> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: February 2008

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why no seatbelts on school bus?

Last week was a sad one in Minnesota. On Tuesday a school bus was knocked over by a van which went through a red light. Sadly four students were killed in the crash with a further 14 injured. The children belonged to Lakeview School in Cottonwood which is about 140 miles west of Minneapolis.

The big yellow buses which carry kids to school in the US are everywhere in commuting times. The fact that they are so noticeable is a help to drivers. School Bus Laws exist which make it illegal in certain circumstances to pass a bus that's stopping to drop off or pick up passengers. Bus companies pride themselves on employing drivers who know their road safety. It's important after all. It has been estimated that 54 % of students attending K-12 (kindergarten to final year high school) ride on a school bus each day.

But the question that I can't help asking is: Why are these school buses not fitted with seat-belts? The news reports quote the authorities as saying that seat belts would not have made a significant difference to the injuries. The children are protected by a system called 'compartmentalization' which is considered roughly as safe as seat-belting. I find this difficult to believe. Is all the research about seat-belts faulty? What about those campaigns to get us to wear seat-belts? Is the data wrong?

A quick internet search brings me to the National Coalition for School Bus Safety. Here you can look at an account of some of the testing that has been done on the need for seat belts. The coalition also claims that the compartmentalization system does not provide adequate protection. In fact according to them current bus designs do not even merit the protection which compartmentalization engineers claim for it, as they do not follow all their the original recommendations.

Do seat-belts make us safer on buses? I can't imagine there are many people willing to say that seat-belts in other vehicles don't generally give us greater protection. So why not school buses?

One other issue I would like to know more about - the stability of the big yellow bus. The bus in this accident was knocked over onto another vehicle. Is this not a little surprising? I don't remember seeing a bus knocked over by a car or truck before. I'd be interested if anyone knew any statistics on that. Is the US School bus more likely to be knocked over?

As a teacher and a parent I'd be the first person to say we are over-protective of our kids. But in this one instance I cannot understand why a school bus wouldn't have the same safety features as a normal automobile.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

St Valentine's Day Massacre

Tomorrow is (of course) St Valentine's Day and I am not sure I can stand the tension. Tonight as I left school several (male) students were carefully filling their beloveds' lockers with pink balloons, flowers and heart shaped candy. It was all being done very carefully and with a sort of thoroughness that suggested a great deal of prior planning. I will find out tomorrow if it is appreciated.

This week concludes with a big dance for the high school students 'The Sno Daze' and we have already been celebrating it with a series of out of uniform days. Monday was 'Celebrity couples' and my next classroom neighbor teachers dressed as Sponge Bob and Patrick. On Tuesday I took part in 'Twins day' by dressing like all the other teachers in white t-shirts and jeans. Rather bulky because I had my thermals on underneath, school spirit or no school spirit I promised my mum I'd wear my vest... It's 23 C below outside.

Today was 'Retro day' and we had the 40's, 50's, 80's and 90's. Lots of girls wearing wide skirts and bobby socks, being jostled by Bananarama and Depeche Mode. I thought it might prove difficult to teach Shaft, James Dean and Marty McFly but they settled down quite nicely to Kafka and Huckleberry Finn. Next week is going to seem quite tame.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Teachers: their use and misuse

It's come to that time in the year when students are starting to feel they know me well enough to tell me what they think of me. They also begin to tell stories of their previous teachers. I always take the 'old mad teacher' stories with a pinch of salt. That's low sodium, organic, naturally sourced salt; I am in America.

My predecessor's worst habit was 'bringing coke into the classroom'.

Me: What? Crack? Snow? C-dust? Nieve? Bernie? Er... I really do read those articles about drugs in school that you find in staffrooms. The kids stare at me as if I had produced the aforementioned articles.

No, it turns out the reprobate was regularly to be found sipping from a can of coke. Talk about debauched. For all we know she might have laced it with something else, I suppose.

I read John Connell's article recently on the testing times that America is going through. The following day I came across this BusinessWeek article –
'I can get your kid into an Ivy' - from October 2007. It's about the work of Michele Hernandez who calls herself "America's Premiere College Consultant."

Hernandez coaches students in how to make an application which will achieve acceptance at the country's top (Ivy League) universities.

Her advice -which can cost up to $40 000 ranges from the sort of stuff you would have thought anyone sensible could offer about prioritizing your time, to the kinds of courses you should be taking to impress application officers. Nothing wrong with helping students prioritise. We've all had conversations with - let's call her Ashley - bright enough to get top grades but missing crucial homework and classes because of her hours at the supermarket.

But choosing subjects simply because of the impression they make irks me. The BusinessWeek article quotes her talking about a student she helped, "I helped in ways that would look good and let him be true to himself." Great soundbyte, but you can't help feeling that being true to oneself shouldn't involve being packaged and marketed by an image consultant.

Arguably Hernandez is just stepping in with a piece of wisdom, at a crucial time in a young person's life. The young person in question isn't what we might call disadvantaged, unless like me, you consider having the kind of parents who are willing to fork out $40,000 to someone like Hernandez a negative.

I can't help but feel the whole experience will teach those students a very powerful and corrupt life-lesson: if you have money you can circumvent any system or manipulate any test. Life isn't like that. There are plenty of 'tests' which you cannot buy your way out of...

Just one that comes to mind – illness. If you want to read about how real people face tests, you might want to visit guineapigmum's blog. Here the qualities under display are honesty, good humour, courage and knowing your own limitations.

The BusinessWeek article also feeds into my own concerns about what it means to be a good teacher. Am I going to educate young people or show them how to pass manufactured tests? Although the two things might not be mutually exclusive the balance is hard to find. Especially in America.