By Christopher Smith
He’s a self-proclaimed “hawk of education.” But Dick Yarbrough used to have “no interest” in learning, at least not until his freshmen year at the University of Georgia in the late 1950s, he said.
That’s when he met an English literature teacher named Raymond Cook, who inspired Yarbrough to become engaged in class and try his hand at interpreting lofty academic poetry.
“I raised my hand and started analyzing a poem about trees. Dr. Cook chewed my butt out during class,” Yarbrough said. “I sat down in total perspiration. He said to me, ‘You didn’t know what you were talking about did you?’ And he taught me not to speak until you think first.”
Yarbrough, a syndicated columnist featured in the Saturday edition of The Daily Citizen, was his regular joking self Tuesday night as he spoke to teachers, parents and students at Dalton High School. But when it came to the state of education, he got serious.
“Dr. Cook literally turned my life around,” he said, joking aside. “That’s what good teachers do.”
But it gets hard for teachers to impact students, Yarbrough said, when state and federal lawmakers overreach into schools with strict legislation, parents remain disconnected, students grow up entitled and are disrespectful to teachers.
“I don’t think public education has the respect it used to have,” he said.
Most communities aren’t “even getting behind” public schools, he added, leaving major decisions that impact students in the hands of lobbyists, legislators and un-elected committees. Those government officials often decide what’s being taught in class and how to gauge a school’s success, he said.
Community members need to get more involved in the democratic process and push lawmakers in the right direction by advocating for more local control, Yarbrough said.
“You don’t walk away from schools,” he added. “You make them better.”
Yarbrough said he understands the “frustration” teachers and parents might feel, especially with years of budget cuts that — when restored — don’t always restore everything lost such as art programs or teachers’ salaries.
“(But) you have to fight the apathy,” he said.
Another concern Yarbrough said he sees is “balkinazation,” where several education groups exist with a “piece of the pie” and operate with “self-interest.”
“You can’t change the world, but you can change a piece of it,” he said. “What’s the alternative? To not do anything. And that’s not an alternative. ... It is like world peace. You can’t just stop because you’re never going to (fully) have it. You get behind it. You make people who are decision-makers listen to you.”