Long ago I chose the contentment and sense of purpose that being an educator gave me over opportunities for amassing wealth or power. I’ve often heard the words, “you might have been anything” from disappointed relatives who expected greater things from me than quietly teaching for fifty decades. Indeed I might have chosen to be a doctor or a lawyer or any number of higher status, higher income professions but no matter how often I considered another career I always found myself returning to the classroom.
I even went so far as to earn an advanced degree in the hopes of changing the direction of my work. My professors were certain that I would be a huge success in the corporate world and I certainly would have had opportunities to earn more with far less time and effort expended working than my life as a teacher had always demanded. I interviewed with some highly regarded companies and made it past initial interviews but somehow lost interest just as it appeared that I would launch a whole new career. It became more and more apparent to me that I did not want to leave the world of schools.
Teachers are the salt of the earth, the foundation upon which every other job is built. Even the most lax among them really do work harder than most people are capable of imagining. Their job requires them to be alert every second that they are inside a classroom with their students. There is no rest of any great consequence during the school year. Teachers arise in the dark and travel to their campuses with their minds already working overtime as they mentally rehearse their lessons and think of students whom they want to inspire or comfort. The young people that they teach are never far from their minds, not even in their sleep.
Days are long for teachers. Their labors do not end when the school bell rings and the students go home. Teachers cart boxes of papers to be graded to their cars and spend hours in the evenings and on weekends carefully analyzing the work of each little soul in their care. They surf the Internet looking for instructional ideas and ways to keep their pupils interested and learning. Their work becomes an obsession. Anyone who has ever lived with a teacher knows the extent to which work dominates an educator’s life.
It’s been estimated that if the actual number of hours that teachers expend in connection with their jobs were to be counted and translated into an hourly remuneration, few would even receive minimum wage. Many dip generously into their paychecks to provide students with books and supplies not covered by school budgets. Teachers are heroes who do what they know is best for their pupils even when they receive little praise for their efforts. They carry on knowing that their may be no acknowledgement or reward for all of the unheralded things they do.
There were many goals that I wanted to accomplish with my students. To this day I berate myself for falling short more often than I might have wished. I have to admit to being obsessed with providing the best possible educational experience for my students and all too often I felt that I had failed them. One thing that I was able to control was my fairness toward them. I learned from a talented principal for whom I worked to leave wiggled room for the inevitable differences between students and situations when crafting my rules. I had to develop a wisdom rivaling that of Solomon to maintain a just and kind environment in my little domain.
One summer I served as the principal for a school session designed for those who had failed one or more classes. I quickly learned that my role in that capacity would be to serve as a kind of Supreme Court judge, an arbiter between the students, teachers and parents. It was a touchy gig but I felt that I had somehow done the right thing when one of the students told me that I was great at being a “very nice mean principal.” I understood that he was attempting to compliment me for doing what was right and necessary without demeaning anyone. I’d like to think that my number one accomplishment as an educator was to be fair in my judgements of both student academic progress and behavior.
On Christmas Day my daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren joined us on a Zoom conference that lasted over five hours. We discussed so many topics and somehow found ourselves speaking of education during the time of Covid-19 and the difficulties that the virus has evoked for both students and teachers. My daughters and grandchildren complained about a few teachers who were mostly distributing busy work and losing touch with students in ways that made their classrooms feel impersonal and sometimes even unfair. We were describing what makes a teacher equitable when my grandson Eli gave me one of the finest compliments I have ever received. He rather quietly asserted that “Gammy (me) is the most fair teacher I have ever met.” I doubt that anyone else even heard what he had said, but I did and it made my day. I always wanted my students to know that they could count on me to treat them as individuals with particular needs and that I would assess them with a willingness to know and understand who they were and why they did certain things. Eli knew these things because he loved hearing stories of my years as a teacher. He had clearly realized the central focus of my work.
There is no amount of money nor abundance of titles or honors that are as important in life as doing one’s best to be just. If the Covid-19 experience has taught us anything it is that our human relationships and how we foster them are actually the most important aspects of our existences. Each of us has an idea of how to lead a life filled with joy. Mine was being a person that my students could count on to see them as more than just another face in a crowded classroom. I saw wonder and promise in every little soul who passed my way and by being fair I hope I showed them how much I would always care for them. They are in my heart to this very day. They were the catalysts for the joy of finding meaning in my life.