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In this country, where controversy surrounds almost everything about public education, a major new argument has erupted. It is over whether our schools should be expected to teach good behavior to youngsters.

One group is saying that in a time when schools are forced to serve as surrogate parents for millions of children, it is critically important for teachers to stress good manners, a sense of decorum, personal integrity and respect for the lives and property of others.

Another group argues that the function of our schools is to teach math, physics and English and impart clear-cut areas of knowledge to children, and that it is unfair and counterproductive to burden teachers with the tasks of civilizing, socializing and "moralizing" kids -- especially when they may come from incredibly diverse backgrounds.

As for me, I prefer teachers who care about the whole child over those who believe that their only obligation is to talk about logarithms or the conjugation of verbs from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. I'm old and old-fashioned enough to remember when teachers cared about your failure to brush your hair, whether you were polite and what you did wrong. Yes, teachers who cared enough to make sure that your parents knew.

I know that life in America, especially urban life, has become so impersonal that most people don't give a damn about the kids on their block, let alone the personalities and problems of children they don't really know. Still, caring is one of the greatest qualities of a teacher.

For 10 years I have run a scholarship program, Project Excellence, for high school seniors. I have observed that of the many winners who have come from broken homes, poverty backgrounds, no-parent homes and truly bad neighborhoods, almost all have been blessed with the special personal attention of a teacher, a guidance counselor, a principal or a mentor from the community. School has relieved these scholarship winners of the coarseness and hardness of their environment and given them a reason to hope, dream and thus to study.

I have seen youngsters who were headed for tragedy molded into great scholars and marvelous human beings.

I have seen, also, that the schools that produce the most scholarship winners year after year are the ones that emphasize laudable personal behavior, and stress a historic pride in that school. Only where this is part of teaching do I see the kind of discipline that is conducive to study, learning and overall growth.

The traditionalists -- if that's the word for them -- talk as though trying to impart a sense of propriety, of decent behavior, to school kids is so consuming a task that it would dilute the teaching of the three R's. I think the failure to teach basic manners and the fundamental sense of respect is what makes it almost impossible to impart knowledge in some schools.

The tragic reality is that millions of American children are trapped in circumstances where if teachers don't help to give them a kinder, gentler humanity, no one will.

I know that some teachers will not take on much more responsibility than telling kids the date of the Battle of Hastings, or how to make sulfuric acid. But I don't want to see the giving, caring teachers put off by the current argument about the role of the schools.

North America Syndicate

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