“Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.”–George Eliot
They’ve styled their recent haircuts, donned their pretty new shirts and shoes, crammed their backpacks with all the essentials, and waited patiently while their teary-eyed mamas have snapped “back to school” photos for Facebook posting. Some of them are a little nervous and apprehensive about the upcoming school year, but even if they won’t admit it, most of them are also excited about getting back into the routine, seeing their friends every day, checking out the new kids (especially the opposite sex ones!) and maybe–just maybe–learning a thing or two along the way.
And what those students may not realize is that the same mixed bag of emotions is being carried through the schoolhouse doors by their teachers–I know because I was once one of them. This is the first time in 30 years that the school bell will be ringing and I won’t be answering its call, and I have to tell you that it’s a little strange. For 30 years I began every first day with a hammering headache and a jittery stomach following a fitful night of semi-sleep–and every year I discovered that most of my colleagues were suffering from the same lack of sleep and the same accompanying side effects.
True, excitement is the overwhelming emotion on that first day back to school for teachers. Their rooms are sparkly clean and newly decorated, their budgeted supplies are neatly stacked and ready for dispersal, and they’re eager to welcome a new batch of young minds and to expose those minds to the limitless knowledge that is theirs for the taking. But most teachers also begin the new year with a certain degree of nervousness and uncertainty, too. Will the students listen to me and learn? Will their parents understand what I’m trying to accomplish? Will my administrators support me? Will the state inundate us with new mandates again? Will the already greatly reduced state and federal funding be reduced even more?
It’s not an easy time to be a teacher–but then, it probably never was (if you have any doubts, read Rules of Conduct for Teachers 1915). Most teachers will tell you that no other profession could possibly be so rewarding, and almost everyone will agree that no other profession could possibly be more important. And because it is so important, the teaching profession and the educational system as a whole is (and should be) open to public scrutiny. There are inferior schools, mediocre teachers, and students who are suffering the consequences–and regardless of the reasons, this is unacceptable, not just for the sake of those students but for the sake of our collective future. Even the very best schools and teachers can always be better, and no good educator minds the scrutiny and any resulting criticism–as long as that criticism is constructive and justified.
And therein lies the problem. Every year, usually within a few weeks of the start of the new school year, the media begins its trashing of the public education system. Some newscaster, some commentator, some “expert” will bemoan the downfall of America’s schools, and soon countless others will chime in. Our students can’t read. Our students can’t write. Our students are lagging far behind the rest of the industrialized world’s students in math and science. Quite simply, our students are failing–and it’s our teachers’ fault.
And what bothers me the most is that all schools and all educators are lumped into the same “failing” category, and this over-generalization simply isn’t fair, true or productive. There are many, many schools and teachers still doing an exceptional job of preparing our young people for whatever their future may entail (and still looking for ways to do an even better job), and they and their efforts should be commended.
So when you hear all the negative press about all the things teachers don’t do–when you hear about failing test scores or our declining educational rank among world powers–certainly, be concerned, but realize that our educational system shouldn’t shoulder all the blame; society in general is also at fault. Schools used to teach children math and science and English and social studies, but now societal standards are also expecting–and government mandates are often requiring–schools to teach sex ed and drug ed and character ed, bullying prevention and conflict resolution and personal finance, goal setting and resume writing, and health and wellness and parenting skills and bicycle safety–and the list goes on and on. And while each of these topics is important to the well being of our young people and probably deserves a place in the school curriculum, the rest of the world is not judging us on how we perform on these standards. There may come a day when we have to accept that schools simply can’t provide every educational component that students need–when we have to stop trying to give them all the information and tools they need to survive in an ever-expanding world and instead focus only on those things deemed most important by world standards. And as a former educator, I’m honestly not sure I want to see that day.
But enough of that for now. As a new school year gets underway, I want to focus for a few minutes on some of the good things I’ve seen good teachers do in addition to teaching their subject matter–some of those things that people outside the school building walls may never see, some of those little things that make a big difference . . .
- I’ve seen teachers give up their lunch periods and “planning” periods in order to help struggling students–and I’ve seen them come in early and stay late for the same reason.
- I’ve seen teachers buy extra food items at lunch only to profess that they’re suddenly not hungry and to give those items away to students they know aren’t getting enough to eat at home.
- I’ve seen teachers raid their children’s closets to clothe students whose parents can’t afford to keep up with their growth spurts–and I’ve seen them buy new clothes for students, take off the tags, and claim that the clothes were some their own kids had outgrown.
- I’ve seen teachers at the end of a long day go out of their way to take students home when their parents never showed to pick them up from an event–and I’ve seen them welcome students into their homes when it wasn’t safe for them to go to their own.
- I’ve seen teachers pay for graduation announcements, senior pictures and prom pictures, often anonymously, for students who otherwise wouldn’t get those memorable keepsakes.
- I’ve seen teachers spend hundreds of dollars every year on classroom supplies because the school budget just isn’t enough to cover everything they think their students need–and I’ve seen them spend countless more dollars on raffle tickets and fundraising items they don’t really want just to help students raise enough money to go on school trips.
- I’ve seen teachers donate untold hours of their after-school time to supervise and chaperone and sponsor student organizations–and I’ve seen them spend precious days of their summer “vacation” traveling with students around the state and around the country so that those students could compete and have a chance to shine in the spotlight.
- I’ve seen teachers at ballgames and band concerts when they really needed to be home grading papers or spending time with their own families–only because one of their students asked them to come, and they knew that made it important.
- I’ve seen teachers worry over and counsel the students they thought they could help–and I’ve seen them cry over the ones they lost and thought they had failed.
- I’ve seen teachers give up their Saturdays to attend baby showers and weddings–and I’ve seen them shed their tears at hospital beds and funerals.
- I’ve seen teachers give their students every drop of wisdom, energy and enthusiasm they had–and I’ve seen them leave exhausted at the end of day, only to go home to their own families and try to give them what they need, too.
I could go on and on. Am I biased? You bet I am. Are most teachers and schools doing a good job of educating America’s children? I think so. Can most teachers and schools do an even better job? Yes. But when the media starts its annual trashing in a few weeks–and all the “experts” start chiming in–let’s remember to keep our minds open and our criticism constructive, and let’s remember to support and encourage and appreciate all those who are dedicating their lives to helping our young people become the future. And I’m not just talking about the classroom teachers; every administrator, aide and counselor, every secretary, bus driver, cook and custodian is an educator as well, and each of them can have a positive impact on the lives of our children.
For all you educators–but especially for my former colleagues who are going back to school today–my prayer for you today and always is that your “job” is your passion and your students are your joy, that you will always have the strength, patience, courage, wisdom, kindness and love to give your students everything they need, and that you never, ever run out of Tylenol or Tums. Have a GREAT year!
“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers,
but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.
The curriculum is so much necessary raw material,
but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”