Making a difference

Published 12:28 pm Saturday, December 6, 2014

It seems like most of what I do has revolved around sports of late. Covering the start of the basketball season, writing features and trying to coordinate future coverage have all been on my mind in the office. Then when I go home, I watch basketball and football.

It’s all been good, though, and sports can even lead into other thoughts. The other day I was interviewing a student for a feature, and he talked fairly openly about his dissatisfaction with SOLs. It’s not because he doesn’t like the tests, it’s because of what it does to the teachers. They have to focus on that, sometimes to the exclusion of what’s really important, the students.

Rewind back to the beginning of the summer, the Virginia Board of Education came to Franklin to conduct a public hearing on the memorandum of understanding and corrective action plan. At that public hearing, one of the teachers got up to speak her mind to the board on behalf of many of the teachers who were afraid to speak.

This teacher, Michelle Barlow, said that we as a society really need to look at what we are doing with our educational system by constantly adding more tests, and then more tests on top of those.

It’s turned the education system into something of a streamlined factory system. And when a chink appears in the armor of the system, exposing it, the solution has often been to, well, add more tests.

But is it working, Barlow wondered. Even though the state has come to Franklin on multiple occasions in recent years, she said none of them have been able to adequately answer that question when she asked.

Now, I don’t know personally whether the system works or not. I’m not an expert here, and I don’t have an alternative. But I can tell that teachers are dissatisfied with the system.

The pressure and stress that this system have caused teachers, who are often not well compensated, has caused many of them to quit in many ways. One, literally, they will stop being teachers and seek jobs in other professions to make more money or have less pressure on them.

Then there are some teachers who come to a low-performing district because of the ‘privileges’ it grants them. They check in at 8 a.m., and check out at 3 p.m. They don’t take the time to care about the children, and they do just enough to avoid the wrath of leadership. The lesser the leader, the more they get away with. They get this experience, get their student loan forgiveness process started, and move on to another system — the children they had no further along than they had been.

This leaves the good teachers, who do care about the children, often in a position of having to fight an uphill battle both ways.

This brings me back to the student, Coby Williams, who said he wanted to become a teacher once he finishes with sports.

Many young men in area schools are lost, and they don’t always get the role models they need to help them figure it out.

The bad teachers won’t reach them because they don’t care. The good teachers may reach them, but they might also fall through the cracks because they have to spend too much time collecting data and administering more and more tests. With classroom sizes becoming what they are becoming due to budget cuts from localities and the state, it makes it even easier to fall through the cracks.

Making it more difficult for the young male student is the fact that majority of teachers are female, and the numbers are not even close. If you take away Physical Education teachers and coaches, that number shrinks even more.

I was reading something a colleague had written the other day. He had gone on to do Teach for America after college, and he found that many students, particularly male students, take more than five minutes to comprehend a few paragraphs of history. He wondered how they had reached the 11th grade without the ability to adequately understand what they read, and also if it was too late to help give them sufficient reading skills before they go off to college, while still making sure they pass — yes — the state mandated history test.

It’s a tough, systemic problem to solve that has to be done from pre-k all the way to graduation. One thing I know for sure though, is I salute the teachers, volunteers and administrators who truly care to try to solve it. And I salute the people who helped Williams get where he is to where he wants to come back and make a difference amongst students like himself.

He wants to be somebody, somebody who makes a difference, and I hope he will.

CAIN MADDEN is the managing editor of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at 562-3187 or at