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As with many endeavors there are ideals and there are the trenches. While many people can agree on basic ideals, not everyone in the trenches can achieve those ideals for reasons beyond their control or influence. What follows is the essence of the two sides of teaching in the views of Susan O'Brian, a veteran educator who has spent her entire professional life [approaching four decades] in the class room.

Some questions we asked.

How are kids motivated these days?

How do strict standardized lesson plans counter society's problems of today?

Are test procedures mired in concrete?

Teacher Interview

2005 Susan O'Brian
Chesapeake VA

"This is my 39th year teaching school; it is really hard to believe. I expect to retire from teaching no later than 2008. It requires a lot of energy."

The Ideal

"I don't want to mislead you as far as the standards. It is not a lot of rote memorization only. The main emphasis is on the higher thinking skills -- getting the students to THINK -- by comparing, contrasting, analyzing, evaluating -- etc -- there is much 'hands-on' materials, necessary dialogue, team work, group work, etc. Students keep all kinds of notebooks, records, logs etc. The classroom teachers guides are also being updated yearly, particularly in Social Studies."

The Reality

"The fourth-grade teacher down the hall has her mother visiting from GA to take care of her, she is so stressed. It is her first year teaching, she got the rookie-of-the-year award and is doing a great job, but the hours of planning etc. are wearing her down, and she says the stress is too much. She is planning to leave the profession at the end of the school year. This is what has been happening to many of our young and talented newcomers to to teaching, a shame indeed.

"First you have to remember I am talking about a downtown low-income school, more than half are on reduced or free lunch, close to 80 percent I guess or more judging by the number in the cafeteria who come in for breakfast before school. Many do not have two parents, live with grandmothers, or do not have a parent equipped with good parenting skills or coping abilities. These kids are generally speaking very volatile, will argue with each other quickly over nothing, and have seen and heard too much on the streets. It takes a lot to interest them in academics. The cream of the crop so to speak go to private schools, and their parents do not worry about the public schools. This of course hurts the public-school system greatly. It is indeed a tremendous problem facing the nation. Who wants to teach school now in today's society? The young teachers are leaving in droves. Besides the enormous responsibility, the physical energy needed, and the hours outside the classroom that need to create lesson plans that will stimulate the students and meet the standards, AND THE PAY IS SO LOW compared to industry, technology etc, who can blame them? The best minds are definitely not going into education, unless there is a reason, such as writing a book or doing some research. And it takes a certain personality to be able to cope a number of young people you are totally responsible for. The liabilities etc. You have to see everyone and everything at one time. The children are not passive. Yes, motivation is the key. Competition is a key word here, groups of students doing reports together, classes competing. We have announcements Friday of every week, the kids read AR books (Accelerated Reader) from the library on their level, and test out themselves on the computers. I believe 80 percent is the passing score. AR is a big deal. Every morning there is a time when students can go to the library to change their AR books, levels are noted etc. on the shelves. The class on each grade level with the highest AR points is given a verbal recognition over the speakers before buses are called on Friday PM, and the cheers are so loud from the winning classes.

"You asked about lesson plans. I could write a book about that. Yes, they have to be very explicit and detailed, containing the objectives and skills the student will accomplish. The objectives are spelled out and are numbered by subject in our State Standards of Learning Guides. The grade-level teachers plan together daily. It is very explicit information that has to be covered. Students are given SOL'S (state Standards Of Learning exams) in May, school-wide. (And all over VA.) A great deal of pressure for students and teachers. The teacher is accountable for her/his class passing the exams. Results are analyzed on a student-by-student basis. Graphs are made, etc., and in the succeeding fall the student is given individual or small-group tutoring in the areas in which they are weakest.

"My school is in the downtown area of Chesapeake, and the students are definitely less-privileged, which means they do not have a lot of guidance from home. We have smaller classes than the other schools and more services such as an after school tutoring program, four reading specialists, two guidance teachers -- for an elementary school of about 600 kids.

"Another thing I wanted to say [to the interviewer] -- you learned from others, you learned eventually because you were not satisfied with your status quo. BUT the kids I am talking about have only one shot. If they learn from their friends that will be, no doubt, street smarts. Look at the inner cities. So education is of utmost importance for these kids, they only have one shot at it in most cases. And the instant gratifications on the streets are so compelling to many. Also the 'peer pressure' is another HUGH factor, lack of family units etc. that lead to gangs.

"The 'cream of the crop' kids will learn anyway, on their own at some time if not in schools.

"Young-minority (so to speak) college-students do not want to go into teaching; they have so many much better offers in good professions. They do not feel dedicated to help their own race. SO THERE ARE SO MANY PROBLEMS IN EDUCATION IN THE US TODAY!!!!!

"What I am trying to say is, there are so many issues involving education in the US, it is hard to generalize and simplify. The standards do have their role though."

Notes From Today

"The fourth grade played Jeopardy on American History in the auditorium last Fri. The questions were all factual, based on the SOL's, and there was great excitement and holding of breath over this. I witnessed this, and was surprised at how much they knew.

"The fifth grade teachers were in the principal's office at a meeting for strategies when I left today at 4:15. The day is also very programmed minute by minute. All fifth grade classes, for example, are working on the same math skills at the same time. The student level of achievement has definitely improved, last spring the SOL scores were higher than ever before, and my school won full accreditation by the state. The tests are not seen by the teachers ahead of time, they are kept under lock and key and have to be signed out immediately before. Also there is a proctor in each classroom. There were some cases a few years ago in other school systems where teachers were accused of helping the kids with the answers, and were fired. Too much pressure all around for sure."


"A number of years ago I had a Japanese student I was tutoring in my home. Her parents were born in Japan. Anyway, she would sit without swinging her legs and absorb everything I taught her; she was so patient and had such full concentration and intensity it was amazing, so I would keep her an extra 15 minutes just for pure pleasure since she was my last student for the day.

"When comparing students from different countries, however, it becomes very gray--because we educate all, severely and profoundly handicapped, too. Also we have public education for everyone through the 12th grade paid by tax payers. I have read that in some Asian countries education ends at age 12 [sixth grade] according to test scores. Those students go to some kind of trade school. So if you are comparing the cream of the crop with EVERYONE in our country, even some levels of special ed are included in test scores here, it is not a fair comparison. As they say, are you comparing apples to apples, or apples to bananas. Some of our "cream of the crop" may be in private schools which do not have the same tests, and would not be included in public education scores. Of the millions of Asian children, you would not meet the many on the farms etc.

"I would say the median age of teachers in my school is 45, approximately 50 percent white and 50 percent black, but the student body is more like 95 percent black and 5 percent White and Spanish. We have 3 or 4 Asian students also.

"I do see a lot of improvement in attitude and general knowledge of the students over the past ten years. However, the task has become harder; kids entering have more problems, with attention deficiencies etc. The evils of our society have hurt the future generation. Babies born of mothers on drugs, for example, and teenage girls. MY friend who teaches in a high school said it is an honor for a girl to be pregnant and unwed (for her peer group.) Kids are having kids, and more often than not that child will have multi-problems when entering school, and some young teacher will quit."

Epilog questions:

How do teachers with inflexible goals and targets cope if they happen to prefer being creative and forward looking instead of toeing the line with exactitude? See Ode to My Teacher for what one such teacher achieved.

How can we neglect our teachers and expect them to rise above their society?

If motivated teachers are better at motivating kids to learn, should we not pay some attention to creating the former?

When comparing educational performance among societies, how can the differences in data collection systems be rationalized to provide accurate comparisons?

Most importantly, how can we redress the evils in our society? More police, more religion, are not enough; each has had many decades of trial and haven't worked yet.


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