Man, what I would have given to have had a teacher like Mary King all those years ago.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, you mean one of those 83 teachers in the region who have been accused in recent weeks of having sex with their students? Shame on you, formerly young man, for having prurient thoughts about someone trying to educate you, and shame on them for actively participating in such thoughts!”
Whoa there, that’s not what we meant at all. Mary King is not that kind of teacher. She is the kind of teacher who stands up to the state and the federal government and whoever else it is trying to make our children slaves to tests. She knows there are at least some cases when it doesn’t make any sense.
In other words, she is a real-life American hero of public education, the kind they make movies about starring Julia Roberts as an upstanding teacher or principal — although these days, she’d have to also be accused of having sex with either the boys or girls lacrosse team, if not both, in order to make the script more realistic.
A front page story in this newspaper Saturday described how Ms. King, who teaches English to foreign-born students at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, became the first teacher in Pittsburgh to refuse to give her students the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment standardized test. She calls herself a “conscientious objector” who finds such tests can be harmful, particularly to students like hers — still new to the country and language — who would be overwhelmed.
“I just knew it was wrong, absolutely wrong, and it didn’t match any of my core values and what I know about teaching,” she wrote in a letter to the school administration.
How intellectually honest! How refreshingly candid! How independently courageous! And this woman’s teaching in public education? Did she never read “Up the Down Staircase”?
Well, Ms. King is not teaching for long, actually. The story noted she is retiring this year after 26 years of teaching. It said nothing about her approach in the prior quarter-century to the standardized tests all students are expected to take. It’s not exactly like she is putting her career on the line now by standing up against the dogma that insists students must constantly be tested en masse in order to prove how well they’re memorizing what they’re being taught by rote.
Nearly everyone, no matter how much a dunce, has had at least one teacher who inspired them in unexpected ways. It most likely had nothing to do with how well that teacher prepared them for any particular test. We’re betting it was a case of some zany, creative mentor passing along a passion for life and a thirst for learning, regardless of whatever the syllabus said should be taught from the textbook on a given day.
Of course, it would be terrible if Ms. King’s students never had any exams at all, since tests are a part of life virtually everyone must navigate at some point. So if she wants to pass out the following as an alternative to the PSSA, it might make for worthwhile practice:
1. Which of these words best characterizes Pennsylvania’s system of funding public education? A. inequitable B. untenable C. disproportionate D. insufficient E. wrong.
2. If Pittsburgh starts with 25 school buildings, then closes six, sells four, changes the names of three, converts two to different grade levels and rents out one for someone making a film, how many schools does it then have?
3. True or false: It is OK to sit on a bench in your street clothes refusing to participate in phys ed class, even if you are not really sick.
4. Circle one: If you are having emotional turbulence in your life that makes you a potential danger to classmates, you should confide your problems to: A. a trusted teacher B. your guidance counselor C. your parents D. a stranger in an Internet chat room E. no one.
5. Fill in the blank: The minimum age difference between a teacher and pupil for a romantic relationship between them to be acceptable is ___
6. In the next five minutes, write a 750-word essay taking a pro or con position on the use of property taxes as the primary means of funding public education, using comparative examples from nations whose students have higher standardized test scores than those in the U.S.
Gary Rotstein: email@example.com or 412-263-1255.