“It used to be a great school,” a parent lamented. “When I went there…”
You can probably fill in the ellipses. Schools can rarely stand up to the foggy nostalgia of adulthood, when parents bemoan lower standards, less skilled teachers, and shifting demographics.
Each time I hear that comment, I tilt my head and listen. I loved school. It provided an escape from a challenging home situation and a path to independence and security.
But perhaps because I became a teacher myself, I’ve had daily reminders that not every child loves the classroom and that not every classroom provides the opportunity for learning and engagement.
Each time I hear criticism of teachers, I think first of the teachers who saved my life and opened up the world beyond the state borders I didn’t cross for the first fifteen years of my life.
But then I think of my biology teacher, a man in his thirties who married a student in the class after mine. I remember only one lesson from that entire year—how genetics determined the eye color and wing shape of fruit flies, which we cultivated in abundance and spent days examining under a microscope. On most days, we simply milled about his classroom as aimlessly as those fruit flies, landing next to whatever friend we found interesting that day while the teacher held court at the lab table at the front of the room.
I think, too, of the English teacher who set me up by telling my class that he intended to make every test harder until he made one that I would fail. My classmates begged me to fail the test, but my parents demanded that I take my education more seriously than the teacher did. I simply studied harder, memorizing every grammar rule and every minute detail of every story, until the teacher finally tired of torturing me.
And I think of one of my early colleagues after I became a teacher. She filled her thermos with alcohol and drank it throughout the day, smelling of booze and laughing giddily as the day went along. She chain-smoked in the teachers’ lounge as she graded essays with an unsteady hand and advised me to find another profession before it was too late.
Over the years I’ve heard many versions of these same stories from people I meet at social events. My husband and I roll our eyes at each other, knowing that each time we reveal our shared occupation, some guests will launch into stories about the worst teachers they ever had. And, occasionally, we hear a story about that one teacher who changed a life with her kindness, her intellect, her enthusiasm for her subject.
I’m reminded now and then that even the teachers I think are lousy are good for some kids. When, at a reunion I heard a classmate wax eloquent about that biology teacher I scorned, I told him that I couldn’t believe we were reminiscing about the same teacher.
In the course of my career I’ve heard a series of school system leaders declare that their administration will be the one that ensures an excellent teacher in every classroom.
As long as teachers are human beings, some will be stellar and some will be atrocious. Some will be teachers because they didn’t make it in some other profession, and some will be teachers because they believe they can save someone as a teacher once saved them. But the poor we will always have with us.
It’s no more possible to ensure an excellent teacher in every classroom than it is to believe that every wealthy business person has earned that success honestly and ethically.
But it’s a noble aim.
In the meantime, tell me a story of the teacher in-between—not the stellar teacher, not the clown—the one who came to class and taught you something every day.