When you have orbited the sun as many times as I have, people sometimes want to tap into the insights you have gathered through the years. Young journalists and newsroom managers ask about the lessons I accumulated from a half-century in the newspaper business.
One lesson is quite simple, actually: Keep your eyes and ears open, and never hesitate to ask questions.
The lesson came through loud and clear one afternoon in the 1980s when I was an editor on the Des Moines Register’s metro desk. The phones were constantly ringing. Calls were coming in from our reporters, or from Joe Citizen asking about something that was in the newspaper or that was occurring around the state.
On this particular day, the young news clerk answered a call on the metro desk’s bank of phone lines. She listened for a few moments, then she turned to the editors near her and asked, “Do we know anything about a shooting at a Des Moines school?”
There were shaking heads and startled expressions, since this was years before school shootings became all too common. “No, we don’t know anything about that,” the clerk said before quickly hanging up — leaving a dozen questions unasked.
As it turned out, the call was just an unfounded rumor. But the lesson was far from phony. It was very real: Watch. Listen. Ask questions.
Based on conversations and emails in recent weeks with people connected with the Ankeny school district, that same “watch, listen, ask questions” advice should be passed to parents and community leaders in that community. And people in every other school district in the state would be wise to follow the advice, too.
The focus of the Nov. 2 school election and the recent school board meetings in Ankeny and other Des Moines suburbs has been such hot-button issues as whether masks should be mandatory for students and school employees and on what should be done with school library books that some parents find objectionable.
What is not the focus in Ankeny is the behavior problems caused by some students who are disrupting the learning environment for other students and for themselves. This is not just a problem with a few kids. This behavior occurs with far too many kids from kindergarten through the 12th grade, teachers say.
These students are sitting in class, ignoring the teachers’ instructions, ignoring teachers’ guidance to participate in classroom discussions, and willfully refusing to do the work teachers assign. Some are even using vulgar language toward the teachers, including calling some the B-word multiple times.
Or, they are sitting at their desks, or on the floor, playing games on their cellphones or watching YouTube videos or Netflix movies on those phones. Their school-provided laptop computers have full internet access, which these students can use to gain access to all manner of lurid stories, photos and videos — all while their parents are having a tizzy over mask requirements or over library books with raw language.
There are issues that need to be dealt with in our public schools. But based on the comments I’ve heard about from some Ankeny educators, I think parents should direct their questions to school officials about these don’t-discipline-the-student instructions or the policy that prohibits teachers from temporarily confiscating the cellphones from students who use them during class.
Just as the news clerk at the Register needed to ask more questions of the person calling about that supposed school shooting 35 years ago, parents today need to talk with teachers and teacher associates about what is occurring in their classrooms that impedes students from learning.
The teachers will tell you about kids who have been allowed to wander aimlessly through the school day. They will tell you about their frustration growing when school administrators seem more intent on moving students up through the grades just to get them graduated, rather than whether they learn anything along the way or not.
But you have to ask questions. And you need to listen.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.