Volume 13, Issue 17 ~ April 27 May 4, 2005
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Bill Burton
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

The Old School Clock Keeps Ticking
A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.

—The Education of Henry Adams:
Henry Brooks Adams, 1838-1918

The above are a lofty dozen words indeed, describing more than a few teachers, though not so with some others. Think back on your school days; judge your teachers.

Was there one, or perhaps a few, who planted within you something that germinated to grow and eventually play an influential role in your life — whether in your vocation, avocation or the philosophy of your lifestyle?

This afternoon I reflected upon the question. Of perhaps 25 teachers within the scope of my formal education, there were two or possibly three that I could recall whose teaching seeded within my mind much more than one plus one equals two or that John Quincy Adams was our sixth president.

How did your schoolteachers rate in your reflections? I dare say, there were a few who inspired you in some subject or school activity that plays an important role in your life. Were there others who managed to instill in your brain little more than just such unmomentous facts than that the ancient Spartans were of great courage and self-discipline? (Just facts, no thinking necessary.)

Were there still some others who were little more than, shall we say, baby sitters, who tended and disciplined their flocks while watching the big clock in front of the classroom for closing time — as we students also did? Another question: Is formal teaching a profession or a job?

Webster’s definition of teacher is “one who teaches, esp. one whose occupation is to instruct.” That, of course, leaves much to interpretation. Within the context of that definition, all of our teachers were or are, well, teachers. Each taught us something, whether it was the impact and beauty of poetry in words or the consequences if our behavior didn’t meet the standards of society.

Collectively, over time, what we learned in school has more than a little bearing on where we are in life today. Of course there has been other teaching and learning: homes, parents, relatives, playmates, travel, spouses, jobs and experience. But with all of us, the influence of schoolteachers was significant. Could it have been better, more positive?

Ann Arundel’s Poor Report Card
This all comes to mind as within Anne Arundel County, teachers, teaching and schools are in the news with issues aplenty concerning education, certainly not the least of which is compensation of our teachers. In this category, perhaps the county should be relegated to the corner stool with the dunce cap atop its head.

But is everything dependent on money? Can we just toss more cash at a problem and assume it will be solved? Of course not. Too often in the past that has been tried, and look where we are. Some teachers are deserving of much more compensation, others much less. It will remain that way until an equitable and effective merit/pay system evolves.

But the bottom line is that on average, our county ranks conspicuously below other counties of the metropolitan area in pay. In granting raises, we’re dead last in the state.

Clouding the Issue
Apart from those obvious slights, there are other education-associated priorities in neglect. Meanwhile, we become inundated by distracting issues that muddle the overall scheme — such as the competency of Superintendent Eric J. Smith or whether teachers should join the union or pay a hefty fee to support its agenda.

In my way of thinking, the latter is inconsequential; there are much bigger fish to fry. So let’s not cloud the issue hereabouts with the debate within the teaching community.

Though more money can’t solve everything (and not all teachers are deserving of it), it becomes increasingly evident that more money can play a significant role in attracting and keeping better teachers in our county.

Penny pinch as much as you want, we’re not going to have in our schools qualified, good and inspiring teachers via the argument that quality of living and teaching in Chesapeake Bay Country more than compensates for what they don’t take home every month. Money talks.

As one who was a college journalism teacher for a year, a part-time writing instructor for more than 15 years, a member of a family that included many teachers (including three siblings, my wife for years and two daughters currently), and for a year the president of a high school PTA, I have come to learn that education is a big pie. Within that pie are more than a few slices.

Teacher salaries and benefits are a biggie. So are the school buildings and their amenities; it costs a pile to build them, to provide the libraries, gyms, labs and other facilities that make a good school a good school. Then of course there is maintenance.

But it seems that every time one talks of what’s needed along these lines, we’re told we must wait until funds are available, for teacher pay consumes too big a slice of the pie. When teachers want more money, ’tis said that funds are needed for new schools or to update existing ones. All the while, there’s more talk of increasing costs of transporting students, special new programs, administration, athletics and on and on.

Schools, the physical plants with all their amenities, cannot be discounted in their importance in the educational process. But are they all-important? What good is a temple without the preacher? Consider the words of James Garfield, our 20th president, who in an address to Williams College alumni in 1871 said:

I am not willing that this discussion should close without mention of the value of a true teacher. Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus and libraries without him.

Back to Basics
Getting down to the basics, we can say it takes two to tango, teachers and their support facilities. Yet how can we overlook other aspects of the formal process — parental, community and governmental support including visionary and financial? We can’t.

So with schools, we’re virtually in the same crisis as with Bay restoration, youth, healthcare, crime and old-age programs. Though money might not be the whole solution, it’s a prominent part of it. How much can we save by weeding out inefficient spending? How much can we save by prioritizing and following through? How much time do we have? The clock keeps ticking.

In all of this, where is our leadership in government? Perhaps you share the frustrations in this corner. You and I have neither the time — some not the inclination — nor the expertise to come up with the solutions. But shouldn’t we be able to look to our elected, appointed and well-paid officials for the non-political and constructive guidance obviously lacking?

If you know the answer, it’s not a question. Enough said.

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