Two things every good teacher--and every coach--knows when he or she walks into a classroom for the first time in September. First, you can't run if you don't have the horses. Second, sometimes they're there and, Lord have mercy, sometimes they're not.
Two years ago a friend of mine, a fiction writer, visited my class. Honestly, I don't remember exactly what happened that day, but I won't forget that class of students. Some great kids were in it--females--but the males were lethargic and lout-ish. I could stand on my head and spit nickels and those jackasses, simply by their body language, cast a kind of deadly pall over the entire room. I'm not lying--and these are college kids. I'm not teaching in high school.
So I asked my friend if maybe she'd make an electronic appearance again this year, and then I apologized for the class the last time around. "I remember that," she said. "I thought there was something wrong with me." I felt awful. They must have been worse even than I remember.
My student evaluations weren't all that hot in that class, despite the fact that I'd worked my tail off, brought in guests, and was teaching a genre I think I know something about. If you've been at it for forty years, you don't hurl yourself from the radio tower when you don't do well, because you know that bad apples come with the back forty. But the truth is, as a teacher, you can be only so much better than the sum of your parts.
Tons of folks like to think that the problem with falling scores in American classrooms is teachers unions, who tolerate incompetence. I don't have a doubt that unions can, in some places, be stubbornly resistant to change and make progress difficult, but I also understand that power corrupts. I don't think I'd like to work in an operation where the workers had no say in what goes on.
And now Florida Rep. Kelli Stargel says teachers ought to be given the job of grading parents.
But silly. Besides, there's no money for more hallway cops, and we'd need 'em. My guess is violence would rise.
But Rep. Stargel's strange idea at least makes some people remember that in any classroom the teacher isn't the whole story. There's always more to it, and sometimes--not always, but sometimes--the chemistry that forms is something even the best teacher can't do much to shape or stanch.
Incompetence is incompetence. I say, as does everyone else, get the total schmucks out of the classroom. But if anyone thinks that bad teachers or their unions are the real cause of American's declining educational standards, they're not seeing the whole complicated character of education--here or anywhere else.