Jun. 3, 2002: A Salute to Unappreciated Heroes

My son, Ken, has just completed his first year as a high school science teacher after 20 years in the business world. His students weren’t the only ones to get an education this year.

Thankfully, Ken’s rookie year was on a good team. Woodland High School in Bartow County is a fairly new school with a modern physical plant in a progressive county. The teaching staff made him feel welcome, the administration was clear in its expectations of him and he and the kids seemed to hit it off well. Ken also had his brother-in-law, a veteran high school science teacher in Douglas County to consult with about those things they forgot to tell him when he received his education degree from Kennesaw State.

Still, the first year was no picnic. As a proud and nervous papa watching anxiously from the sidelines, I came to appreciate firsthand how tough being a public school teacher is. Public education is the most over-managed, misunderstood, politicized and least appreciated profession on God’s Green Earth. Everybody talks a good game about wanting to improve public education in Georgia, but where the rubber meets the road, I have decided that teachers teach kids in spite of the obstacles we throw in their path.

The bottom line is that we don’t seem to trust our teachers. We don’t give them a lot of latitude. We tell them what to teach and how to teach it. The teachers are second-guessed every day by people who couldn’t begin to endure what teachers have to put up with in the classroom. We tie teachers’ hands when it comes to discipline and make them enforce a bunch of silly rules that are understood only by the people who created them. We don’t pay teachers squat and then, to add insult to injury, we make them dig into their own pockets for things like copy paper, workbooks, art supplies and the like. Studies show that teachers shell out between $300 and $400 annually for their classroom needs, although nobody seems to know for sure. Whatever the number, it should be zero.

We encumber teachers with meddling politicians, bureaucratic red tape, social experimentation, lawyers, bored kids and apathetic parents and then expect them to turn out well-educated and well-rounded students like the Mars Candy Company turns out M&M’s. No one really goes out of their way to support them.

My son discovered in his initial year of teaching that public school students fall generally into three categories. First are the young people seeking a quality education – usually motivated by parents demanding the best from both the teachers and their children. The good news is that these kids can go toe-to-toe with the best private school students in the state. The bad news is that their number is regretfully small. Still, this group is the one that makes teaching fun.

Then come the students just occupying time and space until the law says they can throw in the towel. They generally come from homes that place no value on education. Little can be done to save this group because they don’t want to be saved. They have no vision and no future, and nothing their teachers tell them will change that fact.

By far, the largest group is composed of those kids who could be good students if they made the effort. Some do. Some don’t. This group is where teachers earn the little money we pay them and where they experience their highest highs and their lowest lows, trying to reach these young people and make them understand the enormous potential that resides within each one of them. Nothing has been more satisfying to my son than to watch a student who has been on mental cruise control suddenly decide to excel in the classroom. Nothing has caused him greater despair than to see a superior intellect go to waste, most likely because of a lack of interest at home.

Despite all the frustrations the profession offers, this story has a happy ending. Ken is looking forward to his second year as a public school teacher. He knows that he is doing good. He knows that he can make a difference in young lives. He knows teaching will never be easy or financially rewarding, but that doesn’t matter. He is now a teacher. To him, that’s all that matters.