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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Everyday is judgement day in public schools

From Peace of Mind, by John Meeks

Every day is judgment day in our public schools. This sounds like hyperbole on my part, but there is a kernel of truth to what I am saying on behalf of educators who are responsible for shaping our future. 

At a time when administrators are being trained to nitpick teachers over the most minute of details, such as whether their students are in single-file line, paying perfect attention during lessons or are prepared for class, we overlook the items that fall outside of the rubric with which we judge and ultimately will decide how to pay the troops in the war against ignorance and poverty. 

It will never be reflected in the evaluations, observations, or feedback that I receive, but I wish to advocate for one seemingly small experience that I had in the classroom. It has to do with a student who came close to leaving Duval County Public Schools because he feared for his own safety. 

Once it came to my attention that this sixth-grade boy was being bullied on a regular basis by a classmate who appeared to be more interested in terrorizing than learning, I worked with administrators and counselors to help this victim overcome the challenge to his own education. 

I took the time to listen to the boy's parents as they expressed frustration with what they felt was the glacial pace of a system that had to maintain low disciplinary statistics and pressured its schools into under-reporting incidents for the sake of not losing face in the community. The unintended consequence was an atmosphere where the victims were fleeing for greener pastures such as private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling. The inmates, however, continued to run the asylum. Incidentally, the student who was doing the bullying ended up being arrested for assaulting another schoolmate with a knife later in the year. 

Because there was no metric or data to gauge efforts to cooperate with the boy's family and to listen to their concerns, it went overlooked. The state-mandated evaluation system focused more on the superficial aspects of what could be considered "poor" teaching on my part. For example, many teachers get low marks on their evaluations for petty points such as students talking about something other than their work during a lesson. Yes, off-task conversation may reflect negatively on a teacher's ability to keep the focus on the lesson, but we must never lose sight of the fact that there are indeed factors that even the most firm and focused pedagogy cannot deter. 

Do not get me wrong here: I did not seek to save a child from chronic bullying and harassment because I wanted to earn a medal or praise for what I was doing. I merely wanted to serve my fellow human being in a way that I would have expected to be helped if I had been a student in the same situation. 

On the last day of school before spring break last year, I stayed after work to grade the last of my papers and decided to have a brief meeting with the student's family on my way home from work. Even though I was off the clock, I knew that my vacation could wait until I handled what was a more important matter than packing my suitcases for a week down in Naples with my goddaughter and her family. 

I explained to the parent that I was willing to be his child's advocate and that I didn't mind being contacted at any hour, by email or telephone, to remedy their child's situation. After all, he wasn't just a source of funding for our school system; he was a talented young man who had the potential perhaps one day to play major league baseball, report on sports for the media or coach a team when he realized his bright future. 

The parents were grateful for the work that our school did on their behalf and they ultimately kept their son enrolled in Duval County Public Schools. They even left a message with my school, thanking us for the work we did for them. Somewhere along the line, the gratitude was ignored and lost in the maelstrom of criticism and stereotyping of rank-and-file teachers as being selfish, lazy bureaucrats who were only in the field of education to collect a paycheck and spend their summers off. 

Contrary to popular belief and demonizing, we teachers truly do care. We do what we do because we are giving back to the community that inspired us to answer a higher calling. We have teachers, coaches, administrators and counselors who believed in us and we believe that we can pay it forward. 

I should know, because I was a "late talker" in my younger years. My parents feared that I would be mute for the rest of my life. Thanks to speech therapy at W.E. Cherry Elementary School in Orange Park, I learned to become confident in verbally communicating what I had been thinking all along. I learned to express myself thanks to people who didn't give up on me. I, in return, cannot give up on the young people whom I serve every day. 

In my own junior high school years, I faced problems that I was able to solve with support from an educational community that helped this introvert learn how to make friends, in spite of losing so many peers to military relocations, and an educational community that helped me to overcome insecurity over my short stature in the shadow of peers who seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds over a child like me who seemed destined never to reach 5 feet tall. 

I understand that not all will appreciate with work that we do, because there will always be students who resist our attempts to help them grow academically. But, thanks to remediation, interventions and other methods, we are learning to serve every student who enters our schoolhouse doors. 

Bean-counters and micromanagers aside, I continue to soldier on because it is more than a profession for me; it's a moral duty that I must fulfill to justify my continued existence on this earth. It is an obligation that allows us to bear the slings and arrows of "reformers" who wish to visit upon us so-called improvements that are aimed more at punishing us than enriching us. It is something of which we should all be proud, because we keep going in spite of it all. 

This is why I continue to do what I do when it's not reflected in the judgment that we receive. The days when I have guest speakers, like the supervisor of elections, the state attorney and members of city council, are days that my former students remember. The times when we have international food days, mock elections and trips to New York are times on which my former students reflect fondly. The memories of students whose funerals I attended, and one where I served as pallbearer, are what I believe to be the true indicators of our dedication. 

Perhaps our friends in Tallahassee will never recognize our true value in our work, but I continue to teach not for them, but for the future. 

Meeks has been teaching social studies in Duval County since 2002. He is a 1998 graduate of the University of North Florida. 

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