September 8, 2010

GEORGE SMITH: Teachers’ main goal, hope is to inspire kids to love learning

A week before school started, my teacher-wife was in her classroom, preparing for a new group of spunky first-graders. Anyone who thinks teachers have the summer off doesn’t live with one.

Teaching is a year-round profession and in my wife’s case, obsession. She’s always reading, researching, preparing lessons and studying to be the very best teacher she can be. During the school year, while I am reading and watching TV in the evening, she’s often working on grades or preparing the next day’s lessons.

These days, she’s bracing herself for yet another set of standards, the Common Core, demanded by the federal government and replacing Maine’s Learning Results standards that took effect in 1997 and were revised in 2007.

Textbook publishers, testing companies and university professors — none of whom has probably set foot in a first-grade classroom since they were 6 years old, created the new standards. They represent the fourth change in less than 15 years.

Maine’s recently resigned Education Commissioner Susan Gendron leads a consortium that just got a whopping $160 million federal grant to develop standardized tests based on the new Common Core standards. The feds actually will spend an astonishing $350 million to develop the new tests.

These new tests will replace the New England Common Assessment Program tests that Maine students will take for just the second time this fall.

I’m not saying the new standards are bad — I don’t know — but I do wonder when we’ll settle on a set of standards that will last more than a few years or survive a change in political leadership. And I can’t even imagine why it will cost $350 million to create these new tests, but I do hope that real classroom teachers will get the money and design the tests.

Maine’s Department of Education opened a public comment period on the new standards on Aug. 11, but had received no comments as of the end of August. That’s right. No one offered comments, possibly because it is widely known that the department will adopt the standards and the feds are not open to changes. And, oh yes, it was August, not a time when most Mainers are interested in anything but raking in the bucks from tourists or being tourists themselves.

Newly elected Maine legislators will review the standards next session. So we’ll get another chance to collectively ignore the subject.

From President Barack Obama to Maine’s gubernatorial candidates, education is a hot topic, with a lot of change demanded and expected in the near future, from charter schools to “personalized learning” plans for each student.

I hope they don’t lose sight of the most important ingredient in our educational system: classroom teachers. And I understand the reluctance of many of those teachers to sign on to another set of standards and tests that will be used to evaluate and reward — or punish — teachers.

All we can really expect and hope for is that children leave our classrooms having learned to love learning. It’s a passion that is critical to their futures.

Of course, students also must be able to read and comprehend what they are reading. If you can’t read and comprehend what you are reading, life’s lessons will be delivered with hard knocks.

Most of us remember teachers who made a difference in our lives.

My first-grade teacher, Marie Adell, my high school math teacher Vaughn Curtis, my history teacher Irene Hibbs, my music teacher Frank Stevens, even my basketball coaches played important roles in my young life.

One of my business professors at the University of Maine once asked us to write a paper about how the world would be changed by technology in 50 years. I wrote a series of fictional stories set in the future. The professor loved the stories, read them to the class, and told me I should be a writer. I don’t even remember the professor’s name or the subject of the class, but I never forgot his encouraging words.

And that’s what good classroom teachers are: great encouragers.

I’m thinking of an ad for a first-grade teacher: Wanted — someone to spend long days with enthusiastic 6- and 7-year-olds; able to teach them to read, write, sit still and tie their shoes; willing to be evaluated and compensated by how well the children learn to do all of that, flexible enough to adapt to new teaching standards and demands on a constant basis, for low wages and little appreciation except from the children, who will remember and love you all the rest of their lives.

    

George Smith is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He lives in Mount Vernon and can be reached at george@sportsmansalliance.com.

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