Opinions Page Editor

Mike Dunbar: Teachers volunteer to help all who need it

mdunbar@modbee.comMay 10, 2014 

Before you complain about the state of education, you should volunteer to hear the real story ... from the kids.

There are many opportunities. Over the past few weeks, several events have called for volunteers – and many people have responded. Two weeks ago, Modesto’s Enochs High hosted the state speech tournament and dozens volunteered for the difficult (yet rewarding) task of judging the best young orators in our state.

Tammy, my spouse, and I each heard a tiny fraction of them. One speaker in particular moved Tammy. The young woman spoke of her family history and the Armenian genocide that occurred as World War I was unfolding. Ancient history for most, but in the Armenian culture, the horrors of being dragged from homes, herded into cattle cars and left to starve in a desert still throbs. The young woman made it compelling.

The last two weekends, we helped judge the Academic Pentathlon essay-writing competition in San Joaquin County. AcaPen is the junior high version of Academic Decathlon, with only five events. We volunteer every year, but we work in the background. This year there were 400 essays (each needing to be judged twice), so we dove in.

Coaches teach the kids the rule of three – one example from literature, one from history and one personal – to address the prompt. But the writer of the first essay I picked up didn’t follow the formula.

Instead, an eighth-grader wrote about what it was like to be in a home with only one parent – his mother. He wrote of catching glimpses of his father drifting through the streets, a homeless substance abuser. And he wrote of his 14th birthday when his father joined in singing “Happy Birthday.” Sober.

There would be no medal for this kid; too many misspellings and fragmented sentences. He didn’t even really address the prompt. But I hope he was not too disappointed. I think he already has a much greater prize than a medal – a sober father in his midst.

His mother deserves admiration. In the midst of hardship, her son has learned the value of home, education and family. He didn’t learn that on his own. Fortunately, this mother had help.

I told a few of the other volunteers, mostly teachers, about the paper. They all shook their heads; it was not an unfamiliar story.

“At each of these events ... there are always those feel-good stories,” said Annie Cunial, who coordinates competitions for the San Joaquin County Office of Education. “Often they don’t have anything to do with the medals. They’re the stories we want to make movies about and then those movies make us cry.”

A huge number of kids (35 percent nationally) live in single-parent homes. Most are poor. Many see the ravages of substance abuse on a daily basis; some get breakfast and lunch at school and some spend their nights in shelters. And yet they still come to school, still hunger for learning, still want to be encouraged and coached and taught.

In every one of the 30 schools involved in AcaPen, for every one of the 400 kids, there’s a teacher who provides that coaching, provides that encouragement and feeds that hunger. It’s not part of their 8-to-4 classroom duties. In volunteering to coach AcaPen, Science Olympiad, speech tournaments, etc., these teachers reach far beyond the classroom.

What do they get for their hundreds of hours of extra effort? The joy of seeing the kids learn, grow and succeed ... or at least overcome.

It’s in vogue to criticize public schools, often in the name of fixing them. The critics try to avoid picking on teachers, but give themselves away when they tear away at seniority and pensions and refuse to acknowledge the money teachers take out of their own pockets to help their students.

Fortunately, these teachers don’t do it for the critics. They do it for the kids. And when those kids give a great speech, win a math medal or just show up and compete, the teachers get their real reward.

Bee Opinions Page Editor Mike Dunbar can be reached at mdunbar@modbee.com or (209) 578-2325.

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