Wednesday, March 30, 2005 | When did schools become responsible for character development? How did parents get let off the hook for raising principled children? And why are teachers at fault when one of our young goes astray?

By refusing to set limits, discuss delicate subjects, make time for one another, and exemplify decent moral behavior, many parents and guardians are contributing to the crisis in public education today.

The effect of this abdication of responsibility is that teachers have had to focus on the “well-rounded child” – one who is learned as well as virtuous, trustworthy, respectful, empathetic, responsible, patriotic and ethical.

As a result, teaching students basic academic subject matter now only accounts for a portion of a teacher’s workday.

Teachers now teach about sex, AIDS, contraception, eating disorders, nutrition, physical fitness, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, suicide prevention, Internet safety, patriotism citizenship, respect for diversity, self-esteem, character and morality. They are also expected to provide childcare, nursing, discipline for unruly behavior, grief counseling and psychological services.

Periodically, there are tragedies in the world that also require attention – such as the tsunami disaster, 9/11, child abductions, school shootings, war and famine. Then there are politically charged issues like evolution, abortion and prayer in school – and campus concerns like cell phone usage, cheating and dress code violations – that also intrude on precious classroom minutes.

Is it any wonder teachers, already pressured by state and federal agencies demanding ever-higher test scores, struggle to find adequate time to teach core material?

School shooting

Looking at the evidence now, in hindsight, it is apparent that he was a desperate teen in distress. Calls by the national media that teachers should have “done more” by recognizing the signs are, however, completely unfair.

What should teachers do when they suspect a teen is potentially dangerous? There are plenty of kids in San Diego high schools who emulate neo-Nazis or sport Gothic clothes, black lipstick, spiked hair, weird body piercings and creepy tattoos. Many other kids continue to be teased, bullied, isolated and rejected, despite increased awareness of the pain and alienation this victimizing behavior causes.

How many of them will snap? Some may. But most do not. Do teachers have an obligation to report any and all suspicious conduct? Which ones should be identified, counseled, shipped off and packed away?

And how many of us 30 or 40 years ago would have fit this category?

Overworked teachers

So communities insist that teachers do a better job of educating our youth in reading, writing, math and science, and we hold them accountable through various superficial testing measures that penalize failure yet don’t adequately reward success.

If that were all teachers had on their plates, maybe the quality of teaching would improve. But we expect them to be surrogate parents as well, and we burden them with the task of teaching our children about matters that we parents find to be too objectionable, time-consuming or challenging.

Instead of addressing the issue of easy access to guns and widespread images of violence in the media, society blandly accepts these aberrant conditions and asks that schools convert to fortresses to protect our children from one another. So teachers become prison guards who are at fault for any breach of security, when it is parents who should bear ultimate responsibility.

The Columbine massacre, for example, might have been prevented if either killer’s parents had bothered to peer into their sons’ bedrooms to view the arsenal of weapons being amassed.

It is inexcusable to blame teachers for not recognizing warning signs in our disturbed youth. This is not what they are paid to do. If this is what we expect of teachers, then let’s not ask them to be accountable for increased learning as well. They can either be teachers – or they can be babysitters or therapists or wardens – but they can’t be all things to all children.

A teacher is just that – a teacher. They are not doctors, psychologists, police officers or clergy. And they are not parental proxies. Teaching kids about life and how to cope is a parent’s duty, not a teacher’s.

Let’s do our job better, so teachers can do theirs.

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