If lawmakers thinking legislating is hard, try being a teacher — or a kid.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., spent some time over August recess learning that lesson from his pre-voting age constituents.
Kennedy spent the morning on Friday substitute-teaching for an eighth-grade class at Southside Middle School in Denham Springs, a city about five miles east of Baton Rouge.
“It’s a fully integrated school,” the senator said. “I have white kids, black kids, a couple of Indian-American kids, I had a fair number of Hispanic students. It was a good mix.”
While teaching the students, he learned from them as well.
“Compared to when I was in school, it’s a lot harder to be a kid today,” he said. “These kids at 13 have seen things that I didn’t even know existed until I got to college — crime, drugs, alcohol, guns, sex, gangs. Many of them are from single parent families. They live through divorces.”
His lesson was on wetlands and the destruction and restoration of them in Louisiana. He spoke with the class’ regular teacher and received the materials about the lesson plan.
When Kennedy handed out a summary of the lesson and asked the students to sit down, read it, take notes and copy down central points, he gained perspective on primary education.
“These were great kids and many of them could do it and did a good job [but] there were several, you could tell, they didn’t really grasp the concept of reading and summarizing it,” he said. “I don’t think this is a problem that’s unique to Louisiana, it’s an American problem. These are eighth graders, they’re going to be in high school soon and, hopefully, college.”
He added, “You could say 35, 40 years ago that we had one of the best systems of elementary education. We don’t anymore.”
The senator also brought a boxes of books that he handpicked from the Library of Congress to donate to the school.
Kennedy started substitute teaching in 2003 and has tried to do it two to three times a year since then.
“I called the county school board and said, ‘Look, do you need substitutes?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we desperately need substitutes.’ So I did it,” he recalled. “They obviously needed them desperately.”
His first substitute teaching gig was in an 11th grade chemistry class.
“At the end of the day, you’re worn out,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to be a teacher today. They not only have to teach, but they’re expected to be psychologists and sociologists and mentors and mommys and daddys, as the case may be. It’s a very tiring job, the first time I did it when I was teaching chemistry… I was just exhausted.”
When Congress is back, he plans on introducing a resolution to get every senator to volunteer once a year in a public school in their state.
“There’s a disconnect between the policymakers of secondary and elementary school education and what actually goes on in the classrooms,” he said.
His said his colleagues will ask him, “How hard can it be, Kennedy? They’re fifth graders.”
And he responds, “Well, you go try it when you’ve got 25 kids.”
Kennedy is no stranger to teaching older students, too. Before entering the Senate, he spent 17 years as Louisiana state treasurer and during that time, he was also an adjunct professor at the Louisiana State University law school.
When he was newly sworn in, he said it would be the first time he hadn’t taught in 15 years and that he would miss it.
“I do miss it, but it’s no comparison,” he said. “Law school students know why they’re there, and they’re fairly motivated.”