First Line of Defense

America is at war. And our enemy is not who you might think.  I am not talking about Afghanistan, Iraq or terrorists.  This war is bigger than that.  We are fighting for the hearts and minds of our own children and our foe is ignorance.  On the front lines of this conflict are our teachers.  They are the first line of defense.  They are the ones in the foxholes as the shelling goes on all around.  As they look a mortal enemy in the eye, the teachers refuse to surrender despite the odds against them.  The ammunition has been rationed.  The protective gear all but removed.  Now it seems that even their commanding officers have turned on them, but even as they are being set up to fail, they fight on.  For them teaching is more than a job.  It is a calling to infuse the world with knowledge so in the future, wars caused by ignorance, will disappear.  It is a noble goal to impart wisdom to our children, even if it is unlikely that they will retain it. Teachers realize that the future is not our educational system, it is our children.

You see, teachers are being undermined.  Children do not take them seriously because parents do not.  Parents do not take them seriously because the media does not. The pendulum swings back and forth, and teachers catch the blame for decisions made by those that have not been inside a classroom. Like the front line troops in Iraq, who fight despite the debates that swirl around them in the public square, teachers must continue the battle as they smile and nod.

Currently, the budgets are being analyzed all over Georgia.  Money is tight and the high command is making some changes to our schools.  However, those in the military will tell you the best commanders are those that talk to the troops.  This is not to say they allow the soldiers to make strategic decisions; but rather that they have a finger on the pulse of those actually fighting the battle.  Ultimately, the General must make decisions based on a whole body of information that the men on the line know nothing about. Yet, the morale of the troops must be taken into consideration and a long term strategy must be used.  To make changes without thinking through them completely will not aid the cause of knowledge.  In fact, it will support the very enemy we are trying to defeat.

Our Governor is proposing some alterations to education in Georgia that do not make sense strategically.  There is a move to do away with school nurses in order to balance the budget.  Would you take medics away from our soldiers?  Not likely.  Nurses in the schools do not simply hand out band-aids and Tylenol any longer.  They work with asthmatic students, distribute ADHD medication, handle broken bones, deal with lice, and assist the growing number of diabetic students.  If a student needs to be catheterized, the nurses do it.  To ask teachers to do this type of medical procedure is not only irresponsible, it invites liability issues.  School nurses are vital to the mission of our schools.  Healthy students are more likely to learn than those who are not.

Another budget saving proposal on the table is to increase class sizes “for one year.”  Didn’t we just decrease class size because it was better for our students?  Now are we saying that we were wrong; that class size doesn’t really matter after all? What about the research that shows students learn more if sizes are smaller?  The first low class size mandate was passed off on the local systems to fund.  Now that the state is in trouble, their eyes have been opened to see how expensive it is to reduce class sizes. Maybe someone should have considered the cost BEFORE signing a mandate. Again we are battling ourselves with policies that change with the blowing of the wind.

The change that teachers are most concerned with is the removal of pay for Nationally Board Certified Teachers.  The teachers that have earned this certification worked tirelessly to finish the stringent program, even paying for it themselves.  It was an incentive by the state to increase the pay of teachers that completed the requirements.  It would make better teachers, which would make better schools.  Sounds good. The problem is that so many teachers went through the program it made the cost prohibitive. So the first bomb to drop after many teachers had already completed the program was the requirement that these teachers must work in a needs improvement school in order to get the pay incentive.  Meaning that they would be required to change schools each time a school improved.  Only those that were grandfathered in continued to receive the incentive.  Now the governor is taking away that pay, which is equivalent to taking away an advanced degree.  What is next…taking away specialists and masters degrees? 

At the same time this pay is being cut and the salary steps are being frozen for all teachers, principals are being offered an increased pay incentive based on how well their school performs.  The governor also is introducing a “master teacher” incentive that rewards teachers that go through his “master teacher” program.  Pardon me, but many teachers have already been through the national board certification.  Many more have earned masters’ and specialists’ degrees.  Do the legislators really believe that teachers are going to trust in a new incentive program that requires them to re-do graduate level work to get the same pay they had?  Is it wise, during a recession, to add more incentives that will have to be funded while cutting programs in other areas?

  The argument has been made that research shows Nationally Board Certified Teachers do not increase student achievement.  Would it be too much to ask for the governor to site that research study?  (Also, if we follow that logic we could make the argument that the legislators haven’t been able to balance the budget in years, so maybe their pay incentives should be cut. Ah, but that topic is another article for another day.)

The bottom line is that while all the cutting and arguing is going on at the capitol, the children are the ones loosing. The legislative tug of war pulls back and forth while the battlefield is littered with those that gave up on knowledge.  They drop out of the system that has failed them, never to return.  The teachers try to hold the ground that is slowly crumbling beneath their feet.  They are looking to the future with the hope that one day it will be safe to climb out of their foxholes victoriously…ignorance forever banished from the lives of the children they fought to teach.

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