I believe strongly that one of the major obstacles to moving education ahead in Alabama is that too few people, especially Montgomery lawmakers, can honestly relate to what happens in our classrooms day after day.  This is why I have said over and over that if I had the power to do so, I would require all representatives and senators to spend at least four hours as a teacher’s aide in a high poverty classroom once a year.

I think this would change the dialogue about K 12 education quicker than anything we could do.

Four years ago I decided to spend a day in a classroom.  So I called my friend Terri Tomlinson, who was then principal at George Hall elementary in downtown Mobile (she has since retired), and asked if I could do this in one of her classes.  I asked for a pre-K classroom thinking I might be able to cope with four and five year olds.

Terri agreed and here is what I wrote about the experience on March 16, 2011.

The sun was still hiding somewhere beyond Mobile Bay’s eastern shore as I pulled into the parking lot at George Hall Elementary School.  It was 6:55 a.m. and I would spend the next eight hours helping with four and five-year olds in a Pre-K classroom.

For years I’ve believed strongly that anyone who works with schools and kids is truly doing the Lord’s Work. This belief only intensified when I led a study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, two years ago.  Our team studied ten high-performing, high-poverty rural schools across Alabama.  I spent untold hours in schools and classrooms, getting a first-hand look at the passion and dedication so many teachers and principals bring with them each day.

However, if you read newspapers and watch TV you get the impression that public education in this country is under attack. Some politician or some “talking head” on cable news is constantly browbeating teachers and declaring that the U.S. is doomed forever because our education system is failing us.

Even the Secretary of Education in Washington loves to tell us how many failing schools we have.

Granted, some teachers are better than others, just like some golfers are better than others, but I know from observation that there are a lot more good ones than bad ones. And I know that many of those who are so vocal in their criticism have spent precious little time in a classroom and basically have little understanding of, and appreciation for, what the day-to-day life of a teacher is all about.

That’s why I was at George Hall in Mobile as the sun was coming up.  I wanted to experience first-hand what thousands of teachers in Alabama see each day.

I’ve been to George Hall many times. An inner-city school where 98 percent of the students receive free-reduced lunches, it has been recognized nationally for student performance.  Even the U.S. Secretary of Education visited last August.  Unfortunately, he didn’t spend any time in a classroom on his stop.

Jinkle Jones, now in her 28th year of teaching, was my “host” for the day.  Wanda Tunstall works with her as a paraprofessional.  They are a great team and have 17 students.  It is obvious they love their profession and the lives they touch. 

My day began with writing the names of students on the snacks they brought from home. Not everyone had a snack.  When snack time came later in the day, Jones made sure each child had something, whether it came from their home or not.  I didn’t ask, but I doubt that the local school system paid for the extra snacks. 

During the day I reviewed homework and put a smiley face on each paper that was correct, helped students read books from the library, gave reading tests at the smartboard, read about Verdi the python to the class seated on the floor in front of me, high-fived boys and girls as they marched by me and had more hugs than I ever did at a family reunion.

I saw tears and lots of smiles. I saw a very sad face as a girl was scolded for losing a library book and I watched faces light up as volunteer Heather Miller read a book that ended with an elephant who forgot to put on his underpants.  I heard songs and watched as small bodies wiggled to the sounds of music.

I was impressed with how much individual instruction each child received and how busy the room stayed. The fact that most can read, know the alphabet and can count to 20 is testimony to the effectiveness of what goes on each day.  I was certainly impressed with the discipline in the classroom, as well as throughout the school.

It was only eight hours out of my life. But it was eight hours I will never forget.  And the next time someone tells me what an easy job teachers have I will shake my head and politely tell them they have no clue what they’re talking about.  Or the next time I hear Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker say we should have 50-60 students per classroom or Bill Gates talk about merit pay and more accountability, I will know that they are clueless as well.

Speaking of accountability, let me suggest the new Republican-controlled legislature pass a law that requires that every member of the House and Senate will spend one full day in a classroom within the first year of taking office, or they give up their seat. This should be for every four-year election cycle and no one will be exempted, even former teachers.

In the grand scheme of things, state government has no more important function than providing the necessary capacity to educate our children. Having first-hand knowledge of what it’s like in one of today’s classrooms would be extremely meaningful for elected officials charged with such decisions.

As my day came to an end at George Hall, I couldn’t help but look around the room and wonder where these children would be in 10 and 20 years. What would their lives be like?  How would they be dealing with a new and strange world?

But I also knew that Jinkle Jones and Wanda Tunstall had done their very best to prepare them for whatever lies ahead.