The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It's not."...  ...Dr. Suess.

Commentary of the Day - July 15, 2010:  Who Should Care?   Guest commentary by Mark Alton.

I recently read with interest a mother's commentary that was published in our local newspaper.  The piece, "When Teachers Show They Care," complimented a particular public school teacher who was having a major impact on her son's success in school.

It was good that the public was again reminded about the valuable job teachers perform, albeit increasingly under more difficult and challenging conditions.  And, we in the profession should always remember the power that we do have to affect the lives of our students.

But the title of the piece concerns me.  Is it necessary for teachers to work harder and spend more of their own personal time in order to "prove" that they truly care about their students?   Is this an unspoken assumption held by the public?   Would this teacher be an "uncaring" teacher if he had not necessarily been able or willing to meet each and every week outside of class to help this child, but simply did his very professional best in class to meet the needs of his students?  I think not.

There seems to be a general assumption that the number one person who needs to "care" in the education process is the teacher.  I believe that most teachers do care about what they do, and how they provide instruction in their classes.  And, they do care about the academic success of the students that they teach.  Most teachers I know work overtime in an attempt to help their students.  The teacher, however, isn't necessarily the most important person who needs to care.

Ultimately in my view, the primary person who needs to care is the student.  He or she needs to care enough to get a good night's sleep prior to a school day, needs to care enough to come everyday to school, needs to care enough that he or she values an education for what it will do for his or her future, needs to care enough to behave respectfully and responsibly in class, needs to care enough to pay close attention to instruction, and needs to care enough to actually do the schoolwork assigned; because, education is an active process requiring the actual involvement of each student.

I quote teacher Phillip Brown of San Francisco who wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, (May 9, 2010)  "…about students failing … the two main causes are… (though it's) not politically correct to mention them, but they are still true.  I'm talking about the responsibility of the parent to help the student learn and the responsibility of the student to learn.  The most brilliant instructor in the world can present information, knowledge and content to the student, but that brilliant instructor cannot make the student learn.  That is the student's responsibility.  Education is a contract between the teacher and the student, and the student's job is to learn.  It's the old saying, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.  It is the same with education.  Knowledge can be presented to the student.  Once that is done, the student needs to do the work that results in learning."

Unfortunately, teachers today find too many students who don't care enough about school to obtain a quality education.  Many are easily distracted.  Some come to class tired from lack of sleep.  Many students are lazy and unmotivated.  Many make bad choices, including refusing to do their class work, much less doing homework, no matter how much their teacher warns them of the resulting consequences or tries to motivate them.  Many have "learned" (and we unintentionally "teach" them) that no matter what they do or don't do in elementary school, they will be promoted to the next level and a more difficult set of standards regardless of whether they have mastered the "essential" standards (that's what we call them in California) of the previous grade level.  So why do any work?  Hence, the great number of students failing courses in their freshman year in high school.  In addition, many students view school only as an opportunity to continually socialize rather than to be on task.  Many have a misguided sense of entitlement, or have been endlessly enabled.

While saying that, it is also unfortunate that not all students have parents who adequately support or are involved in their child's education.  Some children unfortunately must contend with a dysfunctional situation at home.  And this also is bad, because the next most important person in the educational process (one could argue the most important in practical terms) is the parent.  To be a parent is to be a teacher.  Overall, it doesn't matter most what teachers do -- what matters most is what parents do.  As some have noted, a great predictor of a child's academic success is the degree of parental involvement.

Parenting is a challenging job.  It is the parent who is charged with the task of raising a child properly.  It is the parent who really has the power of motivation, more so than the teacher.  Parents have the "carrot" to reward and the "stick" to punish their child in order to motivate him or her to do the right thing.  Classroom teachers really are limited in their power to provide motivation, yet I continually hear from many, even in the education establishment, that it is teachers who need to find a way to motivate students.

Like all students, it is inevitable that at some point that this mother's child who was struggling in class, who was able to do the work but who was not highly motivated, is going to come upon some new tasks in his class that he will find challenging.  He will need to pay attention, practice, ask questions, and get feedback from his teacher.  He will need to make an effort to do the work, and will need to have the fortitude to struggle, and to keep at it even if it is difficult.  Whatever his issues in school, he will need to focus on his improvement and overcome his propensity to become distracted.  He may have to work harder at this than other children.

Of course, children being who they are, this is more easily said than done.  But this attitude and work ethic needs to be promoted not only by teachers but by each child's parents from day one.  Ultimately, the road to success for our children will be made easier if they themselves are taught to value and care about their education, and if parents realize the instrumental role they play in making this happen in concert with the effort by the teacher in the classroom.

2010, Mark Alton.
Mark Alton recently retired after teaching high-school science and mathematics in northern California for 35 years.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP has a slightly different view.  He feels that, particularly in the elementary grades, effective learning ideally requires a partnership between the teacher, the student, and the parent or guardian.  And, that each person in the partnership has roughly equal importance.  If any one of the partners fails to do his or her part, learning suffers.  In reality, of course, the ideal is almost never met.  Students, parents, and teachers all have their strengths and weaknesses, and their limitations.  Limitations, which, as Mark Alton noted, today are exacerbated by economic pressures that affect both teachers and parents.  Funding problems are leading to increased class sizes, which mean that teachers have less time for individual interaction with students in their classes, and less time available to help struggling students outside of regular class hours.  Likewise, parents must struggle harder just to make ends meet, leaving less time for them to work on motivating and channeling their children's energies towards their schoolwork.  Nevertheless, those parents, teachers, and students who are willing to work together often can achieve a successful outcome.


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2010 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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