Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Today is World Teacher's Day

As someone who was on both sides of a teacher's desk in schools during the course of my years, as well as someone who has been impacted greatly, in ways both good and bad, by teachers, I wanted to make sure to try and honor teachers, and the huge impact that they have on every society.

Teachers hold far more power and influence than many people tend to think. They do indeed influence our kids, and can teach valuable life lessons for kids - and I am not just talking about the A, B C's and 1, 2, 3's, either. Sometimes, the stories and revelations that they give about their own lives can be enormously influential. Sometimes, for that matter, revealing their dreams can inspire, as well. 

In my own personal life, I have seen time and time again just how much of an impact teachers can have. Some of the teachers in high school that had the biggest impact on me included a science teacher who told some personal stories where he revealed what he believed were examples of great strength and character, as well as a history teacher who not only advocated better environmental practices, but got his students to join the cause and protest the local McDonald's to stop using styrofoam. I unfortunately was not a part of that, although a few years later, I did go to the town council with him to be a part of some presentations by students against a proposed development that would have destroyed the virgin woodlands of our town. 

There was another teacher in my high school who could sometimes reveal such deep and poetic sounding thoughts, as well as giving some simple yet very sound advice, that it changed my way of thinking, quite literally. I enjoyed it at the time, yet years later, when I found myself thinking of some of the things that he said, it dawned on me just how huge of an influence he actually had on me.

Of course, there were some other great teachers that I had, as well. And working in the field, as I have done, on and off, for some years now, I have also met some great teachers, truly dedicated to their kids. Often times, they will make up for a lack of budgetary funding and spend some of their own hard-earned money to try and make sure that the kids in their classroom are well equipped and given every tool and advantage to learn. Much of this goes unnoticed, and too many teachers have thankless jobs.

Yet, I will also say that not everybody that I met in a teaching capacity should have been there. I remember one history teacher that I had in middle school suggesting outright that the races should live "separate...but equal." Fortunately, that did not go unchallenged, although unfortunately, I was not the one with the courage to do it. There was another teacher in that school who did something that I will never forget, as it was such a clear example of what not to do and say towards a kid. This kid had an Irish last name that began with the letter O and an apostrophe. For argument's sake, let's just say that the kid's name was O'Hare (that was not his actual name, but it serves the purpose). Well, one time, after that kid failed to produce required work, that teacher kind of muttered to himself, "O'Hare...O'Hare." Then, looking up at the kid, he said, much louder, "Your name should be Zero Hare, because that is what you amount to. It was a different era, one when challenging a teacher was almost unthinkable, and so no one said anything. But I remember looking at the expression on that kid's face, and that teacher's tendency to say insulting things (there were other episodes, although none of them stand out quite as distinctively or memorably as that one). I have seen quite a few teachers like that, who really just have no business being around kids. One teacher (again, in that same middle school) who would scream until she was red-faced for the smallest infractions, and the kids must have gotten used to that, because they hardly even paid any attention to her. And yet one other teacher in that same school system during the time that I worked there, and she was quite full of herself, talking about her "six zone heating and central air conditioning" home. She had a specialty class of ED (emotionally disturbed, although I imagine they changed that name to something more politically correct these days). She allowed these kids to go wild too often, and really did not push them towards anything resembling discipline. I asked her once how many of her students went on to have normal lives, and she said one. In all of her years teaching different classes, only one kid went on to have a normal life. But she made a decent salary and was driving around an expensive car. Her husband was well-to-do as well, and my suspicions were that she was very much in it for the money more than anything else.

I had my own run in with a staff member (not a teacher, but a guidance counselor who would go on to become the Vice-Principal of the school) who sent out clear negative vibes. Being a terrible student, visits to his office had become routine experiences for me after report cards came out. I remember walking in, and him saying, "So, how many F's this time, Charles?" He went on to ask his routine questions, all while showing an all too visible level of disinterest towards me, not really caring to actually try and find out why I was struggling. I was a bright kid, and know for a fact that he had other bright kids visit his office who, like me, could have done better. But he was content to sit on his big salary and watch kids like us fall through the cracks. He bent over backwards to help those who he termed the "good kids." He helped them choose good colleges and career paths. For kids like me, however, he went through the motions, and it was obvious. Years later, I returned to that school as a substitute, and he seemed surprised to see me in that capacity. Then, he said something that I will never forget. He said that he remembered that I was always "one of the good kids." That was news to me, and my skepticism must have been transparent, because the conversation ended rather abruptly thereafter. I watched this man from afar, and saw his blatant favoritism, and knew that there was something about him that felt intensely wrong. Now, being quite a bit older and understanding things a bit better than I did, I view him as the symbol of an uncaring bureaucracy within the education system, one that basically caters to the favorite sons and daughters, while allowing others to fail. He became one of the faces that I associated with an unfair and generally failing education system. Or perhaps, a better way to put it is to suggest that were there were failures, people such as this man simply stood by and let it happen, although they were only to happy to collect their checks and focus on their tenure within the school system (and in his case, to move on up the ladder of the school system), while actually doing little of substance to make education and the opportunities that it could give kids truly better for all of the students who had the misfortune of being under his umbrella.

Now, I still work in a school system, although not on an everyday basis, which I used to do. Still, you can kind of just tell. Some teachers are there because they really, truly care about the kids, and they will do anything and everything to enhance the learning process, to make sure that their kids are given every opportunity to learn, to succeed. In some cases, they provide disadvantaged kids with the only real place where they will find stability. And yes, there are some teachers who are also lazy and just in it for themselves, looking to score tenure so that they can rely on a steady paycheck, and the kids clearly come in a distant second, if even that high.

In this day and age, in the United States, education is an undervalued profession. Teachers are increasingly blamed when things go wrong, and not given credit when things go right. There was a cartoon that I remember seeing some years ago, and it revealed a deep and disturbing truth about education these days. On the top half, there was a cartoon with the caption "Explain this!" under a drawing of a kid slinking down, with his parents behind him and the teacher in front of him holding a report card with a big red "F" as she glared at him, clearly in a conference called to address his academic struggles. Then on the bottom was the modern day, those same words, "Explain this!" Yet this time, the teacher was the one slinking back, as the parents were glaring at the teacher, holding a report card that showed a big red "F."

I think that there is more than a little grain of truth to that. Many parents these days are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Like some teachers who should not be teachers, some parents should not be parents, frankly. Some of them are just overgrown kids themselves. The work environment makes a huge difference, too. I was subbing at one school (a notoriously bad and wild one), and remember eating in the staff room during lunch. The teachers there were complaining  that during Teacher Appreciation Day, the principal had only gotten them a box of donuts. In the other elementary schools in town, they had devoted an entire classroom, where they cleared some space and dimmed the lights, and parents of kids came in to give the teacher's massages! But in that school, they felt cheated, and got diddly squat. The morale among the teachers there is generally low, and that kind of feeling is poison that easily spreads. 

This might sound corny, but we really could use more positivity within the education field. The focus should not be on systematically testing the performance of our teacher's, using the "one size fits all" testing system against them. Education is far more nuanced than that, even if some people do not particularly like nuance. We keep looking for better results while systematically looking to make significant budget cuts, and those two things do not go hand in hand, particularly when the military budget is bloated far beyond all reason. 

So today, let us honor teachers, and the job that they do. Let us recognize the impact that they have on our kids, and the influence that they collectively (and sometimes individually) have on the kids that they teach, and often become mentors to. It is a difficult and demanding job, and I was not kidding when I suggested that it is a largely thankless one. But it might help to go ahead and thank a teacher if you encounter one today. It certainly cannot hurt!

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