On Monday, I had the honor of serving as master of ceremonies for the Clark County School District’s annual back-to-school event for teachers. Let me tell you what I told them.
First, I come from a family of teachers: My grandfather was a professor of mathematics in Connecticut. My mother was a kindergarten teacher for more than 30 years, retiring just recently. And I have dabbled in education myself, serving years ago as an adjunct instructor at UNLV teaching beginning journalism.
So I know for a fact that what the teachers say about their jobs is true. I’ve seen the long hours put in outside the classroom, time spent at the dining room table grading papers, preparing for parent-teacher conferences and tallying up report cards. I’ve seen the garage shelves stuffed with lesson plans, the accumulation of decades in the classroom. I’ve seen the out-of-pocket expenses for supplies the school doesn’t provide. And I know about the early end to summer as teachers show up to get the classroom ready for a whole new crop of students.
But I’ve also seen the rewards: A home filled with end-of-school gifts given by the grateful parents of enthusiastic kids, parents who even years later remember “Mrs. S” and the way her students learned and progressed at the start of their academic careers. A Huntington Beach, Calif., florist, a parent of a former student of my mom’s, once spotted her name on a delivery sheet and assigned himself the job so he could say thank you once again.
And I’ve even witnessed the greatest reward of all for myself: A student to whom a concept was an impenetrable mystery just moments before confusion gave way to enlightenment. It’s an incredible feeling to know you had a part in that.
Often, the impact teachers make on their students isn’t known for years, if ever. I’ve taken the time to track down a couple of professors of mine from college, to thank them for their patience and guidance, to let them know the ideas I learned in their classes still serve me well every day. My wish is that every teacher gets at least one of those calls during their careers.
Teachers, like all public employees, often get a bad rap. They’re blamed exclusively for problems such as low graduation rates or poor scores on standardized tests, problems for which there’s a long list of causes. They’re envied for having summers “off,” as if many don’t seek other jobs or work in summer school. They’re said to be greedy, even though their salaries don’t compare with those of other public-sector workers.
I’ve said repeatedly we don’t pay teachers enough for what they do. But we tend to forget just what that is. Teaching is not simply leading a session of rote memorization, or passing along the secrets of diagramming a sentence. It’s instilling the ability in a person to learn on their own, to question, to strive and to put in the hard work that makes success more likely. A teacher is a counselor, a collaborator, a guide, a friend, a mentor, a disciplinarian and, sometimes, a lifeguard. The best ones are worth their weight in gold. Those who truly aspire to be teachers aspire to one of the most noble, but one of the toughest, jobs there is. They are shaping the future of our city, our state and our nation every day.
I told the teachers assembled Monday inside Reynolds Hall, in The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, that we all need to support them, from regular citizens to political leaders to parents — especially parents! And I told them that even if they never heard it from anyone else this year, I wanted them to hear it at least from me: Thank you, all of you, for everything you do.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.