It’s been ten years since I drove to the school where I taught and handed in my resignation letter. I spent sixteen and a half years in the classroom of a school system forty miles and two counties away. It was an indescribable joy not to return that last fall, only the fourth autumn since 1965 when I hadn’t started a new school year as either a student or teacher.
For the first several months I had recurring dreams that I showed up for school weeks late. Students had been coming to my room and waiting all that time. The principal was mad. I would wake up to the relief that, no, I didn’t have to do that anymore.
Funny that in those dreams, somebody was always mad at me or I was behind schedule with something.
Why did I leave teaching? Aside from personally feeling that I didn’t fit the profession, I was tired of the top-down way schools are often managed. In my school system, big changes were ushered in from above, changes that would dictate what happened in the classroom. While you’d think that the farmers, insurance agents, and lawyers on the school board would ask the teachers, “How might this work in your classroom?” we got edicts instead: “Make this work in your classroom.” I gather from others in the profession that it’s much that way in other school systems.
I’d like to think it’s different in Noblesville schools. From a parent’s perspective I’ve been very happy with the schools my children have attended here. But the angry tone of the state-wide and national debates on education suggests that many are dissatisfied. And teachers are easy targets.
I friend of mine who teaches in Noblesville Schools has a reputation among students, parents, and fellow teachers as the best of the best. He comes in early, leaves late, and inspires kids during the hours inbetween. He confided over coffee one morning recently that when he goes for breakfast with his father’s retired cronies, they criticize and attack teachers as lazy, union troublemakers. To know how good he is, how hard he works – and that he takes that kind of abuse from men who haven’t been in a classroom since the Kennedy administration – well, it hurts your heart how stupid and opinionated some people can be, both at once.
We Americans have a contradictory relationship with teachers and education that is best expressed by the advice I got from my father. 1) Education is of the utmost importance, and 2) Don’t become a teacher – there’s no respect and little pay.
Though at very important times I didn’t take either piece of that advice, I know now both are true. And what a shame that is. We pay a terrible price in this country for giving lip service to the first part of that advice and perpetuating the second. Our apathy sometimes makes the first part a joke and the second part a reality.
How can this nation expect to have good schools if we refuse to give teachers the pay and respect they deserve? Why we gladly pay our home run hitters and field goal kickers millions while bickering over every tenth of a percent raise we give teachers is a mystery almost too embarrassing to contemplate. It’s not a compliment to our culture, but in its own tiny way, says something revealing about what we really value.
One of the problems for teachers is that nearly every adult has spent more than a decade in the classroom as a student. We think we know what teaching is all about because we each watched it for so long. But what we all know deep inside, but don’t always give teachers credit for, is that watching and doing are two very different things. Being a bad teacher is easy – and we all knew a few. But being a good teacher is very, very hard – and most teachers I’ve known were good. And those good ones usually changed our lives in some way. Withholding appropriate pay and respect from a large number of good teachers because of a small number of bad ones is a near-criminal mistake.
And a look at what opportunistic political forces have done to teachers in this country in the aftermath of the economic collapse triggered on Wall Street truly terrifies me for the soul of our country. Rich, overpaid, well-placed bankers drove our economy to the brink. We bailed them out with billions in taxpayer dollars. You’d think we’d be focused on Wall Street reform, reregulation, and criminal charges, but no. In the years since, conservative forces have obstructed regulation of Wall Street, while instead launching a nation-wide, state-by-state campaign attacking the pay and benefits of teachers (not to mention firefighters and policemen). How underpaid and unappreciated teachers got to be the focus of political attack at a time like this is bemusing. Reminds me a little of a magician waving his hand with a broad flourish in front of your face to distract you from what he’s doing with the other hand behind his back.
It’s odd that I ever become a teacher, considering I hated school as a little kid. To this day the theme song to the Lassie TV series puts a knot in my stomach. Lassie ran on Sunday nights, and Sunday night was right before Monday morning – and school. The sadness of that melody perfectly matched how I felt about school as a kid. But though I was a slow learner, hard working teachers helped me learn to love education.
There’s a feeling of guilt about having left the teaching profession, as if I’m a cowardly soldier who fled the front lines, leaving my comrades to face battle alone. There are so many great teachers in the school system I left. Maybe another twinge of regret comes from feeling I didn’t have what it takes to stick it out in that sometimes beleaguered, yet admirable profession.
But at the very least I can stand up for them when I hear the foolish and uneducated use them as scapegoats for state budget overruns, lazy parenting, and those who say they value education but somehow think they’ll get there by blindly bashing those who provide it.