My mother claims a teaching vocation is somehow encoded in a person’s DNA but, like many genetic traits, invariably skips a generation. Her mother spent forty years as a teacher, most of them in a one-room schoolhouse in lower Alabama. The family dog followed my grandmother to school every morning at sunrise and slept the day away in the cool dust of the schoolhouse crawl space, positioned directly under the floorboards where my grandmother’s desk sat in a corner of the room. Long after the children had trudged home down dirt roads or across peanut fields, that dog waited for my grandmother to finish planning her lessons and marking her papers. Then he followed her home again at dark.
Later on, all five of her grandchildren became teachers; some of us even married teachers. ”How wonderful,“ my grandmother would beam in that trembly, beatific way of old ladies, ”to have so many teachers in the family. No work is more important.“
My mother, on the other hand, was simply incredulous. ”I watched my mother grading papers every night of my life; the one thing I vowed I would never be is a teacher,“ she grumbled, ”and here are all three of my kids, chained to a stack of student papers for the entire Thanksgiving holiday.“
My mother’s theory about the skipped generation between teachers in a family has nothing to do with mapping the human genome. From her point of view, it’s a simple case of making an informed decision: If you grow up the child of a teacher, you’ll never be a teacher yourself because no one in her right mind would voluntarily sign on to do so much work for so little money and even less respect.
Universities are full of starry-eyed young teachers-in-training, but not one of them really knows what they’re signing on for. They don’t know they’re going to be working 14-hour days (10 of them actually in the school building, the other four at night, after their own kids are in bed). They don’t know that their teaching salary, if it’s the primary source of family income, will barely keep them in the middle class.
More importantly, young teachers don’t know that the general public believes they teach only because they lack the intelligence to do something more importantto do something, in other words, that pays more money. Smart people, the thinking goes, become doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, engineers. Only limited people become teachers. My college advisor dissuaded me from a double-major in English and education because, he said, ”You’re too smart to be a high-school teacher.“ The fact is, however, in my 12 years in the classroom I never felt smart enough. A good teacheras anyone who’s actually stood before a class knowsneeds the brains of Einstein, the wit of Oscar Wilde, the compassion of Mother Teresa, and the originality of William Shakespeare. No matter how hard I worked, I always fell short of the mark.
I went to Catholic and public schools, my husband and I have taught in both university classrooms and private high schools, and our son attends a Metro public schoolin all those years and all those schools I’ve watched some amazing teachers working miracles with kids. I’ve seen teachers hard at work literally all nightsorting slides of Renaissance art, marking history term papers, writing thoughtful critiques of art projects, grading stacks and stacks of lab reports and creative-writing journals. One of my former colleagues has even been known to spend the night at school, sleeping a few hours on the sofa in the faculty lounge and showering in the gym, to have enough time in her classroom to finish her work.
These people are nothing less than heroes, and the younger their students, the more heroic they are, a fact that becomes especially clear to me every week when I volunteer in my oldest boy’s first-grade classroom. It’s only 10 in the morning when I finish my one-hour stint in the writing-to-read lab, but by the time I get home I have to take a couple of Tylenol to recover. What I really need is a glass of wine.
”YOU GET YOUR SHOES ON THIS MINUTE!“ I bellowed once to my dawdling little boy, who was going to be late, once again, for the kindergarten hook-up.
”Mom,“ he said disapprovingly, ”Mrs. Wright has twenty children to take care of all day, and she never loses her patience.“
So I’ve been thinking a lot about the Metro teachers’ recent call for a pay raise, about all the plans for education reformthe latest from Vanderbilt Universityemanating from think-tanks around the country, and I’d like to propose a plan of my own. Unlike the Metro teachers’ request, it contains nothing that skeptics could call self-interested. And unlike most other plans, it’s simple, containing only four points:
First, pay teachers more. A lot more. Forget the paltry four-to-six-percent increase Metro teachers want. I say all teachers ought to make between 100,000 and 200,000 dollars a year, depending on the age of the students they teachthe younger the kids, the more money the teacher gets. Every day, brave kindergarten teachers ride herd on 20 or more little people with the energy and unpredictability of subatomic particles, somehow simultaneously encouraging in them a positive attitude toward learning that lasts for life. By comparison, teaching college is a piece of cake, and the stakes are a lot lower, too. But in both cases the teachers ought to earn a salary more in line with the kind of money raked in by doctors and lawyers and stockbrokers, all of whom got their start thanks to good teachers.
Second, fire all teachers who are mean, lazy, bored, or stupid. Plenty of so-called educators are really incompetent idiots (or bullies) who sit on their butts and stink up the profession for all the talented, passionate teachers who exist in far greater numbers but who get less press. Rotten teachers should be chased out of schools so fast they don’t have time to gather up their coffee mugs, and the tenure system that protects them should be summarily scuttled as a communist plot to undermine national security.
Third, divert every penny currently spent on technology to something useful. Like kickballs and books. Until they’re in the late stages of high school and nearing employment or college, kids don’t need computers or videos or anything else that costs a ton of money and obsolesces before it’s even paid for. Today our schools are pouring billions of dollars into already outdated technology that tomorrow will be useless slag heaped up by the side of the road. Better to use all that money to fund faculty pay raises and to make sure every child has plenty of interesting books to read. Besides wonderful teachers, all kids really need are books, blackboards, and a safe playground for daily recess.
Last, declare a national holiday for teacher appreciation. Every day, teachers do as much for this country as any president or war hero or civil-rights leader ever did. I say we throw them a parade. While they’re walking down the street, beaming in bewildered pride as a brass band blares out Sousa marches in their honor, let’s toss confetti into their hair, throw flowers at their feet, and wave and cheer and blow them kisses as hard as we can, as if our very lives depended on their dedication, as if the future of our homeland lay in their generous hands. Because, of course, it does.