By Brian Donald O’Donovan
Three days ago I completed my 23rd year of teaching in California public schools. I ask myself, “What could I say, in the way of advice, to the individual considering a career in public school education?” The following are my thoughts on the subject.
Public schools are bastions of conservatism, traditions, customs, norms and social precepts. Public schools are the way this American Republic ensures generation after generation is raised to exercise good citizenship.
Public schools teach students all of the academic material deemed appropriate and necessary to establish a solid educational foundation. The primary premise in public schools during the past 60 years or more has been that college is or should be for everyone. There has been a marked decline in emphasis on vocational schools and other career paths after high school.
However, there is a rethinking of this matter as America realizes there is a noticeable lack of skilled workers, experts and craftsman in our society.
Today there is a general disappointment in the job American public schools are doing. Everyone everywhere is asking the question, “What is wrong with our public schools?"
Charter schools are opening across the land as the controversy rages.
However, public schools protect and promote the social status quo. Public schools do not welcome, or look favorably upon controversial issues or matters. These things make principals, school boards, and other educational authorities and overseers nervous.
For example, teachers may use the three-letter word God in the classroom, but not in a prayer format or context. A teacher may say, “God bless you!” if a student sneezes. The American Pledge of Allegiance contains the words, “one nation under God ...” American coins have the sentence, “In God We Trust” engraved upon them. The word “god” may appear in history, language arts, or even English textbooks. Teachers may use the word. Just don’t lead your class in a prayer. That is not allowed in public school. It is the responsibility of the parents or legal guardians to teach their children to pray — if they want to. All are entitled to their own beliefs.
Each public school is like a ship. A teacher is a member of the crew, but the captain of that vessel is the principal. Teachers are required to teach the curriculum, the state standards in the core subjects. Anything I want to introduce into the classroom that is not a part of the curriculum, I present to my principal and explain the connection to the curriculum. If the principal approves, I employ it. If he/she does not, I don’t. This way everyone knows what is going on and there are no surprises.
I enjoy poetry. Once in a while I write a poem and I would like to share it with my students. Before I do that, however, I show it to my principal and I let him read it and get back with me on whether or not he feels the poem merits being presented in the classroom. Maybe the poem is about a topic or a theme that is not recommended for a particular grade level. At what grade level would a poem about the war in Afghanistan be appropriate? How about a poem that discusses or mentions “Death” or “Death by suicide?” There are many topics that may be deemed “controversial.” These topics are generally rejected because a parent may object to it. So, to be on the safe side, I recommend the new and the old teacher stick to the curriculum and anything outside it be presented to the site administrator for approval.
I am afraid that too many people in our community have a misunderstanding of the life a typical teacher leads. They think the teacher teaches nine months a year and has three months off during the summer. Most teachers I know use the first days after the school year to write important data and information in the students’ official school records, or they spend those days cleaning or cleaning out their classroom. Some have worked so tirelessly, they finally have that nervous breakdown they felt they had in November, but could not take, and have it in June.
The job a teacher does is demanding. Being responsible for a classroom full of children is an enormous responsibility. Is each one feeling well enough to be in school? Are they all getting along? Is each one making the academic and social progress he or she needs to be making? How are they learning? Do they need intervention? And, yes! It’s true! How are their test scores?
The public needs to know there are two types of tests: Cumulative (These drive instruction — tell the teacher what to teach. Did they learn all they were supposed to learn or does the teacher need to reteach?) and summative (These are the tests that are taken at the end of a given period of time to determine the grade a student has earned. Final exams are summative. After final exams, there is no opportunity to reteach. The school year has ended.)
To the new teacher, I would strongly recommend that you be good to yourself and reward yourself after accomplishing or achieving a goal. This summer I am going to rest for a while. Then I am going to attend a block of training on The Promethean board in the classroom at Parkwood Elementary June 19-20-21. Then I am going to relax, rest, and recharge for next year. Then I am going to spend time preparing for the next school year. However, our families are the most important thing in our life (or should be) and we need to spend time — quality time — with our families.
To my colleagues of one or more years of service in education, I wish you a wonderful summer. To those who are about to enter the career field, I say, “Welcome!” And maybe our paths may cross somewhere sometime the next school year, which begins on Aug. 13. Until then, I hope everyone has a safe summer!
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Brian Donald O’Donovan is a Madera elementary school teacher and a poet.