Calling All Teacher Critics
What does this button do?

By Linwood Barclay

Let me tell you about my new phone. Itís one of those really jazzy ones, with a credit-card-sized screen, and it has, counting the actual keypad, 33 buttons on it. Each one does something different and they all have little labels. Hold. Redial. Mute. Speaker. Options. The buttons positioned next to the screen perform multiple duties, depending on whatís appearing on the screen at any given moment. They say things like Flash and More and Next. If I press the Services button I can find out movie times at my local multiplex, but so far, there hasnít been much worth seeing, so I havenít bothered.

Some of these buttons Iíve never touched. Despite looking at the manual, I still do not grasp what it is they do, and I am afraid to find out. Pressing unfamiliar buttons in an incorrect sequence, I worry, will inadvertently launch a missile attack on a friendly nation.

I have been using phones, most simpler than this one, my entire life. The telephone is, more or less, a device I have mastered.

But it would never occur to me to tell the phone company how to conduct its day-to-day business. Okay, maybe when rates go up I have a couple of things to say.

The same goes for my car. Iíve been driving for 30 years. But Iím not calling the engineers at Ford or Honda or Volkswagen telling them how to do their jobs. I donít understand carburetors vs. fuel injection. And I accept that the folks who supply my electricity and natural gas are professionals, and know what theyíre doing. Iím not in touch with my municipalityís _engineering department before I drive over any of the bridges in my neighborhood.

But teachers, well, thatís another story.

I, like most of the population, am not a teacher. Those of us who do not get our paycheques from a school board are unlikely to hold teaching degrees. We have not spent _thousands of hours standing in front of countless classrooms of young people trying to get them excited about polynomials.

Our evenings are not consumed with planning lessons, phoning parents with updates, or marking several dozen papers on the use of irony and allegory in Shakespeare. We do not check out garage sales on Saturday mornings to buy toys with our own money for our Kindergarten classes.

And yet we all seem to be experts. We know whatís wrong with the schools. We know whatís wrong with the teaching profession. Whatís even more amazing is that many of us know these things even when we no longer have children in the public school system, and havenít set foot in a school ourselves in several decades.

I know of few lines of work where the employees, both invidually and collectively, are subjected to so much scrutiny and second-guessing.

As a newspaper columnist, I find thereís no shortage of individuals willing to pass judgment on the quality of my work. ("Dear Mr. Barclay: It has come to my attention, after reading todayís article, that you are a moron. Sincerely, A Concerned Reader.") But even these people donít tell me how to do my job. No one monitors what time of day I sit down at the computer and when I get up. No one keeps track of how long I take for lunch. The frequency and duration of my washroom breaks are pretty much left up to me. No one wants to know how many days off I have in the summer, or how I use them.

Years ago, my family ran a summer resort; we worked for about five months a year and had seven off, but no one seemed to be shocked by this. It was the nature of the job.

The common wisdom seems to be that because we were all students for 12 or 13 or possibly more years, we know what it is teachers do. You stand up there, scribble some things on a blackboard, tell kids to open their books to a certain page, knock off at 3:30, collect your pension and Bobís your uncle.

What could be simpler?

Those who teach, of course, know the real story.

I have just taken a break during the writing of this article, and while driving in the car, have subjected myself to the inanities of talk radio, which is always a mistake if you place a priority on preserving brain cells. The host of the show, who undoubtedly makes much more than a teacher and spends two whole hours a day on the radio to get it ó not counting news and commercial breaks ó ranted at some length about how teachers need to work in the REAL world. The irony evidently eluded him.

A teacherís every move is watched by parents. Now, parents are pretty big stakeholders here. They want the best education possible for their kids. As a parent of two children in the public system, I find this a reasonable expectation. Any good teacher wants interested and involved parents. No teacher is happy to hold a Parent Night where no one shows up.

As a parent, I feel I have a right to know whatís going on in my childís classroom, and every right to offer an opinion on it. I may encounter things that concern me, or run contrary to my beliefs, or that I believe are too difficult for my child, or do not sufficiently challenge him.

And if Iím any kind of parent, Iíll raise my concerns with the teacher.

But scrutiny has a dark side.

Which brings me to two stories, both involving a subject about which I have more than a passing interest, spelling.

1. Not long ago, I had an exchange of e-mails with a reader who took issue with my support of public school teachers during a period when they have endured something of a beating. She had nothing but complaints about the teachers at her kidsí school. One of her pastimes was to examine, carefully, the teacher newsletters her children brought home. She would pounce on typos and spelling errors like a cat on a mouse.

How, she asked me, could people who couldnít even produce an error-free newsletter be expected to teach her children?

She was appalled by my response. I said: "So what?"

Hereís what I told her. Someone looked after your child from 8:45 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., prepared lessons, did yard duty, arranged for Officer Dan to come in and talk about bike safety, helped some child find a lost backpack, dropped everything to help a little boy with a nosebleed, filled out attendance sheets, mediated a dispute over a cookie, and, somewhere in the midst of all this madness, managed to sneak in a lesson about pronouns.

And then, on top of all this, put together a newsletter to keep parents informed, which is not, to the best of my information, even required under the Education Act.

And sheís willing to ignore all of this because of a typo or a misplaced apostrophe.
Typos happen to the best of us, even those whose business it is to keep these kinds of mistakes from happening. At a paper where I once worked, we ran a story about a prominent local band leader who was retiring. It read:
"After 20 years of playing weekend dates, heís tired and wants to spend more time with his family." The only problem was, no one noticed that the letter "p" had fallen off "playing." It was easy to see, however, why he was so exhausted.

In a perfect world, no teacher would ever make a spelling error. Nor would any newspaper.

2. We take a look at our childís notebook and find that work judged acceptable by the teacher contains spelling errors that were not circled in red pen.
There are several possibilities here:
a) The teacher doesnít know how to spell.
b) The teacher doesnít care that the kids canít spell.
c) This is what happened just before the fall of the Roman Empire. But we never consider
d) This was a lesson on punctuation, and if the teacher had circled every other possible error, this kid would have become so discouraged heíd give up.

Certainly, as the father of two teenagers, there are days when you let certain things slide in the hope that you can make progress in another area. Just the other day, I decided not to make a big deal about their messy rooms if theyíd agree, at least for a week, to stop downloading viruses into my computer that wipe out 90,000-word manuscripts and send threatening e-mails to the White House under my name.

Look, Iím not blaming parents for being concerned and, where warranted, critical. But I have become an advocate for getting all the information before blowing a gasket.

Tell me if youíve been here. Your child presents to you a list of grievances about his teacher. The guyís mean. Marks unfairly. Doesnít allow enough time for the completion of assignments. So you arrange an interview. "Just wait till I talk to that guy," you mutter under your breath as you head out to the school.

And the teacher lays out for you a list of your childís incomplete assignments. The results of tests not studied for. The classes missed.

It can take the wind out of your sails.

My local paper is filled with letters from critics of _the education system. Occasionally, there will be one from a so-called business expert, who says heíd be happy to go into the classroom to share his expertise and set these kids right. These letters are written by people who think that all teachers do is teach. That knowledge of a particular curriculum is all thatís required. And what will they do, exactly, when that first kid refuses to turn off his Walkman?

Iíve heard some argue that if teachers want to be treated as professionals, they should act like them. I would suggest that thatís already happening, and add that if you want teachers to be professionals, treat them that way. Let them do their job. Trust them to know what theyíre doing.

When my plumber-electrician-carpenter friend Roger comes over to fix a leaky pipe, I donít look over his shoulder and ask him whether heís going to use copper or plastic fittings, quiz him on what kind of tools heís using, or demand to know whether he needs to use so much solder.

Instead, I go upstairs, put the pillow over my head so I wonít hear the crashing and banging and imagine worst-case scenarios, and then, when heís done, write him a cheque. Thatís because he knows what heís doing.

Not every teacher is perfect. And even the best ones can better themselves with helpful suggestions and an openness to new ideas. But nitpicking and microscopic supervision is no way to nurture improvements.

Frankly, I donít have the time to micromanage my kidsí teachers. I just want them to do their job. Thatís what professionals do. And besides, Iím far too busy trying to figure out what all these buttons on my phone do.

Linwood Barclay is a Toronto Star columnist and author of Last Resort: Coming of Age in Cottage Country.

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