the system not just flexibility but freedom from some across-the-board rules and regulations.

Other options are status quo and a sort of in-between status, opting for an “Investing in Education” partnership, which retains more central control than a charter system. Gwinnett County has chosen this option.

Some 19 systems have already become charter systems, including those in Barrow, White, Putnam and Fulton counties, as well as Marietta and Decatur city schools. DeKalb County is pursuing charter system status.

The idea of individual charter schools is highly charged. Supporters say they allow much-needed autonomy to structure the schools and their offerings. Opponents worry that they siphon off resources from schools that don’t have the parental energy and clout that is helpful to get charters up and running. A system-wide implementation of charter schools, however, could help level the playing field and spread the advantages more equitably.

Whatever the specifics of changes that come about as a result of school systems rethinking the way they run their schools, the input of the boots-on-the-ground teachers is essential.

There is no shortage of measures and tests and evaluations available to identify good teachers, but the truth is in any given school, everyone knows who they are – the principal, the students, the other teachers.

So seek them out, involve them, relieve them of time-consuming collateral responsibilities so they can focus on their students. Give them support, resources, trust – and a raise.

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