I am not a national celebrity, or a corporate CEO, or a political candidate. I am “just a teacher.” And during the 20 years I taught high school social studies, society sent me countless messages reminding me of that fact.
It started as far back as my undergraduate days, when many of my peers devalued my decision to pursue a teaching degree. Their favorite one-liner was, of course, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I understood the message: I was incapable of success in any other profession—I was destined to be just a teacher.
Adults were a little more subtle and respectful in their approach to my career plans. Their conversations usually went something like this:
“Vickie, I hear you are attending the university. What is your major?”
“I plan to teach social studies.”
Then there would be a scratch of the head or a rub on the chin and the person would add, “I just imagined that with your abilities you’d have a different goal.”
I understood that message, too: I was wasting my time and talents on kids, being just a teacher.
The public sent strong messages too about my value as a teacher. I quickly learned, when I signed my first contract, that I was also taking a vow of poverty. But for me in those days, any money I earned was better than the macaroni-and-cheese budget of my college days.
Five years into my career, I sat next to a personnel director for John Deere at a job fair where we were both recruiting. During lulls in our student contact, we discussed employment opportunities at John Deere. I could have been hired that day for a position at John Deere, at three times my teaching salary. And I wouldn’t have had to work on weekends manning the ticket booth at football games, or supervise the lunchroom and break up food fights, or grade papers until midnight. I didn’t take it.
Many of my friends who entered the business world after college now live in three-car-garage, mortgage-free homes and talk about retirement incomes that will exceed their current earnings. I still eat macaroni and cheese and have a one-car garage. The public message I hear in this pay disparity? “You’re ‘just a teacher’; you aren’t worth very much.”
But the most hurtful of all the public’s messages has been the constant implied accusation that somehow my colleagues and I are to blame for just about every academic, social, economic, and political problem in America. U.S. students’ tests scores are inferior to those of students in other countries: Blame the teachers. American kids are disrespectful: Blame the teachers. The American work ethic is slacking: Blame the teachers. Americans are politically apathetic: Blame the teachers. And what’s more, if particular students aren’t earning all A’s, their parents all know it’s the teachers’ fault.
Yes, I am just a teacher in a society in which roughly one-third of the children eat their only hot meal of the day at school. I am just a teacher in a country where, out of 50 million public school students, 6 million have special needs, half a million are abused, and more than half a million are homeless. Like all of my colleagues, I work in a social environment in which one out of every four students lives in poverty or neglect.
Just a teacher? Who else, under such circumstances and with an almost-nil level of appreciation, would still guide, nurture, and instruct one-fifth of America’s population—the part that represents 100 percent of our collective future?
Every day, teachers encounter children who are silently saying, “I am frightened, but I’ll never admit it.” “I want you to like me, but I do things to make you angry.” “I forget my homework, even when I did it.” “I break promises to try harder.” “I sometimes cheat when I don’t know the answers.” “Don’t you know that when I’m bad, I’m in the most pain?” “Please don’t give up on me, everyone else has.”
Teachers also see students who say with their eyes: “You spoke of interest in me; I doubted you. You spoke of my self-worth; I doubted you. Then you came to visit me when I was sick and in the hospital; now I believe everything you say.”
Teachers may think that what they’re teaching is the most important thing in the classroom. But each child thinks he or she is most important. Somehow, good teachers make the two perspectives compatible. They help their students do more than just answer questions; they encourage them to also question the answers. They create a climate in which time is precious, content is challenging, the tone is serious, and the lesson is inspiring.
Teachers understand the talk about new and better curricula. But they know students would rather have the best teacher with an old curriculum than the worst teacher with the newest. Teachers wisely listen to students as they say, “I used to feel you liked me if you did everything for me. Now I know you were right when you helped me do it myself. Caring is helping someone grow, even if it means away from you.” Or, they will listen and understand the child who confesses, “When I am bad, I know I am wrong. I can’t admit it in front of the class. I want you to love me when I am most unlovable.”
I’ve often wondered how many lives I touched in some way during my 20 years as a high school teacher. Using my best math skills and a calculator, I have determined that the answer is somewhere around 4,050 students. What a profound responsibility—and what a privilege to be part of the growing and learning experience for these young people.
One of my former principals first helped me realize the worthiness of my profession, as well as my own contributions. After 13 years of teaching in a school in southwest Iowa, I made a career move to teach at the laboratory school at the University of Northern Iowa. Two weeks after moving to Cedar Falls, I received a package in the mail with a short note from my former principal: “Vickie, just like coaches retire the numbers of their star players, I now retire your old classroom number: 38. Your impact as a teacher will never be forgotten.” In the box were the actual metal numbers—three and eight—never again to be hung over my classroom door.
Future teachers are going into a profession where they can make or break another human’s spirit. They must know that this is a heavy role, but also one so noble, so full of rewards, that no matter how many voices say “just a teacher,” they will smile inwardly and think, “Those who can, teach those who can’t.” I am a teacher—no “just” about it.
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as I Am Just a Teacher…