Surprisingly, though, it isn’t pay, primarily, that makes people leave teaching. Survey after survey has revealed that what mostly drives teachers from teaching is students, and what keeps teachers in teaching is students.
Students are what kept me in teaching — students like future Cobb Superior Court Judge Tain Kell, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton, Liberty Church pastor the Rev. John Fichtner, Cobb business woman Debbie Smith Abernathy, Chick-Fil-A executive David Farmer, and hundreds of others who are neither judges, pastors, nor business leaders but are making their mark just as well by working, raising families, and being good citizens.
Granted, Cobb has had underperforming schools, but overall, what has caused the system as a whole to thrive? Why is it that a nearby metro county that was also leading the way nationally for decades is now absolutely mired in mediocrity and controversy?
We know that leadership matters and that Cobb has had many celebrated classroom teachers, but let’s be honest: the chief reason that Cobb has maintained good schools is that good students walk through the school doors each morning. Former Gov. Lester Maddox once remarked that what Georgia prisons needed was “a better grade of prisoner.” Likewise, what weak schools need is a better grade of students, and what produces a better grade of students is a better grade of parents. Cobb apparently has a high number of good parents.
Cobb has also benefitted from community leaders who have supported our schools and have worked hard to promote excellence throughout the county. I am particularly appreciative of the work of people like Barry Teague who has always been creative in finding ways to encourage individual students who live in his Walton Communities properties, as well as helping the schools those students attend. Partially because of the community support our schools receive, I believe that any Cobb citizen who walked through a Cobb County school and talked to a principal, teachers, and students would leave proud.
Alas, all the world is not like Cobb County. Neither is all of Georgia. In 2009 and 2010, I traversed the state twice while running for state school superintendent. Visiting big towns and small, wealthy counties and poor, and talking to countless local superintendents, parents, and civic groups was an unforgettable pleasure. Over a nine-month period of fairly extensive travel, I made some observations and discovered some very interesting sentiments about public education.
One observation was the disparity between rural schools and those of affluent counties. Despite such things as state equalization grants, intended to help less affluent systems, I saw tangible, material needs (inadequate buildings, limited space, etc.) in many areas.
Interestingly enough, however, the sentiments expressed by those I visited seldom centered on brick and mortar. Instead they indicated a vague dissatisfaction toward what and how much students were learning. I say vague because many people could not always pinpoint what they didn’t like about public education. They could only opine that they didn’t think their children, especially those in high school, were learning enough. I heard this complaint in both metro and rural counties. Quite a few parents told me their high schools were not hard enough and that their high schoolers didn’t really have to study.
It hurt to hear some of these sentiments because I know how hard most teachers work (not the striking Chicago teachers, of course). Teachers do school work at night, usually, and always on Sunday afternoons. They also, too often, meet with resistance from students and parents whenever they attempt to challenge students and make them think and work. Even so, I accepted the criticism because I, too, have seen too many high school students who were capable of so much more than what was being required of them. In further defense of teachers, it is difficult to teach content when so much time must be given to preparation for federally required standardized tests.
Another complaint I heard throughout the state was about “bad parents.” When I asked one elderly man to define “bad parent,” he replied, “Those that don’t discipline their own children and make life hellish for teachers and principals.”
Everywhere I went on this campaign trail, my thoughts turned to Cobb County. Too often we start believing that the world at large is much like our own little world. Of course it isn’t, and that’s why school choice and the charter school amendment are much bigger issues in other places than they are in Cobb County.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.