The Good Apples

Georgia Trend Editor Susan Percy

If I didn’t know any teachers personally and hadn’t come into contact with some pretty terrific ones, I might be tempted to write them all off as a bunch of slackers and whiners – as too many self-styled education critics do.

Sure, there are some who are inept or lazy; but it seems to me that teachers, more than any other occupational group I can think of, are too often judged by the few bad apples rather than the bushels of good ones. Genuinely dedicated teachers are held up as the exception rather than the rule.

There is a lot in the public education system that needs fixing, but too many “fixers” take the easy way out. They zero in on the most visible targets and conclude that whatever is going wrong must be the fault of the teachers. Not the school system, the school leadership, the limited resources, the overcrowding, or the ever-lengthening “to-do” lists handed out to teachers.

Take any pressing societal problem – real or perceived; odds are, at some point, someone is going to decide that public school classrooms are the place to turn for a remedy.

Why can’t public schools teach good manners, good eating habits, good penmanship, good citizenship, driver’s ed, respect for the Constitution, environmental responsibility? What about more computer instruction, more physical education? Surely teachers can find time to cover financial responsibility, job-hunting skills, personal hygiene, effective birth control – oops, not that. But do let them teach a history of the Bible to satisfy those who are still pouting about evolution, and by all means make sure they tailor health classes so the information they give out won’t offend anyone.

Even under the best of circumstances, teaching is hard. It’s not widget-processing – teachers deal with living, breathing children, some of whom come with the heavy baggage of poverty, family problems, learning disabilities, language difficulties. It’s surprising that so many bright, talented people continue to seek out the profession.

In his fine memoir Teacher Man, writer Frank McCourt describes his elation at learning that he was going to be a teacher: “Oh, Lord. Oh, God. What would my family say? A teacher. The word will go around Limerick. Did you hear about Frankie McCourt? Jaysus, he’s a teacher over there in America.”

McCourt did indeed become a teacher and spent 30 years in New York City high school classrooms, drawing some of the roughest assignments and, eventually, teaching in one of the city’s top schools. Even when he was dealing with bright, well-behaved Ivy League-bound students, it could be all-consuming. “At the end of a school day you leave with a head filled with adolescent noises, their worries, their dreams. They follow you to dinner, to the movies, to the bathroom, to the bed.”

He recalls reading student papers about family problems and wondering whether he should intervene: “I’m not a social worker or a therapist. Is this a cry for help or another teenage fantasy?”

He remembers grim assignments like cafeteria duty, hall patrol, bathroom checks. His daily lot, like that of any teacher’s, was a mix of the mundane and the profound. Forgotten lunch money one minute, an adolescent meltdown the next. In-between, some actual teaching.

A big part of my regard for teachers comes from a couple of teaching stints of my own. For two years, right out of college, I taught seventh and eighth grade English at a parochial school in New Orleans.

The best thing I had going for me was youthful energy and a conviction that I could guide my young charges through the intricacies of grammar and punctuation and instill in them an abiding love of literature. All without breaking a sweat. Not surprisingly, somewhere between compound-complex sentences and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I came to the realization that teaching is not as easy as it looks.

Education is the issue Georgians are most anxious to have their state government address, according to a recent Peach State Poll undertaken by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. This concern cuts across all segments of the population.

I hope our leaders will look very hard at the problems that undermine our education system; and I hope they will come up with effective solutions rather than resorting to a smokescreen of teacher-bashing. The stakes are too high to risk alienating the people who can be the most effective agents of change.

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