Those Who Teach

Jefferson County, Colorado. My childhood home.

Jefferson County, Colorado. My childhood home.

My husband’s mother spent her career in the classroom. For more than four decades she was the lively presence at the front of the room, stewarding group after group of first graders through the hallmarks of that pivotal year: by the time they moved on, those children had grown into literacy. Over the years my mother-in-law assembled a wide collection of gifts from these little ones, the “#1 Teacher” plastic apples and the framed photos with mats covered by the wide scrawls of child signatures. As she readied finally for retirement, she began to thin her classroom supplies, and her grandchildren were the recipients of a career’s worth of materials.

There were books. In fact there were stacks and stacks of books — hardcover picture books with playful jackets, thin “Learning to Read” books with large fonts. In many she had written her name in the crisp handwriting of one who spends years communicating with six-year-olds. There were other supplies — holiday decorations, geometric magnets, alphabet-learning kits, hundreds of markers. All of it was purchased from her own pocketbook, and all for the purpose of bettering the experience she provided for forty years’ worth of children.

She was a good teacher who was a stalwart advocate for early childhood education, one who witnessed the detriment of disparate starts, one who stood patiently by the many children who never occupied the pole position. She read to the children and rhymed with the children and sang songs to them, repeating, celebrating, noticing.

Several years have passed since her retirement, and in that time our public discourse about education has dwelled in a contentious era. We are living in a time when the American teacher can often be maligned more than lauded. Rather than revering the professionals who have learned and honed the craft of pedagogy, we behave as if anybody could do that job — we could edge our way into it sideways, we figure, as if the task of getting dozens of different minds to attend to, absorb, process, and retain information were as simple as guiding a lone child safely through a crosswalk. Common sense, we figure, ought to do it.

Yet many of us remember our teachers well. My third grade teacher was a soft-spoken woman. I cherished the daily citizenship awards she bestowed in the form of fuzzy googly-eyed creatures pinned to one’s shirt. My fifth grade teacher had a deep respect for literature; he read to us aloud every day. I remember the feeling of mastery I attained that year from memorizing and performing the poem “The Spider and the Fly.”

An English teacher taught me to avoid starting sentences with “Perhaps.” Just say what you want to say; don’t qualify it. This was the beginning of my emerging voice, one that would guide me well into college when the tasks became to pitch my ideas to the arena, to test my own novel theories, and to craft my own prose. These educators were among the scaffolds that shaped me into a learning, thinking global citizen.

I grew up in Jefferson County, Colorado, a place for which I have an enduring fondness. In reading this month about the tumult caused by a Board of Education majority that is alienating many of its teachers, I think of my K-12 classrooms. I remember how my mind was blown at the idea of negative numbers. You mean you add it to another number, yet get less? I remember the empowerment of being a co-editor of the high school newspaper. I recall the satisfaction of completing a geometric proof. I know I believed that my sixth-grade watercolor portrait of a girl in a hat was by far the best artwork I’d ever done — except for the color of the girl’s neck. I didn’t get that part right. The point is that I, like anyone, was profoundly influenced by those years of my education. And those years were the proud work product of many teachers, men and women who were voices and guides and creators and facilitators. I owe them a debt.

We all owe our teachers a debt. Theirs should be a profession that we dream of as children. Theirs should be a profession that we daydream our own children could achieve — oh, a teacher! We should revere our teachers. We should be grateful that there are people who choose these tasks so mighty: to take the reluctant five-year-old or the distracted 10-year-old or the sly 15-year-old and raise up each one, raise them all up by giving them the knowledge that is their birthright. We depend upon our teachers to do the daily work, the creative, active, demanding work, the work most vital.

And so we should support them with our every resource. We should respect their expertise, their innovation, their systems of leadership and quality control. In our era where we emphasize that it is “kids first,” we neglect a simple principle: fostering a well-resourced, enriched, highly respected teaching workforce is a magnificent way to put our children first.

I read recently what an editor of a literary magazine wrote to those who toil in the art of writing short stories. “For this,” he began, “despite what anyone might say, you are a person of great virtue.” It is time for us to transform our collective mindset so that we approach those who teach with this same respectful admonition. For dedicating your careers to students, for studying the art of teaching, for filling classrooms with stacks of books — for all that you do, dear teachers, you are people of great virtue.