Not many topics ignite water cooler debates quite like the state of public schools in America. It seems every day I overhear folks debating public versus private versus home schooling, teacher pay or the recent, highly publicized standoff in Wisconsin. If you numbered all the opinions in your own community, you might have more than the number of students actually enrolled in the school district.
The debates — when civil — are healthy to the process. They serve as a reminder of what’s great about our country and how intelligent, well-meaning minds can passionately defend hot positions and share a cool frozen yogurt, all at the same time.
It’s understandable that the rhetoric on the state of public schools becomes heated. We love our children. We root for their success, understanding that most of our youngsters spend more time in their classrooms every day than at home. Teachers, administrators and the systems they choose to use have significant influence over our youths.
You’ve heard the complaints, whether you’re a parent of a public school student or not. Teachers shouldn’t whine about pay when they work nine months a year. Teachers and administrators everywhere are having inappropriate physical relationships with students. Your children are suffering because liberal philosophies and political talking points are being drilled into students’ rapidly developing world views.
My schools are falling apart. My children’s teachers are too old. My taxes are too high for such mediocre results in education. Does this sound like you? A friend? A neighbor?
I have been tremendously blessed since 2005, but particularly during this current school year, to visit schools across the country and to speak to tens of thousands of students from grades K-12. I’ve spoken in schools in urban areas where Caucasians are a minority, and I’ve met with students in schools with so little diversity they make a loaf of Wonder Bread look multinational.
I’ve met a handful of tired teachers who count the days to retirement. I chatted with a male teacher who makes a habit of flirting with high school girls. Front office staffers have treated me like a nuisance, and lunchroom ladies have barked at children for giggling at me and saying hello. My ears have heard teachers yell and tell inappropriate jokes. My eyes have seen ceilings crumbing and plastic buckets catching the drip-drip beneath.
That’s not news, is it? For many of us, these anecdotes simply reinforce our belief that the public school system is a dying dinosaur; a diseased creature that shouldn’t be treated, it should be killed.
But here’s why you could be wrong about public schools. For every alarming three-minute story on the 6 o’clock news that makes you consider for the ninth time this week whether you should home-school, countless hours of good are performed by the overwhelming majority of educators in the overwhelming majority of public schools.
In the past six months, I’ve personally observed that when budgets are tight and when they truly believe in the message, teachers will often spend their own funds on books for students.
I’ve listened as teachers tearfully shared their own "Christmas Jar" miracles. Many teachers who could have used the money themselves have chosen to anonymously give away a small fortune to some student’s struggling family.
I’ve spoken at evening fundraisers in dimly lit cafeterias. At these events, the only money changing hands is what we raise for the Red Cross, a teacher with cancer or a family recovering from funeral expenses and lost income while they took the time to bury their son. Those rooms are always full of teachers, and I promise that none of them are whining about their paychecks.
In my own hometown of Woodstock, Va., with the organization and encouragement of their dedicated teachers, students at W.W. Robinson Elementary School surprised me by collecting nearly $1,000 in change for the Seventeen Second Miracle Scholarship Fund, a program to benefit high school seniors with more dreams in their hearts than money in their pockets.
Teachers weep when their students weep, and they cheer when their students succeed. They build bridges and raise expectations. They lose sleep over students who chronically fail and pray for those who hide bruises under scarves and long-sleeved shirts.
Before you fill my in-box with studies, graphs, frightening anecdotes or videos of teachers-gone-wild, please note that I strongly believe there are important issues that can and should be addressed in our public schools. Without question we need less of the bureaucracy, more local control, less pressure to “teach to the test” and more, much more, of the divine.
Also note how proud I am that my children attend public school. I am enormously grateful for the hours their teachers labor each and every day on their behalf. They’re not perfect, but neither are my children.
Many of my friends choose to home-school their children. I honor their decision. Other friends pay for private schooling, and I respect their decisions, too. What I don’t respect are people forming coast-to-coast opinions about public schools and throwing teachers into a single, deep and dysfunctional pool.
If you ever need a reminder that the men and women teaching your children are good, decent and caring people, turn off the news and spend a day in the classroom. You might find you’ve been wrong about public schools.