Letter to the editor of The Portland Observer
I was hoping that I could agree with Ron Herndon's comments (Parent's Corner, "Making Good Teachers, Principals," The Portland Observer, September 14, 2011) but one thing struck me as I read this statement "Remember, you can't become a licensed electrician unless you have been observed successfully wiring a house." I think the error here is that wiring a house and getting a human to read are not the same, not even close.
A house cannot refuse to be wired. However, a student can refuse to learn and can refuse (for many different reasons) to follow a teacher's instructions. This happens everyday in our schools. Teachers would like nothing more than to have all students reading at grade level but it is not as simple as wiring the students to do so.
Students bear the responsibility for their lack of reading prowess when they don't carry out the assignments, when they pay no attention in class and when they do not do their homework. We know that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make the horse drink. Same with a student. You can present the steps for learning any particular subject, but you cannot make the student follow those steps. A student has to want to learn more than any thing else before learning can take place.
Any student who is below grade level in any subject can take what they have learned and proceed to a higher level, and many do, even to the point of asking the teacher for assistance. But a teacher cannot make a student do anything. Schools that do not have a front office that backs up teachers with a detention room allow disruptive students to remain in the classroom, holding back students who want to learn. There is no way even the best trained teacher can force a student to step into the mainstream if the student has decided not to do so.
So what is the way out? Begin by giving students more choice in their course of study. There is no way a class of 30 students will all want to be on the same page, so individuals who don't want to take part must be given the responsibility of coming up with an acceptable alternative. If they don't, then the front office has to provide a place for that student to be out of the class so as not to disrupt students who do want to learn. This is true for reading, math, and all classes. It is pointless to blame teachers for the lack of student advancement. That is like blaming a doctor for having an overweight patient who ignores his advice and diet suggestions. The patient is at fault, not the doctor. In the schools, the students are at fault, not the teachers, for their own lack of learning.
Another statement made by Mr. Herndon lacks substantiation, and stands only as an assertion. He says "But the training provided to prospective teachers and principals is a disservice." I don't see the supporting evidence for this. The many teachers who guided student teachers from the local colleges would be surprised to hear they have done a bad job. It is not certain that blaming the teachers for poor student performance is justified. A teacher could get 100% success in any class where the students were attentive and tried to do the assignments. The teacher could then assist those who needed extra instruction. Give a teacher a class where students say "I want to learn," and the success rate would be overwhelming. No teacher can teach a student who does not want to learn and who also refuses to do the work and the practice.
Students in school today stand on the edge of the mainstream but are not ready to jump in. What will they need to succeed after high school? Basic math, English, reading and communication skills, for sure. But most of all they will need to know how to learn, how to find out what they do not know. One can't learn everything in school but if a student knows how to learn on his or her own then that student is ready for anything.
Jefferson H.S. Class of '59
Jefferson H.S. teacher 1964-1968
Adams H.S. teacher 1968-1972
North Paranoid Climbing School instructor 1972-1974