Brown/My Turn: In praise of teachers

Over the winter, a friend of mine who has taught locally for many years stopped me on the street and without preamble told me how lucky I was that I wasn’t in the classroom anymore.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this from a co-worker. I had left classroom teaching right before mandated curriculum and teaching to the test altered education in Massachusetts. What she shared was upsetting. Most involved stories of the MCAS state testing becoming so prevalent, that some schools had created graphs and charts showing where each student stood in relation to their peers in terms of how they scored. The so-called “smart” kids’ names were placed on the tops of these charts. Those testing poorly lay on the bottom. Some of these “MCAS Mountains,” as they are nicknamed, were placed in the lobby of the school, others in each separate classroom.

What this meant is that any kids struggling with the test would get off the bus, walk into their school or classroom and be humiliated even before they had a chance to put their book bag down.
Any teacher, principal or administrator who thinks that shame and humiliation help children learn has no right being in this profession.

I have also heard stories of principals browbeating and bullying teachers in order to improve the test results of their particular school, of teachers being forced to compete with instead of cooperating with their colleagues, the latter being the essence of good education.
I’ve always considered teaching to be both an honored profession and a creative art. Honored because teaching is all about sacrifice. Nobody chooses to teach for the money. We do it for the love of the kids and the desire to make a difference in the world. The creativity comes from taking the cold facts and making them come alive, inspiring wonder and curiosity in the minds of kids.
This is a difficult task, especially when education policy is set by venal politicians pandering for votes by being “tough on education,” while they slash school finding nationwide. Bashing teachers is easy, especially coming from individuals who wouldn’t last a week if undergoing the pressure that a typical American educator has to contend with. Fortunately, there are those who value the many who have chosen to serve in this way, for service it truly is.

Twenty years ago, when I was starting out in the public school system, I spent the summer traveling through the Lakota Indian reservations in South Dakota. Outside of Rosebud, I spied two local women hitchhiking by the side of the road. Stopping, I gave them a lift and we fell into the kind of rambling chit-chat that is a universal form of greeting for strangers meeting each other on the road. As the miles passed, the conversation meandered along in much the same relaxed manner as the unfolding landscape. Just before I come to their stop, one of the women asked me what I did for a living. I answered that I was a fourth-grade teacher at a small rural elementary school in Massachusetts. My response was not very grandiose or anything I would have expected to get a reaction from.

Instead, I felt her tiny hand on my shoulder. Turning briefly to face her, I noticed a sweet glint in her eyes. Ever so softly, she said “waste (pronounced “wash-tay”), which in Lakota, translates as “good.”

It was the tone of voice, not the word, that hung in the air; a soft affirmation. It meant more than “good,” of course. It would take nearly two decades for me to realize that it was a benediction and a blessing. A recognition that I had chosen what for her was a sacred path. Since then, I have always considered my time as a public school teacher the one thing in my life I am the most proud of.

Some teachers do burn out over the years and that process is accelerated when they are prevented from doing what they do best, namely to teach. And to do so with love, validation, humor, firmness and creativity. All while knowing that the full measure and potential of a child has little, if anything to do with their test scores.

When good teachers come to the end of their lives, they will reflect on the faces of all the kids who graced their classrooms. They will think of those who had the lively, creative spark, who loved learning for the sake of it and pushed the boundaries of their knowledge. They will regale in the oddballs, the artistic ones, the quiet souls, the exuberant sorts who thrilled the heart even if they were disrupting the class from time to time. No teacher lost in such contemplations will give a damn about some numbers in a booklet. Or the rankings of extraordinary children on a meaningless mountain of cardboard and paper.

Daniel A. Brown taught at Bernardston Elementary School from 1989-1999 and was the co-founder and director of both the Skan Center and Journey Camp summer programs. He is a frequent contributor to the Recorder and welcomes feedback at dbrown1793@gmail.com.

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