Retired teachers have homework for future educators
By Lou Fancher
Once a teacher, always a teacher.
Proving that retirement doesn’t mean stepping back from activism, last year’s California Retired Teachers Association Diablo Vista Division 52 president and current legislative chair Barbara Diskowski had directives for future teachers at a recent luncheon in Pleasant Hill, which featured Tom Torlakson, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Because special education became her focus during her careerDiskowski spoke specifically about teachers of special ed students.
“They need three to four years in a regular classroom before they even think about special ed. They need to know what the norm is. You need to be learning all the time. You have to deal with people who come from different cultures, family structures, and with different learning skills.A teacher has to have respect for every child, in depth.”
A teacher’s basic framework must include a desire to make kids’ lives better, Diskowki. Celebrating what students do and who they are gives them the willingness to trust teachers and to do it again another day.
School systems must, in turn, support teachers, an idea that Torlakson repeatedly emphasized. Cuts proposed in Washington, D.C. by the current federal administration, he said in an interview, showed a lack of understanding.
“Professional development for teachers and afterschool programs for students are needed now more than ever. We have high levels of poverty. Career education is one of my big pushes. The rest of the world is moving ahead in technology — we need to pursue progress to stay competitive.”
As a public policy maker, Torlakson said, “If I got 10 letters on something, I knew it was registering as important. If I got 1,000 messages, that would give me a sense of great public concern. Writing letters to Washington, it’s effective.”
Addressing the audience, Torlakson continued the same theme, noting that his Sacramento vantage point revealed highs and lows in public education.
Admittedly an optimist by nature, he heralded positive aspects: recent STEM grants amounting to $5 million to support bilingual teachers; passage of Prop 51, a $9 billion bond for state school construction projects; and Prop. 55, bringing $6 million of taxpayer funding to support teacher services.
A teacher exchange initiative with educators in Mexico and school districts’ safe haven statements, he said represent futuristic, inclusive educational approaches.
Chief among the weak points in California public education is the dire need for more teachers.
“We’re losing ground on people who choose the profession,” Torlakson said. “The supply is at a 12-year low. In special education alone, we graduated just half the amount needed.”
Questions from members during a Q&A revealed underlying problems: teacher retirement funds that are lacking — with potential further reductions by the federal government; salaries so low teachers cannot afford to live in the communities in which the teach; “off track” charter schools that drain resources from public education.
These problems, they said, go deeper than their objections to “two data point” ranking systems created by reliance on standardized test scores. Torlakson said the new Common Core-based “dashboard” approach that includes multiple data points for evaluating student progress and rating schools is a here-to-stay improvement over standardized testing. The state school board, he added, is supportive of increased oversight of charter schools.
Asked about establishing more vocational education without losing support for arts curriculum, Torlakson said the state’s Local Control and Accountability Plan grants local school districts more authority to “save that music teacher whose being let go,” or fund libraries and expand afterschool programs.
As for seeking increased retirement or housing-assistance funding for teachers or drawing more young people to the field, Torlakson’s solution was to give homework.
“It’s in the hands of the federal government. Write letters, send emails. I think (U.S. Senator) Kamala Harris would be a good champion. To get people to go into the profession, we need to keep advocating, devise momentum.”