An open letter to school teachers

Published 3:57 pm Friday, June 5, 2009

Congratulations on completing—no, make that “surviving”—another year in Georgia’s public schools. As some of you know, I have a son and a son-in-law who are high school science teachers. I don’t know why they—and you—do it.

On second thought, I do know why.

My family’s schoolteachers tell me of students and former students who come up to them and say “thank you”—for making them learn, being influential in their lives, giving them discipline, inspiring them to be the best they can be. There are not many jobs in this world where a person can impact young lives as directly as do schoolteachers.

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In my own case, it was an English professor who saved my bacon. Dr. Raymond Cook, now retired and living in Valdosta, got hold of me in my freshman year of college and turned me around. His scolding grabbed my attention, and his lessons helped me survive the corporate jungle for decades to come. Dr. Cook reads this column every week, and I still get a nervous stomach thinking he is going to find a comma out of place or a subjective complement that ought to be anywhere but in this space.

Some in this state are down on public education. They seem to believe that our public schools are different from society in general and that you should be able to shut the door on all the problems and educate our kids successfully while dealing with poverty, drugs, gangs and single-parent or no-parent homes. People who write me in righteous indignation when I applaud our public school teachers (and be assured I will hear from them when they read this) can’t seem to understand the problems that teachers face which have nothing to do with the classroom or the curriculum.

Fortunately, I hear also from those whose children have succeeded in our public schools: Young people who ended up at Harvard, Yale and MIT, as well as our own prestigious state institutions, and earned academic honors while doing so. You won’t hear much about them because their success tends to poke holes in the myth that our public schools are failing.

I would like to propose that critics of public education, including that self-promoting blowhard radio yakker I kicked in the pants a couple of weeks ago, spend some time in a classroom and see how well they do standing in a teacher’s shoes. In addition to coping with society’s ills, teachers have to deal with principals, central office staffs, superintendents, dysfunctional boards of education, and state and federal bureaucrats, while getting tossed around like a political football by the Legislature and the governor. There are more self-serving agendas in public education than there are acorns on an oak tree.

You probably already know this, but an election is coming up in 2010. Suddenly, as if by magic, you teachers are going to become the politicians’ best friends. All the gubernatorial candidates will try to convince teachers that they will be the next “education governor,” just like everyone else who has sat in the governor’s office—with the exception of the present officeholder. To his credit, Sonny Perdue never claimed to be a proponent of public education, and he wasn’t. But he will be known forever as the governor who gave an elephant a physical and the state a bunch of unwanted fish ponds. Maybe it is just as well that he didn’t muck around much in education.

One education lobbyist told me that the reason legislators jerk you teachers around during the session is that they think you will forget what they did by election time when they rhapsodize about their undying strong support for public education. If legislators can prove their commitment to education, return them to office. If they can’t, flunk them. But whatever you do, don’t let them get away with saying one thing and doing another. Make them walk the talk. This is not a game. This is about our kids.

In the meantime, enjoy a well-deserved rest. Never forget that yours is a noble profession. You are making a positive difference in young lives. And don’t let the naysayers, the radio yakkers and the politicians get you down. You and I both know they couldn’t carry your schoolbooks.