Hooray for teachers who help children meet their minds

Last Sunday, I stumbled across a Las Vegas Review-Journal column titled “A dozen empirically verified things to know about public school teachers” written by James W. Guthrie, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction. He talks about “effective” and “ineffective” teachers. And he makes me wonder about the difference.

My prejudice erupts. Effective teachers, above all else, have a calling. They have a vocation, from the Latin vocare, meaning “life’s calling.” They bring innate gifts, propelled by passion.

Brian grinds the pencil sharpener/ Jane inspects her toes/ The lid on Elmer’s glue stumps Catherine/ Molly picks her nose/ Billy Rae complains of tummy aches/ Carlos eyes the door/ Scissors make a classroom barbershop, Mike’s hair on the floor.

Do you think the teachers have a call/ Will they stand at the crossroads where our children often fall/ Do you think there is a more important thing to do/ Than to take a child’s hand and see him through.

I wrote those lyrics almost 20 years ago. I knew a gifted, passionate teacher. She guided a first-grade classroom of 6-year-olds. Thirty-two of them, to be exact. She invited me to observe for an hour. I ended up staying the whole day. I was mesmerized.

When children stood next to her, they grew taller. She was relentless in her expectations, yet wrapped those expectations in endless encouragement. All this while attending to a never-ending parade of tears, fears and tummy aches. Always one step ahead of brewing disciplinary issues. As I watched her, I kept thinking about air traffic controllers.

I went home and wrote the song, “If Not For Teachers.” Most of the names in the song are actual names of children I met that day.

Liz presents her tooth to Show ‘n’ Tell/ Heather’s turtle died/ Dan faux pas his playground etiquette/ pours dirt down the slide/ Wes denies he punched poor Jonathan, Kim seems in a trance/ Beth computes the days arithmetic/ Jacob wets his pants.

Twenty years later, she has left the classroom to pursue her dream of teaching teachers. I ask her about “No Child Left Behind.” She shrugs, smiles a wry smile and says, “Wanna know what we call it? We call it ‘No Child Left Untested.’ ” She shakes her head.

And I think about her use of the word “we” in that sentence. We, as juxtaposed from “they.” I think “they” refers to the politics of public education. And I wince, because my prejudice is that there is no faster way to kill vocational passion than to surround it with politics and place it within the confines of an institution. I learned this firsthand, working in the institutional church.

I think of Gordon MacKenzie’s book, “Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace” (1998). Now, MacKenzie wasn’t a teacher, or a priest; he was a designer/artist for Hallmark Cards. But his metaphor is applicable to any politicized institution. Institutions provide the necessary structure and resources for our work, but they must inevitably become a “giant hairball.” The workers who survive and thrive in institutions learn to “orbit” the hairball, lest they be pulled into its crushing, numbing gravity.

I have great respect for gifted teachers who learn to orbit the hairball. It seems that, somehow, they have learned to smile and nod at “the system,” then somehow to build a sanctuary around the joy of their work. To shut the door of their classroom and educate the children. Education, from the Latin educare, meaning “to call out.” Yes, along the way, you learn that the War of 1812 occurred in 1812. But, the fundamental thing that happens in a classical education is that you are “called out” of you. You meet yourself. Your mind. Your passions. And from there the lucky student finds his or her vocation – their calling.

Dad calls names and robs Ben’s dignity/ Kate’s mom drinks too much/ Breakfast did not bless Vanessa’s day/ and Rosa’s starved for touch/ A little one crawls on to teacher’s lap/ and shares some fractured dream/ The teacher sets aside the lesson plan, and lifts the child’s esteem.

Yes teachers, they have a holy call/ They’ll be there at the crossroads where our children often fall/ There is no more important thing to do/ Than to take a child’s hand and see him through/ Than to take a child’s hand and see her through.

Sure, as in every profession, there are a few lunks and clunkers in the teaching field. But most teachers I know are beautiful people laboring oft unappreciated yet faithfully to shape and form the youth of America against all odds.

I’m grateful for the teachers whose labor of love continues unceasing.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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