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Jeff Meadors: It's time to preserve and protect our classroom teachers

Historical stories abound in Newton. The little pony of Mount Pleasant is a favorite.

As the Union Army's Left Wing made its way through Newton County in 1864, surviving members of Solomon Graves' family at historic Mount Pleasant hid precious dishes and silver in the ground from federal troops. As annals show, they hid something else.

An Oct. 22, 1963, letter of Mrs. Walter Emmel describes the now famous pony of Mount Pleasant, hidden from Sherman for three days in a closet under the stairs. While some detail of the hard candy Christmas of 1864 is clarified in the diary of Dolly Burge, much is unclear. The federal Army occupied Mount Pleasant in early 1865 for a short time. The outcome of the pony seems unknown, but a message remains.

I received 23 handwritten letters from students in the Newton County School System in the last two months. Following some volunteer work in elementary schools during American Education Week in November, I received 20 of them. The letters came from Debora Ondracek's students at Porterdale Elementary.

"Talking to us made us feel grown up," one student wrote. Another asked, "Could you come read to us again one day?" One student made me laugh: "I thought you were sharply dressed. I wish you were our assistant teacher."

Then their dreams. I want to be in the "FBI, CIA ..." I want to be an "architect." I want to be a "game designer," a "screenwriter" or an "NBA basketball player." "Please write back if you have time."

During the holidays I received three more letters. One came from Newton High student Darius Hollins. Darius is in the Aspiring Young Professionals (AYP) program. This is not the AYP of Adequate Yearly Progress infamy. Not even close.

I sat with Darius, students representing every high school in Newton and Alcovy administrator Veronica Lawrence at the annual AYP Dinner on Dec. 8 at Turner Lake. Leaders from area businesses, industry, academia and civic life converged to interface with student interns, dine with them and evaluate their professional skills. In his letter Darius thanked me for my evaluation and reminded me of something I said to him that night: "Don't let making money get in the way of your schooling. There will be plenty of time to make money later."

I had forgotten saying it, but it sounds like me.

Good things are happening in local schools, but our classrooms and the dreams of our students, like the pony of Mount Pleasant, warrant protection.

The indefatigable warrior for college access, Kelly Musgrove, spent the Christmas break meeting with college administrators to plan for Alcovy High's first College Studies Panel. Most of us can name a teacher who made a difference in our lives and who led us to a place that finally made sense. Our nostalgia for a favorite teacher, however, is tempered by current research showing that the average new teacher now leaves the field after four years.

Federal intrusion into public schools, unfunded state mandates, bad policy, declining salaries, drained benefits, annual attacks on pre-K and frequent threats of litigation against effective teachers for shutting down the classroom bully seem to justify early departure from the field.

What is it about this field that leads the average newcomer into a disappearing act after four years? Who will fill the shoes of Deborah Ondracek and Kelly Musgrove if new teachers shelve the passion that formed the genesis of their devotion to students?

Teachers spend years in degree and certification programs examining human growth and development, instructional methods and educational psychology only to later serve as pawns of one-hit wonders like integrated math, arguably the greatest pedagogical debacle since whole language stripped more than 50 percent of college freshmen of the ability to write a fluid essay.

And still, lawmakers, non-educators and strangers on the street feign a greater command of pedagogy than classroom teachers. They propose pre-K, take back from pre-K, only to propose to add back to pre-K. They roll out integrated math only to realize the error of their ways and return to a phase-in of discrete math with teachers knowing better all the while. They toy with the imposter QBE, appoint a Board of Community Health to decimate general funds and give rise to redefinitions of "special schools" in an effort to sabotage local education authorities.

All the while teachers, the experts, feel left out, left behind, powerless and unable to voice concerns. So they leave. It is more dignified to leave than to give voice to the cry that wakes them in their sleep: "Get out of my way and let me teach!"

And when they leave they take with them the lessons they knew and the power to transform the lives of students who still grasp the value of handwritten thank you notes. I know of no other profession where the untrained lay person marches into a workplace professing greater expertise and knowledge than certified, degreed professionals.

Strong teachers provide safety, consistency and instruction that technology supplements but will never effectively replace. I hope at least for now it serves as solace for teachers that the AYP report in the window sill in Georgia appears to be dying. They will go right on teaching.

Maybe the same spirit of preservation and protection alive at Mount Pleasant nearly 150 years ago remains. Will we make room for students and classrooms in Newton County with the same ferocity of spirit that the Graves family made room for a pony? Or will this be a lesson from our past, however poorly extrapolated, that is lost on us?

Will we sit on the sidelines and observe the warriors of student achievement, or will we be somewhere in that crowd supporting them, protecting them and hearing the cry that wakes them in their sleep?

The General Assembly is back in session, and I don't feel so good myself.

Jeff Meadors is a member of the Newton County Board of Education. He may be reached at jeffrey.meadors@gmail.com