Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Prince George's) used to teach high school, but that was more than 20 years ago, and things have changed. "It's a lot tougher today," he says.
One of 21 Prince George's officials who spent last Thursday getting a teacher's-eye view of education, Devlin volunteered to teach U.S. history at Bowie High School for the day.
He had a hard time eliciting answers to questions about the Civil War. When he asked the students in one class to name the president of the Confederacy, for instance, he drew blank stares.
"It's frustrating," he said later. "You realize that some of these kids just aren't motivated. . . . In our society, I don't think anybody deserves their money more than classroom teachers. They're on the front lines."
Bowie 11th grader Glenn Sellman thought Devlin did well, however. "He was all right. He knows too much, though," Sellman added.
County Council members, school board members, state legislators and County Executive Parris Glendening were among the elected officials who participated in the event, sponsored by the Prince George's County Education Association as part of American Education Week.
The "teacher for a day" program, the first ever in Prince George's County, was set up to give officials "an idea of what teachers go through every day," said association president Paul Pinsky.
Assignments ranged from helping first graders learn how to read, to instructing high school students in fine points of acting, to participating in parent-teacher conferences.
County Council member Floyd Wilson, who spent the day teaching civics at Bladensburg High School, detailed the process that county bills follow to become laws. During a morning session with teacher Sherry Unger's civics class, he proposed a mock bill calling for school just three days a week (cheers from the 35 students) but changing the length of a school day to 12 hours (boos).
Wilson, who taught high school biology for 10 years, said after the lesson, "I think getting elected officials into the classroom will help them understand the magnitude of the problems here. At budget time we're always told about overcrowding in the schools . . . but it's helpful if we can see it firsthand.
Unger said she thought the teacher-for-a-day program was valuable, because "to the students, elected officials are abstract figures; they don't realize they even exist. It's so good for them to see that this is one person who makes laws."
Most of the first-grade students in teacher Mary Falcon's class at Paint Branch Elementary School in College Park, however, did not know or care that the man teaching them reading and math was County Executive Parris Glendening.
Six-year-old Francis Fenwick said he wasn't sure who the man in the dark blue suit was, but did know that "he works." Whoever he was, Francis said, the man was nice. "He helped me."
Glendening said his experience "reinforces in my mind that one of my priorities is to reduce classroom size. I knew intellectually how difficult it is to keep track of 31 kids, but being in a classroom and feeling some of the strain gives me an emotive understanding as well."
Glendening, who requested a first-grade class because his son Raymond is in first grade at nearby University Park Elementary, said he learned that the best way to teach first graders how to read is to break the class up into small reading groups. But, he noted, "if you sit with 10 students, that leaves 20 on their own. Without anyone there to help you, it requires amazing concentration."
Glendening said he'd like to reduce the size of the average elementary school classroom from 31 students to 25 and hire "roving teaching aides" to assist in two or three classrooms.
He added, however, that without an increased state allocation, it is unlikely that the county will be able to increase the school system budget by more than the $14 million he has proposed. "Nothing that happened today is going to change the known dollars" in the county budget, he said.