The Good Teacher Sees the Spark

THE front line of education is the classroom. We forget this. An innovative teacher can convert bare walls and a poverty of materials into a rescue mission for young folk. This should be kept in mind as we review public policy proposals, which set the context for public education. What would President Bush's new education program for America do for the classroom?

The narrowest piece of it, a research program that would take $465 million in federal money and another $150 million from private industry, could be the most promising. At the least it attests to the potential of schools to reinvent themselves, much as other institutions in society continue to evolve.

Those of us who have taught know the corrosive feeling among faculty that they are caught on a slow escalator. Private industry pays more; it looks more exciting. Community conditions of crime, drugs, guns, divorce, parentlessness, seep into the classroom. Whatever burnout means - and it may simply mean being sick of it all - it would attach to teaching. Politics can be most disillusioning at the local school committee level. Restructuring of the economy, the influx of Asian and Hispanic students, distu rb the continuity of school districts and introduce uncertainty.

This inertia and apprehension must be turned around. If Mr. Bush and his new education secretary, Lamar Alexander, can generate a spirit of innovation, they get a vote here.

Their proposals for national achievement testing and use of public money for private or parochial schooling show less promise. This is a curious pairing - national standards and local choice. We want a diploma to mean something. But national testing has a coercive connotation. Under the US constitution, the states are responsible for education. Ideally, local communities take the minimum education requirements set by state legislatures and embellish them with programs of their own choice. In recent year s of state budget cutbacks, however, programs have been stripped to the essentials and then some.

The purpose of the testing may be to show how schools shape up overall in America. But it will probably show what we know: that the children in privileged communities, from privileged homes, do better as a group than children from less privileged circumstances. What this misses is what the individual can do - as teacher or department head or student or parent - against the tide of the group.

As for using federal money for private or parochial options: Individual family choice, encouraging at least nominally some competition for students, has appeal. But already magnet schools in many districts are attracting the bright, energetic students who are needed to spark excitement and set standards in the regular schools. This would be accelerated. And use of public money for church schools contradicts the separation of church and state.

Schools should be the happiest places in society.

And I bet many are.

Nothing feels better than progress.

The best teachers know where each child is emotionally and scholastically, or want to know. They are conscious of the goodness in children. They allow for the diversity of gifts in a classroom. They learn to be most grateful for the most difficult students, who teach the teachers the most about patience, persistence, compassion. A teacher may be on a student's case, meet the parent, and then appreciate that the student may be doing well under trying circumstances.

Salvation is one by one. So is teaching. Student by student.

Public programs may not turn our schools around. For now, parents, young people, and teachers may have to find success in spite of the system.

Skills are more generic than is commonly supposed. Recently, a group of minority students asked how to qualify for work at this newspaper. I said I looked for an active intelligence first - brightness, curiosity, a willingness to work energetically: ``I have a look-them-in-the-eye test,'' I said. ``I throw them a question; how do they respond?''

It's not the r'esum'e, or the clip file, or the grade average, but the spark of who they are that wins the job. The good teacher sees that spark, fans it, gets the student to recognize it in himself. That's how to triumph over the system.

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