MAXWELL:  The miracle workers who are teachers

5/11/2003 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Because of ongoing research I am conducting and recent travel, I am writing belatedly. This column is in praise of our nation’s teachers from kindergarten to graduate school.

Many Americans do not know these two facts: May 6, 2003, was National Teacher Appreciation Day, always the first Tuesday in May; and May 4-10, 2003, was Teacher Appreciation Week, always the first full week of May.

Because of the importance of teachers, no one should have to mention these two celebrations, but during this age of obsession with standardized testing and achievement gaps, we need to be reminded that teachers, especially those in our public schools, have been devalued and in some states _ such as GOP-controlled Florida where I live _ demonized and turned into scapegoats for students’ poor academic performance and many other ills of society.

To honor our teachers, several authors released books this month extolling teachers’ essential place in our culture. Instead of paraphrasing or otherwise trying to interpret what observers had to say, I, a teacher, will let several speak for themselves because, for me, each excerpt captures part of the essence of the noblest profession.

+ Boston University professor and social activist Howard Zinn: “I think should teachers be honest with students. Say to them, “Look, this is where I stand,’ while at the same time making it clear to them that this is not where they have to stand. There are different viewpoints, different ways of looking at the world, but I want you to know my way, and I want you to understand why I feel this way. I don’t want you to be afraid to say, “I disagree with you’ or, “This is my point of view.’ Only then will our conversations be interesting. It’s actually a delicate balance, because on the one hand you want to be honest and state your viewpoint. On the other hand, you don’t want to intimidate the students into accepting it.”

+ Spelman College president Audrey Forbes Manley: “I believe teachers are miracle workers who can dramatically change the course of our lives. Often they are the last lifeline children have, the one straight line to self-esteem, dreams and success.”

+ Shirley Chisholm, first African-American woman in the U.S. House of Representatives: “A blind political science professor, Louis Warsoff, became interested in me, and we had long talks. I called him “proffy,’ affectionately. He was one of the first white men whom I ever really knew and trusted. . . . From professor Warsoff I learned that white people were not really different from me. I loved formal debating particularly, and once after I starred in a match he told me, “You ought to go into politics.’ I was astonished at his naivete.”

+ MIT visiting science professor Jill Ker Conway: “Teaching is a moral and sacred act. I think the characteristics of a good teacher begin with genuine respect for the student’s mind. That respect conveys to students that they can take themselves seriously. Next to that, I think, is a real love for the young and joy in seeing them grow and develop. Next to that is a passion for the discipline. You can be passionate about your discipline, but if you lack respect for the young mind and the love of young people, you won’t be able to communicate it very well.”

+ Award-winning actor, director and producer Charles Dutton: “Teaching is the toughest and most important job in America.”

+ Chair of the MacArthur Foundation board Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: “Part of teaching is helping students learn how to tolerate ambiguity, consider possibilities, and ask questions that are unanswerable.”

+ Author and Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck: “Only the brave should teach. Only those who love the young should teach. Teaching is a vocation. It is as sacred as priesthood, as innate a desire, as inescapable as the genius which compels a great artist. If he has not the concern for humanity, the love of living creatures, the vision of the priest and artists, he must not teach.”

+ Author Richard Reginald Green: “The future of the nation is on the shoulders of teachers and how they teach kids; the future of the world is in the classroom where teachers are. And if we have any chance to guarantee a positive bridge to the 21st century, it is how we educate the children in the classrooms today.”

None of us can say, with a straight face, that a teacher, or several, did not make a positive difference in who we have become as adults. My concern is why we fail to honor the profession, why we continue to elect politicians who are hostile to teachers, who have turned the profession into self-sacrificing, thankless drudgery.