Shining the Light

The Big IdeaDuring Teacher Appreciation Week one of my educator friends posted a rant that had gone viral. The gist of the piece was that throwing crumbs of thanks at teachers once a year is insulting. The author went on to detail the abuse and lack of respect that teachers endure and to complain that nobody ever does anything to improve the situation. I suspect the op ed became as popular as it did because there was indeed a grain of truth in what the writer had to say.

Teaching is one of the most important and toughest jobs on the planet as anyone who has ever tried it knows. I would still be heavily involved with it were it not for its grueling nature. Quite frankly I no longer have the energy for the unrelentingly long days. When I was still working I was up at five thirty in the morning and often did not return until nine or ten in the dark of night. Even when I managed to arrive home at a relatively decent hour of five or six in the evening I spent most of my nights grading papers, tutoring students over the phone, conferring with parents and planning future lessons. I was lucky to finish by the time I needed to go to bed. Of course there were multiple school events on weekends and at night, not to mention the hundreds of hours needed to prepare for state and advanced placement testing.

Don’t get me wrong. I understood the nature of my profession and performed my duties with joy, but I was chronically tired. I especially enjoyed comments from those who didn’t know better that I was lucky to have a job that provided me with so much free time. I learned to just ignore such lack of understanding. I knew that nobody would believe me if I told them the truth about how hard my fellow teachers and I worked, but my family saw what I was doing. To this day I feel a bit guilty because I really did put my students before them time and again. They were troopers as the relatives of teachers generally are.

Teaching is truly a vocation. Few people would agree to spend a lifetime making far less than their peers in other occupations if they did not totally and completely love the experience. It punishes the body and the vast majority of teachers eventually require knee surgeries and suffer from bladder diseases all because of the daily abuse that comes from few opportunities to take care of their needs. The only time during a regular day that a teacher gets to relax is the thirty minute lunch that is really only about twenty minutes by the time getting there and rushing back to the classroom are factored in. Eating is a speed sport for educators.

Teachers are accustomed to hearing derogatory remarks about their profession. It’s especially disheartening because they put so much of their souls into every single day. Their students become their children, members of their extended family. They worry about them as much as they do their own. They let their kids burrow into their hearts and the sense of responsibility that they feel is as strong as that of a doctor with a patient. They have learned to ignore the barbs, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt.

American society is somewhat unique in giving teachers so little prestige. In other cultures teachers are elevated in status. They bear noble titles and receive compensation equal to the amount of education, time and effort that teachers give to their work. I have had moments with my Vietnamese students in which their family members and friends actually bowed to honor me. Here we mostly get cracks about how bad our schools are and how only those who can’t do anything else become teachers. When announcing my profession to strangers I see the knowing looks that tell me that they consider my life’s work to have been very unimpressive.

I’ve been in my grandchildren’s schools quite a bit in the last few weeks. It is apparent that some of the teachers practically live there. When I am leaving at ten I know that they probably won’t get away until eleven. I see photos of some of my old colleagues who are still working at competitions that take entire weekends. Somehow few seem to notice how much teachers continually give of themselves.

When we retire it is not much better. Teachers in the state of Texas for example have not had a cost of living increase in their monthly pensions for over twelve years. Now the legislature is doing nothing to save the healthcare insurance for educators and they may face increases in premiums of fifty percent this fall. None of this had to happen but for the fact that teachers and their needs are mostly ignored. To add insult to the situation, those who like me paid enough into Social Security to receive monthly payments have an offset that takes most of what is due. Furthermore surviving spouses who receive pensions are not eligible to get spousal social security. It is a wonder that anyone wants to take on the job of educating our children.

So are teachers masochists? Why would they want to do this? Is it true that they are not able to do other things?

The answer is quite simple. The teachers who stay for the long haul are altruistic in every sense of the word. They care less about compensation and honors and more about making a difference. In their hearts they know that what they do day in and day out is important. While they appreciate acknowledgement, they do not require it. They do what they do because they value the idea of impacting the future by educating a generation. Even on the toughest day they feel good about what they are doing. There is a purpose to their work that not everyone has. The rewards come from those moments when they realize that their students have been elevated to new levels of understanding, or when they sense that they have somehow positively impacted lives.

I always said that when I retired I was going to work to bring more honor and respect to a career in teaching. I suppose that I haven’t really done very well but I plan to keep trying. I dream of a day when no teacher has to worry about making a living decent enough to provide for a good life both while working and in retirement. I would love for those one week teacher appreciation perks to become routine. There should be teacher discounts everywhere and they should be substantial. I will strive to encourage anyone who has ever been impacted by a teacher to make their gratitude known. Believe me, I am quite touched by those Vietnamese people who bow in my presence and I suspect that others would be as well.

I don’t think that those of us who are teachers need to complain because we all know that we love what we do and that is a gift that many people never enjoy. Still it would be well for our society to finally give educators their due in salaries, pensions and perks. It is a noble profession and its time that we all insist that it be elevated to the status it deserves.

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