If there was ever a group of professionals who deserve our year-round praise, it’s teachers. I’ve been blessed to be around great educators my entire life, including my remarkable and talented wife and her education peers. All of these good folks come to mind as passionate, caring heroes who set out every day of their professional lives to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
What could be more important than shaping lives? Teachers produce all other vocations. Great teachers mold lives, who in turn create every aspect of our society. Their impact is beyond immense. Think about how many minds and souls are shaped over a 30+ year career of a teacher!
And then think about the tens of thousands of hours spent over a teacher’s career outside the classroom preparing lessons plans, grading papers, coaching, and overseeing extracurricular school-based activities. All the while being grossly under-compensated and always going out of pocket so that their students are that much better prepared, stimulated, and feeling cherished.
These past 18 months have been challenging for everyone, but perhaps none more so than teachers. Some would argue parents should get that nod; that’s a solid nomination, but I hold a different opinion. With almost zero notice and no extra funding, teachers stepped up — Big Time — during the pandemic. They went to remarkable lengths to ensure equitable learning opportunities for their students. And perhaps most importantly, to make them, and their parents, feel supported.
Our teachers successfully navigated these difficult, unchartered waters. For certain, there were technical glitches as they tried to connect from their homes to the online classroom, and yes, there were times when parents wanted to bellow, “Algebra, at eight years old? What do they need to know algebra for?!?” It was, if nothing else, a lesson in gratitude for us mere mortals. A study in humility, patience, and wonder, because let’s face it, our teachers seem like superheroes to us now. I’ll let you in on a secret — they always have been society’s real-life Avengers, saving and shaping the world.
As parents pulled their hair out over their child’s refusal to do another minute of reading, a shared thought spread amongst millions of parents: Teachers do this every week, with 30 sprouts or adolescents. Thirty! Or more! For the first time in our generation, we as a society this year have a very good sense of what it means to be a teacher. Too often echoed misconceptions about teaching being easy — about our teachers ending up in their job, not through choice, but through necessity — simply don’t apply. I daresay that one day of watching our children learn from home was enough to show us that teaching is not for the faint-hearted. Teaching is for the brave.
But the brave hurt, too. And this past year has been painful for our educators. American historian Henry Brooks Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” That is a mighty weight to carry on one’s shoulders, yet our teachers shoulder this responsibility day in and day out without complaint for an entire classroom of young people. But it is because of this responsibility they carry that our teachers have hurt the most these past 18 months. Distance dampened their effect on our children. Their passion for teaching burned brighter than ever but was dimmed by the glow of computer screens. The command of their classroom was quietened by muffled webcams and weak internet connections. They struggled. But they persevered, as they always do, and creatively, optimistically, and passionately stepped up. Once again. And for that presence, we are eternally grateful.
Struggle Is Strengthening
Actor, director, and civil rights activist Ossie Davis probably didn’t imagine his words would apply to parents teaching their children at home in 2020-2021 when he said that “struggle is strengthening,” but I believe they do. Parents’ struggles with at-home education may not have strengthened us in our knowledge of basic geometry or the ins and outs of Pythagoras’ theorem, but it strengthened us in our resolve to show more gratitude to our teachers. And that’s a very good and overdue acknowledgment.
Turns out that this teaching thing, taken for granted in so many households and state and federal budgets, is a lot more important — and difficult to do properly — than some of us ever thought it was.
Teaching is the Greatest Act of Optimism
Our teachers adapted rapidly this year, and thank goodness they did! Teachers’ resolves and ability to acclimate quickly to changing circumstances have been tested more than ever. They faced challenge after challenge, but they overcame them. It is this perseverance in the face of a collection of maladies and compounded adversities for which teachers deserve to be recognized.
They threw lesson plans out the window, rethought proven classroom strategies, and mastered brand-new technologies in days. They poured out their hearts and souls for our children from their home to ours, and they did it all with positivity, optimism, and resilience that didn’t align with the unstable times the world was (and still is) facing. It is a teacher’s ability to find the light in every darkness that makes them stand apart from the rest of us, and never was that more in evidence than during the early parts of the pandemic. In good times, teaching is hard. With the odds stacked ever higher against them — inside the modified “classroom” and outside in their world — our teachers found the strength to choose optimism each morning, even when pessimism was the order of the day.
Imagine waking up to the sad news of the pandemic spreading further and claiming more lives, and then sitting in front of a class of 30 children, offering reassurances, messages of hope, and words of inspiration to get them through the day. Imagine being taken away from the work environment you loved and then being asked to impart knowledge and wisdom to the usual high standard, with none of the familiar tools and resources they had planned to use. It’s unfathomable to us. Teachers plan weeks, if not months before they deliver a lesson. Imagine being told all of that was out the door. To find new tools, new methods.
I would have complained if I were a teacher. I’m sure many of you would have, too. Some of us might have even refused to work at all. But teachers didn’t. They sucked it up and didn’t break. They excelled in the face of trials never before faced or even imagined. “The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists,” is the proverb that comes to mind. Teachers bent with the winds of change. They understood the important relationship between strength, movement, and flexibility. Most of us would have been the oak … and cracked.
Parents felt the strain as the pandemic added a new role: teacher, a stint for which most were unprepared. Without adequate training as schools transitioned to distance learning due to the pandemic, many parents were forced to become “proxy educators” for their children. Distance learning added anxiety and apprehensiveness to already stressful home and societal environments. Parents were faced with trying to do their own jobs — and this new one with their kids — under extraordinary circumstances.
The result? Time will tell, but studies show that the intrusion of school in families’ private spaces created tensions. Children who were struggling before the pandemic struggled even more. There is concern that even with remote learning in place, many students will ultimately return to school behind where they would have been had they been in the classroom. As noted above, teachers had little time to prepare for virtual learning, and many children had inadequate or no computer access, no comfortable and quiet place to study, and no stable home life. For a zillion sad reasons, some parents just didn’t show up. And now, between politics’ intrusion, parents’ choices for their children, and rising COVID numbers, schools are teaching some children in classrooms and others at home, remotely. This week. Next week, the playing field could change again. There is no stability without harmony and no harmony without stability.
Of course, many parents took on the challenge of teaching their children and convening with their logged-in teachers. And some shined in this role. Some even decided to make the change permanent and home-school their kids. If this was you last year or is you this school year, kudos. Even if this is not you, the effort doesn’t go unnoticed. Teaching children isn’t easy, especially if it’s not natural for you and you have not been trained like our professional teachers.
In too many circumstances, however, inspiring and motivating children this year proved exhausting, nay, impossible for many parents. What do you do when your child simply refuses to take part in the task at hand? How do you explain their screen time was only over lunch and they can’t, in fact, spend the rest of the school day playing video games with their friends? How do you convince a teen lying in bed at 8:30am that they need to get up and “go to school” when school was at the dining room table? I don’t have the answers, but a teacher would have them. They face these struggles every day, and it’s only through experience, training, and a teacher’s heart that they confront and solve every problem that arises.
So, while a large percentage of parents struggled, they also gained an insight into what it is to be a teacher. Parents saw that our educators don’t just teach. They inspire, motivate, and mold our young people. They aren’t just teachers. They are warriors, tacticians, motivational speakers, mediators, emissaries, and, perhaps most important of all, firefighters.
Great is what parents want for their children. During these unstable times, it was difficult to reach that bar from the living or dining room. The challenges facing parents were immense, and too many graded out as mediocre or, at best, good in this new role. With no intention to belittle the challenges parents faced but instead to highlight the importance of teachers, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” (William Arthur Ward, American motivational writer)
Teachers deal with every spark that breaks out in the classroom with a swiftness and a practiced hand that parents could only dream of possessing. Teaching is the one profession that encompasses one-thousand-and-one skills and asks proprietors of the profession to perform each one expertly. So yes, parents struggled this year, but only because those of us who don’t teach can’t teach, or at least not deliver “great.” We are in different lines of work for a reason. Hats off to those who teach with conviction because teachers embrace the seemingly impossible task of shaping a young person’s heart and mind … and do it anyway.
Hard Times Will Pass
During any period of darkness in one’s life, it’s important to remember that this isn’t permanent. It’s an ever-changing world that we live in, and these times that have dealt us staggering blows shall pass. Brighter days are ahead, and the most recent ray of sunshine for our educators was the day when some classrooms reopened. The day that the school bell rang and children filed in, it wasn’t just parents breathing a sigh of relief. I daresay that it was our teachers who sighed the deepest of all.
Our teachers finally get to command their classrooms like the trained generals they are. Our children are also happier. The world is changed by example, not by opinion, and it’s the example that our teachers set that means the most to their students. No matter their home situation or who else they have to look up to, a student always has their teacher.
If they need guidance, their teacher is there. If they need advice, support, understanding, or simply someone to talk to, their teacher is there.
Teachers don’t hear many expressions of gratitude from their students, but the good ones know that their pupils are or one day will be grateful. Look at your own life. Like I’m sure most readers of this blog, three teachers immediately come to mind who changed my life for the better — Ms. White (middle school), Ms. Harrison (high school), and Ms. Cooke, my wife and lifelong guru (adult education). Those first two classroom teachers’ support meant more to me than I ever told them, and I hope now, more than ever, that they somehow knew despite my silence on the subject. Ms. Debbie (my 40-plus year personal life coach [and wife] and mentor for so many young men and women) has, undeniably, taught me more about happiness, stability, and goodness than anyone could possibly imagine.
More than ever, we’ve realized that our teachers do more for children than simply stuffing their heads full of information. They teach children things we never thought possible: compassion, understanding, love, patience, perseverance, strength, integrity, and a thousand more lessons. Math is all well and good, but it’s the influence teachers have on children as they shape and grow into young people and citizens of this country that matters most. Finally, after many months, that influence was felt again when children and young adults returned to the classroom.
Teaching is tough — parents know that now — but teachers are tougher. I am overjoyed that our educators have returned to the classroom to inspire young people and change lives because society would be much worse off without them in their school settings.
One Last Thanks and Wish
I believe that if the world were full of teachers, it would be patience that we breathed, not mere air. Above all else, it is a teacher’s ability to wake up each day, regardless of what is happening in their personal lives, to teach children with love, dedication, and passion that shall never cease to amaze me. I suppose we all have taken the work of teachers for granted, but I expect that I speak for much of society when I say that I shall never do so again.
If you’re currently in college or getting ready to enter college, consider becoming a teacher. Our world needs amazing teachers. Perhaps you haven’t thought about becoming a teacher, but if you are a lover of learning and interested in bettering the world by imparting that love to others and not afraid of hard work that pays off 100 fold when you see the dividends that teaching pays, it’s something you would genuinely love. A truly wonderful byproduct of this unsettled year would be a new generation of inspiring teachers.
I’ll leave you with a quote that I found whose source is unknown, but it’s the message I’d like to give to all educators because if this year has taught us anything, it’s that teachers need coffee more than most. So, dear teachers, “may your coffee be strong and your students be calm,” and thank you, sincerely, for losing sleep over other people’s children, for persevering, and for all you do to change the world.
Addendum from LSomerbyCooke:
Teaching is about whatever we can imagine — past, present, future … hearts, minds, souls … context, objectivity, mindsets. So why is it that the profession is oftentimes underappreciated? The story below, passed on to me many years ago (and slightly modified here by me), is one of my favorites on this subject, and I wanted to share it with readers of this blog. Enjoy …
Dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life.
One man, a CEO, decided to articulate the “the problem” with education. “What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?” he asked. He reminded the other dinner guests what “they say” about teachers — “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” He concluded with, “Anyone can teach. The job is easy.”
To stress his point, he boldly noted to another guest, “You’re a teacher, Olivia. Be honest. What do you make?”
Olivia, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness, replied, “You want to know what I make?” She paused for a second and then began …
“Well, I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.”
“I make a C+ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
“I make kids sit through 40 minutes of class time when their parents can’t make them sit for five minutes without an iPad, an online game, or social-media conversation.”
“You want to know what I make?”
She paused again and looked at each person at the table.
“I make kids wonder.”
“I make them question.”
“I make them apologize … and mean it.”
“I make them have respect and take responsibility for their actions.”
“I teach them to write, and then I make them write.”
“I make them read, read, read.”
“I make them show all their work in math.”
“I make them sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence.”
“I make my students from other countries learn everything they need to know in English while preserving their unique cultural identity.”
“I make my classroom a place where all my students feel safe.”
“I make my students stand to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag because we live in the United States of America.”
“I make them understand that if they use the gifts they were given, work hard and follow their hearts, they can succeed in life.”
Olivia paused one last time and then continued. “Then, when people try to judge me by what I make, I can hold my head high and pay no attention because they are ignorant.”
Turning her attention singularly to the CEO, she calmly asked, “You want to know what I make? I make a difference. What do you make?”
If this particular CEO had a clue, I daresay that it would die of loneliness. I prefer to embrace Lee Iacocca’s (American automobile executive) view: “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.” The moral of this story? There is much truth to the statement that teachers make every other profession.