In Praise of Teachers

Let me start with a disclaimer, I was a public school teacher for twenty years. I taught in the Midwest, but contrary to the belief that Midwesterners are mainly rural folk, I taught mainly working class, inner city kids. One of the schools I taught in was populated with nothing but children who thought milk came from the Anderson Erickson building about a quarter of a mile down the street.

There was nothing Norman Rockwell or Mayberry like about the students I saw year after year. Their parents worked at the tire plant or in the service industry and some didn’t work at all. The neighborhoods they lived in were run down and sometimes gang infested. A good number of them drank and did drugs at young ages and the girls ended up young mothers more often than they should have.

My job often went beyond my subject matter. I kept snacks in the drawer for the ones who came hungry and feminine protection for the girls who didn’t have change. If I didn’t have bus tokens, I had coins and more than once I listened to children talk about difficult home lives or answered questions about pregnancy issues from those who were pregnant and those who feared they might be.

I became a teacher because I discovered I had a calling and the talent to back it up. A talent which extended far beyond my ability to make literature live and grammar make sense. I wasn’t one of the university bottom-feeders who couldn’t find any other subject to major in. In fact, I didn’t major in education at all. I was an English major who could have just as easily been a journalist or lawyer, but I felt the world had too many of those already and what it really needed from me was the commitment and passion necessary to walk into a room full of teenagers everyday and, with just the force of my wit and will, shine a little light on them.

After reading yet another snide swipe accusing teachers of being the root of the failing American education system, I felt the need to set a few items on the record straight.

First and foremost, teachers cannot select their raw materials. As my supervisor, Jerry Wadden, used to tell us at the beginning of each new school year,

“Our parents are sending us the best children they have. They are not hiding better ones at home in their closets.”

There is the idea that all children have an unlimited potential and if they are not meeting it, it’s the fault of their teachers. Somewhere in there personal responsibility and working hard on one’s own behalf seem to have disappeared completely. Believe me, if there was a way to insert knowledge and common sense into children by some other means than coercion, a teacher would have thought of it, and her administration would have taken credit for the idea.

Which brings me to the second point, the education of the young is a village thing to paraphrase Hillary. Parents, many of them anyway, seem to have bought into the fantasy that their job is to just get the kids to school everyday and teachers will take care of everything else. The vast majority of failing students I encountered had no sense of personal responsibility for their situation which was not surprising because neither did their parents.

What makes a parent who never graduated from high school believe their child will if they don’t actively participate in the education process? How can you spend more time at the office or socializing than at home and wonder why your child watches television or plays video games instead of doing his or her homework? When a parent belittles the importance of hard work to achieve grades, what is a child going to think? Or do?

The problem with our education system lies in ourselves as parents more often than it is the fault of some teacher “who just wanted summers off and weekends free”. We get out of the system what we put into it. Unfortunately, many adults in America don’t believe in putting anything into the teaching of the next generation especially if sacrifice on their part is required. They point to other systems in other countries we should be emulating without bothering to notice that the people in those countries value learning, the hard work it takes to learn, and the teachers who make the system work.

We are a nation of lazy people who look for instant gratification and quick fixes. We blame. We whine. We believe that, because we were once students, we know how schools should be run and teachers should teach, forgetting that our only perspective is decades old and through the eyes of the children we were then.

There are mediocre teachers just like there are not so brilliant doctors and politicians and investment bankers. I was a good teacher and many of the people I taught with were, and still are, good teachers too.


This was an original 50 Something Moms piece which was syndicated by MCT through its newspaper affiliates on 17 news sites.

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