Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My School Is Better Than Your School

I spent the days right before we broke for Christmas vacation huddled with several other English teachers and school administrators trying to devise a marketing plan for our school.

Yes, we teach English, and also work in advertising. We are the new “Madmen.”

The poor economy has caused a drop in enrollment at private schools like the one where I teach. This means cutting back, and layoffs for teachers and support personnel. We are forced, like so many other industries in these troubled times, to do more with less.

But the other reason why we lost students last year has nothing to do with the economy.

Parents now are shopping for better extra curricular activities, or additional sports teams, or more music, art and dance programs. The greatest interest, however, is in whatever school can guarantee their child’s acceptance into the college of their choice. In effect, they are school-hopping in a search of the Holy Grail of education: college admissions.

No school can guarantee college acceptance, and every school has its problems, its strengths and weaknesses. I should know; I’ve been at four schools in twenty-four years, and I have observed my wife’s experiences in six schools over the same time period. We are lifelong teachers, and we know the story. Schools can have tons of extra curricular activities, field all the sports including golf and lacrosse, have great programs before, during, and after school, topped off with the best academics in the world, but a good education is up to the student. The student must seize the day and excel, and good teaching and programs can only go so far. We cannot do it for the kid.

That does not stop parents from jumping ship if there is even the hint of a question about college acceptance, or a school offering one additional elective or sports team. Or what I find most frustrating, when one parent pulls his kid out of the school and four or five others follow suit just to “keep up with the Joneses.” Rumors start, and parents flock to the new school.

The kicker is that they often come back a year, or even a single semester later, discovering that what’s new really isn’t.

Time after time, admissions officials at major colleges and universities will tell you that the best preparation for college is a challenging academic program where a student puts forth his utmost effort and achieves at the highest level. Many schools, including mine, offer such a challenging program.

In the last year or so, I have seen participation in our school’s Advanced Placement program decline. When I ask students why they want to leave an AP class, they tell me they do not want to do the extra work required for challenging classes. What’s more, college counselors have told them that their grade point averages matter most. If they take an AP course and get a B, it would be more beneficial in the long run to take a standard class and get an A. For good students, playing it safe for the future is better than taking on challenging course work for the love of learning.

So does it pay to jump from school to school? No.

And what damage is done to the kid with school-hopping? It’s tough to adjust to new schools, new environments. Students need stability to do well, and shifting schools can be traumatic. A kid must start over trying to fit in and find his place in the school culture.

My school has one of the lowest tuition rates, offers many comparable programs and amenities of higher priced institutions, and we have a close-knit family atmosphere where teachers truly know their students and are accustomed to working with them across several years because we are a preschool through twelfth grade program. Do we have problems? Sure. No school is perfect. But a student can get a very good education at my school at a competitive rate.

Still, here we are, trying to sell ourselves to a fickle clientele looking for the sure thing. Ladies and gentlemen, the sure thing does not exist.

So on Saturday, the faculty and staff will gather on campus voluntarily to hold an Open House for perspective students and their parents. We will talk curricula, course offerings, sports teams, clubs, activities, and offer tours of the campus. Refreshments will be served.

Teachers and staff volunteering their time on a weekend says a lot about their belief in what they are doing. We are committed educators who want our students to achieve, to excel, to go on to become productive members of society who succeed in their chosen fields.

We are also, in these strange times, salesmen. We are selling a school, an education. It is not enough that we work fifteen to eighteen hour days, that we support, encourage, and advocate for our students. On Saturday at 11:00 AM, we will try to sell ourselves to the world. These are strange days, indeed.

4 comments:

xxshady said...

Great post. A lot of students think that their chances of going to a good college will automatically increase by going to a more popular, prestigious school, yet most of these students are the ones who don't even try their hardest to get good grades.


"The kicker is that they often come back a year, or even a single semester later, discovering that what’s new really isn’t."

Very true.


-Shahe

Hannah said...

Mr. Martin,

I had commented on one of your previous posts about how I plan to teach high school. As a future teacher I was just curious what your opinion is on working at a private high school versus a public one?

Paul L. Martin said...

I teach in a private school because I went to a private school from kindergarten through twelfth grade. I happen to think highly of private schools, and since I was educated in such institutions, I wanted to work through my career in a private school to give something back to students like me.

Many teachers in private schools have credentials, masters and post-graduate degrees. Some do not. Over my two decades in the classroom, I have observed that having such degrees and credentials might make someone a better teacher, but if a person does not have the gift to teach, she will not survive in this job.

I have met many horrible teachers, ones whose students were little better than hostages each day, who had every credential and degree known to man. Public and private schools contain both kinds, the gifted teacher and the horrible wretch, and needless to say, the bad ones need to go. In a private school with a year-to-year contract, the bad get weeded out; incompetent public school teachers with union protection are not as vulnerable.

My cousin began her teaching career in the Los Angeles Unified School District several years ago. For the first five weeks of school, she had no textbooks. There were not enough books to issue to all the classes, so they had to take turns. She was left with nothing to do but improvise for more than a month. When she finally got the books, she discovered that new copies sat wrapped in plastic just down the hall, but they were not approved yet for distribution. Red tape and bureaucracy.

A few summers ago, I went to a Shakespeare workshop. The majority of the participants were public school teachers. We spent two hours the first day in a “movement” class, where the instructor told us “it does not matter if our students understood Shakespeare.” She then had us perform creative dance movements to music.

Later at lunch, several of my public school colleagues explained that the only reason why they came to such workshops, at a cost of several hundred dollars per person to the district, was to increase their salaries with salary points.

Do private school teachers go to workshops for the money? We do not get more salary based on workshop attendance. Most of my colleagues attend workshops because they want to learn a new methodology, or how to help students understand Shakespeare.

I have a private school mentality. We offer our students a challenging academic program that prepares them for college and the future. We do it cheaply and efficiently. We are also not afraid to teach morals, values and ethics, or to offend someone’s delicate sense of political correctness.

Students and teachers want to be in a private school, or they would choose to go elsewhere, and that keeps everyone focused on the same page: the education of the child. I do not believe that it takes layers of bureaucracy to run a school. I do not believe administrators and support staff should outnumber classroom teachers. I do not believe standardized test scores, exit exams, and social promotion should drive educational philosophy and curricula. I do not believe a teacher should be rehired if his job performance is not spectacular. There is nothing inferior or deficient about being a private school teacher, and in the end, it boils down to the teacher’s choice, and the final decision you make will probably have a lot to do with where you went to school.

Good luck and thanks for the comment.

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you for your comment, Shahe. You make an excellent observation.