May 5 is National Teachers Day, originated through the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, a teacher herself. In 1953, she first requested that Congress honor teachers with a designated nation recognition day, but the first National Teacher Day did not become an official national day until 1980.
Prior to Teachers Day becoming official, it was President John F. Kennedy who said that “Modern cynics and skeptics see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.” Sixty years later, things have remained much the same. Underpaying our teachers for work that requires well-recognized high responsibilities has been a longstanding condition.
In fact, it seems to have accelerated even as we have “dumped” more and more parental responsibilities on them. Without asking for the additional responsibilities, schools and teachers find themselves with cultural responsibility for the physical health, nutrition, discipline, safety, values, and mental health of someone else’s children. As American entrepreneur John Sculley said, “We expect teachers to handle teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, and the failings of the family. Then we expect them to educate our children.“
Similar things have also happened to law enforcement (who mostly spend their time as social workers with the most marginal in our society) and other service-oriented professions.
Being a teacher is hard work and the lower the grade levels, the harder the work and the lower the pay. The cultural value-base for work in the USA is hideously inverted with the positions that offer the most in providing for important cultural needs receiving the lowest pay and, too often, status. Perhaps that is why former President Barack Obama said about teaching that “by the end of two years, most have either changed careers or moved to suburban schools – a consequence of low pay, a lack of support from the educational bureaucracy, and a pervasive feeling of isolation.”
As we reflect on teachers and teaching, however, it is good also to reflect on what the noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger said. In his view, “What the teacher is, is more important than what he/she teaches.” Consistent throughout a half century or more of research is the reality that the most important factor in any child’s education is the perception that one’s teacher likes the student. Feeling that your teacher likes you is much more important than facilities, programs, processes and all of the other “stuff” that makes up current education. We can argue about a lot of things with regard to teachers, but if they do not like each individual student, the future prospects of that student are diminished.
So we are called to be discerning about teachers, and to hold accountable those that are ill-equipped by disposition or training to be teachers. Nonetheless, since they are the primary profession to pass on to the next generation the accumulated wisdom of our culture, we should surely honor, support, encourage, and reward them for perhaps the most important of all cultural roles. Remember them on May 5.