Teachers need your support from the start

To fall. To change. New beginnings. Pumpkin spice. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t straighten out this time of year?

Yes, we can mourn the end of summer, absolutely, but AUTUMN! There is a grateful change as we feel relief from the heat (and hopefully the dryness), enjoy the cool nights with the windows open, and put on long pants again.

All this, and, of course, school.

I remember that feeling of a fresh start at school. It’s one of the best things about school. Every year you have to leave in June and then come back in September – only different.

You have had experiences, you have done things and you have changed. That, along with a few new notebooks, and you were good to go, at least for a little while. The opportunity to be someone new, someone better, was etched in my memories of September.

School was cool too. Clean, polished floors and washed blackboards, and yes, I know I’m dating myself, but I remember that feeling. If ever schools had a chance for a fresh start, it’s September.

Schools need this fresh start more than ever. While there may still be chants of returning to what we knew before (i.e. “normal”), life only moves in one direction. Some things have to change, we know that. But a fact you can count on, no matter what happens at school board meetings, no matter what changes happen, the teachers will be there.

Not everyone likes school, of course, but everyone has a teacher they like.

I watch the children’s faces and hear them talking about their teachers. It’s amazing – the love you can find there, if you look for it. So many children love their teachers.

And for good reason. Children are not stupid. They know when someone cares (or doesn’t), and most teachers do. I recently heard of a teacher who takes time out in the morning to comb the hair of some students who arrive at school with tangles and snarls and all sorts of signs of neglect. She takes care of the worst cases, while teaching the other children to fend for themselves and help others.

Teachers have always gone the extra mile, as recent years have demonstrated, but really – that’s nothing new. Teachers are the ones reaching out, always thinking of new ways to engage their students, thinking deeply about the challenges children face and how best to meet those needs. What they provide, what they contribute to society, is the clearest and most direct path to the future, like everything else.

It all depends on what is happening in our schools. What other institution has a greater impact on what will become of this country?

Teachers work with students to help them bring out their compassion and kindness, but their domain goes beyond questions of character. In the words of journalist Dan Rather, it is truly our teachers who “fuel the flames of democracy”. The problems we face as a nation – and a world – require new solutions. These challenges and this democracy depend on free thinkers, and there is no better place to cultivate this capacity than inside a school.

If we are to preserve this great experiment we call democracy, we must embrace and support our public school educators.

And that is why, at the beginning of this new page of a new school year, I want to set the tone, both for myself and for all who agree that teachers are really so vital, that even if we take the teachers incredibly taken for granted, what they do is arguably the most important job one can hope to do: they shape the future.

Currently, our country is starting this school year short of about 300,000 teachers. The “great resignation” has left its mark in so many of our institutions, and education is no exception.

Also, we have fewer people entering the profession. This already underestimated profession becomes even less attractive. The reasons why we end up with this deficit are varied and probably have a lot to do with a fundamental lack of basic respect, but the result is pretty clear: teachers who are still in the field, who show up in the classroom, are more critical than ever.

Another thing to consider when you think of teachers, and I’m talking now about professionals: there are amateurs, of course, and there are professionals.

Have you ever tried to teach a class? Everyone has gone to school, so after experiencing it, we mistakenly believe we can DO it. But it’s actually a very special skill.

It is also an art. Teaching is a very complex job, and it takes a special person to be able to do it well. Yes, you can learn a lot about techniques, and that’s a big part of what teachers do. They are always learning, determined to improve their teaching practices, not for their own satisfaction or for better remuneration, but to be more effective.

Teachers know that in education you never “arrive”, you are always thinking about your class, your students and how to do better. That’s what makes you a professional.

As a society, do we really value what teachers do? Do we understand what is involved here and what is at stake?

The sign reads: “We (Teachers of the Heart).” For many professionals these days, they don’t feel the love. Lately, more and more schools are becoming battlegrounds.

School board meetings are beyond controversy. In the districts of the country, we are witnessing an upsurge in the banning of books. Inclusion in the classroom and the school curriculum is seen as a weakness or, even worse, as part of an ideological agenda. We face crisis after crisis as old ways break down and new patterns emerge.

But in the meantime, we cannot attack those whose work matters so much.

Make no mistake: the vote counts here. School elections are crucial. But there is another way to help make schools stronger and institutions better: supporting the teachers who do the work.

Support them. Celebrate them! Applaud them. And perhaps most importantly, listen to them. Think of them and remember them, and consider who we would be without them.

It is a precise moment. The pressing COVID-19 crisis has indeed passed, and students are returning to school this month without masks and in full rows. There is now an opportunity that did not exist before, an opportunity to recreate schools from the bottom up, and that starts with seeing, understanding and supporting those who do the work.

Then we begin to build together the kind of future we want for our children and the children who will come after them. What do we owe in the future? Everything, really. What do we owe our teachers? Same thing.

Gay Collins from Preston is a retired teacher from the Waterford school system who holds a master’s degree from Connecticut College. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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