“So, how come I’m not president of the History Channel?”
She’d been telling me about her recent college reunion, mentioning an old friend who now heads up the History Channel. We looked at each other. Our children are almost grown; we have wash-and-go haircuts, flat shoes and colorful, fuzzy sweaters. We’ve spent years mediating arguments and helping sticky hands hold pencils effectively. We know better than to buy work clothes that require dry-cleaning.
We’re veterans. We’ve known children who were neglected, mothers and fathers in denial, students with physical, social or intellectual challenges, and parents who threatened to sue the school for little real cause.
This is not a job for sissies, this business of teaching—and it’s getting increasingly difficult. There are more autistic children in today’s classrooms. We teach kids with Down syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, physical handicaps, reading and language disabilities, and social-emotional issues. We embrace those who don’t speak English, helping them to learn a new language.
More and more, we teach social and pragmatic skills. Second-graders frequently need to be taught how to tie their shoes, blow their noses with a tissue, and cover their mouths when they cough. Many must be shown how to engage in games, how to compromise, how to be graceful in victory. We’re now responsible for seeing that children eat enough—but not too much. We teach which foods are healthy and encourage students to eat them while they’re at school. We make certain that they exercise.
We individualize teaching and assignments for those deemed “gifted” and those who have trouble reading, writing, adding or multiplying. We develop behavior plans for kids who call out, strike out or act out. We have special groups and activities for children of divorce, students who are new, and those who have difficulty making friends.
We do all of this without forgetting, for even a moment, that our students need the skills on which they will be tested and retested. We’re mindful that, no matter what challenges our kids carry through that doorway, they’re expected to improve those test scores at a predetermined pace. So, when Nina asks me why she’s not president of the History Channel, I know what she means. I too went to college with women who are now top executives. I imagine them eating lunch at tony restaurants as I shovel spoonfuls of yogurt into my mouth while preparing earthworms for a science lesson. I wonder what it would be like to leave my work behind when I go home. I imagine strangers actually looking impressed when I mention my profession.
I’m a teacher because I find helping children learn so completely compelling. I feel joy when I see that “ah-hah!” look. I appreciate the impulsive hugs and the love notes (“Mss. Wade is the Bess teechur in the hole wuld”).
I’ve looked on with pride as a child with Down syndrome read aloud. I’ve gladly promised an anxious mother that I’d take care of her daughter who spoke no English, and then watched that child become the best reader in the class.
We’re brave. We’re well educated. We take on unbelievable tasks every day. So why do we feel so powerless?
Teachers used to close their classroom doors and teach in the way they found effective. It isn’t so private anymore. Many outside sources dictate whom and what I teach in my classroom. Unfunded federal mandates have forced us to focus resources and personnel almost exclusively on our weakest readers, prompting the need for interminable assessments and the expensive, time-consuming accumulation of data.
After years of judicial decisions, students with serious challenges are now in regular classrooms. When districts are willing to provide the classroom aides and adaptations that successful inclusion requires, it is possible to meet their needs and also teach the rest of the class. But, in this age of budget crunching, such help has all but disappeared.
Meanwhile, reliance on a “teacher-proof” curriculum and insistence that teaching be uniform has sapped many of us of our creative juices. We’re sacrificing so much in a climate where there’s already so little respect for the teacher—and so little respect for a student’s individuality.
If I were president of the History Channel, you can bet there would be a program on the history of American education—one that focuses on the heroic teachers of our past and today’s educators, who are facing their own unbelievable economic, legal and social pressures.
Yet, through it all, we continue to love, nurture and educate our kids. Indeed, this business of teaching is not for sissies.
May 9 is National Teacher Day. Bobbie Wade has taught in Radnor Township for 18 years. She lives in Paoli.
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