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Teach Your Children Well

Long one of the most respected professions in America, with stress levels rising, teachers are coming under fire.

Sunday Evening Editorial: By Joe Malburg

What is a teacher? Ask and you’ll get a variety of responses, almost none of them wrong nor many, if any of them completely right. It might be easier to ask, what isn’t a teacher these days? A teacher is an educator, first and foremost. But they are also a mentor, a role model, an advocate, a motivational speaker, a babysitter, a life coach, a counselor, a friend. And those are just the traditional roles. In recent decades we’ve added the role of crisis manager, security guard, fundraising coordinator and I.T. professional to the list. And now, many are asking our teachers to eschew their health and safety, along with the potential health and safety of others in their lives, because the inconvenience of having their kids at home all day is a burden too big to bear. So what is a teacher? They are a lot of things to a lot of people, but most of all they are underpaid, underappreciated and not at all understood.

Let me put my cards on the table; this is a pro-teacher stance. I am on the side of the teachers and will defend them to the end. But I do not believe this is a line in the sand. I do not believe teachers and those who are essential workers, or who are unable to work remotely that need to put food on their table, are enemies or should be pitted against one another. And I am not trying to dismiss the very real and frustrating problems facing so many parents in the new world Covid-19 is carving out daily. But our solution to the problems for many in this society can not be to create new problems for many more. Teachers did not choose this pandemic and teachers will not choose when or how we return to school. Like the average parent, this is out of their control. Teachers want to return to the classroom; it makes their jobs and parents' lives easier. It allows them to connect with children much easier, which is what most signed up to do. But a teacher-- a good teacher-- always puts the health and safety of their students above everyone else. A good teacher knows that they serve not just the students or the students parents, but the entire community.

All taxpayers fund our teachers. Even those of us who do not have children, or whose children did not attend school in the community we live. And that is because good teachers and good schools benefit us all. An educated, responsible and connected population creates a kind, caring and responsible citizenry. One where everyone looks out for everyone else and understands their success is the community's success, and vice-versa. It’s not a coincidence that people want to live in communities with good schools and people tend to stay in those communities long after their kids finish school. So why is that now, with so much uncertainty, that teachers, with so little control, are being made the bearers of the brunt of the brutality coming from frustrated families and pissed-off parents? Why are the people who constantly put the needs of the community above themselves, now being asked to put themselves at risk to serve the needs of a portion of the community that feels out of options?

The short answer is simple; we as a Nation have lost faith in our institutions. Government, the media, higher education, medical and scientific experts are all presumed to have an agenda by a healthy majority of citizens. This is alarming as this is a trend in American history that emerges once every eighty or so years and always in the midst of great challenges and turmoil. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see where we’ve ended up once we consider where we are. In the preface to great change, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, we have always lost faith in the institutions that would eventually see us through the storm. We accept that the Military is the first line of defense internationally, that police, fire and medical workers are the first line at home, but in our communities in times of peace, our teachers are our first line of defense, that has never been more true than now.

Before you criticize a teacher, walk a mile in their shoes. Understand that the starting salary for a teacher today is less than $40,000 a year. In fact, it comes out to the same salary as a full-time employee making just under $18/ an hour. And though teachers salaries are declining all across the country, it hits Michigan particularly hard, where over the last two decades teachers salaries relative to inflation and cost of living have dropped by nearly 12%, the fourth sharpest decline in the Nation. This is a job that requires a four-year degree, and regular re-certification. Despite what some people say, most teachers don’t take the summers off. Most are either forced to take on a second job and/or spend a good deal of time with continued education and professional enrichment. Not to mention brushing up on the seemingly never-ending list of new requirements and curriculum amendments that precede every new school year. And then consider what the job entails. Not only do you have to have a significantly better grasp of the subject matter than the majority of the population, but you must also relate the knowledge to a vast array of young people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and home life situations. The perfect method of teaching one student might leave another behind or bored. There is no perfect solution, not to education and certainly not in the time of Covid.

I spoke with one former teacher, who left both the district and profession in the last decade. They told me that teaching made them feel overworked and underpaid and that the effect of that on their home life drove them from the profession they loved;

“The biggest factor was stress and happiness. I'd come home in a bad mood, drained after pouring all of my emotion and energy into my lessons. I had no idea how I would ever have it in me to raise a family feeling so depressed.”

And it wasn’t the kids or the parents that drove them from the profession, but rather, the burden we put on teachers and the sacrifices we demand of them to do what they are called to do; “I saw veteran teachers around me turn jaded after doing it for so long, and they were making double my salary. I knew I'd never make the money they did, and each year the demands from administration only increase; nothing ever gets taken off of your plate. In fact I started making less money in my last year because the district made cuts to healthcare contributions, and the union negotiated next to no pay increase for newer teachers.” Finally, despite all the burdens, the love of teaching is not something great teachers lose and no one gets into the profession to make a lot of money, our former teacher concludes,

“But it truly wasn't about the money. I'm making just a little bit more right now, but I am in such a better place mentally than I was (then).”

The point is not to make anyone feel sympathy for teachers. They don’t want that. Like anyone who chooses a profession because it is their calling, money is secondary to good teachers. But none of them signed up to teach in a Pandemic. And with that in mind in the current culture, and if the current system as it existed before Covid was driving folks away, imagine how small the incentive is now. And before you say let’s just replace those who don’t want to do it with those who do, keep in mind that it’s already a struggle for even the best funded districts to find consistent, qualified substitutes. Keep in mind that you are not incentivizing people with either the potential earnings or the cost of obtaining the credentials necessary to become a teacher. Where are these people going to come from? And as inexperienced replacements, what are the odds that they can replace the current entrenched educators without a decline in the quality of education?

Our teachers are a finite resource source unless we use the current teachers to create future teachers. And that isn’t just educational professionals. We all have to do some teaching in our lives. Whether it is of our parents, or employees, our coworkers, our friends and their families or our own children. The teachers we have in our youth provide an example for how we will pass on that education. The passing of knowledge and experience from one generation to the next is how we continue to grow and improve as a society. Nothing is more important when it comes to leaving this place better off than when we found it. So we obviously know the value of teaching, mentoring, education, and shaping our future through our children's upbringing. Maybe you’ve seen this expressed in meme form, but let me translate it into pure text: What does it say about us if we are forcing our kids to get back to school so they can become the next generations doctors, scientists, teachers and leaders, if we are just ignoring the people in those positions today?

So what is a teacher? A good teacher defies any definition. Because a good teacher is adaptable to each student and each situation. Those are the type of teachers we need now and those are the type of teachers we need to protect, respect, appreciate and invest in. A good teacher doesn’t stop teaching after you leave their class. Their words and message resonate for a lifetime. The confidence they instill and the compassion they display help give ordinary people the opportunity to do the extraordinary. They are an extension of both the family and the friends, someone you can trust, who you don’t want to disappoint and who will hold you accountable without ever giving up on you. That’s what a teacher is. A solution to a problem and a way to prevent the mistakes of our past from becoming the fate of our future. They teach your children well. Now you need to treat them well.


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