A Column from the
Allentown Morning Call

Visit reveals how much teachers invest in learning

Last week, I spoke to seventh- and eighth-graders at Warren Hills Middle School in Washington, N.J., for a total of 2 1/2 hours. Afterwards, I was ready for a stiff Margarita and a nap and it was only 1:18 p.m. It wasn't that the kids were rude or disorderly. On the contrary, they were well behaved. Their English teacher, Susan DeYoung, a friend of mine, saw to that. They raised their hands, chiming in to answer questions I posed about journalists' ethical quandaries. But trying to teach them something of value while keeping them engaged in the process was exhausting. I was tap dancing as fast as I could and still continually worried about losing some of them. I did enough day dreaming during my own school career to know it when I see it.

DeYoung took over whenever she saw me flag, and seemed to know instinctively how to nip in the bud any early signs of anarchy. I wanted the students awake, alert and engaged but not raucous a lively debate, well short of a riot. That tightrope walk, mi compadres, is harder than it looks.

Denise Reaman, a former reporter for The Morning Call, found this out when she left the paper in 1999 to teach English and journalism at Freedom High School in Bethlehem Township. I asked her if she found teaching harder than reporting. ''It really is,'' she told me. ''When I went into it, I was covering education [for The Morning Call] and I went into some classrooms and thought, 'I could do this.' I was in for a rude awakening.''

She said the first year she was constantly exhausted and overwhelmed with grading papers and planning lessons. There are still weekends, she said, when she spends eight hours each day grading essays. Teachers can't get up and go to the bathroom whenever nature calls or grab a cup of coffee when they're tired. That alone seems like cruel and unusual punishment. ''It's almost like being on stage,'' Reaman said. ''You have to learn to gauge your audience. It's hard to control 30 people at once.'' Reaman said she also wasn't prepared for ''the diversity of learners'' and the need to gear lessons to students with a wide range of abilities. (If only the architects of No Child Left Behind had consulted her before mandating that 100 percent of students must be ''proficient'' in math and reading by 2014.)

I learned last Thursday that teachers have to watch what they say because it's hard to know how students will take off-the-cuff remarks or how parents might respond if word gets back to them. I made a feeble joke about a student being accused of molesting collies and DeYoung had to ask me between classes to ixnay the molesting collies. Despite these drawbacks, you can't talk to teachers like Reaman or DeYoung without realizing how invested they are in their students' learning. ''When you see it click, you can see it in their eyes,'' DeYoung said. ''When you see they get it, it's such a rush.'' ''The last week, I've had eight to 10 kids coming back from college to visit me,'' Reaman said. Some tell her they want to get into journalism, a compliment she relishes.

Public education critics ought to try teaching for a few months. Some of them, of course, were once educators. But then they became critics so they could go to the bathroom and take phone calls when they felt like it, and wouldn't have to wolf down lunch in 20 minutes. Critics don't have to deal with ''helicopter parents'' who hover, wanting daily reports on their children or parents at the other extreme who don't respond when teachers call to say their kid is having trouble.

The more time I spend in schools, the more I believe that those who can, teach. Those who can't teach, criticize.