At the all-boys school in which I spent my formative years, I several times witnessed an “education moment” take place suddenly, practically instantaneously.
As the Christian Brother who was teaching our class stood at the blackboard and graphed for us his explanation of that day’s lesson, he might suddenly whirl and fire, with incredible accuracy, the eraser he’d been using to wipe the board.
In the back row, his mouth still slack with the stupor of his interrupted morning snooze, an inattentive student would be jolted upright, now surrounded by a halo of chalk dust, the eraser’s imprint clearly visible on the forehead that one second before had been drooped in sleep on his desk.
Now those were lessons we remembered well. Not philosophically defensible, I suppose; and on the grand scale not up there with Pythagoras or Rousseau or Newton. But it was practical knowledge that has stood us in good stead throughout our lives: Stay alert; be here now; don’t snore out loud; whatever.
I bet many of us carry inside some variation on that lesson that we picked up somewhere along the way in one or another of our life’s classrooms from a good teacher: not data (numbers, names and formulas), but truths about the world, about people and about values.
I refer to that sort of teaching as chalk dust wisdom. They are perspectives on life gleaned from working in classrooms that veteran teachers can offer—if anyone is listening. We need as much chalk dust wisdom today as we can possibly locate if we are to have any hope of coping with our many perplexing social problems.
Search long and hard through the many pages of the Federal law on education misleadingly titled “No Child Left Behind” and you’ll find precious little chalk dust wisdom.
But sit down with State Rep. Rick Miera for a few minutes over coffee or lunch and you’ll be tapping a deep reservoir of chalk dust. He is the chairman of the House Education Committee when the Legislature is in session and co-chair of the Legislative Education Study Committee which works year-round on public school and higher education issues.
His insights into education, however, have been shaped over many years by much more hands-on public service. Sitting in hearings at the capitol affords him one perspective. The more profound angle comes from the thousands of days he has deliberately chosen to spend working as a substitute teacher for APS.
Retired from a career as a substance abuse counselor with juveniles at UNM and in the court system, Miera doesn’t substitute teach for the money but for the opportunity to see firsthand the reality of public education in New Mexico.
Since he began offering himself as a substitute, he has now worked at least once in every single school in APS—all 130 or so, usually in special ed classes. No one, I would suggest, has accumulated quite the same perspective, quite the same trove of chalk dust, as Miera.
So when I asked him what he makes of APS’ plan to spend $100 million for each of the two new high schools, his answer bears hearing. It was prefaced with a chuckle and a quick head shake. “You know,” he said, “I don’t think APS should build any new high schools.
“Which is the most popular high school in the district, the one with the most requests to get in, from both teachers and students? It’s the Albuquerque night school and it’s always got a waiting list. Thousands of students would attend another night school … eagerly. Teens prefer a night school.
“You take every one of the existing 11 mammoth high school campuses and you start using them fully, running two shifts of students through each of them, and you wouldn’t have to build another high school in this city for decades.”
His explanation is pretty hard to argue with: Public dollars have been invested in very expensive facilities that are used less than 50 percent of the time. The rest of the year, semester, week, day, they sit idly. Locked up tight. Security guards hired to make sure no one gets in. Your tax dollars at work … keeping buildings empty.
Miera’s point is worth considering. Why are we sitting by complacently while plans are moving rapidly to build two more high schools that will be used only half-time? No business in the country could survive if they adopted a similar scheme for their new facilities. Productivity in education should be measured by something besides the size of the construction budget.
In addition, teachers are eager to teach in night school programs. For many it is a simple way to increase family revenue. The district would save on fringe benefits by hiring existing experienced faculty members to add a class or two in the evenings, since their insurance costs are already met.
So, class, a quick review: Teachers and students want night programs. Existing high school campuses are empty at night (and in the summer). Before we build more shouldn’t we fully use what’s been created previously? All this darn chalk dust sure makes me cough. Miera tosses a mean eraser.