At a time when teachers and their unions are under fire across the nation, my eldest daughter just had a much-anticipated interview with Teach for America. She will graduate from college in May and hopes to be a teacher in the fall.
She was worried that I’d be disappointed she didn’t feel a desire for graduate school.
But I was thrilled. Since graduating from college in 1984, I’ve taught GED courses, English as a second language, composition at a city college, and now writing and literature at a public university. I have loved every year, and I don’t think there’s a more important profession.
Think about it: We aren’t legally mandated to spend as much time with any other kind of person as we are with teachers. An American who graduates from high school has been taught by more than 20 teachers and has spent more than 10,000 hours in their company. It’s no wonder almost everyone has a story about a teacher who changed his or her life.
Still, with all the contempt and anger being hurled at teachers right now, it’s alarming to be sending a daughter into the crossfire, especially when new teachers are the first to be threatened with pink slips.
The growing scorn for public school teachers is at every level of education. Teachers are blamed for bad test results, for disrespectful students, for failing schools. They are thought to be lazy, draining public coffers with their monthly salaries and pension benefits (although they actually contribute to their pensions like everyone else).
Last fall, a video posted by blogger Shannyn Moore showed Sarah Palin and her daughter Willow confronting a woman protesting during the filming of Palin’s reality TV series on a fishing dock in Homer, Alaska. When Palin asks the woman about her profession, she replies that she is a teacher, and Palin and Willow, who is of high school age, exchange knowing looks. Palin turns back to the woman. “Oh — a teacher,” she says, her voice oozing condescension.
This kind of conservative contempt for public school teachers began decades ago with white flight (remember the private schools that sprang up in churches and homes during integration in the 1970s?), and it continues today. In Southern California, it can be seen in the flight of so many families to religious schools — not just the traditional Roman Catholic schools but numerous new church-affiliated facilities. I’ve been told by parents of students who attend private religious schools that public schools are beyond redemption, and they resent their tax dollars subsidizing poor-quality education.
Meanwhile, parents often consider their kids’ teachers as mere service providers. Last fall, I met a teacher at an exclusive private school on New York’s Upper East Side who told me that parents pressure her to ignore bad behavior, missed assignments and cheating, in the belief that nothing is more important than their children’s success. One of my best friends, a second-grade teacher at the public elementary school I attended, told me about a student who consistently returns math work undone. “I don’t do math,” he said. “My mom says I don’t have to.” My friend explained, “The state says you have to do math.” But the child was adamant: “My mom says I don’t.”
A teacher at my youngest daughter’s public high school told me that parents often call and email to protest assignments. My child just “isn’t feeling Dickens,” one said. “He needs to be reading something he can relate to.”
At the very moment my daughter hopes to become a teacher, Detroit is talking about closing half its public schools. In Rhode Island, teachers are being laid off wholesale. California has issued thousands of pink slips.
All over the world, people sacrifice to send their children to school. Afghan girls are threatened yet still walk to school; Chinese children are sent to schools in faraway cities by parents desperate to give them better lives; Kenyan students study by kerosene lamp in one-room schools built by grateful parents.
Here, access to a free education is an essential part of the American dream. I was sent to kindergarten at age 4 by my mother, a Swiss immigrant. She taught me to read when I was 3, worried that the school wouldn’t admit me unless I was already literate. I went daily to a kind teacher who let me read advanced books in the corner. I remember her hair, her lips when her mouth moved, and her fingernails. Decades later, she remembers me and says I told her stories.
I believe it, because teachers are often therapists, friends, mentors, coaches, sometimes providers of food and school supplies or holders of secrets. And in that way, they are some of the most important people in children’s lives.
And sometimes, despite all the disrespect that’s out there, teachers are appreciated. Last week, I got an email from a Cambodian-American student from San Bernardino, Calif., who now teaches English in South Korea; she was writing to say thank you.
My students, many of them first-generation immigrants, have brought me gifts and invited me to their weddings and New Year celebrations. I have gotten calls of thanks from their parents. And sometimes, they have called me not by my name but by the most reverent word they could summon: teacher.
I try to imagine my daughter in a classroom this fall, looking out at the faces of children who are thinking of numbers and letters and secrets. I remember the woman who taught me to form the alphabet, the man who taught me long division. I remember my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Wolf, playing Cat Stevens songs on the guitar. And I wonder about the children who may one day remember my daughter’s teaching, and in what ways she may have changed their lives.
Susan Straight’s new novel, “Take One Candle Light a Room,” is about an orphaned young man whose life is changed by teachers. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.