I remember the sweet voice of Mrs. Roach, my kindergarten teacher, as she sang us “Puff, the Magic Dragon” each day before our nap.
She taught me how to be a student.
Years later, in the seventh-grade, Mr. Woehr taught me how to think. Much as Mr. Tubbs would teach me how to work and Mr. Cardman would teach me how to be a man.
I’m not sure I got good grades, I’m not sure I was a memorable student, I’m not sure my teachers would have thought they got much through my thick skull.
Yet each one of them, some 40 or more years later, is specifically remembered by me for having benefited and inspired me, leaving me a better and more successful person.
And those are just the teachers I remember. I do not doubt that many others influenced me in their own way.
Just as I do not doubt that that same process of good teachers making good impressions continues today.
I think that’s something to remember.
Especially as a new school year begins, at perhaps the most turbulent juncture in the history of modern American public education. As people from across the sociological and political spectrum push back against a federally mandated Common Core, as we have arguments over miserable test scores and teachers contracts, as education turns into a quagmire downward instead of a pathway upward, let’s remember a simple truth.
Schools are good, teachers are good, good things happen in classrooms.
Parents need to remember that, students need to remember that, and, most importantly, teachers need to remember that.
Teachers need to remember that the simple, pure, noble reasons they got into teaching are still valid and good. That the arguing with administrators and the fighting with politicians distract, but they do not destroy.
Students are still students and teachers are still teachers, and every day is a day to make a difference. A day to help a young person better understand life and the world around them. A day to help students prepare for their next class and their life’s work.
Yes, parents have turned into monsters.
Yes, truancy is insane.
Yes, hands are tied by mandates and directives and tests of every sort.
Yes, there is a societal rot across our land and teachers are being unfairly held responsible as it manifests itself in public education.
Yes, the decay of the American family and the consequent decay of American values has made true education difficult if not impossible.
But, yes, there is still much good to be done.
And the start of this school year should bring with it enthusiasm and optimism. This isn’t another drudge to the salt mines, this is an at-bat in the World Series. This is one more chance to do something great.
And I hope teachers don’t lose sight of that.
For all the crap we throw at them, for all the stress they face, for all the damned-if-we-do-and-damned-if-we-don’t that permeates their profession, I hope they remember what they are about.
I hope they remember that each day they make impressions that in the aggregate shape lives, typically in ways and places they never suspect. It may seem like kids in and kids out, a steady churn of giggling adolescents and insolent teens, booger-eating newbies and awkward tweens.
But those are people, in the most impressionable stage of life. And the life-changing impact a teacher can have is as great as it has ever been, and maybe more so.
In years past, more students came from stable homes of married, literate parents who valued work and education, and respecting authority. Today parents are often an obstacle to education and a teacher can be the only stable adult a child knows.
That increases the stakes, but it does not diminish the opportunities.
That’s what I want teachers to remember.
That you are still engaged in a worthy task, that you still can do great things, that teaching is still teaching – no matter what we’ve done to muck it up.
And don’t let us dispirit you.
Don’t let the controversy and noise, from the politicians or the administrators, break your spirit or diminish your capacity. Don’t withdraw, don’t shut down, don’t play it safe.
Go into this new year believing in what you do and in the potential you have to do good.
Go into this new year believing that decades from now some former students will remember your name and call it blessed.
You are shaping lives and building people, just like you always have.
It is great to be a teacher, don’t ever forget that.