Substitute Teacher Observations
April 14, 2003
In the past few years, we have seen a steady decline in the quality of education South Carolina public schools are providing our children. Based on the latest PACT test score statistics, the Palmetto state ranks a disappointing 49th out of 50 states (with only neighboring Georgia scoring lower than South Carolina). Indeed, the situation appears to be very bleak to say the least.
Even former governor Jim Hodges' attempts to make education a key part of his administration failed to make any lasting impact in the classroom. He made ceremonious improvements to education when he was successful at implementing state-sponsored gambling in the form of a lottery. Proceeds from this so-called "education lottery" were supposed to go towards education expenses in our public schools (or at least that what we were told would happen). Unfortunately, as much as lottery-supporters have applauded the "success" of the lottery, very little money has actually been given to K-12 schools to improve and very little has changed for education in South Carolina since the lottery was implemented!
The truth of the matter is that over 50% of the state budget already goes towards education in South Carolina. In a budget that exceeds $5 billion, thats a LOT of money going to education already! Where has it all gone? Why can’t we educate our children well enough to do better on the PACT tests and other measures of academic success? What changes need to be made to give our students the best education they can get?
There are those who sincerely believe that we need more money to fix the problems with education in South Carolina. They strongly contend that if we could just pour more money into the system that learning would miraculously occur. These people mean well, but the problem will not be solved with money.
Here’s a nugget of truth for people who believe this way to think about: More money does not automatically equal better learning!
Of course, education has become such a hot political topic that any politician who would dare talk about REDUCING the education budget would be so severely castigated by the press that their electability would become nil! But what’s wrong with the idea of trying to do more with less? Businesses do it all the time when the economy is slow. While it may be easier or more convenient to do some things in education with more money, the truth of the matter is that students will learn best when certain hindrances in education are resolved.
I have seen all of these hindrances first hand as a substitute teacher in South Carolina. I have been teaching in the Spartanburg County public school system in all grade levels since February. Although my experience has only been for a few short months, I have already begun to notice certain trends in the classrooms that I had always assumed were true. Now I have empirical knowledge to back up my suppositions. I would like to share with you just a few of these observations:
- Students On Different Learning Levels - I believe that most of the students who come to school want to learn, but they are on such varying levels of learning that one approach to teaching becomes counterproductive in larger classrooms. Every student is different and responds to individual instruction styles from a unique perspective. While some students listen to lectures and follow them very well, there are others who simply do not understand them regardless of how the subjects are explained. This learning divide is especially stark between the honors classes and the non-honors classes.
- Disruptive Students - Some students will absolutely refuse to do anything they are supposed to do in class. If they are required to take notes or to do homework in order to prepare for tests, they just won’t do it. These students are the ones who will continue to talk or interrupt class because they do not want to be there. So much time and energy is wasted on disciplining these few students to the detriment of the majority of the students who are doing the right thing. And you can’t exactly throw these disruptive students out of class every single day they come to school!!!
- Punishment That Does Not Deter - School discipline is an absolute joke! In the high schools, there is something known as in-school suspension (ISS). I had never heard of this until I began substitute teaching. The concept of ISS is to “punish” unruly students who are either being disruptive or refuse to do their classwork by making them sit quietly in a classroom by themselves to do the work they should have been doing in class. It is very obvious to me that most students who are sent to ISS do not consider it punishment because of their insubordinate reaction to being sent there. In the elementary and middle schools, punishment is being sent to see the principal. Thankfully, the elementary children still have a healthy respect and fear of the wrath of the principal. But, by the time they reach middle school, the metamorphosis begins as they become free spirited and smarter than anyone else! Again, most students know what is right and do it. But those few students who like to cause trouble will do it day after day after day. Honestly, since I am a substitute teacher, I have been extremely reluctant to send students to ISS or to the principal’s office because I want to give them the benefit of the doubt without passing judgment too quickly. In many cases the students were simply trying to see how much they could get away with. In other cases, it was evident that they were going to cause havoc regardless.
- Apathetic Parents And Students - Some students are downright ugly in the way they treat authority figures at school. I attribute this to the lack of respect for authority at home. Or, if the student respects their parent’s authority, but not a teacher’s authority, I believe the parents have failed to teach their child how to behave properly. I have already had multiple middle school and high school students get in my face and cuss me out, threaten me with bodily harm and even say they would kill me. Of course, I did not at all fear these threats or take them seriously. I simply stood my ground and sternly told them that they need to sit down and be quiet or they would be removed from the classroom. This is just an example of what I consider the #1 problem facing public schools today. Students who regularly disrupt class by being disrespectful of the teacher need to be removed from school and sent to some sort of reform school. At the very least, teachers and/or principals should be allowed to paddle unruly students at school without the threat of a lawsuit by the parents (how many of us are worse off today because of a paddling we received in school growing up? And I had a few, too!). But, if the parents aren’t disciplining at home, how can we expect the kids to accept any form of discipline at school?
- Advancing Students Beyond Their Abilities - Too many students are being pushed through to the next grade before they have mastered the material from the previous grade. I have taught classes on numerous occasions in middle school and high school where the students could not even perform the classwork at an elementary level. The subject area that most students seem to have trouble with is English. And the problems are not minor either. When a secondary student cannot spell or formulate sentences at even a fourth grade level, then there is a serious problem. Unfortunately, most schools seem to be turning a blind eye to this, especially in their school policies. In one of the high school classes I taught at, I noticed numerous spelling errors in the work turned in by a student. When I pointed out these glaring mistakes to the student, he incredulously said to me, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about spelling as long as I understand the subject matter. That’s our school policy!” OUCH! How do you respond to that? I felt like telling that kid that he needed to try harder by looking up in the dictionary any words that he did not understand or could not spell. That’s what I had to do when I was in school. Can you imagine that kid going to his college professor and explaining that since he understood the material, he didn’t have to worry about the 30 spelling errors in his term paper?! What has happened to challenging our students to be the best they can be?!
- No Child Left Behind Act Causing Headaches - I have heard an earful from teachers at all grade levels about the new education law that went into effect last year. Many teachers who have been educators for years are upset now that they are no longer considered “highly qualified.” They have expressed to me their anger and resentment that our lawmakers would force them to go back to school in order to become “highly qualified.” One teacher told me he wrote Fritz Hollings, Strom Thurmond and Lindsay Graham last year about his concerns and not a single one of them even bothered to respond to his letter. Furthermore, the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act is forcing middle school teachers who earned an elementary education degree to now also earn their secondary education degree in order to continue teaching in middle school. Otherwise, they will have to be relocated to an elementary school. The new law requires all middle and high school teachers to have a secondary certification in order to teach at those grade levels. Finally, the new law is responsible for eliminating an excellent program in South Carolina designed to get new teachers in our public schools. The program is called Critical Needs Certification and it will become extinct after this year since the new education law requires that all teachers must be certified by 2005. This just so happens to be the program that I am entering so I can teach secondary English in South Carolina. There are so many people who have found this program to be exactly what they needed to get their foot in the door of education as a career change. But now our state will have to rely on education majors in college to become the teachers of tomorrow. Our state would benefit greatly if we could keep this program intact.
Real and substantive action must be taken by parents, teachers, students, administrators and our government leaders to offer working solutions to these problems and many other problems in order for education to improve in South Carolina.