An Ode to Real Teachers

As energies, giving and taking do not dwell well within one human teacher.

To teach
is
To give.
Always.

To fight is to want to take.
Now.
And, we teachers, we will fight.

When backed into corners, teachers fight. Class size. Salaries. Pensions. These are things teachers should fight with society’s decision makers about. Teachers in all types of schools and all American geographies owe great debt to the historical struggle of public school teachers and their unions for bargaining class sizes, salaries, and pensions to their present levels. Such levels would be unimaginable today without the historical role that teachers’ unions have played.

Today, though, there are an ever-expanding number of corners in the ring, not simply the two corners of labor and management.

Today, society’s decision makers have built many corners for labor in the single ring of education and from those corners teachers are forced to fight.

At our best, we fight for smaller class sizes that allow young people to learn well, to me the most influential externally controlled variable in effective teaching and learning; for salaries that reflect the long, often difficult (and fulfilling!) hours and at least something of the social respect a teacher’s role must possess; and for pensions.

At our worst, from these many corners we fight not the biases of the decision-makers themselves. At our worst, we fight each other. For esteem. For righteousness. For power. And, for the winnings, oh yes, for the winnings.

Through history and from different corners, the decision-makers’ ring has witnessed a variety of teachers fighting teachers: Humanist versus Empiricist. Charter versus Union. Higher Test Scoring versus Lower Test Scoring. Magnet versus Neighborhood. Public versus Private. Career versus College. Suburban versus Urban. Rural versus Metropolitan. Well Funded versus Poorly Funded. Religion versus Science. White versus Black or Brown. And, coming soon in largely scaled ways, Virtual versus Human.

But, we in the ring are teachers. Humans whose job it is to give, always.

My personality, its ability to commit to a school’s mission, to be passionate about that mission, has embraced variety and change through my teaching life. Such variety and change enliven my commitment and passion. My career has known — and loved — teaching within seven very different settings: (1) an urban Catholic high school, five years, (2) a public magnet high school, seven-and-a-half years, (3) a creative writing evening course at a Yeshiva, five months, (4) an undergraduate and graduate course for future teachers, two years, (5) a special Saturday Writing program for gifted adolescent writers, five years, (6) a selective enrollment, test-based admissions high school, seven-and-a-half years, and (7) an urban charter high school, approaching eight years. Twenty-eight years.

I embrace that real teaching is without boundaries. Real teaching is neither public, nor private, nor charter, nor Catholic, nor Yeshiva, no. Real teaching is neither AP, IB, Honors, IEP-based, nor specialized this or that. Those boundaries have to do with something other than real teaching.

In every setting, with awe I’ve witnessed most colleagues offering commitment, passion, and skill in no significant way different from the other settings. I think of these colleagues as “Real Teachers” doing real teaching: committed, passionate, skilled. And, regardless of which corner they come from, real teachers are not fundamentally different from one another, no matter how portrayed by society’s decision makers.

Real teachers embrace the humanity of each young person.

Real teachers negotiate giving always to young people with the innumerable fights the biases of society’s decision makers create.

Real teachers engage, teach, instruct, facilitate, counsel, guide, challenge, hope, mourn, test, encourage, design, believe, decide, manage, persist, understand, feel, await…

Real teachers nuance verbs like no other, for teaching requires hundreds of momentary micro-decisions, regardless of class size, purposed toward the profound of the macro.

Real teachers embrace life’s ambiguity, knowing that education’s numbers cannot and should not tell individual human stories.

So, an ode to the innumerable real teachers I’ve known. Real teachers I know desperately search for peace, from which giving springs and against which fighting is not necessary.

As professions go,
Real teaching is not the most violent, usually.
Real teaching is not the most glamorous, surely.
Real teaching is not the most esteemed, ironically.
Real teaching is not the most lucrative, perhaps.

Real teaching may be the most challenging.  Real decisions every second about and for the young humans America trusts to its teachers every day.

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”
― Jacques Barzun