25 April 2012: Teachers deserve to be respected

Teachers deserve to be respected

In her work, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch talks about Mrs. Ruby Ratliff, her most influential teacher.  Ratliff was a no-nonsense English teacher, “gruff and demanding” who tolerated no “foolishness or disruptions.”

Everyone has a war story of a teacher who left a permanent mark either by inspiring or by leaving a scar.

For me, it was Sr. Marie Charles, my junior American history and senior Problems of Democracy teacher.  Sr. Marie Charles was the first to challenge me to think critically and won lasting fame by calling then-President Lyndon B. Johnson “a boob.”

Imagine my shock, being then a good Catholic boy.  But I got it: not only an insight into her thinking—anti-Vietnam War—but also into her personality.  She didn’t let her nun’s habit get in the way of her intellectual and academic honesty and great teaching.

Sr. Marie Charles directed me into the world of ideas and education.  Until then, college was unheard of in my family being second-generation, blue-collar Americans. Life was to be spent first in the military, then the mill.  Because of her insistence and persistence, I took the College Boards and became the first in the family to earn a degree the old-fashioned way: paying for it entirely by working nights, weekends, and summers.

I still laugh when recalling one brother-in-law teasing me about using “50-cent words.”  A gallon of gas was 29 cents a gallon then, so I suppose those same words are now easily worth $5.00 each.  I doubt, though, my editor agrees.

Sr. Marie Charles not only became one of the most influential people in my personal life, but she also served as a model through my professional teaching career.  The “edginess” that tinged my upper-level discussions on the great works of American literature and on issues of our day was influenced by her pithy, wry, and too-funny “boob” comment.

Over the decades I worked with some incredibly brilliant teachers from whom I learned much.  One had a great line and perspective about administrators: “They comes and they goes.”  True, I recall saying, and teachers are diamonds: We’re forever.

One bumper sticker reads, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”  True again, and if you cannot and suffer from no disability, blame yourself.   As ol’ Mrs. Clark, one of my first professional colleagues and a non-nonsense Ratliff type, would tell her 8th-grade math students, “Don’t blame me because you went fishing while I did my job.”

It’s about a strange concept that conservatives blather about but ignore when it comes to public education: personal responsibility.  Neo-educationists—school and public officials, commentators, and private business people and assorted professionals—who “think they can fix education by applying the principles of business” (Ravitch), prefer putting the onus for shortcomings not where they belong but on teachers.

We like to claim that when we got in trouble at school, we were in bigger trouble at home.  That might or might not be true in all cases—sure was in mine—but something has been lost in our culture with regard to teacher authority and respect, and the constant demonizing and belittling of teachers, especially from those who should be among their strongest advocates, contributes to and reinforces that attitude.

Everyday teachers work magic.  Everyday they put it on the line for children and young adults from a wide-variety of backgrounds with varying degrees of skills and personal issues, randomly collated or gathered in small groups called classes in which, despite incredible odds, they manage most often to get an unwilling group not only to do something they would rather not be doing, but also to do it well, to proficiency or better.

From curriculum developers to instructional leaders, teachers wear many professional hats.  When it comes to the nitty-gritty of interpersonal relationships, teachers daily find themselves in the role of sociologist, psychotherapist, police officer, referee, big brother/sister or surrogate parent for young people often in the throes of puberty.  No wonder my acquaintance I mentioned previously lasted only one semester before fleeing to the relative serenity of the business world.  She couldn’t take the heat.

Only a few other professions compare favorably in terms of nobility of purpose, for it’s not for amassing earthly treasure one dedicates his/her life’s work to public education.

Genuine leadership by elected and appointed public officials, from school board to secretary of education, entails showing deference and R-E-S-P-E-C-T to those who taught, mentored, disciplined, and encouraged them while on their educational journey.  For if they can read this, they know whom they have to thank.

To be continued.

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