My Turn: Finding common ground in improving education

There are many ideas being discussed on how to improve the quality of education here in Alaska. I notice more of these discussions happening as a community, whether it’s at a School Board meeting, the Mayor’s Education Summit, in the local media or in Juneau during this legislative session. This is a very good thing. And even if we disagree with another person’s perspective, it’s important to share and listen because it’s going to take all of us finding some common ground in order to give our kids an education that will prepare them all for success in the 21st century.

To start, I hope we can agree that the responsibility of a successful education is a shared one between teachers, students, parents and the community. Teachers must continue to be accountable for what they can control in the classroom, just as much as:

• Parents must continue to make sure students arrive to school rested, fed and ready to learn,

• Students need to take ownership of their learning, and be responsible for their actions during and outside of school, and

• The community needs to make education a priority, and provide a safe and appropriate learning environment for every child.

That last point is one of the things I admire most about the American public school system. It is our goal as a nation that all children have the ability to attend their local public school and earn a good education. This presents a unique challenge; different from that of many other nations we compare our test scores with. But this is not an excuse for failing to improve the quality of our educational system. Rather, it should be motivation for making it better.

In regards to school choice supporters, I would like to learn what qualities of a particular alternative program they admire most, and how can we incorporate those qualities into local public schools for all to enjoy? Schools should have the flexibility and resources to offer a full and challenging program of studies led by highly qualified teachers. I also think it’s important for the community to learn more about the approach their school already takes, and be open to ideas that they may not be used to. Schools look very different than they did years ago.

I think we can agree that the quality of the teacher is important. School leaders play an important role in evaluating all teachers and making sure only the best occupy the classroom. I remember my best teachers for how they opened my worldview to new perspectives without my own being threatened, inspired me to continue learning and be more than I thought I could ever be. With a reasonable class size and the resources they need, a good teacher can be that inspiration as they present their curriculum and adapt it in a way that’s unique for every style of learner.

We also need to create the incentive for those good teachers to stay. The current retirement plan for teachers, with the added fact that they can’t participate in Social Security, makes it very risky for a new teacher to stay, possibly raise a family and retire here in Alaska. Passing Senate Bill 121 this legislative session would give teachers the option to participate in a defined benefits program, and demonstrate that Alaska is committed to keeping quality teachers.

If you care deeply about education, I invite you to visit your local school and see what’s going on. Talk with staff, ask lots of questions and share your concerns. In our attempts to improve the system, we sometimes exaggerate, focus on the negative or overlook the positive things that are happening. Each day, I experience a majority of my students who are excited about learning, consistently meeting the high standards I set for them and begging me to stay after school so they can continue working. We have some fantastic kids in this community. And for their sake, I hope we can work together to find ways of making our public schools the very best they can be.

• Bera lives in Chugiak and currently teaches for the Anchorage School District, and says he cares deeply about a strong educational system, not only for his family but for all of Alaska.

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