Thursday, August 18, 2016

Open Letter to Teachers

"Yeah, I'm just a teacher..."
I just teach at-risk teenagers. I just teach them math. I just teach arithmetic, fractions, algebra, and geometry. I just teach them about the earth, the rocks, the chemistry and the physics. I just teach them about the stars, the galaxies and the myths. I just teach them how to use technology as a tool and not a weapon. I just teach how to be respectful, wait a turn, hold their tongue, and lift others up instead of tear them down. I just teach how to find a new doctor, when it's appropriate to go to the ER, and when it's not. I teach how to deal with loss. I have to teach how to deal with an intruder, and sometimes, I have to teach how to deal with suicide. I teach compassion, persistence, perseverance, and patience. I teach how to open an account, the difference between credit unions and banks, how to balance a checkbook, buy a car, rent an apartment, buy a house.  I teach respect, how to greet someone by looking them in the eyes, shaking hands and smiling. I teach how equal isn't always fair, and vice versa. I teach how to tie a tie, which fork to use, how to apply for college, create a resume, write a cover letter, find a job, and become a responsible, working, global citizen... 
Yeah, I'm just a teacher.

  For those who missed this post on Facebook, I am proud to print this letter from Jane Westphal, a 13-year teacher, who was tired of people saying she was “just a teacher.” Thank you, Jane, for pointing out not just to the critical public but also to the rest of our teaching colleagues that there is no such thing as “JUST” a teacher. Teachers should be proud of our education, our imagination, our determination and our dedication. Like any profession, there are those who give us all a bad name by their inappropriate behavior or their laziness. There are thousands of teachers, however, all over the world, who get up every morning, despite whatever personal issues they may be confronting, and they get their own families off to school and work, drive through rush-hour traffic, and walk into their classroom ready to give it their 100%. I was one of them, and I was and still am so proud. I was sometimes guilty, however, of acting like I was “just” a teacher. Where did that come from? It certainly wasn’t in the syllabus in any of the many courses I took for my major or the education courses I took. It wasn’t an attitude handed down from my mentors or from my graduate advisor. I didn’t feel like “just” a teacher when I received my BA in French, when I received my MA in Humanities. No, those feelings came from jealous friends and acquaintances who wanted me to feel less than.

     I will never forget the dinner party I attended right after I had earned my Masters Degree. There was another couple there, and the wife had just earned her PhD. Suddenly, my Masters Degree felt unimportant, and although it was not in Education, I felt like it was less than her degree in whatever it was. I was so depressed when I got home that night. It took me months to get over it. Well, guess what? I am so proud that I was a teacher, and the rewards never stop coming. Students from 30 and 40 years ago write to me and thank me for the gifts I gave them:  confidence, determination, drive, enthusiasm, perseverance. 
    We are not “just” teachers. We are philosophers, social workers, ministers, psychologists, moms and dads, sisters and brothers, counselors. We are all those things to our students because we care about them. We put ourselves aside when we walk into that classroom, and it becomes all about them. 

     I stand tall and proud of all my colleagues from the three school systems for which I taught. I watched them strive daily touching lives. I watched them attend conferences to improve their skills. I watched many earn advanced degrees and deal with all kinds of criticism from parents, uneducated citizens and insensitive administrators. We never let down; we kept the prize in front of us:  our kids.

     Many of my friends were confused when I spoke of my “kids.” They were my students, not my children. They felt like my children, however, but I never treated them as children; I spoke to them adult to adult. They respected that, and they behaved accordingly. Now not all of them were obedient angels. Ironically, some that gave me the hardest times have come back and said, “Boy, how did you stand me? You were tough on me, and I’m glad.” One of my favorite students even thanked me for giving her an E, as she never showed up to class. Her several-page thank you letter still resonates.

     No, we are not, YOU are not, just a teacher; you are a valuable individual in the lives of the young people you teach. Be proud of what you do and, even more importantly, be proud of who you are. Everything  teachers do and say is scrutinized, and as unfair as that may be, it keeps us focused on the prize:  building mature, critical-thinking, responsible human beings who learn to be respectful and compassionate. 

     I have never stopped teaching. I don’t correct people when I know they’ve used incorrect grammar or when they’ve pronounced a French word incorrectly, but I try to model the behavior I want to see. It is not always easy, but when a peer tells me that at my age (73), I am her role model, I know I’m doing something right.