Teachers Talk … But Who Listens?

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Godar
Title: Teachers Talk… But Who Listens?
VTR: 12/16/1990

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And like most Americans, I know that, outside of my home, if I were to identify the most influential person in my life, the one who over the years has had the most formative impact upon what and who it is I am, or at least aspire to be, it would be a teacher; Doc Guernsey at DeWitt Clinton for me, no doubt some other strongly remembered classroom presence for you. And now as parents and grandparents too, we routinely pay our respects to the role of teacher and teaching in America to the importance of education to the survival of our nation. But only routinely I fear, almost by rote, surely by political instinct as in “the education President,” and hardly ever accompanied by meaningful action. For a scratch just a bit below our surface and Americans seem much more to embrace the Shavian notion: that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

And teachers sense that contempt, of course. It’s there to confront them every day in their salaries and their workloads, too frequently in the relations with parents, in their status and authority in our communities, indeed even in their lessened control over their own professional input. Yet, most often they stay the course, not without good reason to be sure, but with qualms and with great hesitation too, which they are quite capable of talking about. My guest today has listened to teachers talk. John Godar is a talented, devoted teacher right out of mid-America, Ohio, who took the time to travel across our country recently, listening to teachers talk, the title of his new book published by Glenbridge. And I want to begin by asking Mr. Godar what hopes teachers harbor that Americans will listen to teachers talk, listen and then do the right thing.

GODAR: I think that’s the biggest thing they seem to be talking about is that so many Americans really don’t feel like teachers are very high in the status ladder or don’t feel they are deserving of the little bit of money that they get. And teachers are hoping that a book like this might get people to listen to them. So many teachers were like, “Yeah go ahead, do this,” because, you know, they knew I was trying to publish the book. They are very much for, and hopeful that people would finally listen to them as opposed to college professors, businessmen, the administrations of the schools. It’s the teachers who seem to know what’s going on but no one seems to be listening to them.

HEFFNER: Alright, historically now, has that always been true or have teachers played a more important role?

GODAR: I think in the past, especially if you go back a hundred years and you’ve got the schoolmarm or the school teacher who was really an important part of the community because they were one of the few people who could read and write. But today with degrees being pretty much a dime a dozen, so many people have degrees that the teaching profession is no longer looked upon as it was in the past.

HEFFNER: But we continue to hear people talk about the importance of education. I said scratch anyone and you get an attitude towards teaching that may be negative, but when you listen to people speak, when you listen to our politicians, one would assume that we fully know how important education is. How do you account for the disparity?

GODAR: I think a part of it is that teaching, at least in the public schools, is publicly funded. And whenever you have something funded by taxes you’re going to have people saying we really need to support this, but when there’s the time to dig into their wallets, they’re going to be voting against school levies. I come from Cincinnati, we just voted down a school levy there. And to my mind, if they had walked through a single school in the inner city, they could not have even doubted that they needed the money. But people tend to be rather cheap with their money when it comes to taxes. In this country we rank 14th out of the fourteen largest industrial nations in what we spend on K-12 education from the public funding. And the United States should not be 14th out of the fourteen industrial nations. They don’t want to pay the bill I think is the problem.

HEFFNER: You know, driving down to the studio to do our program today, listening to the radio, I heard about one poll which indicated, not in the area of schools and education, but in the area of environmental matters, that a study commissioned by some large magazine identified American’s willingness to spend as much as $200 more a piece to clean up the environment. Now, I don’t believe it. And I think what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t believe it because it isn’t true about teaching.

GODAR: No, they’ll say that they’re willing to support the schools but when they vote down school levies it kind of difficult to believe them. And it’s not just Cincinnati; it’s across the nation they’re voting them down. And even when they vote for one, it’s usually one that’s been watered down so that it doesn’t look like so much of a raise, and people will finally pass something like that. More people tell me that education is the most important thing in this country but I don’t see them supporting it with their time, or with their wallet, or with their respect which is equally as important.

HEFFNER: Now, why do these men and women stay then?

GODAR: That’s a question that I asked a lot of teachers when I was writing the book. You know, why are you still in it? I have a section on teachers who quit, and why they got out. The ones who stay in it are those people who can be satisfied by other things than money. I ran into an awful lot of ex-Peace Corps members who went into teaching. And I think it’s that child of the 60s type, which I freely admit I am, who went into that career and who get their buttons pushed by other things than money or power. They get a great deal of pleasure out of knowing that they helped somebody. I said at the end of the book that I’ve probably influenced maybe a hundred students out of my fourteen years of teaching, maybe a hundred and fifty, which isn’t too many. But when you think about a hundred and fifty lives I’ve influenced, how many other careers can help to influence the lives of a hundred and fifty people in their career. To me, that’s satisfaction. It may not be to other people who are looking for the six figure salaries and to drive the fancy cars. If that’s what you want, you’re not a teacher. The ones who stay in it are getting their satisfaction through people oriented things.

HEFFNER: Yes but aren’t you then, not contradicting, but undermining your own purposes when you say that. The viewer, a listener says then well that’s fine. That’s what I expect of teachers. They’re noble people.

GODAR: So don’t pay them any more.

HEFFNER: So don’t pay them any more.

GODAR: As a matter of fact until the eighties I think that was happening a great deal. And finally the NEA and AFT associations around the country started really getting more union-like, and started really bargaining for higher money and salaries have come up. But I talked to one local association president down in Arizona who said the reasons teachers aren’t getting the money is they’re becoming martyrs and they’re talking like martyrs. And I think you’re right. They’re saying, “We don’t do this for the money. We do it for satisfaction.” And so they’re not getting paid. And I think there has to be some evening off there because teachers definitely do deserve more money even though they are willing to pay out 250 bucks a year, which most teachers do by the way, of their own money to get things for their own classroom.

HEFFNER: Now, when you find teachers becoming concerned enough about their lot, and from your book I gather it’s not just about their salaries, it’s about their own professional input, it’s a matter of relationships with parents, it’s a matter of the role they are now made to assume, or about the various roles they’re made to assume in the classroom. When they set those things aside as sufficient rewards and become involved in union matters, do you find that there’s a falling off of the idealism that obviously characterizes teachers these days?

GODAR: Not at all. No, I haven’t noticed that. As a matter of fact, the city I was in that had the strongest association, union if you wish, was really more involved in teaching the teachers and giving them continuing education opportunities than the school district was. And I find that most of the teachers, now this isn’t true all of the time, but most of the ones involved in union activities or association activities are very, very into their careers and very, very into wanting to do these things, not for themselves but for the students that they’re working with.

HEFFNER: Now, a couple of times you corrected yourself. You made a point; changed the word from union to association.

GODAR: Right.

HEFFNER: Why?

GODAR: I’ve been an NEA member, and the NEA considers their locals associations. AFT, American Federation of Teachers, considers them unions. So I’m always very careful not to offend anybody. There are AFT members, there are NEA members. And I figure, well, I’ll cover the whole spectrum there.

HEFFNER: No philosophical difference?

GODAR: I don’t think there is. If you talk to someone in the higher levels of either of those organizations, they can probably shoot at you twenty reason why they’re different. I’ve looked at what both groups stand for. I see very few differences, a few here and there but for the most part teaching at the local district level, if you’re a union or an association there’s no difference.

HEFFNER: What about the matter of devotion? I mean you indicate, you talk about the former, or you talk about the Peace Corps generation, of which you’re a member.

GODAR: Right.

HEFFNER: And this motivated so many people to come in, but you also in your book quote a great many older people. Now I admit, you point out that many of them are about to retire. And the idealism that characterized their entrance into teaching is going to find what as a substitute?

GODAR: Well I think that a lot of people who have gotten older have lost that idealism if they’re in teaching. They’ve become burned out, and you burn out very quickly in teaching. I wrote the book after twelve years, and one reason I took the year off was because I was burnt out even after twelve years. I’m not certain what we’re getting as far as new teachers coming in, if they’re as idealistic as maybe my generation was. But I did interview a group of college students who were training to be teachers. And they told me, to a one, that they were in it because they wanted to help society. And maybe I just got a small group that happened to be that way, but it seems like most of the people still going into the career have that same kind of idealism. And I think a lot of the older teachers had it, but somewhere along the way they tend to have lost it.

HEFFNER: Would that indicate that you believe burn out requires either substantial sabbatical leaves or changing one’s profession?

GODAR: I think that there are a lot of things that you can do. Those are two ways of dealing with it. One thing that also helps is to be able to change the type of teaching you are doing. Say you’re a third grade teacher, you might want to move back to the second or move up to forth, or something of that sort. You have to redo all of your different lessons and that kind of recharges you also. A sabbatical is a wonderful idea if you use it, like to go out and take classes to learn psychology-type things that will help you in the classroom, or like I did, to write a book that was still dealing with education.

HEFFNER: Now, in the book you make the point that so many teachers find that they have seen or found the enemy. It’s not the kids, it’s the parents.

GODAR: Right.

HEFFNER: How so? Why so?

GODAR: In so many cases we have people out there who are parenting who really don’t know much about parenting, or are too busy to parent, or are a single parent, are just exhausted when they come home and really don’t have the time. I can tell you so many stories of my own and of other teachers, where you call a parent and they’ll say to you, “You take care of the kid at school. I take care of the kid at home.” And that’s a hard attitude to try and deal with because we need cooperation with the parents. I’ve had parents lie to me. I used to teach writing classes. We’d have a paper due maybe every other week or so. Every day there was a paper due I had two or three kids out. And we knew they weren’t sick, but the parent would call in, say “Bobby is sick,” “Judy is sick,” and the paper then was of course accepted the next day. The kid was staying home to finish the paper. The parent knew that. Those types of small things are giving the kid the wrong impression about education, and obviously there’s no cooperation there at all. I had another parent I called, and I told him his son was failing. His response was, “Well if he fails, I’ll kick him out of the house.” You have all sorts of ways that parents don’t cooperate, whether it be that they don’t care or they care too much in some cases. When you have the parent of a second grader tell the second grade teacher, “My son needs to get an A in your class because he’s going to Harvard,” then I think we have some parenting skills there that need to be polished there.

HEFFNER: And what’s the likelihood, in terms of your own twelve year experience, that those skills will be more finely honed?

GODAR: I think that’s one of the major problems with education; that the skills are going down, that so many double parents working, both parents out of the home, or like I said before, single parents. I don’t see it improving, I see it getting worse. And what we need to do is to get the parents involved in the schools like back in the fifties when the PTA was almost a social obligation that a parent had to be there.

HEFFNER: But, a social obligation at a time of more involvement in one working parent suburban living.

GODAR: Exactly. We always had the mother for the most part in the fifties that came to the PTA meetings. There was a school district in California that actually sent buses out at night for the open houses just like they did for kids during the day, hoping to bring in what was mainly a blue collar area to the schools. And even with the buses out there, and I think they spent something like 20,000 on this to pay the bus drivers, et cetera, they still only had a 13% turnout of parents. I don’t know what you can do to educate parents to get them to participate more in the system. But I do know that the parents that participate have better students. I taught both honors classes and I taught what we call non-academic classes. In my honors classes on parents’ night, the room was packed. There was a parent in every chair there. In my non-academic classes, nada. There wasn’t a single parent that showed up. And I think that says something right there, that these kids who are not getting that parental help or motivation are not doing as well in the schools.

HEFFNER: You know, there are always people who see that the glass is half-empty rather than half-full. I think I tend to be that kind of person myself. Are we dealing with something that is more serious than the observation by those who are so inclined that the glass is half-empty?

GODAR: I think so, because I think we’re seeing a less kind and gentle nation. And I think parents illustrate that, not because they’re consciously trying not to be good parents, but because they’re so busy today, especially in the suburban district trying to support the lifestyle they want, or in a very inner-city district just trying to survive, that with all the economic problems, they do not do what parents did in the past did for their children. And we see it so often. If a parent says to me, “My child isn’t reading well,” and you know, I agree with them, I have the test score in front of me, “What can I do?” My first question is, “Well how often does your kid see you read at home?” And the parent is like, “Well I don’t have time to do that. I mean any time I have that’s extra, I turn on the TV and watch whatever it happens to be.” Well if the parent isn’t willing to make that sacrifice, that they’ll sit down and read, how do they expect their child to do that?

HEFFNER: Alright, now, how do you expect any change to take place given your description of the social dynamics of our country?

GODAR: It sounds odd, but I think the one institution that can make these changes and has made these changes is the schools. Look at integration, for example. It’s not working everywhere. But when society at large decided we needed to integrate, where did they turn to? Not the churches, not really even the government, they turned to the schools and they said, well, integrate our children. I think that if schools can do more on the citizenship level and the parenting-type skills that can be taught in high school, a sort of basic survival-type skills, then I think maybe we can make some changes.

HEFFNER: Yes, but there are those, many people who say that one of our problems over the past generation is that the schools have been asked to do too many things. And now you want them, really, to do everything.

GODAR: There’s one thing that we need to change to be able to do this. And, yes the schools have been asked to do everything and they’ve been asked to do things they’re not equipped for. We need to train the teachers better, also. But if you would reduce class size, get some slightly better trained teachers, not because the teachers we have aren’t good but they’re just not given psychology training, sociology training, parenting-type skills; reduce class sizes in the primary grades, that’s K through 5, to maybe fifteen kids – it will cost some money – then those primary school teachers can diagnose the various individual problems that all these wounded kids were getting in our schools – this child needs L.D. tutoring, this child needs counseling, this child needs accelerated classes – then I think the schools can do a much better job. But if you continue to give them 30 and 40 in a classroom, that won’t happen.

HEFFNER: But why do you posit even the possibility, when you yourself have described in “Teacher’s Talk” just the diametrically opposed opposite?

GODAR: The opposite is happening because the funding isn’t there to reduce the class size and nothing has changed in the teacher’s colleges over the last twenty years. I think if we had the funding, and I’m not certain we’re going to get it but that’s what we need to do. You look at President Bush, for example, saying he wants to be the “Education President.” If he’d put the money into that and back up those words, we could reduce the class size and we could make these changes. Maybe it’s still my sixties idealism coming through. I’m not completely burned out; it’s only been fourteen years for me, not thirty. But I do believe the schools can do it. And most of the teachers I talked to said, “We’ll do this work. We’ll take on these parenting skills. But give us the time, give us the training, and give us the materials that we need to do it.”

HEFFNER: What’s the option? Given the fact that what you have described in terms of communities rejecting bond issues and other means of financing better schools, or at least better financed schools, what’s the option?

GODAR: I think that the major reason most people vote down school levies is because they don’t see the schools succeeding. And it’s sort of a catch-22. Schools aren’t succeeding because they’re not getting the funds to deal with a vastly different child than what we’ve had in the past, sort of the MTV kid versus the American Bandstand kid. And what the schools have got to do is get out there and do some more PR for themselves and say, “Look, this can be accomplished. But we need these things to help us to accomplish it.” And until the American population agrees that schools can succeed, it’s almost a psychological thing, they’re not going to succeed.

HEFFNER: I have to stop you when Bob Pittman who developed MTV was here having just indicated in a piece that he wrote for the New York Times that he thought we ought to incorporate that approach in our dealing with youngsters as far as social problems are concerned, teenage pregnancy, drug use, et cetera. I like this business of yours, the MTV rather than American Bandstand generation. What’s the difference?

GODAR: What one difference that people don’t look at is that American Bandstand was on for, I think, an hour and a half on Saturday afternoon. MTV is on twenty-four hours. And we’re getting a much more visually oriented generation. It almost sounds kind of silly, but think about a kid who sits in front of the TV for his hobby, as opposed to a kid who would read at least occasionally for his hobby. And one reason why reading and writing has been so much sloughed off at home is that kids can turn on that tube and watch that rather, it really kind of makes you want to keep watching it type television. And it’s very good entertainment, but they’re not doing any reading. They become very visually oriented. When go to read, that’s not something, they can’t use their imagination; they can’t think about what it would look like. That’s one of the problems.

I think MTV versus American Bandstand also shows you the difference in our morality in society. Not that we’ve gotten worse, necessarily, but much more open. And the kids you’re getting in school today are so much more knowledgeable about things than they were, say, back in the fifties and sixties. They’re also more knowledgeable about things that perhaps we’d been trying to protect our kids from seeing. There was a psychologist in Time magazine a couple of weeks ago that said the things that we tried to keep our children from seeing for years are now on TV and visible to everybody. Maybe it’s not bad, but it needs to be discussed more. And if a parent just lets a kid watch MTV and never discusses why Madonna is tying somebody up or whatever it happens to be, then that kid’s going to get some rather negative ideas about all sorts of subjects.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s not be too fast to say maybe it’s not bad. Let’s say the thrust of… I think the thrust of your argument would be that it isn’t good for the kids.

GODAR: Ok.

HEFFNER: Again, I come back to what you see the future bringing. Forget the fact that you have a stake in being optimistic. You have a real stake. And you’re a teacher, so you must be because you see young people develop. Now, what is the choice that we have if we recognize that everything in our society, whether it’s MTV versus American Bandstand, parents making for latch-key children, whatever it may be, everything is going in a direction opposite from that that you would embrace? What options do we have? Isn’t there some other formulation for, I don’t care whether you call it education, for bringing to maturity these young people who are in your charge?

GODAR: Well I think the only other option we have is having the schools become that parent that is not happening at home. And again I go back to saying that if that’s what is going to have to happen then they have to be trained to be different types of people. If you go into a teacher’s college and you start giving them psych courses, sociology courses, things where they can really deal with the problems that we’re dealing with in the schools today, then maybe we can better society. And I do believe that the schools can do that. I don’t know if I think it’s going to happen because I don’t think the money is going to be put out for it. But I do think the schools are capable. I’ll give you a quick statistic. It costs I believe 3,500 to put a child into pre-school for a year. This is like a Head Start-type program. It costs 16,000 to put somebody into prison for a year. And if you use that money on the pre-school programs and the education system, I think you’ll save it on this end when they become adults.

HEFFNER: Do you anticipate that we’re going to do just that, put the money in at the beginning?

GODAR: I think that I did a while back, but after having done the book and seeing so many school districts and talking to so many teachers, I honestly don’t believe the money’s going to be there. I believe that if the money was put there, if we could elect the officials who would distribute the money that way, yes. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

HEFFNER: Well, in the four minutes we have left, if we concede that it’s not going to, if you and I agree at least for the sake of argument here that it’s not going to happen, what can happen that will deal with the remaining situation better?

GODAR: I’ve told some parents what they need to do is to just work just on their own little school, not the district, not the city, not the state, but just their own little school. And it’s amazing what a few parents involved in, say, one grade school can do and can change just in volunteering different types of things. And in some cases that’s the only option those parents have. Or, if you even want to narrow it down a little more, parents need to work on their one little family. And if each parent does that, we won’t have the problem to begin with. Aside from that, I’m not certain I can give you a solution for this rather large problem we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: Now, you see I wasn’t looking for a solution for this problem. I’m afraid I don’t believe that there is one. Therefore I wonder what alternative route we might take meaningfully and intelligently if we recognize what the realities are. We’re going to force ourselves into thinking about alternatives. In the meantime, we deplore what we see. We want something different, but we’re not doing very much. What about political pressures? You say you urge parents to work on their particular school and their particular community. What are teachers doing?

GODAR: Well, teachers have gotten very involved in politics at the local level, especially in electing school boards. Many associations and unions have endorsed various candidates. And some of that’s, you know, crossing over that grey line perhaps but at least the teachers are trying to get people elected to office who will fund education. That’s always one of their big things to look at if somebody is running for office. I think that’s very important.

HEFFNER: What do you think about George Bernard Shaw’s ugly notion that those, generally, who can, do; and those, generally, who can’t, teach?

GODAR: I’ve always wondered why that wasn’t applied to literary critics and those types of people as well. But I have heard that my kids love it. When we came to this in a play that I taught, they would write it on the board. They thought that was just so wonderful in their smug ways. I think that of course it’s wrong, that if you’re really a teacher there is something inside you that’s dedicated, that has forced you to go into it, not that it’s just there was nothing else you can do.

HEFFNER: And for the rest of the world? Their feelings about this remain, obviously.

GODAR: I think they have begun to see teachers as people who are not as worthwhile as other people. And I think the teachers in the book resent that, and don’t understand why it’s happened. Part of it may be that teacher’s salaries are low, and people tend to judge you on what you make as a salary. Suburban kids that I’ve dealt with who have parents that are making much more than I do have basically said, “Why should I listen to you? You’re making 20-30,000. My father’s making 200,000 a year. My mother’s making 150,000 a year. Well who are you? You’re not making any money.” I think that’s a problem in suburban districts, maybe less so of one in an urban district.

HEFFNER: It’s December, 1990, as we speak. We’re in the midst, so many people claim of a beginning recession, maybe we’re further along than just the beginning of a recession. In the past, recession time has been a time when people have gone into teaching in larger and larger numbers. Do you see any sign that that’s the case now?

GODAR: I haven’t as yet, no. This is something that, probably if it’s going to happen, will happen in the next couple of years because it’s a slow cycle type thing. Most of the people still going into education that I talked to were still going in for the right reasons. But I know that back in the early sixties when we needed teachers desperately, we did get a lot of people, as they say, who were warm bodies in the classroom who, unfortunately, are still in there. And if this would happen again, it would be very dangerous for education.

HEFFNER: Do you think there is some sign that that’s happening?

GODAR: I haven’t seen that yet. But I think there is a possibility that it could happen, yes.

HEFFNER: There has been – in a half minute that we have left – there has been some criticism of the Peace Corps approach to teaching. Do you feel that people who just want to do good and who are not trained…?

GODAR: I don’t think that you can go into teaching if you haven’t had some education background, some courses. But I think what they’re teaching in ed. college is probably not that necessary. What they need training in is psychology, sociology, and all those other things to deal with the type of kids we‘re dealing with.

HEFFNER: You think essentially teachers are born, not so much made.

GODAR: I think there’s maybe 70/30 there. There’s something, 70%, you’ve got to want to do it. You’ve got to have that personality, and then 30% training behind it.

HEFFNER: John Godar, thank you so much for joining me today.

GODAR: Thank you.

HEFFNER: I understand, now, why you listened when teachers talk. Thank you, again.

GODAR: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

Leave a Reply

Send me THIRTEEN's free weekly program update email

Please note that the THIRTEEN editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness. No solicitations or advertisements will be allowed. Users may link to other Web sites relevant to discussion, but most often links to commercial Web sites will not be permitted.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.