“I touch the future. I teach.”
A quote in one of the applications for the Excellence in Teaching Awards.
Teachers are on strike in many areas of the country. And justifiably so.
I began teaching in 1965. There had just been a teachers’ strike two years earlier. The county had finally come up with the funds needed to get the teachers back to work. But the bitter feelings still lingered in the schools. Friendships had been painfully ruptured and raw antagonisms still separated faculty members between those who had walked out and those who had chosen to stay. Fortunately, I had not had to choose. I don’t know what I would have done.
Several years later, my sister and I became teachers at Sweetwater High School. We had worked hard to get certified in our respective fields. We spent one summer driving back and forth 40 miles each way from Sweetwater to Abilene to take the courses necessary for certification. She had gotten a certificate to teach art, while I had been forced to switch fields to Biology since I wasn’t a football coach. In Texas, and much of the South, History is reserved for the coaches.
I needed 21 hours to get certified. No school will allow a student to take more than 7 hours in a summer session. But there were three colleges in Abilene. Hence, 2 courses at each school, 7 credit hours at each school, added up to the 21 hours I needed. It meant a lot of luck and finding enough courses to fit into the schedule while I did a lot of diving all over town. But I did it and learned to teach Biology.
After six years of teaching, my sister got married. I could no longer afford our home. I went to my principal and asked about a raise. “Get a second job,” he said. “All teachers have them.” I left teaching, went into debt to get a student loan and went off to Texas Tech and then the University of Texas for an MA and then a Ph.D. Not in Business, not Marine Biology, not Civil Engineering, all of which I considered. Nope. Just History. At Sam Houston State where I was hired to teach, I took special interest in helping future teachers. Now, frankly, I would recommend that they not go into teaching.
Once again, our school systems across the nation are facing financial ruin. Once again, our students are denied a decent education. Once again, our teachers are desperate for a living wage. Once again, the principals are saying, “Get a second job. All teachers have them.”
It is a sad situation that our politicians ignore our education system to quarrel over ideology. It is even sadder to see that those same politicians are becoming rich by the support from wealthy donors. Those donors will support our politicians but not our education system. The wealthy in our country are so concerned with avoiding paying taxes they forget that those taxes pay for our schools, for our future. Paying to educate a child now will help avoid creating a criminal in the future. But politicians conveniently forget about that truism.
Some of our millionaires and billionaires provide funding for scholarships. A handful of scholarships will not repair floors or fix restrooms or repaint classrooms. Those wealthy donors forget that the future of our country is in our schools. And vouchers won’t fix our education system. Only taxes will.
We all know teachers who pay for their students’ supplies out of their own pockets. Here in Huntsville, our churches have each adopted one of our local schools to help with all the little extras that teachers and their schools can’t afford. Those who denigrate our teachers by suggesting that those who can’t do, teach, have never been in a classroom. Try it some time. You’ll learn respect for what teachers do every day.
I serve on the Education Committee of the Humanities Texas Board. Every year, we ask school principals and teachers to submit applications for their best teachers. They compete for $5,000 awards in three different categories: the Outstanding Early Career Teacher, the Outstanding Teaching of Texas History and the Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award. I am now reading through those applications. They are all so good, it is hard to choose one over another.
It has been a rare privilege to read these applications. It gives me hope. Those teachers speak of their dedication to their students. They talk about their love for teaching. They inspire me with their stories of new methods they have discovered, or new ideas they have tried. Some take their students on field trips, or create museums, or use plays and costumes to get the students involved. One teacher even got her whole community to set up flights for World War II vets to visit the memorials in D. C. They all write about finding ways to excite and inspire their students.
Some face difficult times. I know the feeling. I quit twice and came back. One teacher had gotten burned out after a number of years of teaching. She discussed the problem with her mother and her husband. “Who runs the classroom?” they asked. “I do,” she said. “Then who can make the change?” they asked. Sheepishly, she admitted that she would have to change her own attitude if she was to succeed. She did and now her principal has recommended her for an award.
One of the pleasures of teaching is having students come back years later to thank their teachers. Time and again, the students are grateful for having been given the means to succeed in college or out in the world. As many of the applicants have said, the students are the reason they teach. Even when the pay is abysmal, when the support from principals and parents is non-existent, when discipline is disastrous, those teachers will still go the extra mile to teach their students.
This is one of those times when we should all be grateful for the love and dedication of people who are willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar, not of freedom, but of education. Thank your teachers today.
And pay your damn taxes.