RAMBLINGS • I Won't Die In The Classroom

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I feel a rant coming on, most of it school related.

The need to rant began when I read the help-wanted display ad dated Jan. 20 in The Journal-News. Four coaching positions are open at Hillsboro High; qualifications and job descriptions are listed.

Both golf positions (girls’ and boys’) are open; also listed are needs for a girls’ tennis coach and an academic team coach. Not included in the necessary qualifications are the most obvious–a knowledge of the sport to be coached, a deep concern for the students who wish to participate, and the necessary time to devote to the activities.

I don’t think one has to have played the game at a high level to become a successful high school coach, but she or he has to have more than a casual interest to teach the sport. Watching a tutorial on You Tube isn’t enough, nor is reading a couple books before practice begins.

We’ve had coaches in the past who worried more about their popularity or their won-lost record than the kids’ welfare. That ought never happen. Good coaches ask players to sacrifice for the team, and they do that, hopefully unconsciously, themselves. Finally, a wise athletic director, principal, or whoever is in charge of hiring, will talk with the coach’s spouse to be sure he or she understands the sacrifices to be made. In season, and sometimes off season, team needs will seem more important than family needs, and the family has to understand that. The only regrets I have in retrospect is how little time I had to spend with my wife and kids when they were young. A coach and his mate need to know going in that it’ll take 12 to 14 hours a day six days a week in season if both teaching and coaching are to be done well.

When I agreed to coach in 1968, I didn’t have a job description. When I look at the one in the ad, I see a chore I never did–that of fundraising. I have no patience with a district that wants a program but doesn’t want to pay for it. I was upset when the district started to charge kids a fee to play. I knew some families couldn’t afford a fee; the kids who most needed the outlet and camaraderie participation affords were often the ones who could least afford it.

Too, if Mr. and Mrs. Jones pay the same amount for entrance into a program as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, they can rightfully expect their kid to have equal playing time, no matter the ability or effort level their kid exhibits. That goes against the competitive nature upon which team efforts are built. The everyone-gets-to-play-in-every-game mentality robs a youngster of the motivation to work hard to improve to earn more playing time. Besides, though I played soccer for three different colleges, I never paid to play nor for equipment nor uniforms. Perhaps the pay-to-play change accounts for part of the reduction in participants in programs these days.

The size of the honor roll of HHS (and other schools) printed in the paper caught my attention as well. Why, when most reliable accounts say today’s students are not as prepared for after-high school life as past decades have been, does the size of the honor roll keep increasing? Have grades become more important than knowledge gained? I hope not.

I can understand some pressure from parents because of financial reasons. A “good student discount” helps insurance rates when driving licenses are issued, but I fear honor roll grades won’t reflect better drivers if my grandson’s dog could make the honor roll if he were somehow enrolled. If over 300 kids (60 percent) now make the honor roll, then the designation has little if any meaning.

Finally, I’m upset that the state and local school officials are shocked about the teacher shortage in Illinois. I retired in 2007, when I was 62. I thought then I had a few more good years in the tank and proved it by serving as an adjunct professor at Litchfield’s LLCC campus for another eight years. I knew then it was time to retire because my work ethic wasn’t matched by too many of the students, and I didn’t then nor now believe that technological advancements were worth the trouble. To me reading a screen that can be changed by the flip of a thumb isn’t the same as treasuring a printed page that lasts until someone destroys it. That type of permanence is re-assuring.

I quit teaching for Hillsboro School District #3 because I felt pressured to do so, both financially and socially. I liked chalk and notes; even the better students learned from me because I required they copy by hand notes I scrawled on the chalkboard. Then I’d check the notebook at semester’s end for completeness. If they had copied everything (it didn’t take long to thumb through their offerings to see if a legitimate effort had been made), they had a good grade to balance test scores that weren’t always as good. Writing information down with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper is a much more powerful memory aid than taking a picture of it to store electronically. Too, it made the students feel they had made an effort, and they had a moderate stack of papers to prove it.

Almost to a person they’d complain about the method, but they learned. In American Literature they’d have a story to read and summarize every night; I’d also quick read the summaries. The student’s interpretation didn’t have to agree with mine; it earned a check on a chart next to his or her name if it showed an effort was made to comprehend the material and if it weren’t obviously copied from another source. Then they’d copy any thoughts about the assignment (the complaints were either about my handwriting or the length, but both made them learn to focus), and then I’d talk about the assignment for the benefit of the auditory only learners. Students did have a choice–do it my way or find another classroom to haunt via a schedule change. Most found at least a modicum of understanding texts with me, though maybe only 15 percent made honor roll grades.

One administrator in typical gobbledygook asked why I didn’t individualize instruction more–why I had to do it my way. After I heatedly pointed out I met with 150 students per day, he rather meekly left the room. He’s since left the state.

I didn’t expect other teachers to do as I did, though I hoped they’d work as hard at it as I (following the example set for me by Mrs. Evans, Mrs. Hoffman, Mr. Tarran and others when I first came).

The social pressure I felt in 2007 wasn’t directly expressed, but teachers I had been close to were gone or preparing to go, and the generation gap between my 62 year old self and the newest generation was more pronounced than I’d imagined it would be. My eldest granddaughter Kaylyn was about to cross the creek, and that generation gap wasn’t just in my imagination. (She’s more sensible now than she was 12 years ago–that happens to good people through life experience.)

Financially, the state and school district made the decision easier with an opt-out early policy. Teachers were paid an X-step bonus for three years prior to retirement. Based on years of service, the extra bucks made life a bit easier (I thought I was finally paid like an administrator), and it built our state pension checks after retirement; they were and are based upon our average salary over the last few years of service.

It did make room for younger (read cheaper) teachers, so it saved the unit money since pension checks come from the state, not the local unit (stay tuned about that–Rauner for one wanted to shift the responsibility), but it also took much-needed experience from the district. Old isn’t always bad.

Another financial advantage exists for me relevant to current retirement law. When I taught, I served on the negotiations’ team several times; if one negotiates well, he’ll say and do things that irritate the school board and taxpayers, sometimes for little benefit. That’s why I’ve never understood the “path to administration riches” that some teachers take, hoping to become an administrator by serving as a negotiator. I never wanted to hold an administrative post (educating others ends when one leaves the classroom), so I was perhaps a bit more abrasive when confrontation time came. We struck the district three times; it seemed we had to strike to receive a two percent raise.

Retirees receive three percent more (compound interest) every year. That (and a small Prudential annuity I have) gives me reason to live a long time; I hope the Man upstairs is listening.

To complete this rant, however, now the state legislative is considering a program to bring retirees back to the classroom to lessen the shortage. Give me a break.

If they didn’t want me in 2007, they ought not want me or those like me in 2020 or beyond. I may die climbing the stairs to a football press box or sitting behind a scorer’s bench in a gym or on a bench doing the scorebook at a baseball game but . . . 

I promise you I won’t die in a classroom. 

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