In Honor of Teachers

Sep 3, 2011 by


Since it’s back-to-school season across the country, I wanted to celebrate a group that is often maligned: teachers. Like so many others, it was a teacher who changed the direction of my life, and to whom I’m forever indebted.

So begins Charles Blow in this New York Times op ed this morning.Blow cites data from things like the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on American education in which 76% of Americans want the best brightest students to become teachers and 67% percent are willing to have their own children become teachers.  Blow then offers these words, which I hope you will read carefully:

But how do we expect to entice the best and brightest to become teachers when we keep tearing the profession down? We take the people who so desperately want to make a difference that they enter a field where they know that they’ll be overworked and underpaid, and we scapegoat them as the cause of a societywide failure.

I had read that far when I decided I needed to post about this piece by Blow.

Please keep reading.

I am now in my 17th year of public school teaching, a profession to which I came as I approached 50.  I have been fortunate to work for principals and in schools were teachers and teaching were honored.  I have received awards from outside for my teaching, but that means less to me than the thanks of parents and students.  I know of 17 of my former students who are now themselves classroom public school teachers, which I consider a tribute even if I am only one of the influences that led them to such a career choice.

Thursday during my final period I saw someone peering through the window in the closed door of my classroom.   I went outside to see if I could help the young man, whom I did not recognize.   Then I saw the name on his visitor’s badge.

He is a 2002 graduate of our high school, but that is not from where I know him.   I taught him in middle school in 1997-98 – we both moved up to the same high school at the same time, but I’m not sure I even spoke to him once during his 4 years in high school.

He is now a successful photographer in the South, with his own studio and business.  He had come by the school primarily to talk with his photography teacher, but decided to stop by and see me as well.

I invited him in.  He spoke for a few minutes with the students in my final class of the day, ordinary kids, not an AP class.  He made an impression.

I know from my own troubled adolescence that teachers made a huge difference to me, both in high school and later when I was first at Haverford College, and equally troubled.

The power of Blow’s piece comes not from his citation of data such as the poll, or a report from the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  The latter found that one difference between high scoring nations like Finland and the US is the difference in respect shown towards teachers.  Blow cites the report, and offers the data, then reminds us of what happened in Wisconsin.

But you can read such data in other contexts.  By itself it would not be enough for me to take the time on a busy Saturday to write this post and to call your attention to his op ed.

Blow is African-American.  And he sets the context for the tale he wants to tell us like this:

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to reform our education system. We should, and we must. Nor am I saying that all teachers are great teachers. They aren’t. But let’s be honest: No profession is full of peak performers. At least this one is infused with nobility.And we as parents, and as a society at large, must also acknowledge our shortcomings and the enormous hurdles that teachers must often clear to reach a child. Teachers may be the biggest in-school factor, but there are many out-of-school factors that weigh heavily on performance, like growing child poverty, hunger, homelessness, home and neighborhood instability, adult role-modeling and parental pressure and expectations.

The first teacher to clear those hurdles in my life was Mrs. Thomas.

Then Blow tells us about himself.   In first through third grades he was considered “slow” although he did not think of himself that way.  He attended school in a neighboring town where his mother taught, but he was an indifferent student, in large part because of the tumult in his personal life, including the divorce of his parents.  He was placed in a “slow” class and went through seemingly invisible to his teachers.

For fourth grade his mother got a job in his home town, so he changed schools, and was placed in Mrs. Thomas’s class.”  You can read the details of what happened, but young Charles Blow demonstrated a real affinity in math, which Mrs. Thomas affirmed.  Allow me to continue to push fair use by quoting the impact of what happened:

I couldn’t remember a teacher ever smiling with approval, or putting their hand around me, or praising my performance in any way.It was the first time that I felt a teacher cared about me, saw me or believed in me. It lit a fire in me. I never got a bad grade again. I figured that Mrs. Thomas would always be able to see me if I always shined. I always wanted to make her as proud of me as she seemed to be that day. And, she always was.

Let me stop for a moment, before I return to the tale Blow tells about himself.  Note that the teacher embraced him.  She actually touched him.  Yet today too often teachers are told we need to keep hands off, even when what a student needs is a hug.  This is of course very true at the lower grades, but people tend to forget how fragile some adolescents are.  I think we worry too much about the bad side of touching and embracing and ignore the importance of teaching the whole child, which includes the emotional parts of that child, which may need physical reinforcement.  Yes, one has to be careful about inappropriate relationships developing, although at my age (65) it is rare that I have to address the possibility of real crushes, something far more problematic for younger teachers.

I make this comments because Blow focuses on the touch as much as he does on the smile.  He reminds us of the importance of affirmation on a number of levels.

I know that for some of my students I have to approach it in a somewhat silly way to make the point.   I will stop and say –

Put your pen down.

Hold our your hand (showing mine palm up).

Lift it up (demonstrating by raising my hand).

Give yourself a pat on the back!

Sometimes even the most stonefaced kids will crack a smile, whether they are the one to whom I address these words or are merely observing as other students in the class.  It helps them feel positive, it helps build the relationship and trust necessary to challenge the student to take risks, including the risk of being wrong in front of both teacher and peers.   Yet without such risk-taking learning is limited, not as deep or meaningful.

Let me return to Blow.

In high school they were tested for IQ.  It turned he and another student were so bright they created a gifted-and-talented class for just the two of them, and Blow graduated as valedictorian of his class.

Let me allow Blow to end this post, because it is his words that matter now.

And all of that was because of Mrs. Thomas, the firecracker of a teacher who first saw me and smiled with the smile that warmed me on the inside.So to all of the Mrs. Thomases out there, all the teachers struggling to reach lost children like I was once, I just want to say thank you. You deserve our admiration, not our contempt.

via In Honor of Teachers.

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