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Jewish World ReviewMay 10, 1999 /24 Iyar 5759

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Good teachers offer
more than 3 R's

(JWR) ---- (
A HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE TEACHER in North Dakota quit her job. It was just a small story in a small paper -- hardly worth noting. But I found the details disturbing and frightening.

She quit because she refused to change her teaching style. "After the tardy bells," she is quoted as saying, "I like to keep my door closed and teach. They (administration) feel it's more important for students to come and go. I don't agree with it. I don't think we're doing the students any favor to not make them accountable."

Imagine the gall. After all, she is hired to teach about molecules, flora and fauna. How dare she imagine that this learning should take place with decorum, punctuality and respect?

"They'll sleep until 11," she continued, "run around town for three hours and then come in to school." The principal estimated that between 15 and 25 students are truant or tardy every day. And while he reportedly regretted her decision to quit, he said that students had nowhere to go when they found her classroom door locked. "We had eight parents who came in and said we were putting their kids in jeopardy because they would leave, drive around and go into stores," he said.

I guess they could have gone to the principal's office. They might have gone to the lunchroom to study and do homework or extra-credit assignments. They may have occupied their time picking up debris tossed about the school. Or -- and I'm really going out on a limb here -- they might have gotten there on time.

I know I shouldn't suggest that the parents might take some responsibility by taking the car keys away from their chronically truant darlings, because that might mean they'd have to exert themselves -- actually take the time to deliver these kids to school on time or find another responsible adult to do it for them.

To confirm my foolishness in making such a suggestion, the principal said, "... tardiness and truancy are hard to overcome when students come from dysfunctional homes." So I guess the solution is to permit the school to become equally dysfunctional. When the children run the school by virtue of their whim, mood and preference, coming and going as they please, demonstrating little self-discipline or respect for their educational opportunities or their fellow students, that is exactly what you create: a dysfunctional extension of the irresponsible chaos they have at home.

However, I wager that the main concern of the administration was to avoid having one of these eight angry, dysfunctional parents sue the school if and when one of their tardy, locked-out, undisciplined offspring held up the pharmacy and got hurt in the process. This kind of legal and financial threat, tantamount to extortion, often gets the so-called good guys to back down from their responsibilities.

This school lost a good teacher. These children lose out in what should be their quest to become decent, responsible adults.

While teaching at a major West Coast university more than a decade and a half ago, I had a similar experience. On examination days, I would lock the doors when all the students had their exams in hand. I warned the class a week in advance that if they were going to be 15 minutes late for any reason, they should take the morning off, enjoying the sun --- and their zero. One particular exam day, a male student scrunched in just as the door was closing. He begged so politely that I made him a deal: He could take the exam, but he would start from a 90, instead of the usual 100.

He agreed.

On the day I handed the graded exams back, he and his friend were about 5 feet behind me while I was discussing another student's grade with her. With that peripheral hearing we all have, I heard him discussing his grade and what had happened on exam day.

His friend said, "Bummer. You mean she took off 10 points 'cause you were late? That's not fair."

My "late" student whispered back, "No, not at all. I was lucky she even let me take the test. It was my fault."

I whipped around and grabbed his paper while they both jumped in surprise. I added the 10 points back in, which raised him from a 78 to an 88 (B-minus to A-minus). "I always reward ... character," I explained. "I'm glad you're in my class." It remains one of my fondest memories of teaching.

By the way, the North Dakota teacher's name is Mary Jo Mackey, and the school was New Town High School. I suggest some school district that values quality teachers who support their students' character development offer her a contract.

This society cannot afford to lose such teachers.


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02/26/99: With power comes obligation to lead by example
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12/31/98: Tracking HIV-infected people makes good sense
12/24/98: How can we teach ethics without defining morals?
12/18/98: Parents afraid of firm values leave their children adrift
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©1999, Universal Press Syndicate