Wednesday, May 6, 2009

2 Teach Is 2 Touch Lives 4 Ever

I used to have a refrigerator magnet that said, "2 Teach Is 2 Touch Lives 4 Ever", written out like a math problem. The magnet either got lost or broken years ago, and I have grown up enough since then to realize the corniness of that item and have not replaced it.

Corny or not, that sentiment is the driving force of why those of us who work in education our entire careers do it. It's not for the money (we don't make that much) or the respect (not much of that, either.) I would say that 95% of us got into teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the world, and because somewhere along the way a teacher changed the way we looked at the world and became something like a personal hero.

Which is why I am always amazed at those people who put us down.

Most days, while I am sitting at the desk directing library traffic, I pull up the online opinion pages of our local paper and read what's getting the tri-state area worked up on that particular day. I pay closest attention to any editorial piece about education, and there have been a lot this spring. Yesterday was election day in Ohio and a score of school levies were on the ballot, and in my own state there has been much discussion and debate about the changes made to our student testing and accountability system.

Somehow, teachers always get pulled in when people start posting comments. Some people say that the only reason teachers fight for levies is so that they keep getting pay increases (never mind that the teachers in most of those Ohio districts have already agreed to pay freezes for next year to help reduce costs). Some call us overpaid and say we should get the same cuts in pay and benefits, including retirement, that workers in the private sector have seen in this recession. Some say we have no right to complain or ask for anything because we only work 7 hours a day, 9 months a year. One commenter on a story about the levies today actually said, " 'Educators' are the most selfish people in the world," and more people than you would think seconded that remark.

The fact that I knew how to properly punctuate that shows that I've had some wonderful, unselfish teachers who deserved every penny they earned.

I could go on and on here about how no teacher I know, not even a lazy one, only works a 7-hour day. And how those summer "breaks" are really mandatory, unpaid vacation time during which most of us fulfill our state-mandated continuing education requirements, or teach summer school, or work on lesson plans because the curriculum is always changing. And how our salaries really don't reflect those Master's degrees we are required to get in our first years teaching on our own time and our own dime. And how, if it weren't for decent health benefits and retirement (which, by the way, have been cut in the decade-plus I've been working in education) none of the truly talented folks in the profession would be crazy enough to do this job and put up with other people's kids in the first place.

But to spend the entire blog doing that would be preaching to the choir, because so many of you are, if not teachers, then public-service or university employees who I am sure get it. And let's face it; there are some teachers out there who don't represent us so well. Who perpetuate every negative stereotype of the American teacher, who can't do, but can teach.

I would also bet my "overly generous" salary, though, that every profession has a few bad apples that, forever reason, are able to hold on to their jobs even though they wallow in mediocrity-going-on-incompetence.

For anyone who might be lurking and who might be thinking that teachers are whining and asking for money for their schools that they don't deserve, and that losing teaching positions might thin out the ranks in a desirable way, let me say a few things.

You want to know the real reason why teachers ask for levies and flood their senators' and representatives' offices with phone calls and email any time the education budget is discussed? The real reason why we sometimes picket busy intersections or descend en masse at board meetings?

Because we care about your kids more than you could ever imagine.

They may not give a darn about us; we can't reach every kid, and since we're human, our personalities and the fact that we're authority figures aren't going to exactly be endearing to every teenager. But even when we don't leave a mark on a kid, they leave something with us. I remember the names of an awful lot of my students. Some I remember because they did well, or because they let me know they appreciated what I was trying to do. Some I remember because they drove me crazy and I counted down the days until they were another teacher's problem.

But whether I meshed with the kid or not, I wanted him or her to do well. To succeed. And if I wasn't able to make that happen, I just hoped that, someday, someone would get through to that student. Or stick that kid with a big, fat, reality check.

Either way, I cared. And I still remember.

I remember the girl whose older brother had committed suicide the year before and who I was warned would never talk about it. When I asked her class to write a memoir about someone important in their life, she wrote a truthful and heartbreaking piece about her brother. And when I gave her an A as much for her bravery as for the execution, she took it home and read it to her parents, who later told me was the first time she had opened up to them about how she felt.

I remember the boy labelled as a future prison inmate who skipped class and sometimes slept when he was in class but who, when he had moments of caring about his grade, could write circles around his peers and made insightful comments about what we were reading that would have impressed a college professor. When I called his mother, hoping to light a fire under him since he had a lot of potential, she was clearly drunk or stoned and pretty much told me I was wasting my time on a lost cause. I cried when I put the phone down, and again after the last day of school that year when I heard he had dropped out. I have spent over a decade now hoping he beat the odds.

I remember the kids who have thanked me, like the girl who wrote me an email when she heard I was going through chemo saying she was student teaching in English because she wanted to be like me. I remember the kids who told me I was terrible, and who complained about me to administrators (and whose parents backed them up on those complaints.) I am grateful for kids like the former, but learned something from kids like the latter, too.

I've been out of the regular classroom for a while now, but the students still get to me. There are some students I see every day for four school years. I watch them grow up and am a witness to some of their major and minor dramas. And of course, to a small group of my library students every year, I am a teacher and a supervisor and a mentor.

If I am your kid's teacher, here's how I feel. Your child does not have my blood in his or her veins, but I care about that kid's future and whether or not he grows up to be a productive member of society in a way that's almost parental. When your daughter gives her valedictory speech at graduation and gets choked up, I will choke up, too, because I'm proud and know that she's going to make it. And if I hear that your son is going to drop out at 17, that will break my heart because I will wonder if there is more I could have done.

We fight because we care.

Maybe just because I need to hear it after all the poison I've been reading, or maybe because it's Teacher Appreciation Week, write about a teacher you had who made a difference in your life and helped you be the person you are today.

1 comment:

DRoss said...

Wow, Cranky, what a beautiful post! I hope Meg has teachers who care as much as you and the colleagues you describe. We got really good news about her school assignment, so our hopes are high.

When I think of good teachers I have known, two especially come to mind. I had a great high school English teacher who was both an encourager to me and an example of a woman who just kept going forward with pride and dignity. Her husband got into some shenanigans that were the subject of racy rumours my junior year and they disappeared over the summer. I missed her a lot.

The other is Rick Axtell from Centre who helped me understand my place in the world and find a way to relate to God that continues to be meaningful. I was reluctantly on the verge of giving up, until he introduced me to liberation theology, the NRSV and Wendell Berry.

It grinds me that so many people bitch about school taxes and take the work teachers do for granted. It is no less than taking your best shot at socializing children whose sperm and egg donors will not do that work themselves.