Charles: Thank a teacher

My apologies to Willie and Waylon (and, of course, songwriter Sharon Vaughn), but my heroes have always been teachers.

And they still are, it seems.

I’m an inner-city public school kid. And I can, many (many!) decades after my last time in a classroom as a student, name my elementary school teachers (I’ll bet you can too), and most of my high school ones. There are even some of my favorite college professors I can easily recall, even though there are others I probably couldn’t pick out of lineup.

Now, it could be that the long term memory bank works better than the relatively short term one  since I’ve been out of school four decades now, but the point is that those first teachers are burned into my memory because they had the most impact on my life.

My first grade teacher, Miss Clark, taught some of us enough Spanish that at 6 years old, we could count to 100 and say the Pledge of Allegiance in a second language none of us spoke at home. As young children tend to do, I went home and taught my baby sister how to count in Spanish. Of course, all of that vocabulary is gone now; there was no one to practice with, or encourage more foreign language. She died when I was in the fifth grade. But even if I didn’t have an image of her in my first-grade class photo, I will go to my own grave remembering her face. She was kind, gentle, and wonderful.

Truth be told, not all of my teachers were that wonderful. I had a second grade teacher who snapped at me the second day of class while we were doing math. I was a sensitive child (oh, OK, I was a crybaby), and being chastised embarrassed and humiliated me. She left a few days later and I was glad to see her go. Obviously, some 50-plus years later, it doesn’t hurt anymore. But I can still remember the pain.

I say all this because teachers, good, bad, or indifferent, are huge influences on children’s lives. They not only spend six hours a day with them, they are called on to do much more outside of the classroom. They are asked to coach teams or sponsor clubs and other activities, sometimes for a little extra pay, sometimes volunteering time so there will be an adult in the room. They are mandatory reporters should they suspect a student is being physically harmed at home. Which means they are called to be social workers, confidants, motivators, cheerleaders, mentors, and many other kinds of care providers.

There are plenty of teachers who buy their own school supplies, make sure their students are being fed, also out of their own pockets, stay behind for extra tutoring for children who are having trouble grasping the material in the too-short of a time allotted for complicated subjects, and are more or less on 24-hour call through email. (My daughter’s third grade teacher willingly stayed after school but refused to take money for tutoring because she said it was her job to make sure students understood the material. Thank you, Miss Shone.)

So why do we begrudge them a decent salary? And if we say we don’t begrudge them the pay, why aren’t we storming our capital buildings or marching through the streets with them and calling on our representatives to tell them to stop cutting the education budget, freezing their wages, and playing politics with their pension funds?

Do you remember the first time you realized your teacher was a person, not just an entity who lived and existed in the school, and only during school hours? Maybe it was the first time you saw them in the grocery store, or wearing jeans on a field trip (back in the day, women teachers never wore pants, but then, neither did female students). I never thought of my teachers having lives of their own, despite the fact their names were Mrs. Brady, Mrs. Lucas, Mrs. Joseph, etc., until my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Iverson brought her two-year-old daughter to school with her on the last day of school. She was pregnant again, and as we left for the summer, shook her head and patted her belly in reply when I asked if she’d be back the next year.

The teachers have been fed up for a long time. When teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, North Carolina and Arizona took to the streets, it was a revolution a long time coming. They shouldn’t have to take second jobs to make the rent. They shouldn’t have to be responsible for school supplies, or worry about lockdown drills and learn how to shoot school intruders (be they AR-15-toting madmen or grizzly bears), while being simultaneously blamed for low standardized test scores, because they believe critical thinking skills are much more productive than learning how to take (fool) a test. And make no mistake, it isn’t just about getting more pay — most of these educators are taking to the streets because continuous cuts in the education budget hurt their students, and make it increasingly impossible to do their jobs.

They shouldn’t have to defend themselves for wanting to do what they believe they were called to do, and yes, earn a living wage at the same time.

We shouldn’t be willing to pay politicians and entertainers more than we pay our public servants, be they firefighters, police officers, or the ones whose superpower effects change in the world every day — our teachers.

You don’t have to agree with me. However, as one of my favorite bumper stickers says: If you can read this — thank a teacher.

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