John Viall taught for 33 years in Ohio.  A former Marine, Viall writes about teaching in today’s world in this blog post.  He points out what all educators know and too few lawmakers think about.  Teachers and schools are not miracle workers.  They don’t have magic wands and special potions.

They can only work with what society sends them.

Here are some gripping excerpts:

“I learned my first bitter lesson in this regard back in 1976, the first year I taught. One day, Carolyn, a young lady in my second bell, was missing. I had been working with her, as best I could, but wasn’t having much success. She was frequently absent, exhausted when she did come to school, and often caused trouble, not just for me, but for peers.

On this morning she wasn’t in class at all.

During third bell students and colleagues filled in the outlines of a truly sad tale. Carolyn had ingested some illegal substance on the way to school. In first period Language Arts her speech slurred. Her teacher grew alarmed, but before she could act, Carolyn began wobbling in her seat. Moments later, her bodily functions let go. She soiled herself and toppled from her chair. The school nurse was summoned—then the Life Squad—and a troubled 14-year-old left school on a stretcher.

Carolyn survived that day—only to die while hitchhiking a few years later—but even four decades ago I wondered. What could we, as educators, do to help young people like her? 

To be honest, I never did come up with a satisfactory answer.

I was fortunate to teach for thirty-three years; and I loved working with kids. Yet, I saw again and again how drugs ruined young lives. I remember once, asking Joey what his father was like. Joey and I had a good relationship but he was struggling in school. “My dad is a useless meth head,” he replied, matter-of-factly. And then I understood why Joey might not always be focused on history marks. 

I remember Sam, too, who turned it around at age 13, partly with help from Julie Cohen, a dedicated student teacher. 

Only Sam didn’t stay turned around. He died three years later from a drug overdose, choking in his own vomit.

I do know what I’d be saying if I were U. S. Secretary of Education today. I’d be arguing we’d be better served if we took the money wasted on standardized tests and poured it into vastly expanded drug counseling and treatment for adult users and their kids.

I’d be arguing that every school should have more counseling and psychological help available for parents and children.

I’d be making the case that every school should have a nurse practitioner on site and a clinic where young people could get care.

I’d be urging lawmakers to push for legal reform and stop jailing non-violent drug offenders.

The annual cost of keeping one inmate in federal prison comes to $30.619.85 per year. I’d let non-violent prisoners out.

I’d use the money saved to target problems that effect American youth.

(One of those problems: the 2.7 million kids in this country with one or both parents behind bars.)

I’d stop talking and talking in circles, focusing on school reform. I’d stop blaming everything on educators. I’d make it clear to all who would listen that America’s schools aren’t failing at all. 

I’d make it clear that far too often they’re simply overwhelmed.”

Lawmakers love to rant about the “status quo” in education and chide education professionals that progress is too slow.  Yet, when folks like John Viall detail the status quo, the folks doing the ranting ignore reality.

Editor’s note: when John was 58 years old, we rode his bicycle from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean to raise money for diabetes research.