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Parini: The Value Of Teachers

02/24/11 7:55AM By Jay Parini
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(HOST) Commentator Jay Parini has been watching the contest between Governor Scott Walker and the teachers of Wisconsin, and thinking about how we value our teachers in Vermont.

(PARINI) The trouble in Wisconsin, where teachers are furious about the governor's efforts to restrict their ability to negotiate the terms of their contracts, will certainly spread, even to Vermont

In fact we've recently seen antipathy toward the teaching profession in our own backyards, with teachers here and there subjected to hostility from their school board as well as members of the community.

I know quite a few teachers - my oldest son is an elementary school music teacher - and I've rarely seen such a group of devoted professionals.  I've had three kids go through the school system in Vermont - the last one is currently in high school in Middlebury.  Again, I've been consistently impressed by the dedication of teachers at all levels, from elementary grades through middle school and high school.

For almost a decade now teachers have been subjected to attacks by the federal government.  President Bush, famously, put in place the "No Child Left Behind" Act in 2002.  That law was driven by the notion that firm standards must be in place, and that teachers should be measured by the success of their students on these standardized tests.

This sounds pretty good, doesn't it?  But the devil lies in the details, as it always does.  This act encouraged teachers - the less good ones, I suspect - to "teach to the test" - thus focusing on a tiny subset of skills that might be on the test rather than trying to grow a broad understanding of the subject.

"No Child Left Behind" also didn't leave much room for those who might not be good students.  I often think of that line by Garrison Keillor, when he talks about Lake Woebegone - where all of the students are above average.   Students vary, and one must expect a large number to fall below average.  That's just statistics.  And teachers can't be blamed for average, or below average, students.  That's just too easy.

It's important to say bluntly that teachers are a precious resource.  They need encouragement, community support, and - most of all - respect.  And respect involves a sense of trust.  We trust these professionals with the emotional and intellectual lives of our children, and - overwhelmingly - they have earned this trust.

President Obama has noticed the flaws in No Child Left Behind, and made some effort to improve the existing system.  But there is still a punitive aura that hangs around these discussions.  Each student is an individual, with individual needs, a pattern of growth that is not tied in any fixed way to national standards.

What we require - in Vermont, as everywhere - is a community that values education and understands that it's a lifelong process.  Education begins at home, and it demands of us more love than skepticism and derision.  The ultimate goal for a student is not to score high on some national test but to come to terms with the world - its way and means - with deep respect for its complexity, with a belief in learning as a process that continues through life.
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