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Let the teachers teach!
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Being an educator living in Savannah I can’t think of a more important local issue than a major reform of our city’s public school system. Its routinely substandard performance, reflected in all sorts of reliable statistics, most plainly in the just released SAT scores, has become Savannah’s most embarrassing liability.

According to that data, our school system has dropped even further behind state and national standards. Our city has schools with the lowest scores in the county and the state, and because Georgia ranks 49th in the nation, these schools are also the weakest in the entire country.

This crisis has gone on for too long, and I am glad I am not the only one who believes it will take some radical measures to overcome it. I commend Mayor Otis Johnson, a long-time educator himself, for making the improvement of public education a key issue of his social agenda. To help him in his mission, let me join the discussion with my own arguments and recommendations.

Let me begin by reminding readers about three essential truisms:

(1) It is teachers who deliver the education. Teachers are the foundation and rationale of any educational system, its most precious resource.

(2) In order to teach, to do their work, teachers need an environment where learning can actually take place.

(3) In order to assure such an environment, teachers must have the cooperation of students, parents, and, above all, school administrators.

Unfortunately, the reality of the teachers’ work has little to do with the above basic expectations. Based on extensive informal conversations I have had for months with current and former high school teachers, most of whom are either my family members (wife, daughter, and her husband) or friends and neighbors, it appears to me that the primary reason our public schools (especially high schools) are failing us so miserably is because except for teachers no one else seems to be held and made accountable for doing their job.

And so until teachers can actually do what they are hired to do, I see no recovery in sight.

A litany of the teachers’ routine frustrations will prove my point. All of them pertain to so called “regular” classes, the overwhelming bulk of the public school teaching in Savannah. Those concerns do not apply to Savannah Arts Academy which, as a Magnet performing arts high school, seems to be in a category by itself.

“Regular” classes are too big and students in those classes cannot benefit from the kind of attention and motivation given those in AP (Advanced Placement) classes. The sheer size of those classes (anywhere from 28 to 35) perpetuates the students’ deficiencies and widens the already alarming gap in their academic ability.

Students in regular classes are woefully deficient in all academic subjects. Most don’t meet basic state standards of competence and proficiency. Many can barely read and write, their skills at roughly third or fourth grade levels (that’s about 80 percent of entering freshmen at Savannah High and Beach High, academically two of the worst schools in the county and thus the state and the nation).

How could the system let those students pass from grade to grade and leave them so handicapped upon entering high school? It’s certainly not the fault of the teachers, who are routinely pressured to compromise the already low standards because the administrations find it much more convenient to blame and punish the teachers for “excessive” failure rates than to enforce those standards by supporting and rewarding faculty who maintain them and by standing up to parents and students who would challenge them.

Administrations that do not uphold required standards for student performance must be replaced and students who don’t meet those basic standards should be held back and, after repeated failures, moved to alternative and vocational schools, such as the successful school-to-work program run by Groves High School.

Students not interested in college would be much better off on an accelerated vocational or technical track. This solution would reduce class sizes.

Teachers I talked to spend about 70 percent of their time on discipline. That’s outrageous.

The school system must insist that students whose behavior interferes with a teacher’s teaching and other students’ learning must be removed from that class and, if necessary, from school. Even when they do not constitute the majority, they set the tone for the whole class, which is awfully unfair to those who want or would otherwise be willing to learn.

It’s imperative that schools impose tougher conduct codes and enforce them aggressively to convince everyone involved that disruptive and rude behavior will not be tolerated. The message should be loud and clear – the game is over.

But to send that message, administrations must do their job by standing firmly behind its faculty and implementing and enforcing punishments that really work.

The current system of “punishments” for disruptive and rude behavior is grossly inadequate. Write-ups are widely perceived as a joke, and suspension from school as welcome vacation.

The existing rules actually punish the teachers who are made responsible for forwarding the unruly students all the classwork they have missed, classwork that those students were not doing even when in class.

The one disciplinary measure that actually is punishment, the in-school suspension, has been abandoned in many schools due to insufficient funding. Apparently, schools had no money to pay its staff to supervise those students after school.

Sadly, teachers who follow the current five-step discipline plan are typically viewed by the administration as problem teachers, unable to manage their classes. They are also routinely punished with unfair, negative evaluations.

Parents of problem students are usually not very cooperative. Often, teachers cannot reach them or do not hear from them. Clearly, administrations must require parents of problem students to read and sign a contract describing the inevitable consequences of disruptive behavior.

In such a contract, parents should also commit to at least two contacts with their child’s teachers. If they fail to do that, they should be made to pay a fine. I don’t see how this couldn’t be mandated by the school system.

Many teachers I talked to have given up requiring homework because when assigned, it’s never done. Yet those same students act shocked and often turn hostile when they see their failing report cards, clearly expecting to pass for doing absolutely nothing.

Those attitudes of entitlement without any accountability must be dealt with assertively. School is not a shelter, a playground, or a teenage-sitting service. Those who don’t want to learn should be put on probation and then removed from school.

If English teachers were to follow the state standards, they would have to fail almost all their students, not because they don’t meet the required state standards, but because the students are so unprepared you cannot even teach to those standards.

Speaking plainly, we should not be paying taxes for any student who rejects the gift of free education (and it is a wondrous gift – ask any immigrant!). Anybody who doesn’t appreciate that gift is stealing from taxpayers, taking precious space, and obstructing the educational process.

Almost all white teachers I talked to complained about open racial hostility or plain resentment they experience in overwhelmingly African-American classes. Some black students would bluntly inform their white teachers they were not going to cooperate, period. Clearly, the Board of Education and the Office of the Superintendent should step in to deal with such obvious prejudices.

Let me close with a few comments about the work of the school administrators. First of all, I find it scandalous that teachers have no formal and confidential means of evaluating their administrators. Such mechanism must be put in place immediately to empower the teachers and protect them from administration’s abuses.

The current feudal system gives administrators too much power with little to no accountability. And some principals abuse that power ruling autocratically, intimidating and harassing those who dare to oppose them or entertain different opinions.

Teachers at one high school complained about having too many of their planning periods and after-school hours taken up by redundant meetings, meaningless paperwork and incompetent workshops -- time they could have spent on class preparations, student conferences, programs, and organizations.

In short, the vast majority of teachers are clearly not happy working in the Savannah public schools. Those who have worked elsewhere find Savannah schools the worst environment they have ever worked in.

Many quit or transfer to other, better schools. The turnover in some schools in truly alarming, with as many as twenty to thirty faculty leaving during this past academic year.

The situation is critical and our public debate must lead to actions that will get us out of this crisis.

For a start, why not begin school later than 7:30 a.m, require uniforms and daily P.E. classes, and serve healthy food in cafeterias? Extensive research shows that all of these simple measures will improve student academic performance.


Tomasz Warchol has taught literature, film and writing at Georgia Southern University since 1984. To comment on this column, e-mail us at