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    Thursday, December 01, 2022

    Teachers’ Circle: Teachers need your support from the beginning

    Fall. Change. Fresh beginnings. Pumpkin spice. Is there anybody out there who doesn’t perk up this time of year?

    Yes, we may mourn the end of summer, absolutely, but FALL! There is a grateful shift as we feel relief from heat (and hopefully, drought), embrace cool nights with windows open, and once again don long pants.

    All this, and, of course, school.

    I remember that fresh start school feeling. It’s one of the best things about school. Every year you got to go away in June, and then come back in September - only different.

    You had experiences, you did things, and you changed. That, along with a couple of new notebooks, and you were fresh to go, at least for a little while. The opportunity to be someone new, someone better, was baked into my memories of September.

    School was fresh, too. Clean, polished floors and washed chalkboards, and yes, I know I’m dating myself, but I remember that impression. If ever schools had a chance for a fresh start, it’s in September.

    Schools need that fresh start now more than ever before. Even though there may still be chants of going back to what we knew before (a.k.a. “normal”), life moves in only one direction. Some things have to change, we know that. But one fact you can bank on, no matter what goes on at the school board meetings, no matter what changes come down the pipe, teachers will be there.

    Not everybody loves school, this is understood, but everyone has a teacher they love.

    I look at the faces of the kids and hear them talk about their teachers. It’s incredible - the love you can find there, if you look for it. So many children love their teachers.

    And for good reason. Kids are not dumb. They know when somebody cares (or doesn’t), and most teachers care. I recently learned of one teacher who takes the time in the morning to comb the hair of some students who arrive at school with knots and snarls and all kinds of signs of neglect. She takes care of the worst cases, while teaching other children how to do for themselves and to help others.

    Teachers have always gone the extra mile, as these last few years demonstrate, but really - it’s nothing new. Teachers are the ones who reach out, always thinking of new ways to engage their students, reflecting deeply on the challenges kids face and how best to address those needs. What they provide, what they contribute to society, is the clearest, most direct route to the future as anything else out there.

    So much depends on what happens in our schools. What other institution has a greater impact on determining what this country will become?

    Teachers work with students to help bring out their compassion and kindness, but their domain goes beyond matters of character. In the words of the journalist Dan Rather, it is truly our teachers who “nurture the flames of democracy.” The problems we are facing as a nation - and a world - need fresh solutions. These challenges and this democracy depend on free thinkers, and there is no better place to cultivate that capacity than inside a school.

    If we want to preserve this great experiment we call democracy, we must embrace and support our public school educators.

    And this is why, at the start of this, the fresh page of a new school year, I want to set a tone, both for myself and for anyone else who agrees that teachers really are that vital, that even though we take teachers incredibly for granted, what they do is inarguably the most important work anyone could ever hope to do: They shape the future.

    Currently, our country is beginning this school year short about 300,000 teachers. The “great resignation” has left a swath across so many of our institutions, and teaching is no exception.

    Also, we have fewer people entering the profession. This already underappreciated profession is becoming even less appealing. The reasons why we are left with this deficit are varied, and probably has a lot to do with a fundamental lack of basic respect, but the bottom line is quite clear: The teachers who are still in the field, who are showing up in the classroom, are more critical than ever.

    Something else to consider when thinking about teachers, and I’m talking now about the professionals: There are amateurs, for sure, and there are professionals.

    Have you ever tried to teach a class? Everybody went to school, so having been through it, we mistakenly believe we can DO it. But it’s actually a very special skill.

    It’s also an art. Teaching is very complex work, and it takes a special person to be able to do it well. Yes, you can learn a lot about techniques, and that is a huge piece of what teachers do. They are always learning, bent on improving their teaching practice, not for their own satisfaction or for more pay, but so that they can be more effective.

    Teachers know that in education, you never “arrive,” you are always thinking about your class, your students, and how to do better. That’s what makes you a professional.

    Do we as a society truly value what teachers do? Do we understand what’s involved here, and what’s at stake?

    The sign says, “We (heart) teachers.” For many professionals these days, they aren’t feeling the love. Lately, more and more schools are becoming battlegrounds.

    School board meetings are beyond contentious. In districts around the country, there is a resurgence in the banning of books. Inclusion in the classroom and the curriculum is seen as a weakness, or - even worse - part of an ideological agenda. We are facing crisis after crisis as the old ways decay and new models emerge.

    But in the meantime, we cannot attack those whose work matters so very much.

    Make no mistake: Voting matters here. School board elections are critical. But there is another way to help make schools stronger and better institutions: support the teachers who are doing the work.

    Uphold them. Celebrate them! Applaud them. And perhaps most of all, listen to them. Think of them and remember them, and consider who any of us would be without them.

    This is a precise time. The pressing crisis of COVID-19 has indeed passed, and students return to school this month maskless and in full ranks. There is an opportunity now that wasn’t there before, an opportunity to recreate schools from the bottom to the top, and it begins by seeing, understanding, and supporting those who do the work.

    Then we begin to build together the kind of future that we want for our children, and the children that come after them. What do we owe the future? Everything, really. What do we owe our teachers? Same thing.

    Gay Collins of Preston is a retired teacher in the Waterford school system who has a master’s degree from Connecticut College. She can be reached at yagspill@gmail.com.

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