Teach the whole child

Published 12:26 pm Saturday, May 9, 2015

In several recent issues of The Tidewater News, there have been several news stories and opinion pieces regarding education, both in the public schools and our community college system. At times, readers may feel we go overboard in our coverage of educational issues. But I am of the opinion it is the single most important issue we are confronted with, both locally and nationwide, and is one that, until significant reforms are realized, we cannot discuss enough.

Two particular pieces come to mind that, while seemingly unrelated, actually expose a significant flaw in the way we are educating our children. First is the lead story in Wednesday’s edition (Employability skills, college readiness draw debate; Cain Madden) and the other is Mr. Madden’s column in Friday’s newspaper (Put the teachers in charge; Cain Madden). If you haven’t read them yet, go back and do so. The discussion about employable skills and the role teachers are forced to play in today’s test-scores-mean-everything environment are, in my opinion, directly connected.

During this past week’s town hall meeting at Paul D. Camp Community College, at which Virginia Community College System Chancellor Glenn Dubois met with local business leaders to discuss workforce training needs, several local business leaders mentioned that an alarming number of students today lack the “soft skills” necessary to be productive employees. Work ethic, interpersonal skills and basic communication skills were all mentioned as substantial deficiencies. As an employer myself, I wholeheartedly agree. I can’t even begin to describe the startling lack of basic professionalism displayed by the majority of individuals that have applied for work here in recent years. The simple ability to shake hands or maintain eye contact during basic introductory conversations is quickly becoming a lost art.

Why is this the case? Certainly, as a society we have devalued basic civility and common courtesies over the past two decades, in large part due to the proliferation of communicating by way of cell phones and text messaging and email. But I think it goes beyond that. When I was in school, I recall spending as much time listening to teachers talk to us about manners and mutual respect and appropriate behavior as I did math and history. Of course, I was likely the reason for many of the lectures. And they weren’t just paying those issues lip service, either. Soft skills weren’t just preached about, they were practiced. Failure to comply was no small matter, either. Students were dealt with just as harshly, if not more so, for a breach of etiquette as for failing to complete an assignment. Why? Because teachers knew they were responsible for educating the whole child and preparing them for life outside of school, and were given the flexibility and the freedom to do so. Fast forward to today, when teachers are mandated to adhere to strictly micromanaged lesson plans and are held professionally responsible for student results on a handful on standardized tests each spring. If I were a teacher, and my job depended almost entirely on my students performance on the Standards of Learning tests, I too would be hyper focused on Little Johnny’s ability to add by grouping instead of whether or not he looked me in the eye when I called upon him in class. This environment, unfortunately, does a tremendous disservice to both teacher and student. It diminishes the teacher’s ability to have the same lifelong impact on the type of people their students ultimately become, and it robs the students of vitally important life skills whose importance far outweigh their ability to perform algebraic equations or an adequate score on a fifth grade SOL.

There’s no questioning the fact that achieving minimum academic standards is important in the life of a child. But learning how to communicate in, and navigate through, an increasingly complicated world is arguably even more so. Giving teachers the time and, more importantly, the freedom to teach their students how to be successful people ought to trump the government’s need to develop an adequate measuring stick for teacher and student performance.

TONY CLARK is publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be contacted at 562-3187 or tony.clark@tidewaternews.com.