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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Getting a Rhodes scholarship was easy compared to being a first year teacher in the Boston schools... Teaching little kids is hard work."... ...Jonathan Kozol, at Westfield State College's 157th Commencement.

Commentary of the Day - April 14, 2001:  I Swore I'd Never Say... Guest Commentary by Ihla Nation:

I swore I’d never utter, “When I was a kid…” and I made good on my oath through 18 years of child rearing.  But when I became a grandmother, the cultural chasm between then and now was the size of the social gap between kindergarten and college students.  And the dreaded phrase popped out one morning like a New Year's Eve champagne cork.  I knew it was coming, but I wasn't sure when or where it would land.   It was the third school day "off" that my grandchildren had in the two weeks following what seemed an already extended Christmas vacation.

"When I went to school, we actually had to be in school 180 days a year.  We didn't even get snow days unless it was a horrible blizzard that could be considered an act of God.  Teachers didn't get planning days when I was in school," I continued unable to control my tongue.  The promise that I kept for decades evaporated like water sizzling on a hot griddle.  I did manage to hold back the comment about how we had to attend school for a half day when there were parent-teacher conferences.  "If George Bush wants to reform education, why doesn't he see to it that the kids actually attend school?"  A conversation breaker is what my brother calls it -- a statement that kills dialogue.

How many hours of actual education are being lost to these extra days given for "planning" purposes?  Not to mention that I recently learned the kids were spending one whole day before break watching movies and doing other "fun" activities.  We had tests the day before break.  There I go again.

How did my first grade and favorite teacher, Mrs. Graham, manage without a school day or more a month to prepare to teach?  I was an almost straight-A student all the way through school, so somehow she got me off to a good start.  She gave me a lifelong love of learning that still sparkles long after completing my masters degree and all on lesson plans done in some invisible time zone that didn't require the students giving up actual education time.

The downward spiral of actual time spent in the classroom needs to be addressed.  Why doesn't the quality of education parallel the prosperity this country enjoys?  I was horrified recently when my third grade granddaughter told me they now get out of school at noon on Thursdays.  I asked if that meant she had to be there earlier, envisioning stacks of tardy slips with her sleep-until-9:30-and-take-45-minutes-to-pack-her-backpack rhythm.  "No," she responded.  When I tried to ascertain the reason for this additional freedom, her understanding was the teachers need more time.  "More time for what" was the thought that oozed through my brain, "another three hours for kids to spend in front of the television, pasted to the play station, or hanging out in boredom?"

I believe teachers today have a difficult job.  Cultural and social problems permeate the classroom.  They are nurses, mothers, social workers, mediators and psychologists as well as educators.  Many have to buy supplies from their own pockets.  For this we should all feel shame.  But does guilt over our unwillingness to solve these problems or to provide teachers with the support and resources they need cause us to ignore some basic facts?  What effect is time away from the classroom having on our children's education?  Certainly we need better student-teacher ratios, a textbook for each child in every subject, safe classrooms, access to appropriate technology--things that cost money.  But how much learning is being lost in these seemingly innocuous "work" days, this slippery slope of eroded time, schools are giving children today?

We need to make the profession of teaching as attractive as technology as a career choice.  Then there would be enough teachers to rotate planning days and not take educational time away from the students while allowing teachers the time they need to adequately prepare to teach our children.

I'm sure my grandchildren prefer the days off, though they may soon wish they had more time in school now that the previously forbidden utterance “When I was a kid…” has opened a cavern of repressed commentary.  My tongue was swollen from biting back comments when I learned that the 5-day spring break we used to have is now a full ten days.

But just the other day when the 13-year-old wanted a ride four blocks to the school because it was cold out, I heard myself say, "I remember walking to school in 18-below-zero weather…."  There is just no going back!
©2001 Ihla Nation.
Ihla Nation is a freelance writer from Colorado.  She holds a BA in social work and an MA in religious studies (eastern religions).

The Irascible Professor agrees wholeheartedly with Ms. Nation's observations, except perhaps that bit about walking to school in 18-below-zero weather.  In his day it was uphill both ways!

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.