Teachers — Our Unsung Heroes
I look forward to my volunteer work with local schools, giving creative writing talks to “show” kids the wonders of writing. And as I walk down a hall and see all the smiling faces (and a few frowns), I long to once again be a teacher. Teaching was my first career out of college, but I left the classroom for a totally selfish reason; I needed to make a decent income. Years later I had three-piece suits in the closet, a corporate plane at my beckon call, was flying all over the U.S., and took clients out for expensive dinners. I felt successful, but at what, making money?
Indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed my professional career managing challenging and interesting environmental projects around the country, and working with quality people. Yet, I came to realized that as great as my career was, if I added the value of all the technical documents I wrote, all the decisions I made, all the research and findings I came up with, all the expert testimony I gave, and all the new concepts generated, in reality it weighed very little. Sure, at the time my work meant something, but a month or year later, the documents were on the shelf and everything moved on leaving them to collect dust without a face attached—no one knew or cared about any of them.
My years as a “Teacher” (grades seventh through twelve), at Northwestern High School in Mendon, Mo. were the exact opposite—every single moment brought value. I absolutely loved teaching, but more, I loved each and every one of ‘my’ kids. And of far more importance, they respected me. They made me laugh and cry, they challenged me, and I challenged them. I taught them science, but they taught me humanity, love, understand, and goodness.
Long ago when I was a student teacher at the High School in Brookfield Mo., a senior, angry because I prevented him from cheating, stood ten inches from my face and said to me, “You think you’re hot shit don’t you?”
I looked at him and replied, “No, I’m only trying to be a good teacher.”
The following summer, shopping in a grocery store in Brookfield, I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see that same young man. This time he said to me, “Mr. Joseph, I want to thank you for being my teacher. I hated school until you. I’m going to college in the fall, where you went, and I’m going to be a science teacher. If only I can be as good as you.”
My eyes blurred, and this time my reply was, “Son, you have just paid me the greatest honor a teacher can receive—thank you—I’m so glad I could be your teacher.” I was only at the school for three months, but it became clear, there was no other career that could make such a difference.
When I decided to leave teaching, and told my students I would not be returning the following year, it was all I could do to stop the chaos of “What? Why? No! You can’t leave us!” as frowns and dismay filled their saddened faces; I felt I had betrayed them, and maybe I did. I told them the truth. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to leave, I just have to make more money—I’ll never be able to buy a home.” Perhaps that was the wrong thing to say, for three months later during home-room, over the speaker came, “Mr. Joseph, please report to the superintendent’s office.
“What did you do now?” the students asked.
“Got me,” was my reply as I left the classroom, knowing I already got bauled out for stealing a school bus to take my science club students to Kirksville for an evening lecture at the college.
After telling me to close the door—angry—the superintendent dropped an inch thick pile of papers on his desk in front of me saying, “Just how in hell did you manage this?”
“Manage what?” I replied, picking up the pile.
“You know damn well what” he said.
I picked up a petition signed by every student in the school along with the signatures of their parents to raise my salary. After a thorough reaming out, and explaining what I said to the kids, I begged him to let me keep the petition. “Like hell!” he said.
Returning to my classroom the kids asked, “So did you steal another bus?”
I pointed a finger at them, frowned, trying to look angry and said, “You! You did this! You just got my butt reamed out by the dang superintendent of schools; it’s your fault, all of you.” I paused for a long moment, eyes wide, in dead silence. They all stared back, fearing I was truly angry. My frown then turned into an enormous smile as I threw my arms out wide and said, “And I love you all for it, every one of you.”
The assembly on the last day of school was, without a doubt, the most wondrous day of my life. The entire school body, teachers, and administrators were present. After presenting my science awards to the various students, I stood behind the podium and looked out at the kids that had been my life, realizing I would never see them again. With nothing prepared, I said to them, “I just want you all to know I shall miss you more than you can know. I only hope that I have taught you a little science, but know this, no matter how much I may have taught you, you—each of you—have taught me far more, because you have taught me about goodness, and understanding, and joy, and most of all happiness and love.”
Kyle stood, yelled, “Bravo Mr. Joseph,” Russell followed, and then the entire assembly rose, cheered, clapped, whooped, and whistled. I knew then I had made the wrong decision. Tears welled quickly in my eyes and I couldn’t say another word. I tried to blink them away but all I could see was a blur of a yelling crowd. I nodded my thanks, wiping my eyes, as I returned to the bleachers. The superintendent went to the podium and waved everybody to sit down, but the kids ignored him and continued the uproar—only louder. He finally gave up and stood there patiently. The standing ovation continued for many minutes as my eyes drained of emotion and love for those kids. Never had my existence and meaning been stated so clearly or meant so much–never. It was the greatest honor I had ever been paid, or ever will again.
Our teachers are truly society’s unsung heroes. These marvelous people have a major influence on our children, and good teachers more often than not make a critical difference in our sons and daughters. Teachers are mentors, models, idols, close friends, counselors, pseudo-parents, and of course educators. It disturbs me terribly that they most often go unnoticed, un-thanked, and more, they are so blasted underpaid. Their mark on society is outranked by no other profession, yet we take them for granted and penalize their choice of career by giving them minimum pay.
Electricians, mechanics, and plumbers get paid anywhere from $70 – $120 an hour, they are skilled and deserve it. Take a teacher who receives say $45,000. Add their hours in the school each day, the hours grading papers and preparing classes at home, and after school activities, then divide it into that salary, and they are receiving less than $10/hour. Is that fair?
These individuals mold and teach our children far more than academics, and these kids go on to determine much of where our society is heading. Teachers literally shape our kids and our communities. When I went from my science classroom to my walnut desk at Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, I more than quadrupled my salary. I doubt you blame me, but you should blame society. Far too many great teachers leave for the same reason—a decent income. I enjoyed no career as much as teaching. Why, because the impact of what I did was real. “I” made a difference, and it was so very much FUN.
We complain about the cost of many things, and justifiably, but please, please, please, don’t ever complain or vote against school budgets. In fact, do everything you can to initiate and support a fair rate of pay—fair is all they want. And if you are one of indifference, please change.
When your child keeps talking about that special teacher, recognize their importance to your kids with a “Thank you teacher” card. Or how about a gift certificate for school supplies from Wal-Mart? (So many teachers purchase school supplies for ‘our’ kids, in fact, MOST of them do.)
And for heaven’s sake, don’t take them for granted anymore. Okay? They truly are our unsung heroes. Won’t you let them know. tj