Eons ago, somewhere between the last Ice Age and the Reagan administration, I taught high school English.
I approached this with the belief that sophomores would love Shakespeare. Obviously, my education had yet to be fully formed.
Some of the kids did like Shakespeare, or so they pretended, but many days my lesson plans went off the rails very early in the period and the classroom discussions veered into more contemporary tragedies and comedies.
My strength as a teacher rested in a genuine concern for the profession and the students. My weakness was everything else. After a couple of years, I departed for a newspaper job, and the school continued to turn out graduating classes in my absence.
It staggers me now to think that my students have arrived in their mid- to late-50s, adults for twice as long as they were kids, responsible (hopefully) members of society who might get together for reunions and wonder what became of that guy who had the “Twelfth Night” poster on his bulletin board.
From those days of mimeograph machines and grade-book consternation (jeez, you could never let it leave your sight), I gained an appreciation for the art of teaching, that on-all-day, preparation-all-evening grind of getting the next generation ready for whatever comes.
My wife has been a career educator, so I’ve been around a lot of teachers. It seems essential to their nature that they celebrate in almost equal measure the last day of a school year and the first day of the next school year.
This circle goes unbroken, and this dedication, a restored enthusiasm after a short time for regrouping, never fails to inspire.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States has 3.2 million teachers in its public schools, with another half-million or so educators in private institutions.
They will stand in front of nearly 57 million students in classrooms this fall.
This huge undertaking (about $13,440 spent per student) gets measured in the collective but happens in the most personal manner.
Successful people often will look back and cite not an academy generally but a specific teacher, one good soul who took an interest, as a factor in what they achieved.
Young people, smart, talented and resourceful though they might be, aren’t constructed to see the possibilities of their gifts. But a good teacher recognizes these, coaxing and nurturing students, building them toward something in the distance, not quite in sight.
Teachers do this while seeing their jobs evolve against the demands of technology and society. Most prominently, classrooms have become repositories, oases and healing centers for much of what has gone awry in American families.
An ideal situation has the educational environmental spilling into the homes of students, though more often the opposite proves true. Teachers can’t convey their disciplines without working to set right the woes that students bring to the transaction.
Poverty, transience, family dysfunction, the general disorder of modern existence ... children bring a whole host of external factors to their places of learning. Education remains a tough lift in even good circumstances, let alone as a treasury of so much woe.
And that stands in the context of broader terrors offered in American life. As a teacher, I accompanied my students to assigned locales in tornado and fire drills. At no time did we train to hide from armed intruders.
Schools begin the academic year, many this week, as an act of renewal. We welcome teachers back to their labors.