The Blind Leading the Blind

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine runs a community-based program in New York City for older youth designed to encourage them to prepare and plan for college. Fine work, by any standard.

Here’s the rub, though. None of the staff of the program (the on-the-ground, front line, get-your-hands-dirty staff) have finished college. More than 50 percent of them have less than one year’s college credit to their name.

Yet they’re supposed to be the ones who are preparing the next generation to attend college. Does anyone but me see the irony in this?

Honestly, it reminds me of the classic Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine where he talks about your average high-school sex-ed teacher: “Ketchup stain on the tie, rumpled shirt… usually someone who hasn’t had sex in over a decade!”

But here we are, asking adults who have limited college experience to guide younger middle- and high-school students through the demands, intricacies and bureaucracy of getting in to and succeeding at college!

Would we settle for a man who had taken a year of trigonometry in high school to teach our kids calculus? Would we allow a woman who had taken a weekend CPR class three years ago to train our employees in first aid and workplace safety? These questions are rhetorical, of course. But in the world of Out-of-School Time, they strangely and bizarrely wouldn’t be.

Before you get me wrong, I’m not here to criticize the front-line OST professionals who have been put in this position. Given their pay scale and their commitment level to continue in this line of work, my hat is off to them. They definitely have the heart.

However, I know a lot of tee-ball coaches in my local little league who have a lot of heart as well. But their phone is not ringing off the hook with offers from the San Francisco Giants. Not even the minor-league Albuquerque Isotopes are calling.

My issue is with the system that places these workers on the front-line with no experiential supports or mentors. My complaint is with the mandates that require lofty outcomes without thought to the professional grade of pay or training needed to accomplish such outcomes successfully. My enemy here is the continuation and the condoning of a “babysitting” lens through which all OST workers are seen by most of society. It’s “childcare on the cheap,” even as these workers are burdened with goals and ends that would automatically engender a “professional” classification in any other field of endeavor.

Let’s be clear. It’s not even about this one program in New York City.

It’s about OST professionals across the United States being tasked with the effective social-emotional development of our youth.

It’s about new afterschool mandates that co-opt underpaid and under-appreciated workers into continuing the school day under the watchful but condescending tutelage of the local school district.

It’s about bureaucracies and bandwagon jumpers forcing STEM curriculum onto staffs who are completely unprepared and untrained for such curricula.

In the end, my complaint boils down to professionalism. Until we, as a society, demand that OST professionals be compensated and trained as such … as professionals … these attempts to “raise the bar” for our Out-of-School-Time programs will be unfair, unwise and to a high degree, unsuccessful.

Rick Rood is a 25-year front-line veteran of the Out-of-School-Time profession and author of the book Games Teachers Play Before the Bell Rings.