Everything Pedde

   S J Pedde Canada   S.J. Pedde

The Appearance of Doing Something Useful

Dear Zachary:

I am a ‘Community Representative’ of the School Council at a local elementary school, a position I volunteered for when there was a vacancy two years ago.  A requirement to be a community representative is that one does not have a child in attendance at that school.  Since you attend a French immersion school elsewhere, I qualify.

Yesterday evening, I spent several hours away from home attending one of the final meetings of the current school year.  

We try not to watch too much television in our home, but one standing ritual you and I have is that on Tuesday nights at 8:00PM, we watch together as a young, pre-Superman, Clark Kent vanquishes evil in a series called Smallville.  Yesterday, because I was away, you watched alone.

I missed being with you.  Nevertheless, I had a good time at the meeting.  Only half of the members showed up, so the atmosphere was less formal than usual and we each got to discuss things that were important to us.  Yet, after the meeting, I wondered to myself if I wouldn't have been better off, during the mandate of the last two Councils, simply staying at home and spending time with you.  There was, in general, a pervasive feeling of futility among the members of Council in attendance yesterday. Why were we all there?  Why were others who had committed themselves to the Council not there?  Why was there a School Council in the first place?  What did each of us expect to accomplish by being on Council? 

Get the picture?  Much of life is like that:  ‘Why, why, why?’

You know, Zachary, that I am a ‘people watcher.’  I am interested in how people deport themselves, in their levels of integrity and commitment, how they interact with others, whether they are a bit shy (like me) or brazen (like... oh, never mind) and what their motives might be.  My participation in the School Council, like that of each of the other members, was prompted by more than one motive, but I readily admit that the compelling reason, for me, was simple curiosity.

There are a number of reasons or motives why people might sacrifice one evening per month (on average,) during the school year, to attend meetings of the School Council.  One reason might be a feeling of civic duty, to contribute, in a general way, to something beyond one’s normal sphere of influence.  Another might be a parent’s wish to be involved, in a direct way, with the school that their children attend. Another might be to gain a reputation for ‘caring,’ perhaps as a stepping stone towards local politics or simply to develop a cachet of respectability in the larger community. 

Or, and here’s my cynicism at work, ‘taking on the system’ might be less daunting and frustrating than trying to change the behaviour and resultant poor performance of one’s children in that same system.  You know, blame the teacher, blame the principal, blame the school board, blame the government, anything but come to grips with the fact that your child has behavioural and learning problems.

Do any or all of the reasons apply to any of the members of the School Council in question?

Let me address that by saying that I find every member of our Council to be sincere and dedicated.  They each believe, for the most part,  that they truly have the ability to make a difference.  Whether that is a realistic belief, I can’t really say.  My suspicion is that school councils in general can’t accomplish much.  Why?  Because to achieve any significant change in the educational system would mean toppling a sacred cow or two and whilst doing so, locking horns with two intractable organizations -- the designated teachers union and the Ministry of Education.  To compound the problem, some unrealistic expectations of parents also have to be taken into consideration.

Let’s deal with these issues one-by one.

First, the teachers union.  I believe that in recent years the teachers unions have been hijacked by radicals who, in their quest for power, are acting in ways that are counter-productive to the interests of the average teacher.  Teachers are increasingly reviled because of numerous work interruptions and work-to-rule campaigns.  Parents have had enough.  In their eyes, teachers are overpaid, under-worked and pampered. 

Is this a fair characterization? 

If teachers were able to teach in an environment where pupils actually wanted to learn, would behave themselves, and where parents were supportive and co-operative, then I would say yes. 

What, realistically, is the teaching environment?

I have spoken to many teachers about this.  Your mom teaches and most of my friends from high school became teachers.  Most teachers (unfortunately, not all) I have known, love to teach, are competent, intelligent, conscientious, dedicated. Most of these same teachers feel burnt out and often have a sense of quiet desperation about them. Why?

The answer is complicated.  Teachers act in loco parentis during school hours.  Many teachers (in elementary schools) spend more time with the children they teach than do the parents.  Many parents are off in committee meetings, at charity functions or are trying to close that elusive business deal over drinks or dinner.  These parents have lost control of their children and have implicitly delegated the teaching of values and the exercise of discipline to the educational system.  That means the school. That means teachers.

But teachers can’t exercise discipline.  Do you know what happens if a teacher attempts to maintain order even by benign acts of assigning lines or having the child miss part of recess?  While there are still some parents who support attempts by educators to keep the children from being disruptive, many insist instead that the teacher is picking on the child, or worse. 

“Why, my Johnny can’t possibly be a problem in the classroom.  He’s a little angel.  If you dare give him another detention, or lines to write as punishment, I’ll complain to the Board of Education.”

Here’s an important insight:  Little Johnny is likely to have a lot of trouble, in years to come, as a result of the irresponsible coddling he is getting from his parents.  The real world metes out consequences for foolish actions.  When Johnny grows up and is disruptive at work, or doesn’t finish what he is being paid for, he is going to be fired. And it won’t be the teacher’s fault, the principal’s fault, the system’s fault, or anyone else’s fault but the parents.  

Am I being too harsh?  We’ll find out. 

At the beginning of every school year, I personally meet with your teacher.  I tell her (you haven’t had any male teachers yet) that we will support her in any disciplinary action she feels is necessary if you misbehave, don’t finish your homework, or generally cause problems in the classroom.  And I mean it.  If you get into trouble at school, you will be in twice as much trouble at home.

But isn’t there a chance that a teacher simply might not like you for some arbitrary reason, and pick on you as a consequence?  I suppose that there is such a chance, but is statistically minuscule.  Does it ever occur to parents that teachers and school administrators have better things to do than to find the time and energy to pick on individual students?  That if Johnny comes home complaining that he has had a detention, it just might be because he made it impossible for the teacher to teach the other twenty-seven children in the class?  Generally, where there is smoke, there is fire.  Things do not happen in a vacuum. 

Typically, life is a reactive affair.  Something happens and we react.  Johnny was a bad boy today, so he gets a detention.  Not, Johnny sat quietly at his desk, minding his own business, cheerfully doing next week’s homework and, for no reason at all, his teacher gives him a detention.  No.  It doesn’t usually happen that way.

Yes, there are bad teachers.  I’ve had a few, incompetent, sadistic, or both.  But that was back in the dark ages, the good old days of the 1950s and 1960s.  Since then, in an attempt to deal with these miscreants, the social engineers and educational administrators have, over the last several decades, made it impossible for any teacher to maintain control over unruly students.  

That brings us to where we are today.  I would suggest to teachers that they  get rid
of the radicals in their unions who try to compensate for their teaching frustration by asking for more and more money, more and more benefits and more and more time off.  Instead, offer to take a wage cut, in return for a sane teaching environment.  An environment where bad behaviour results in punishment and, if serious enough, in expulsion.  No parent has a right to expect every child in a classroom to suffer because one child is disruptive.  Nor should it be allowed that the entire class is ‘dumbed-down’ because the teacher has to teach at the level of the dullest child. That is not fair.  It is not productive.  It does not meet the needs of the children or ultimately of society at large.  Do we need more children out there who can’t read a traffic sign or add a simple column of numbers?

I don’t think so.

What about the administrative parts of the educational system, the policy makers, in particular the school boards and the Ministry of Education.  I believe that they should work towards delivering the highest possible level of education to every student.  To do that, students have to fail if they under-perform.  And the tests have to be reasonable, not with questions so simple that the family gerbil would score a B+.

‘Success For Every Child’ sounds like a wonderful ultimate goal, but it cannot be achieved by reducing everything to the lowest common denominator.  If everyone passes from one grade to another simply because standards are relaxed to the point of being meaningless, what does that achieve?  The desire to ensure that every student has a healthy self-esteem is noble, the execution of that quest is not.  You cannot grant self esteem.  Self esteem can only be earned.  Does anyone actually believe that a student won’t know that he or she has been promoted from one grade to the next without some corresponding effort and performance?  Anyone who gets something that they know they don’t deserve will carry the guilt until it ultimately bubbles to the surface and becomes problematic.  On the way to that final realization, that person will expect everything to be perfect, without any exertion on his part, and in the absence of that perfection, everyone else in the world will be blamed. 

Sorry, Johnny, the fault lies with your parents, initially, and later with you personally, because you will whine and complain about how tough and unfair life is, but you won’t do anything to undo the damage that your parents have done.  You won’t know how. You were never taught by those who bore the ultimate responsibility for you during your formative years, your parents.

I am a great believer in liberty.  I am a great believer in the right of self-determination, in laissez-faire.  I also understand, and I want you to understand, Zachary, that with liberty comes responsibility.  As you grow up, we, your parents must accept responsibility for your actions.  We must concurrently teach you how to behave responsibly.  When you come of age, you must bear responsibility for your actions.  Everything you do, every action you take, every reaction you make, will be your responsibility.  The consequences will be yours to bear.  That is the way it should be.  As parents, it is our duty to prepare you for that time. 

We will do our best.