Credit due 

If you can read this, thank a teacher

Another school year is well underway, and for the first time since I returned to college for a teaching certificate, I’m not in a classroom explaining the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, propping up sagging confidence, and prodding students to relate to Prince Hamlet’s angst. Nor am I dealing with wayward pupils (and then calling their parents), encouraging kids to express themselves in clear, creative writing, praising endeavors well-done and good-hearted, and putting out the metaphorical fires large and small that all teachers face on a daily basis. It is exhausting, energizing, frustrating, gratifying work, if you can find it.

It’s also ironic that moving to Montana—a state supposedly desperate for teachers—should have been the career-ender. My position was one of 20-some cuts visited upon Missoula’s three high schools this year.

Now that I’m able to sit back and take a somewhat longer and unfettered view of the profession I’ve been part of for eight years, I wonder why we simply don’t appreciate teachers more.

The outpouring of well-deserved gratitude for firefighters during and after our recent active fire season in Western Montana prompts comparisons that I find unsettling, for I, too, appreciate their efforts. Twice during August the yellow shirts visited my parched, rural gulch—first to map the location of each house with GPS units, then to bring us pre-evacuation information. It was easy to offer a heartfelt “thanks for all you’re doing” as we stood face-to-face in the smoky air.

Driving through Missoula as the fires smoldered to a close, one couldn’t remain oblivious to the many “Thank you, firefighters” messages displayed by merchants. Newspaper ads expressed gratitude and encouraged us to “adopt a firefighter.” Children gave up their savings to buy cookies and delivered them to fire camps. Hand-lettered signs of appreciation multiplied in yards. And thank them we do, for the long hours of hard, dirty, sometimes dangerous work. Why do they do it?

Read the newspaper, watch the local news interviews; the folks who fight fire usually give one or more of three reasons: to help others, for the money, or for the love of it—the sheer thrill of danger.

It was those numerous thank you signs that started me thinking about how we as a people acknowledge work that benefits the public good. Our emphatic outpouring of gratitude to wildland firefighters who are with us on the fire line for a month or so is never matched with a similar display for, say, teachers, who are on the front line of education (and all it includes—some parenting, some mentoring, some friendship) every day for most of the year.

And why do they do it? To help others, certainly. Certainly not for the money, at least not in Montana. For the love of it, yes (although for teachers, the danger—a gun the classroom, a bomb in the school—holds no thrill). Teachers come to their jobs with an initial college investment of four to six years, then spend more of their own time and money meeting state and district requirements for continuing education. Overtime pay is unheard of; all of those evenings, weekends, holidays and vacations spent preparing lessons and grading essays are personal time sacrificed or contributed, depending on how you look at it.

Yet good people plunge into the profession knowing all this. In spite of classes with too many students and too few books, time-consuming committee meetings, and discipline-challenged kids and their irate parents, teachers really do believe the words of 19th-century historian and educator Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity.”

Eternity! So why are teachers underpaid and under-appreciated, if not outright blamed for the ills of public education? It was this question I pondered while passing another “Thank you, firefighters” sign. But understand this: It’s not about resentment or why one group of public servants is more “deserving” than another. It’s not about why we thank firefighters—but rather why we don’t thank teachers. I’m after a bigger examination of what we value on a societal level, resulting in more questions than answers. Why are we taxpayers willing to fund a bottomless purse for fighting a force of nature, but unwilling to adequately fund the education of children? Why do we expect property to be saved at all cost, but expect schools to get by with fundraisers and teacher cuts? Why do we express fervent appreciation to those who save our material possessions from flames, but not to those who save the next generation from ignorance, poverty, and crime?

Perhaps it is just so much easier to grasp the hot and immediate danger fire poses to our homes and belongings, and so much harder to grasp the vague but real danger that uneducated citizens pose to our democracy and world.

This is not to say that teachers are never thanked. Last June, stressed out, overworked (my “part-time” contract to teach four junior and senior English classes came with 90-some students, no paid prep time, and less than $18,000), and pink-slipped, I received several touching letters and expressions of thanks from my wonderful Hellgate High School students. Teachers seldom know how they touch their students’ lives; receiving a testimonial is a treasured gift that arrives unlooked-for.

Nevertheless, a handful of thank you notes—however cherished—does not pay for car repairs, mortgage payments or college courses. Nor do I believe that a profound shift in America’s priorities will occur anytime soon, and teachers—the women and men who affect eternity—will remain dedicated, underpaid professionals.

In spite of this, I know my former colleagues still enter their classrooms each morning ready to inform, inspire and empower. How beautiful for them if—come next June—the signs at casinos and car dealers and restaurants were to greet them on their way through Missoula with “Thank you, teachers.”

Kathleen Stachowski is a former schoolteacher and a resident of Lolo.

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