EDITOR’S NOTE: Class size does matter

The magic doesn’t happen in the superintendent’s office.

It doesn’t happen at a School Board meeting.

The magic happens in the classroom. And that’s where the only relationship that really matters exists, the one between teacher and student.

That magic is the pursuit of excellence.

Preserving that relationship is the top priority in any labor negotiation or a strike or an injunction or a decision by teachers to remain on the picket lines.

To its last available dime, a school district should spend whatever it takes to keep teachers and students together in a learning environment, even if it means hurtful cuts elsewhere.

I write today about class size – how many kids sit in a classroom – because it’s central to a strike by teachers in the Kent School District that’s keeping about 3,700 kids in the Renton area home from school.

We all have to speak out about what’s needed for public education, or we’re lost.

Obviously, I am not a teacher. I know I couldn’t keep two dozen or more 8-year-olds under control, let alone teach them the early basics of algebra that I barely understand myself.

Frankly, I think that’s true of some of the people out there who have all sorts of advice for – and criticism of – our teachers, yet simply don’t understand what it takes to run a classroom.

But I do have some experience, decades of it, because I am the husband of a teacher and the father of a teacher, both in the Kent School District and both who teach second grade.

So maybe if you don’t believe the teachers, maybe you’ll believe me, a family member and, more or less, a neutral third party.

The rhythm of my family’s life was set by the school calendar. It still is, even though our kids are grown and on their own. But at the same time we were raising them, we were paying back a student loan we needed so my wife could get a master’s degree, which she needed in order to teach.

I don’t need a master’s degree to keep my job and I bet that most of you don’t either. And I’ll bet that most of us don’t need to spend 150 hours every five years, mostly on our own time, of additional class time just to keep our jobs. That’s known as maintaining a continuing teacher contract.

Nor do most of us work side-by-side with co-workers whose understanding of English is limited at best. Try explaining the rudiments of algebra to a young immigrant child, one who is in the English Language Learner program, who’s still learning that every sentence ends with a period.

Perhaps it’s possible for that learning to happen, but the chances are greatly diminished when a teacher has only a few precious minutes to devote to each child in a too-full classroom.

Much has been made of standardized tests (read the WASL) whose results are becoming the sole criteria by which teachers are judged. It’s absurd to think that every child learns at the same pace. They aren’t all the same. We want them all to succeed in their own way and in their own time, but when that learning happens has to be measured by more than just a standardized test.

Trust teachers to do their jobs. They don’t need to be micromanaged. They have college degrees, some with enough credits to have doctorates. They have years of experience understanding what makes a particular type of child tick. They can recognize a learning style from miles away.

As I work on this column, it’s about 8:30 on Monday night. I am waiting to hear what the Kent teachers have decided, whether to defy a county judge.

Before she left this evening, my wife and I had our talk about the decision before her and how whatever she decided could affect our lives. Could she lose her job? Could she end up in jail? Would we have to dip into savings to pay court fines?

No doubt it’s the same conversation that other husbands and wives had, maybe even with their kids, as the strike continued to play out.

I think about a friend who’s also a Kent teacher and her husband, who’s a paraeducator in the district. As long as she’s on strike, he’s out of work and not getting paid. I worry that our daughter will lose her health benefits, just two months short of when our first grandchild is due.

So don’t tell me that teachers are striking on a lark.

And I think back on the hours my wife spends grading papers AT HOME. About the planning for the days and weeks ahead and about the hours upon hours spent AT HOME keeping records and writing comments three times a year on report cards.

The call just came in. It’s about 9 p.m. The teachers are sticking to their principles.

Class size does matter.

Dean A. Radford can be reached at 425-255-3484, ext. 5050.

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