This column was first printed in May of 2017. In light of COVID and the challenges teachers have faced the past year, please consider it a repeat tribute.
My mind is on teachers. Most of them wound up their year’s work in the last week or two. Believe me, their minds and bodies might be numb. They don’t have and never did have three months off, no matter what their school system calendar might say. For the past half century I’ve had the deepest respect for the teachers with whom I’ve worked.
Teaching is draining work. Teachers are constantly giving. Not just knowledge, but energy, emotions, and every ounce of creativity they possess. The emotional part gets more intense by the year. Weakened homes have made sure of that.
Teachers of small children particularly need our support. Children can be very demanding; however, teachers of younger children tell me that the number of demanding children is decreasing because so many children come to school sad, unresponsive, and disengaged. This too requires creativity and genuine concern and care on the part of teachers.
Here’s something taxpaying citizens need to know, especially my conservative friends. We can complain about failing schools all we want, but failing schools are often the result of failing homes. There are many children and teens as well who don’t like to leave school when the day is over all because of the help, support, and love they get from their teachers. First-year teachers learn fast why students – even high school seniors – cling to them. Often there’s little help or clinging at home.
Many days teachers leave school deeply troubled because of student needs that are not academic. A school’s chief tasks are, or should be, to provide knowledge by teaching academic content, and to build character by teaching right and wrong, especially regarding stealing, cheating, and respecting others. Nowadays students come with other needs as well.
Today schools are feeding students, clothing them, and providing therapy of all stripes. “Grief counseling” is particularly widespread, an offering which is often simply overdone and teaches students to wallow in grief instead of how to interpret and appropriate it.
Those who claim schools have moved from a knowledge-based institution to a feelings-based one are largely correct. However, schools are not an entity that is disconnected from the larger culture. Schools are a reflection of the culture we live in. What many critics don’t understand is that teachers must teach whoever enters the building, and a large percentage of those entering the building come from brokenness, fighting parents, or absentee fathers. Not all of these are from poverty- stricken homes.
If teachers must spend time training students in matters that parents didn’t attend to (discipline, social skills, lack of encouragement), how can we blame teachers or schools for having to do what should have already been done? Attending to what has not been attended to takes time from academic content.
There is a Biblical injunction that reads, “Let not many be teachers.” It refers to teachers of Scripture, but it also reminds us that schools need teachers who truly desire to teach. Our coaches are teachers too, and some of the best. Few know of the positive impact that coaches have on students, even students whom they neither teach nor coach. In the halls everybody knows “Coach.” Most male coaches are models of masculinity and cheer. Yes, masculinity still matters. Often the best influence on timid high school girls is the jocular male coaches who know how to build self-confidence; however both male and female coaches too often go unheralded. I say may their tribe increase.
Critics of education should back up and become social critics of hearth and home. And then become activists in whatever way they can: working with poor families, taking a next door teen to church or synagogue, showing an interest in all youths with whom they come in contact.
Schools are no doubt doing some things wrong. In many cases, the helping culture it has become is eroding self-reliance. Education’s therapeutic bent assumes that all students profit from words of cheer, yet many students work hard and achieve only with challenges. This bent isn’t the fault of classroom teachers. It didn’t start in the schools. A nation’s schools are downstream from its culture. And from the central office.
The “man for all seasons,” renaissance figure Thomas More, said to young Richard Rich, “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine one, perhaps a great one.” Rich answered, “And if I were, who would know it?”
“You, your pupils, friends, God. Not a bad public, that.”
Let’s wish every teacher we know a good summer. We need them back.