Excellence in instruction can’t overcome unstable homelife

  • Thursday, November 14, 2013

When I decided to write about all the proposals for fair systems of evaluating public school teachers, my head started spinning. First of all, the person writing this piece, and all the people reading it, owe a debt of gratitude to the teachers who taught us how to read. Part of the evaluation of the teachers all of us had is in how well we read and comprehend things such as newspapers. For that, we should all be grateful. Second, there is so much information out there on this topic that I felt like a student again, cramming for an upcoming test.

My first-hand perspective on public school teacher performance was profoundly re-shaped when I spent four years as a volunteer in an in-school mentor program at a Title 1 elementary school in Charleston County. I mentored one student from second grade through fifth grade, so I got to see firsthand the continuum of education through those important foundational years. I can say with all objectivity that the teachers with whom I worked were the best, most admirable, most hard-working teachers I have ever seen. They were strict. They were tough. They were fair. They cared personally about each student, regardless of how well that student performed academically. I have never seen better teachers or more dedicated workers in any profession in my life.

But what I saw from the student side of the equation was often heartbreaking. When I would work with my mentee and several other students, some of them seemed almost lost in a school environment. Their abilities to read, comprehend or construct sentences were appalling.

As the teachers came to trust and confide in me, they would share that it was obvious which students had parents who cared about education, and which ones lived in an environment where education meant little more than complying with truancy laws. Not only were most of these students coming from an educationally underprivileged background, (and please don’t think I’m calling them or their families dumb or stupid), but also from tough socio-economic circumstances.

Even though the school in which I volunteered had a modified uniform policy (good idea), there was one child who was usually filthy. She had an appallingly unkempt appearance. Then one day, her book bag fell off the back of her chair, and I saw cockroaches scamper out like rats from a sinking ship. It was the most disturbing moment in my four years as a volunteer. “That child’s circumstances just break my heart,” I remember the teacher telling me as the students left for recess.

My reason for recounting what was a memorable teachable moment for me is this: Teacher evaluation is a good idea in the sense that all professional evaluation is a good idea. However, as in the case I just described, the best teacher in the entire world cannot singlehandedly overcome the negative learning environments and societal issues that cause some children not to flourish academically. The best instruction in the world cannot drown out the home drama or deprivation experienced by some of our students, like the young girl who had cockroaches thriving in her book bag. How well could you or I concentrate on a standardized test if we lived in conditions like that child’s?

So to hold teachers responsible for circumstances outside of their control – to expect them to overcome our societal ills – will drive the excellent, conscientious teachers away, leaving us at best with mediocrity.

As Charleston County and the state of South Carolina tweak and implement new teacher evaluation systems such as BRIDGE over the next several years, let’s hope that most of the evaluation of the teacher remains on their classroom performance, preparation and effort. There is room in comprehensive evaluation for student scores, but it should not be the most heavily weighted criterion. We can insist upon and achieve excellence in instruction, but to say that schools can overcome the societal ills outside the classroom that affect student performance is delusional and a sure way for all of us to fail.

Will Haynie has published more than 400 oped columns as a feature columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News when it was owned by the New York Times. His niche is as a humorous conservative. Find him on Twitter at @willhaynie or email him at Haynie.will@gmail.com.

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