Contributions a teacher makes can never be fully identified


As we were driving down the road, my friend pointed out a sign on a gift shop window. It read “Thank you, Teacher” Gifts, all under $5.99. We laughed about the message implied in such an ad: “Here’s a trinket in gratitude for the treasure of an education.”

Surely, most teachers don’t choose their profession because of its tangible rewards. In the teaching field, presents and paychecks are notoriously meager. Many bright and talented individuals who would love to teach choose careers outside education because more lucrative opportunities are available to them. It’s been said that many students who major in education are academically weak, and they choose teaching by default. While that may be true in some cases, I’m convinced that most young people who decide to teach do so out of a strong desire to make a difference. Many still remember the profound effect teachers had on their lives. They believe in the nobility of the profession and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices in order to pursue what they value and love.

Maybe I am naive, but I retain an idealistic impression of teachers and their dedication. When you consider all the challenges teachers face, in addition to the abuse many of them must endure regularly, you have to wonder what, besides profound dedication to their profession and a commitment to their students, keeps them motivated to show up for work each day.

With four school-age children, attending elementary, middle, and high schools, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to witness teachers in action. While I haven’t agreed with everything that has occurred in my children’s classrooms and schools, I admit that I don’t always have the answers, and I believe in giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt. It seems to me that if more parents were to adopt such an attitude, all students would be better off.

Yet there’s something about education, particularly in the lower grades, that makes parents think they are as knowledgeable as the teachers. As a result, there’s often a profound lack of respect among parents for the authority of the teacher and his or her classroom decisions. Either through ignorance or arrogance, some parents believe they know better than the teachers, and they do everything in their power to get their own way. I have actually known parents to complain to the school superintendent about an issue as benign as a teacher assigning too much homework.

There’s no question in my mind, that despite all the negative attention they receive, our teachers are performing amazingly well under very challenging circumstances. I’m also convinced that students’ poor test scores and poor performance can more often be linked to weaknesses within their homes than to weaknesses within classrooms. That said, I believe in holding teachers to the highest standards of excellence. But we’ll fail in attempts to do so until we esteem their positions and pay them accordingly.

In the meantime, parents can make their children’s teachers lives a little easier by adopting a spirit of cooperation and trust, by not asking teachers to bend rules for your child’s sake, and by realizing it’s not always necessary that you and your child’s teacher see eye to eye. Another way for parents to cooperate is to recognize that teachers are human beings. Facing a classroom of 25 or more vivacious (to put it nicely) youngsters for hours at a stretch can frazzle even the most loving and patient among us.

The contributions a good teacher makes can never be fully identified. But judging from the gifts teachers have brought to my children’s lives, I can name a few: Mrs. G has taught the importance of courtesy, commitment, and integrity, as well as how to write a thorough, polished report. Mrs. R has taught how to find humor everywhere, question authority, and keep an open mind, in addition to how to explore the C.S. Lewis novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mrs. L has taught the advantages of teamwork, brainstorming, learning through trial and error, not to mention how to find the value of x.

Now that the school year is over, after we’ve helped our children select tokens of appreciation for teachers, parents would do well to ponder the gifts our children have received over the last nine months. If we do, we will surely acknowledge our profound gratitude to the teachers who bestowed them.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and four children, ages 8 to 16.