Class dismissed

For years, I've had a recurring nightmare that I was stuck back in high school, unable to escape. This past year, I actually did return to high school. And though it wasn't a true nightmare, I did spend many difficult nights dealing with my new responsibilities as a rookie teacher ... and the painful realities of the modern educational system.

I learned much in my first year as a teacher, and much of it was depressing. Nothing had prepared me for the discovery that -- at least in my small corner of the pedagogic world -- the system was failing in almost every respect to accomplish what it was designed to do: turn out prepared, thinking, accountable young people, ready to take on the responsibilities of citizenship and adulthood.

What I found was a system in shambles, with everybody pointing the finger of blame at everybody else: teachers and administrators blaming the legislature; politicians blaming the unions; parents blaming everyone but themselves for their children's lackluster performance; and students blaming their teachers for their own inability to retain information, focus on tasks, come to school prepared or even take the slightest responsibility for their own education.

Of course, there is a plethora of ideas on how to "fix" the system. More money for schools seems to top everyone's list, and surely nothing will ever get better without any. The Orange County School Board's proposal to increase the sales tax by a half-penny -- to help finance the $1.2 billion the county needs for school repairs and upgrades -- is the first imperative, although the county has a sad history when it comes to raising taxes on itself, even for something as important as our kids' schools.

On top of the infrastructure expenses, more money has to be found to build new schools and help decrease burgeoning class sizes. No teacher, no matter how brilliant, can teach classes of 40- and 50-plus pupils, especially when a rising percentage of the student body comes to school each day with problems of language, learning or discipline. Though state Education Commissioner Charlie Crist was just blowing smoke recently when he said that teachers' salaries should be raised to $100,000 by 2010, he did at least recognize that the profession is woefully undervalued and underpaid.

I also learned that if children don't get an early start in valuing education for its own sake -- or even for the selfish goal of how it can help them to lead better and financially rewarding lives -- there is little chance that it can be accomplished in the upper grades. A 17-year-old who can't read or sees no point in completing assignments is not going to magically transform into a competent worker or collegiate when high school is over. Notice I didn't say when he or she graduates. The fact is, in my school, 60 percent never make it down the aisle. And since 65 percent of freshman are rated as not academically prepared for high school to begin with, it only looks like things will be getting worse.

In the end, though, the problems of our school system will never be fixed until we, as a society, begin to re-evaluate some basic assumptions concerning the roles and responsibilities of the various segments of our population. In my school, for instance, there are an overwhelming number of teen-agers who seem to be stuck in perpetual childhood. They possess mature bodies but immature developmental structures. How can we teach them the way to be adults when we no longer have any meaningful rites of passage from one stage of life to another, other than the granting of driving privileges? And what are our expectations and definitions of adult behavior, anyway?

How can we instill such values as respect, responsibility, critical thinking and the like, when our students are constantly bombarded with vulgar, materialistic, simple-minded and completely unreal cultural cues created and foisted upon them by the marketing gurus of the corporate media? In a society where the crude and the mediocre seem to rise to the top, what teen can see the value in hard work and sustained effort?

So this is what I learned: We are in a serious educational and cultural decline -- crisis is not too strong a word. The question is: Do we have enough determination to transform our schools from crumbling human warehouses into first-class educational institutions? Do we love our kids enough to rethink and rebuild the system and society from the ground up? How and when will we wake ourselves from the nightmare? Or, as too many of my students do when faced with a difficult task, will we all just put our heads on our desks and go to sleep?

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