Band-aid ignores greater illness afflicting schools

Published 11:09 am Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When it comes to raising an academic bar required to participate in extracurricular activities, there will surely be some youngsters who will become better motivated to achieve academically — but also those who will lose the many benefits derived from extracurricular participation and who will perform no better academically, whether now or in the future.

Arbitrarily raising such a bar in this way is akin to placing a bandage on a bleeding patient, when instead a physician should be involved in an analysis of the source of the problem and correcting that before applying the bandage (if a bandage is still needed).

It is easy to understand why we want to slap bandages on our patient. For one thing, we love our patient, and we are passionate about our patient’s welfare now and for the future. More important, we have physicians all over the place, but for some reason we are not hearing from them, and for all we know they are trying to perform surgery with one arm tied behind them. So in our helpless frustration, we are trying to fill the void and do something — anything — that can help the patient (while making potentially flawed assumptions about the physicians). Thus our effort to apply the GPA/sports bandage is laudable, but there is ever so much more beneath the surface that needs emergency care.

Our education system is hemorrhaging internally (as are many across the nation), and what is needed to begin to know how to correct the problem is to analyze what is happening at the source, in the front lines, in the trenches. In my view, there is too much blatant disrespect of teachers. There is too much disrespect of fellow students. There is insufficient support for teachers who try to enforce rules, and some of them quit trying.

For too many students there is no value placed on academic achievement, and peer pressure is accordingly applied to other students while teachers have little opportunity to address such problems. There is constant pressure upon teachers to lower behavioral and academic standards as teachers face resistance at every turn (resistance to work, to honorable achievement and to civil behaviors, including common courtesy) from students, from some parents and even sometimes from administrators. Administrators and especially teachers are overwhelmed more often than not and are reduced to trying to put out only the biggest fires — even those not so well. Misbehavior is prevalent and has an astonishingly detrimental effect on academic progress. These kinds of realities — every day, day-in and day-out — demotivate teachers, distract students and in a quite significant way reduce academic progress that would otherwise be possible.

Why don’t teachers speak out? Is it because they have been punished for doing so, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly? Some have expressed concerns but get little support (sometimes no response at all) from administrators, so they simply give up. Teachers without tenure sometimes fear for their jobs if they report too many problems, as that might indicate that they cannot control their students (talk about a Catch-22). And they are discouraged from reporting problems “up the line” to higher administration or to the school board; even instances involving assault, drugs and theft tend to be kept quiet.

The bottom line is that many teachers feel trapped in their rooms with a constant stream of problems and no hope that they will ever be addressed in a meaningful way.

One would think that at the schools there would be staff meetings totally focused on student discipline and motivation and that projects would be launched to garner support from parents, the school administration, churches and the whole community to address a problem that without a doubt is one of (if not the) most detrimental force against academic achievement in our schools. Instead of waiting for fearful teachers to step up to speak at school board meetings or write letters to the editor, why don’t school board members or school system administrators invite teachers into a risk-free environment for expansive, meaningful dialogue about what is truly needed to raise academic performance?

And because many schools have a dysfunctional organizational style, the first order of business — before the first serious meeting is held at a given school — must be to receive professional organizational development training focused on conflict resolution, effective communications, team-building, trust-building, leadership, interpersonal effectiveness, participative management and the like.

We all want the same thing. But if we do not unleash our teachers (the ultimate education physicians) and discover the unfortunate truths about education today, there will be no hope for meaningful progress.