The other day I was looking at the obituaries in the Salt Lake Tribune, and I noticed that my sixth grade teacher had passed away. He had gone on to be an administrator in Murray School District and retired many years later with high praise from the schools and employees he led. I remember being on the play field with him one day at my elementary school and I was trying to learn to kick a football with some other kids. He took the ball, kicked it and it seemed to me that it was like Superman kicking it. It almost sailed out of sight. It's funny that I remember that and I don't remember particular classroom things, but I do remember what a great teacher he was.
Other than my parents, the teachers in my young life influenced me more than anybody else. With the exception of one teacher I had in junior high (who today would have been fired his first day on the job for the things he did to kids) I fully respected every teacher I ever had. Certainly some I liked better than others, and looking back some were better teachers than others. But whether they gave me an A or a C (and one of my favorites even gave me a D once, in typing of all things) they were all genuinely concerned about me as a student.
Today teachers often seem to be the butt of jokes. They're called the people who took up teaching because they couldn't do anything else. Having worked in support services in a school district for 14 years (from 1973-87) I found that my respect for teachers remained the same as it did when I was in school. There were a few bad ones, but for the most part they worked hard, were dedicated and cared about what happened to students. I could name the dozens of master teachers I knew over the years, and I could also name the few losers I knew.
It's easy to get down on a group of people you really don't know. It is easy to criticize people for what they do when you have never done it yourself. It is simple to make stereotypes out of those in certain professions. But when you get inside and see what is done, you almost always change your mind.
When I was a kid there was this family that moved in the neighborhood that was shunned. The rumor was that they were bad people, with kids in trouble all the time. The gossipers said the father had been in prison and at least one of the older sons was a jail bird. The family had kids my age, and many of my friends were told not play with them. However, my mother always taught me to look at the kids I associated with as individuals and not listen to gossip.
As I got to know the family, I found they were a wonderful group of people, and eventually they became a lot like family to me. It was the getting to know them that made the difference. Yes the father had been in prison once for stealing a car with some other boys when he was 18. He spent a year at the Point of the Mountain. The oldest son had, had some trouble with the law, but was in the Army and was at the time serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. Overall they were great; things had just not gone well a couple of times, yet they were labled for things that happened long ago, that didn't even matter anymore.
The point? This family was give a bad rap because of things that either happened long ago or something only a couple of them did. People do this all the time with schools. They know someone who had a bad experience with a school, an administrator or a teacher and the word spreads. Soon many believe what one or two people said. And often it is an individual teacher that gets the blame for the event or situation. And let's face it, those who have trouble with a situation at school, seldom tell both sides of the story for the world to hear.
We continually see reports that American students are behind the rest of the industrialized world in learning, particularly in mathematics and science. We hear about low test scores and schools that are dysfunctional. It is often pointed out that private schools prepare students better that public schools do for the real world. If you want to find something negative about American public schools, go to any news site and look it up; they will have something there that will reinforce your views if you think that our public schools are not doing their job.
But the fact is this. The teachers and educators in our schools do one hell of a job teaching kids. Public education is almost unique to the United States. Many countries pick and choose their students who go to their "public schools" which makes for better grades and in fact, a better teaching situation for the students to learn in. When we compare the kind of endeavor we have in our country to teach millions of kids from all kinds of backgrounds to learn much of the same thing others across the country are learning, it is unbelievable what our educators achieve. And in most cases, particularly in Utah, they do it on the cheap, because let's face it; few people want to pay more for public schools.
It seems each year when the legislature meets they and the governor always say that education is their one of their top priorities. Well it is, because it is such a big political issue. Even if the law makers cut funding for public education in half it still would be a huge chunk of the states budget. What they really need to do is to make it their top priority, no holds barred. But so few of them really understand what goes on in a classroom today. This is not the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s when most of them attended school. I would like each of them to take a classroom of 30-40 students for a couple of days and see how it works. But instead many of them continue to think that teaching kids is like running a factory, selling insurance, or operating a retail business.
Right now, despite the lack of jobs out there, many young college graduates, even jobless ones, run from teaching school as an option to solve their unemployment woes. It is hard work that makes your brain hurt at the end of the day. There are endless scores of problems to solve every time they walk in a classroom, most of which are out of a teachers hands to fix. It seems, just like so many native born Amercians don't want to dig ditches for a living, teaching is a profession that either doesn't appeal to them or they only use it as a stepping stone to something else.
Some of this drain away from teaching our kids can be fixed with higher salaries. But more important than that, is respect. Respect for people who mold young lives, who care about students individually and live and die by their charges accomplishments and failures.
It takes special individuals to teach and do it well. We reward those that have little to do with our daily lives so highly (pro athletes, actors, and many others) yet the ones that have the most impact on our most precious item, our children, are often not highly regarded nor paid enough.
It is a travesty.