Friday, December 21, 2012

I'm an Educator, and I'm OK

It’s almost time to vote for the Curmie Awards, and my fatigue or sloth or whatever else has kept me from writing will soon keep some worthy candidates out of the running if I don’t get to work. (One of the completely arbitrary and capricious rules is that I must have written about the story during the calendar year.) So here’s what we’ll do. I’ll try to write about as many stories over the next few days as holiday travel and internet connections allow… then the voting will actually take place in the new year, seeing that all signs now point to there being one after we seem to have survived yet another imminent apocalypse.

Before I launch into those nominations, however, and given the recent events in Connecticut, I feel compelled to make one thing absolutely clear. Readers who know me personally don’t need to be told this, but whereas I have no way of knowing who actually reads this blog, I do know that over half the people who “like” the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page aren’t my personal friends. That means there are, one presumes, at least a few dozen of you who may not know this: I am an educator, and I am proud of my profession and of the overwhelming majority of the people in it.

The teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary were and are heroes, not because they did what no other teachers would have done, but because they did precisely what every teacher worthy of the name would have done: out-think evil-doers, sacrifice themselves for the sake of their young charges, and prove once again the power of love. Even the jabbering minions of the NRA can’t deny the simple fact that this was a game-changer: not simply has the gun lobby been put on the defensive in a way that all those other mass shootings never did (it’s up to us, Gentle Reader, to maintain that advantage), but the demonization of the teaching profession was just summarily de-railed. Bam.

I have always said there are two kinds of teachers: those who will walk through the fires of hell for their students, and those who won’t. There’s really no in-between. If you’ve got what it takes, whether you’re teaching kindergarteners or grad students, you’ll find solutions. If you don’t, you’ll find excuses: excuses for your own failings, excuses for those of your students.

Our job is often to say “no.” It is often to incur anger or resentment. It is often to be ignored in the classroom and ridiculed in the hallways. It is to tell the truth—politely, encouragingly, but unequivocally: that paper, that presentation, that performance… it wasn’t very good. I know you thought it deserved an A. But it’s a C+. You can do better.

A few years ago, one of my students had done good but not excellent work in one of my classes, and she got the B she deserved on a couple tests in a row. She said, probably truthfully, that she’d never had to work so hard without getting an A. I said nothing non-committal and went on about my day. The next test, she aced. Apparently—I don’t recall this, but she says it’s true—I wrote a note next to the encircled “A” in her blue book: “I knew you could do it.” She remembers those words now, two degrees later. Set their bar high, and expect them to clear it. Set your own bar higher, and forgive yourself when you fail to reach you goal. (N.B., there’s a difference between forgiveness and acceptance.)

Our job as educators is not to be the equivalent of the favorite aunt or uncle who loads the kids up with candy and then passes them back to the parents to deal with the effects of over-stimulation. No, we’re more parent-like… the term in loco parentis has passed out of favor; the legitimacy of the need for a parental substitute—even at the university level, let alone in elementary schools—is absolutely as real as it ever was. One of my students a few years ago wondered aloud how many people like him—post-adolescent men and women—I had “fathered” (his term). The answer is probably dozens. That’s not because I’m out of the ordinary. It’s because I’m not.

So when I ridicule the incompetent, the corrupt, the bone-headed, and the pompous in my own profession, it’s not because of some inchoate self-loathing. On the contrary. There are cowards and charlatans in every endeavor. And it’s a big country, with lots of worthy recipients of an award for most embarrassing the profession. The interwebs hum along, and nary a transgression in Spider Breath, Montana or Pigeon Puke, Mississippi stays out of the public eye for long. But the reason for the Curmie is that education, like every other profession, needs to be more self-policing.

The idiots who stuff special needs kids into gym bags as punishment, who pander to the wealthy, who abridge free speech in the name of some ill-defined notion of “comfort” or enforce idiotic dress codes: these are not the face of my profession I want shown to the public. They are the minority, but they must not be allowed to prosper when so much is at risk.

But for right now, let us talk instead of the folks at Sandy Hook. They did what teachers do. Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Ann Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto: these women took a bullet—literally—for their kids. Show me a lawyer or a stockbroker who’ll do that for a client. Go ahead. I dare you.

The most important thing to remember, however, is this: these educators didn’t become heroes in death. They’d become heroes years before… in their lives.


Steve Grossman said...

Perfect. Thanks, Rick

Jenn Fortson said...

Bravo. And thank you. Posting this link on my FB page--our fellow educators might like to read this. :-)