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COMMENTARY: Why don’t we ask teachers how to improve education?

by Tribune News Service | August 5, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Once upon a time, the phrase "Teacher says" carried weight as authoritative, respected and worthy of heeding and repeating.

Classic movie lovers will remember it from "It's a Wonderful Life," when ZuZu Bailey tells George, "Look Daddy, teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings."

Teachers are in the news, and not just because it's back-to-school season. Resignations have been rampant the past few years, creating teacher shortages in thousands of schools across the country.

And even if they love their work and their kids too much to resign, large percentages of teachers still on the job feel disrespected, disillusioned and just plain burnt out.

A study of departing teachers from eight midwestern states found more than half (52 percent) said the No. 1 reason they were leaving the classroom was because of poor student behavior.

When insufficient pay was included as an ancillary factor, classroom behavior catapulted up to the main reason for three-quarters of leaving teachers.

In other words, well-paid teachers may have a higher tolerance for classroom incivility and disrespect, but for all teachers, that's a toxic ingredient, and for poorly paid ones, it's usually a coffin nail in their career.

One New York City teacher put it this way, and probably many peers can relate: "Remember when cursing out a teacher was a very big deal? Well, now it's just Tuesday."

It's also poisonous to learning for other students. In fact, disruptive behavior in class does the same thing it does in the office or the factory or the store or anywhere else: It impedes collective performance.

This truth isn't revelatory. Bad apples have been spoiling the bunch since before fairy-tale times, and the solution is as tried and true as it's always been. Teachers routinely handled it for centuries. It's only in recent times that "new age" thinking has turned topsy-turvy, so that the most important part of the equation isn't student learning but social metrics.

If statistical disparity shows up (and a skilled analyst can always skew numbers), then the issue shifts instantly from a student's misbehavior in a particular classroom to the district's overall reporting against some immaterial denominator, such as race.

Public education today is dominated by bureaucracies that are incapable of addressing and correcting the No. 1 problem of classroom student behavior.

In actuality, well-intentioned bureaucrats only make that problem worse.

It's no surprise that high-falutin', hare-brained notions of policies like "restorative justice" and "room clears" never rise up through the teacher-in-the-trenches ranks. Instead they're typically launched from lofty perches by people who have no idea (and no experience) when it comes to dealing with unruly students in a classroom setting.

Teachers know their students. And they know their students aren't stupid. Children, in fact, are among the most manipulative creatures on Earth, as any parent with several can attest.

Successfully guiding herds of youngsters toward learning goals is not a natural talent. It's a mastery, a practice, a profession; it's a study in perseverance and patience and incredibly purposeful thinking and performance.

But managing a classroom effectively requires teacher authority and autonomy. A learning environment requires discipline and civility. Right now, in far too many American classrooms, both are lacking.

To expect test scores and proficiency ratings to advance under such conditions is nothing short of lunacy. As trends are now indicating, to expect quality teachers to hang around under such conditions is crazy as well. Expecting solutions from the two agenda-driven education bureaucracies as things stand is a further exercise in insanity.

Teachers' unions take broad views on things like boosting pay scales and schedules for all teachers -- good ones and bad ones. That's an archaic approach that nobody in real-world economies understands or supports.

And state department directives are so system- and process-focused that individual students -- which is where all learning actually occurs -- dissolve into the spreadsheets and white papers. As a result, bureaucrats constantly micromanage, mismanage and misguide teacher activities in classrooms.

By all means, most teachers deserve a raise; some others may deserve the opportunity to excel elsewhere.

But what they all deserve even more is greater decision-making authority in their classrooms and increased input on school policies. One thing that routinely resonates in teacher survey responses is that schools are very different, but education policy always seeks uniformity.

This is where it's important to remember there were teachers in classrooms long before there were education systems and bureaucracies to oversee them.

The core of education is teaching and learning. The transactional aspect of teaching, the transfer of knowledge, is personal and relational.

The fact that it transpires in the classroom, if it's going to happen at all, should be the fundamental focal point of public schools. And rather than ask a department bureaucrat, or a consulting firm, or a president's administration how to improve classroom structure, behavior and learning for various schools and students, why not ask teachers what they say? An annual "Teacher Says" symposium inviting constructive ideas based on proven classroom tactics might do wonders.

One thing's for sure: Nobody knows real education better than a seasoned, successful teacher.

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro, Arkansas.

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