In Support of Teachers

Good Teachers are golden!

Something's happened to education in the U.S. - and it's not good. As nearly everyone knows, our country has slipped in the ratings against other nations, badly. We used to be number one, or close to it, in most every category - but no longer.

What's happened? A lot of things. Lack of funding (including an out-dated reliance on property taxes that results in rich districts getting richer in terms of support for school and poor districts getting poorer); lay-offs and cutbacks in the number of teachers, schools and classes; larger class sizes (yes, that does make a difference); limits on curriculum (focusing on a few 'basic' tasks and eliminating or severely curtailing what are now termed 'luxuries,' even though a broad-based education is essential in any field; and excessive stress on test scores which, as it is turning out, neither prove that a specific teacher is 'good' or that a particular student is 'bad' (scores only tell how well a student learns/is taught regarding what's on a particular test.

The above points can all be debated and countered. What can't be denied is that a really good teacher is worth a whole lot more than we're paying at the moment. Cutting federal funds only leads to state and local lay-offs of teachers (someone in our own family being one of those persons).

When I think of great teachers, I think of my high school college prep instructor. She taught for eight years at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, but left that position (and tenure, I suspect) in order to return to her alma mater high school to teach. Why? Because, as she said, she was tired of dealing with college frosh who couldn't read or write well, and decided someone had to change that scenario. So, back to good old FHS came . . . let's call her Ms. Noteworthy.

The assignment I remember best in our senior English class was a term paper, not a long one - just 15 pages or so, with an outline. Ms. Noteworthy asked us to pick a topic, one we had an interest in, and write a theme sentence for the paper - which she then individually reviewed and approved. Then we were to produce an outline, based on her specifications. So I wrote a rough draft of an outline over the weekend and brought it in on Monday morning, prepared to present it and get to work on the paper itself.

One by one, Ms. Noteworthy called each of us in alphabetical order to her desk, where she looked over each outline. Most students did well; a few did not. I was one of them. When I approached her desk, without looking up from the book she was reading, she simply put out her hand. I placed the sheet with my outline in it, and she took a brief look and handed it back to me.

"Ms. Noteworthy" I said, "is it okay?" No answer, so I asked again. Still no answer, so I ventured a third try. That time she looked at me and said, "Go sit down and think about it. It will come to you." Then she went back to her reading. I sat down at my desk and stared at my theme sentence and the dozen or so points beneath it, and for perhaps ten minutes nothing clicked. Then, suddenly, it all came clear: I had written one word or phrase for each point in the outline, but an outline needed to be stated in complete sentences!

I corrected my work, showed it to Ms. Noteworthy again, received her approving nod and eventually got an 'A' on my paper and went on to get a lot more of them in college and graduate school.

Now, why did Ms. Noteworthy succeed as a great teacher in my opinion? Not because of standardized test scores, or emphasis on math and science (I nearly failed both), but because our school district thought well enough of her to pay her a living wage - and she had enough faith in her students to be tough, really tough - with high standards and expectations.

When I went to elementary school years before, we were supplied with paper and pencils, art materials and current textbooks. Now most schools can't afford to offer any of that, let alone pay teachers what they deserve if they are really, really good.

It's time we figured out a better way to fund all schools - public and private - and take some of the burden off parents and others (rather than depending on property tax increases, which nowadays routinely get voted down) by cooperative funding through federal, state and local sources. It's also time we found a way to identify truly good teachers (and those who have the potential to be good) and pay them what they deserve.

It's often said that children are the future of tomorrow. But that future will be dim for the U.S. unless we all pull together and equip our youth with the kind of quality education I know is possible.

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