OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter seeing posts of smiling, backpack-toting youngsters at the front door, or school bus door, or on their bike ready for that first day of school, I was inspired to review this piece as a thank you to the dedicated people to whom we entrust our children for another school year.

An Eclectic Bunch of Folks

For years I hung around with a very eclectic group of people.  Some were artists, some orators, project managers, revolutionaries, executives, secretaries, parents, counselors, psychiatrists, nurses. We were teachers.

We were a pretty weird bunch. We knew odd nuggets of information like where the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum is, why Abe Lincoln grew a beard, why we say “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite,” how to teach snapping your fingers in seven easy steps, and all the hand and body motions to “The 12 Days of Christmas.” We were elementary school educators. The middle school and high school teachers had their own set of equally mind-boggling information.

We also had some very firm beliefs: there were no bad children, actions do speak louder than words, and we all knew the new year started not in January, but in September. This could be readily proved by whipping out the New Jersey county education calendar book with the first month page proclaiming SEPTEMBER. It also contained only enough space for one activity on each day— now what teacher ever lived like that?

That was my bunch of folks, my professional colleagues for the twenty-eight years of my public teaching career.

There are millions of these types of people all over our counties and states of the United States. What a conglomerate!

Teachers. They usually work in schools, but not always. They are protecting and nurturing the future. What a great definition of a school—“the future surrounded by four walls.” The future—our little ones in the primary grades today, who in three more national elections will be voting, deciding the political, social, and health care policies of our country. The future—simmering, seasoning and shining in places with names like Washington or Lincoln School, Passaic Valley, Roberto Clemente, Essex County College, or William Paterson University in my former home state of New Jersey. Or Collier, Soleng Tom, Agua Caliente, and Sabino High School in my current home state of Arizona.

I worked with elementary educators. We tied hundreds of shoes, dried thousand of tears, sighed over reams of papers, smiled over dozens of stories, mediated arguments, collected book/milk/trip/scholarship money, counted noses, cut roses, prodded, picketed, and praised, often all before 8:45 in the morning.

How do they do it? And why? How do they go all year and return each fall, the new year, with the same energy as the previous September? Readings, research and on the job experience keep turning up three characteristics of career educators. Career teachers are professional, positive, and personal. I feel compelled to add a fourth characteristic. They are passionate.

Teachers give information. Sure, any book, computer or online site can do that. But what makes a teachable moment ring, what brings that look of “aha” to a learner’s face is the human connection achieved in a personal, positive, and professional manner. That human connection is one of the gifts teachers give each day, day in and day out. Technically it’s only 180 days a year. (If you are, have been, or know, a teacher, you know not even to go there). Often it is night in, and night out, if you think of reviewing paperwork, chaperoning games/trips, coaching teams, writing college recommendations, attending conferences, open house, back to school night, home-school programs, chairing curriculum committees, going to workshops, working on staff development, and mentoring new teachers.

The experts are there, in the classrooms, in the supplemental instruction rooms, talking to kids every day.  These experts are preparing our children for the future. Those who, as Joyce Myer said, “Change lives with just the right mix of chalk and challenges.”

Teachers are professional. More teachers continue formal education than ever before, working towards advanced degrees, certification, going to afterschool workshops, informal district learning groups, reading, writing, and getting grants. And that’s just to get the facts. More teachers are exploring the multiple intelligences of learning, the social, physical, and creative arts avenues to learning. My middle school colleague encouraged a student who had difficulty with writing to submit his final paper in song, complete with back-up singers and amplifiers.

Teachers encourage by recognizing worth. How insightful, to encourage by elevating worth. It’s the old “catch ‘em being good” technique. Thus encouraged, learners will be more open to the educational message that’s offered. And so they learn, and what we know about, we are up on, as “he’s up on what’s happening.” What we are up on we cannot be down on. Education is a positive act.

At the New York Orton Dyslexia Conference in the late ‘90s I heard six keynote college students speak of his or her success in dealing with a learning disability. Each success was built on a foundation of one person, a parent or teacher who hung in there, was an advocate and said,  “You can do this. You can succeed in college.”

Teachers are my everyday heroes. My husband, who thought his schooling would end with high school, found he had an opportunity to attend the college due to a teacher who paid the fee for the entrance exam. More heroes. The teacher who cut mountains of red tape and got the extra help a student needed. The teacher who sent holiday gifts anonymously to the family who just moved to this country. The teacher who “found” an old Junior Dictionary for her Russian student’s mother.  The teacher and her husband who took kids hiking rather than have them spend weekends in a tiny cramped apartment.

We master teachers are sometimes a bit quirky, maybe a lot. Our students see us jump with joy, or cry while reading aloud from Stone Fox, and Charlotte’s Web. My grade team colleagues and I had a happy dance we performed whenever one of our sweeties overcame an obstacle or got that “aha” look. By being creative, and a little bit wacky, we not only gave our students a demonstration of teaching options but also permission to use these options themselves.

I remember a sixth grade student crying in my classroom. “No one likes me.”

“I like you,” I responded.

“Yeah, but, you have to like me. You’re a teacher.”

“Not everyone is likeable. I have to teach you. I choose to sincerely like you because you are likeable.”

She came back to visit two years later, a tall, thin, pale middle schooler with curly black hair and the softest, sweetest voice and just a trace of that childhood lisp. “I like school. I have a best friend.”

History tells about wise teachers like Socrates and Plato. Yet teachers are everywhere. In teaching children, I’ve also had the delight of being the student.

My last second grade group before I retired taught me about grief. A teacher in our school had died. I was telling my class that my colleagues and I would be going to the service that afternoon and that was why I seemed sad. One wise second grader advised, “It takes a while for someone’s soul to go to heaven. But by the time it gets there, you won’t feel sad anymore.”

Another small bit of advice: “And when the service is over, you and all the teachers should go outside and stand in the sunshine.”

When my sister-in-law was battling terminal cancer, she was confined to a wheelchair. Venturing outside, she felt incapable, as if she didn’t belong. Her teacher, her eight-year-old granddaughter asserted, “Well Grandma, this is a free world. You can go anywhere.”

“Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.” One of those diamonds was the kindergarten student who drove me nuts with his taste for small toys, everyone else’s. He appeared in my classroom doorway years later, a kind of rough around the edges adult and proceeded to give the best talk I ever heard about valuing school and teachers, to my gaping second graders.

I retired from teaching over fifteen years ago, but I’m a cheerleader for education. I support public education. I want quality education for every child in this country. I visualize every adult picking up their education pompoms and cheering by saying, “My kids are grown now and I still support the teachers in our schools.”

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. ~ Nelson Mandela