I finally agree with mainstream media about one thing— those teachers in Connecticut rushing in to save children’s lives were heroes of the first order, worthy of the highest respect human beings can pay to each other. But CNN and Fox News, one question. Every day teachers are rushing in to save children’s lives. Not throwing their bodies over them to take bullets, but throwing their heart and souls into helping children learn what they need to know and to feel known as they strive to learn. Do we need to wait for extreme violence before some reporter will acknowledge these acts of heroism? Might I get on a plane someday and have the flight attendant announce, as they do with soldiers, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m told there’s a teacher aboard,” followed by appreciative applause?
The status of teachers in our culture is our national shame and it has steadily gotten worse. Teachers who used to be left alone to follow their zeal for teaching and love for their students have had to jump through the testmaker’s hoops knowing it hurts their children and kills their own passion. Merit pay has pitted teachers against each other and told them to get better for the wrong reasons. Nervous parents have laid more and more childraising at teacher’s feet and felt justified in complaining—or suing—when the mood suits them. Teacher’s pay is sometimes close to the burger flipper’s and their feeling of worth and dignity in the culture three galaxies away from the movie star in rehab or sleazy politician.
Okay, I know it makes lousy TV news to show an amazing class in an elementary school or a teacher soothing Isabel’s hurt feelings or helping Marcus open a door to a closed understanding and Fox News wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. The Teacher Hero! tagline just doesn’t play well in the media circus without the national tragedy backdrop.
But there are other ways to confer dignity, status and appreciation and why not consider them? Leave teachers alone when they’re teaching with ardor and inspiration and stop making them go through the obstacle course of all the cynical faux-assessments. Hold teachers accountable when they’ve lost their fire (or never lit it) and support them in real-deal professional development. Involve them in the key decisions that affect their classroom and their school community. Educate parents to learn to respect the demanding and important work teachers do and let administrators shield them from the crazy ones. And hey, while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to up that salary a little.
Happy teachers make happy schools and most important of all, make happy kids. There is no more damaging and heartrending act than making kids feel that adults don’t care. Every music program cut, every recess cancelled for testing, every program let go to make room for the next bureaucractic insanity, is a message to children: “We don’t care.” Kids convinced that the adults in charge are truly acting in their best interest—and are in the happy classrooms that prove it— are kids that stand a chance of making it in an incomprehensible world where murder and mayhem have entered the schools. From assault weapons to rampant testing, different ends of the same spectrum, we are falling short in the sacred covenant we owe our children to protect them, to care for them, to give them what they need and deserve. What will it take to finally turn that around?