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A 'nonthreatening' voice for teachers

November 07, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Just last week, some members of The Herald-Mail's Editorial Page Advisory Committee were complaining that there's no real debate on the Washington County Board of Education, that the members who vowed to shake up the system have been ground down by it instead.

Judging by Tuesday's election, that complaint may not be valid for the board's next term, if it ever was. That's because the top vote-getter in that contest was not Bernadette Wagner or Roxanne Ober, the powerhouse campaign team of the last election, but Wayne Ridenour, a retired teacher who promises to speak up in way we haven't heard in a while.

In an op-ed published on Friday, Ridenour took aim at the federal No Child Left Behind Act, pledging to "speak out and lobby at every opportunity in an attempt to see the law either changed or repealed."

He cautioned against a curriculum that is so rigid that, out of fear of bad evaluations, teachers "replace tried-and-true techniques with scripted lessons supplied by book companies."


He said teachers need to be trusted to know when the lesson plan needs to be altered to meet the needs of a particular class and feel confident "that their efforts will be supported, not met with negative evaluations and personal improvement plans."

Ridenour said his agenda includes developing "a nonthreatening relationship among BOE, staff, teachers and support personnel that allows for dialogue, be it positive or negative. Fear of retribution or retaliation should not be a board tool to stifle dissenting voices."

Whether Ridenour is talking about retaliation that has already happened or a situation he'd like to prevent, is unclear now. He declined a request for an interview on Wednesday.

What does seem clear is that Ridenour became the focus of teachers' stress over NCLB and how it's changed their classrooms. They've probably gotten tired of Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan saying, as she did in a Nov. 1 op-ed of her own, that NCLB "is probably here to stay."

Maybe so, but Ridenour is at least promising to put up a fight, although it seems unlikely that the newly re-elected President Bush will renounce his own education program.

If you read between the lines of his op-ed, Ridenour is promising to do more than that. He wants to speak up for the teachers who consider what they're doing an art instead of a process that everyone can do - or has to do - in the same way.

Children are not like the steel they use to make transmissions at Mack Trucks. Get a bad batch of metal and you can throw it in the scrap bin and order more. But as anyone who knows anything about today's federal rules about special education is aware, children with problems can't just be booted out the door. Someone must get through to them, someone like a veteran teacher who knows what works.

On the other side of this argument is the position Morgan has taken, the position NCLB is based on, that the schools cannot use the fact that a child comes from a low-income single-parent family to excuse his or her lack of performance.

Here are my predictions. Ridenour will not rush into his board service like he's storming the barricades. He'll pay attention and do his homework, so that when he makes a point about something such as NCLB, it will be based on fact, rather than some off-the-cuff comment like those we've come to expect from County Commissioner John Munson.

For her part, Morgan will turn on the charm and probably offer Ridenour a ton of backup material to justify her own positions. If this leads to some reasoned public debate about school policy, is that a bad thing?

It may be more difficult to deal with Ridenour's complaint about the fact that teachers are asked to give up too much of their private time - and family life - to do school-related work at home. One of the few complaints I've heard from teachers in the past three years came as the 2004 school year began and one educator asked me to write about how many vacation days teachers spend getting ready for the start of classes.

(Just this week a teacher friend of my son, who teaches at Antietam Academy, agreed to come to dinner at our house only if she could bring along her notes to write her next week's lesson plans.)

What's the answer for that? More staff, to take care of some of the jobs that teachers have been given over the years because there was no one else to do them. It would be an additional expense, but it might make it easier to recruit good teachers who are willing to take less in salary in exchange for better working conditions.

Finally, over time Ridenour will find that sometimes he will have to say "no" to some of his old colleagues. The difference between being a great School Board member, as opposed to just a good one, will be whether he can convince them that his decision was the right one.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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