Our Indispensable Teachers

by Matthew Raley Take a 16-year-old and tell him what "cosine" is. Today at 10:25 a.m.

Make sure he knows that, in a right triangle, it's "the ratio of the side adjacent to a given angle to the hypotenuse." And you have less than fifty minutes. Tomorrow, the 16-yr-old has to learn something else, and something else after that, all the way to the tests that tell Secretary of Education Arne Duncan what you did all year.

My teachers, such as Chico High math pros Laurie Kincheloe and Dan Sours, understood that they were not information-conveyers interfacing with information-receivers. Each day, Mrs. Kincheloe and Mr. Sours opened a bridge from their minds to mine and walked difficult concepts across it. Teachers at every level and in every subject opened this bridge in a twelve-year collaboration that gave me knowledge, not just data.

Teaching is a communication feat. Mortimer Adler called it one of the cooperative arts: two beings, teacher and learner, have to work together, the teacher often enduring a struggle inside the learner, watching catlike for the moment to spring with a word.

For teachers to pull off this feat, families have to prepare students with the disciplines that make life work. Self-control, attention to detail, and good use of time are some of the skills that move students closer to their teachers.

Today, our community asks teachers to open a bridge with students who often aren't ready for learning. As Chico Grace Brethren has begun building a friendship with our neighbors at Fair View High School, I have been sobered to learn the chasms that teachers have to cross.

Consider the problem of poor school attendance. Our community used to assume that families would get students to school. But now many families are not strong enough to do that. Fair View principal David McKay says, "Students need to connect before they can accelerate their skills. They can’t connect if they’re not here."

Mr. McKay and the staff have set a goal of increasing attendance, recognizing that students need self-management skills to reach that goal. "We made a significant investment in our student support/counseling services last year," Mr. McKay says, "with the idea to boost opportunities for students to connect to an adult on campus and to stay connected with an adult when they felt their life spinning out of control."

Building those relationships has made a dramatic impact. For 10 years, Fair View attendance averaged 76%. Last year, attendance jumped to 86%.

Take another example of the chasms between students and knowledge. Our community used to assume that classrooms would be safe, but those days are gone. Among other factors behind school violence, students often aren't able to deal with their own anger.

Again, the Fair View staff take a relational approach. The biggest factor in managing challenging behavior, Mr. McKay says, "is having a well-trained staff, with the heart for kids, who know how to 'read the subtitles' of their behavior." Staff attend 4-5 workshops a year to keep up with the latest ways to manage hostility, and then train each other in what they learn. They strive to address the underlying need or emotion behind a student's behavior quickly.

The impact of a healthier campus shows in suspension rates. Fewer than 5% of Fair View students had to be sent home last year. Students are responding to staff interventions. The impact also shows in a low incidence of fighting. For the last 5 years among the four schools and 400 people at Fair View there have been fewer than 10 fights a year.

The teachers who open a bridge with their students at such a personal level every day are doing heroic work. And that's before they even get to the definition of "cosine." At Fair View, teachers' feats are evident in the more than 100 students who have been graduated annually for the last 5 years. And I have only given a snapshot of what teachers are doing in one school. Teachers across our region are meeting the same challenges.

As a new school year begins, it's not enough for us to recognize this accomplishment. We need to participate.

Individuals, service clubs, and churches all over Chico have made volunteering in schools a priority. As they mentor students, they are rebuilding our community's consensus about the disciplines that make life work.

Believers in Jesus Christ should have passion for this effort, especially when it comes to helping families bring order to their lives through the power of the Gospel. We follow a Savior whose specialty is not just feats of communication but miracles of healing.

Ultimately, our community needs Him.