I’ve been watching South Riding on Masterpiece Theater – a story about an educator in Yorkshire in the 1930s. Both headmistress and teacher, the lead character Sarah Burton has so far inspired her students to discover poetry, comforted a motherless child, stood up to the town council, instilled feminism into the local mindset and helped birth a calf.
Movies about brave, insightful teachers who take on tough kids, deal with prickly parents and challenge stagnant thinking to end up respected, heroic and exhausted are a favorite of Hollywood. Not much different from real teachers.
Hollywood doesn’t make movies about teachers who are slackers and just in it for the money, who skip out of school when the bell rings and spend summers at their beach house. Who would believe that?
A good friend who used to be a newspaper reporter now teaches middle school. When we went to the beach I took the Sunday papers and she took a pile of homework to correct. I know what long days journalists put in but after watching her and my daughter and my sister-in-law and a number of cousins and friends, I’m convinced that teachers work harder.
My favorite high school teacher not only nudged me into the newspaper biz but shook up my brain and got me thinking about things like classism, sexism and racism. I imagine most people can name a stand-out teacher who made a difference. It’s always a teacher you remember, not the president of the school board or even the principal, except for shaking their hand at graduation.
Teachers are the action figures in the world of education. They don’t just talk, they do. Like cops and firefighters they are on the front line to spot trouble before it causes worse damage. They make the hard decisions on when CPS should be called. They know which kids aren’t eating and who’s doing their homework in a car or motel room. They know who needs a winter coat and find a way to get them one. They negotiate with parents who think their genius child is untouchable. These days they must also be alert to Facebook bullies and guns in backpacks.
All this makes teachers saints in many people’s eyes, until they say they’re in a union. Then they’re attacked as an overpaid, greedy special interest group who abuse tenure and close ranks to protect their under-performing over-the-hill sisters and brothers. Which is all horse-pucky, or as your teacher might say irrational, uninformed and not considering all the facts.
On an airport shuttle from San Francisco I met a woman who had been evacuated from Japan after the earthquake. She’d had to leave her husband behind. He’s a teacher at an American school on a military base and there was no choice but for her to come home to Santa Rosa and him to stay. As long as the school stayed open his loyalty was to his students.
Now, the public is being asked to stay loyal to our teachers. In California we’re told the only way to save our schools is by extending higher income, sales and vehicle taxes. In a complicated world that demands an intelligent citizenry and in a country where more than a third of men who don’t have a high school degree can’t get any kind of work, we need to stand by our schools. If the only solution to keeping teachers and kids in school is to pay more taxes, then we’ll pay more taxes.
It’s a no-brainer. Or as your teacher might say it’s elementary, obvious.