In Praise of Public Educators

One could easily believe that our public school educators have a patron saint in the late comedic actor Rodney “No Respect” Dangerfield. We went from treating our trained and dedicated educational professionals as a respected calling involving “starving with dignity,” to tagging them as a gaggle of greedy, selfish, and coddled public dollar freeloaders who allegedly weren’t perfect surrogate parent nannies.

One of the pastimes of the far side of middle age involves some nostalgic reflection of our pre-adulthood years…

A few weeks ago, this wiseguy political columnist donned his journalistic Indiana Jones fedora to try to find out just what happened to a high school English teacher I fondly remembered from the years well before the Disco Era. If you’re like me, we paused to remember the kind teachers who invested heart and soul for damned little pay, back while we were rather engrossed in our own emergent, raging hormones.

We remember kind. We then remember a name not that deeply buried in our noggin’s neurons. Folks with jobs like mine get all “researchy.” A polite, respectful search for accurate information, not to be confused with a pervert stalker in a cheap, tan Burberry’s knockoff raincoat.

Yes, I found her, nearly forty years on, retiring as a public school superintendent in a community not far north of New York City. I know that I had historically been afflicted by the “seven year itch” wanderlust occupationally, but she had earned a doctorate, and had taught, cared, and achieved her way up the tall ladder to lead an award winning school district. I doubt that included sending errant pupils across town to New York’s storied Sing Sing prison for detention.

Can one find a profession these days that didn’t succumb to becoming rather jaded a few dozen years hence? After all, being an OB/GYN for a couple of decades now tends to make practitioners yearn for a second life as a science-avoidant Republican in Congress.

As a columnist at a daily newspaper, I remember penning a “local” piece  two  years ago opining on a elected school board’s dumping of the county’s Superintendent of several years. School superintendents usually do not have tenure to rely upon in their employment contracts. Lots of responsibility, very little actual power. Must “play well with others” to survive. “Oracle” and “ostracized” aren’t that many pages apart in the dictionary, particularly at that level. I guessed that board took a senior administrator with an admirable record of achievement, and channeled their “inner Gingrich” to trade the incumbent in for a newer, fresher face. An all too messy “heave ho” by elected pols who were supposed to “improve” the system with their “private sector experience.”

The gulf between those in the classroom and those who administer and lead schools is there, but, in military terms, there has to be strategic leadership and “boots on the ground” or, in this case, in our classrooms. It takes both to succeed.

In a day of trendy “home schooling” and “charter schools” being snake oil advertised as “competition” to public education, society has besmirched the years of training and dedication of our educators. Ex-Sen.and Mrs. Santorum each held Juris Doctor sheepskins from  “elitist snob” universities to “home school” their kids, but too many home school fans shook the educational dust from their biblical sandals before they could vote. The “free market” and “profit motive” might be good for your iPod’s year or two from glitzy introduction to obsolescence, but those children will be paying into Social Security and ponying up the taxes maintaining society long after we retire, as we did for the generations before us. If we prepare them.

The continuing scourge of societal bullying in our schools doesn’t make headlines as do tragic campus shootings or tawdry teacher-student sex scandals.  Fear does not, in fact, “build character” or enrich minds. School success requires professional public educators for whom “Children First” is a continuing, guiding philosophy, mission, and mantra.

My high school English teacher, who in 1973 was scarcely several years older and a lot more dedicated and mature than I was as she began her life profession, isn’t named here. She didn’t look for rock star status or a seat next to Oprah. She went far and achieved much for many thousands of kids. True to form, this wonderful woman isn’t really “retiring” but moving on to her next chapter. A grateful student from long ago is still grateful. Her kindness never stopped.

Tell me again how public education is somehow “broken.”