June 19, 2018
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Maine’s schools are not factories

By William Murphy, Special to the BDN

Let me venture to say, on behalf of my colleagues who teach public school in the state of Maine, that I am so tired of hearing our profession berated by one politician after another. Usually I read what they say and do not respond, for, after all, I have tests to write, lessons to prepare, papers to grade and essays to read.

But I cannot let the latest tag-team attack by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage pass without a response. Besides, today is, as I write this, a snow day.

Apparently, as Mal Leary noted in a recent article (“School bills strive for kid-friendly learning,” BDN, Jan. 26), Bowen and LePage are preparing “several school choice bills” for this legislative session. “Our goal,” Bowen said, “is to build a system that is built around kids.”

As with most of Bowen’s remarks, this one sounds good until, that is, one begins to think about it. First of all, we already have built and put into practice such a system. In the public high school where I work, we have established numerous levels of education in each discipline in order to meet the needs of individual students.

Consider English, for example. At each grade level in the high school, we offer basic English, intermediate English, college prep English and honors or AP English. And in all these classrooms the students are offered individual help and guidance whenever they need it or ask for it. In spite of ever-diminishing resources, we continue to do our best for our kids.

In addition to these English offerings, we also provide general freshmen with an innovative interdisciplinary course called The Global Classroom that combines English, geography and Special Education, or SPED. These ninth-grade students develop their writing skills and knowledge of geography by regularly conversing — over the Internet — with other students in other classrooms around the world.

For those students who seek a more rigorous academic experience and a chance to earn college credit, we also offer two other interdisciplinary programs: Global Studies for sophomores combines world literature and world history, and American Experience for juniors combines American history, American literature and composition.

To help us further meet individual student needs, we also have an excellent alternative high school called BCOPE, a hardworking SPED staff and a learning lab. The latter is open all day and is staffed by teachers and volunteer tutors from the National Honor Society.

Bowen and LePage claim their new legislative proposals will end the “industrial” model of education that is currently in place “where,” Bowen said, “the kids are the widgets and we roll them down the assembly line.”

This may indeed have been the model a hundred years ago — I doubt it; good teaching has never been anything like assembly-line work — but it is certainly not the model today. I daresay that not a single public school teacher in Maine considers his or her students “widgets” — what are those, anyway?

We teachers all know that each and every student is an individual and that if we are going to be effective, we must meet that individual where he or she stands and lead them forward in knowledge and skill to the best of our ability. Teaching is not an industrial labor; it is a humanistic art.

For Bowen and LePage to imply repeatedly that public education in Maine is not an art but rather a crude and thoughtless task not only dishonors assembly-line workers but is also insulting to the students who attend public schools, to the families who support public schools and to the staff who work in such schools and are tirelessly devising ways to improve them.

William Murphy teaches at Belfast Area High School.

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