Column: Mrs. Smith’s reign has come to an end

Posted on Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 11:49 am

By Ragan Phillips

Many years ago I had a sixth grade teacher we knew as Mrs. Smith. This lady was small of stature and soft of voice, a kind of sweet grandmother up in the front of the classroom. With some 25 or so 12-13 year-olds in the room, full of energy and hormones, we were a rowdy bunch. And Mrs. Smith was the antithesis of a Marine drill sergeant.

But, this is the critical point, when Mrs. Smith said “Class…” the rowdiness disappeared and the room became quiet. As our teacher, and regardless of her demeanor and personality, she had authority. Not a single student in that classroom wanted to face a parent as a result of not showing respect for Mrs. Smith. This small, quiet teacher–all of our teachers–had the respect and full backing of parents and of the community.

David McCullough, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, is quoted as having said, “…Teachers are the most important people in our society.”

But today, as a society we are losing respect for our teachers. We think nothing of asking our teachers to mange 25 children, take on a 20 percent greater teaching load, and accept more work year after year without a pay raise. We cut back on the number of teachers in the classroom, allow teacher-pupil ratios to rise, eliminate support staff and provide those teachers who hang in there with technology that is a decade behind the times.

When I was in school, teachers could manage and teach 25 students. But have you ever thought about how different the teaching job today is from 50 years ago?

Teachers can no longer concern themselves with just the “Three R’s.” They are challenged to prepare their student for today’s hyper technology world, to gear up for government-imposed standards testing, and to meet state and federal mandates on a myriad of administrative aspects.

When I was in school it was rare for a child to come from a single-parent home. Today with single mothers, divorces, two full-time working parents, etc. the classroom has a majority of students from non-traditional homes. And with that situation the student brings a different dynamic into the classroom. (I am not saying a non-traditional home is a formula for a problem student; but it does create a different set of teacher-related issues.)

The teacher of today has to be highly sensitive to being sued or fired for some interaction with a self-entitled child. Classroom discipline is maintained not by the teacher but, if maintained at all, by the school’s principal. The consequence of a student infraction of behavior is to be marched off to the principal’s office rather than resolved on the spot by the teacher.

So, In My Opinion, today’s teachers have a much greater burden in their classrooms: a broader scope of classroom work,  a different set of student issues brought on by today’s society, and a loss of authority, of  the mandate to discipline, and, most unfortunately, of the respect of their community.

But the real problem we face is that today many people who could effect change do not take time to study and understand the situation. There are certainly some parents of school children who are involved and even worried about the school system and the role of teachers. But for the most part we older citizens along with those who own and manage businesses are not paying attention.

We are too busy with our own jobs, our social clubs, our sporting events, or watching our favorite programs on TV to worry about our schools. The competition for our time is so great that involvement in education is now a low priority. We don’t have time to worry about the difficulty of a teacher’s job or even to worry about whether our teachers are properly trained for their work.

We leave the financial aspects of our public schools to the school board, appointed and under the thumb of the county’s Board of Supervisors. Our Hanover County School Board, consisting of mostly competent, well-intentioned people, is unable or unwilling to fight back when the county continues the decade-long disinvestment in our public school system.

The reported success and the avalanche of awards garnered by Hanover County Public Schools over the past decade, along with the well-publicized leadership of Stewart Roberson, has lulled our county into the belief that our public school system, still strong in 2012-2013, is with us forever. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Without a commitment from the community as whole, not only parents and teachers, but from citizens of all ages, from business, from the media, our school system is going to crumble.

But, as I said, I fear that no one cares, no one believes, everyone is in a state of “What? Me Worry?”

We can now say “Good-bye, Mrs. Smith.” That era is over.

But are we preparing our students for the new era of globalization, of world-wide competition for jobs, of critical thinking?

The teaching challenge in the classroom of today is twice as difficult as in the past.  We need to understand that and we must face the facts: we need more highly qualified teachers, smaller classrooms, and up-to-the–minute technology. And we need a community that is willing to invest time and resources to assure a better school system in Hanover County.

Why not be the best?

About the Writer:

The writer is a semi-retired business executive who lives in Ashland with his wife, the author Phyllis Theroux. They have three teenaged grandsons who attend Hanover Public Schools. The writer can be contacted at


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