Grumpy old man: School daze

All of us should support teachers in their demands for everything they deserve and even then some.

School Daze (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
School Daze
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The youngest of our kids just graduated from high school, capping 15 years, all told, that I got to see the workings of the country’s educational system up close. I come away from all this with mixed feelings, but with a lot of hope for the future.
Our eldest started her school experience with a wonderful teacher. It was the teacher’s first job, fresh out of school. She was full of zest and ideas, and our daughter was given a good, strong basis for learning and, more important, a love for learning that endures to this day. (And lest one think I’m going to tell of a teacher who, with time, lost this skill and devotion, I can say with certainty that she kept it up, at least until she took a teaching position closer to home and we lost touch.)
There were other terrific teachers. But there were also teachers who were less than stellar, teachers who for one reason or another, perhaps the overloaded classrooms or a spate of students who, let’s face it, could make anyone want to look for a new profession, lost the spark – or perhaps never had it at all. And there were teachers who were simply terrible and ill-suited to the calling.
My wife, being the one who was schooled in this country (I still barely know the difference between a matkonet and a magen), was closely involved in our kids’ learning. She patiently helped them with their homework and encouraged them to stick with it when the subjects got rough.
She also joined the local equivalent of the PTA, first at the classroom level and then at the school-wide level, and remained deeply involved in this way for many years. Talking with her after she had dragged herself home following a whole day at work and then hours of nighttime PTA discussions, I’d get the inside scoop.
There were a lot of good teachers, some who even should have been elevated to educational sainthood.
But there were others who seemed to be in it just for the paycheck (which was never particularly good, although it wasn’t bad if you invested nothing in return) who were, at best, letting our kids tread water until a better teacher came along and, at worst, providing the impetus for dropouts.
AT THE BEGINNING of the 2007-08 school year, junior high and high school teachers went on strike for over two months, including close to 50 school days. The kids loved it – until they realized they’d have to make up a lot of the lost days during summer vacation. The parents hated it because the kids were hanging out all night and sleeping all day, and come summer a lot of travel plans would have to be changed, some at no small expense.
The teachers’ basic gripe was about pay, and in this they were absolutely right. They were (and still are) underpaid. Well-educated teachers study as long as some doctors and a lot longer than many lawyers, and can have a far greater impact. Need I say more? The government was willing to give them a raise, although with one major catch: The biggest raises would be merit-based and the worst teachers could be fired. So the teachers said no, and for once I found myself firmly on the side of the government against the strikers.
Eventually a court injunction sent the teachers back to work and the two sides were able to reach a deal for better pay, although not nearly as much as the teachers wanted. Still unclear is just how easy it will be to get rid of the bad teachers, because close to five years later this matter still appears to be an evolving policy.
IT WAS a bumpy ride these past 15 years, but our kids made it. It took lots of help with homework and studying, as well as private lessons and the occasional heated word with educators, but there are now diplomas and full matriculation certificates, and a daughter who, having just finished her military service – she was in charge of the educational activities at several bases – begins her university studies this fall.
Our son now has the army to look forward to, but his grades and tests indicate that he, too, will be able to go on to a higher education at a good school.
As boys will be boys, we weren’t always sure it would work out this way. Through the years he had his educational ups and downs. As an athlete he was often absent due to games (for some reason always played during school hours and, of course, half of them away). Because he’s the type who has to say exactly what’s on his mind he was rarely the teacher’s pet. And he had his share of plain lousy teachers.
But let’s say that toward the end he was “saved,” in particular by a teacher who, judging by the joyous student shout-outs that peppered the graduation ceremony every time his name was mentioned, is one we ought to be standing firmly behind in everything from salary to classroom condition and workload demands.
By the time this column appears he will have received a letter of appreciation from us (in truth written by my wife, the real wordsmith in the family).
The following is excerpted from that letter: “When the memories [of school] arise we discover suddenly that many of them are linked to the person who stood before his students with the miraculous ability to impart a love for the subject he taught and, most especially, create an atmosphere of inspiration and imagination. Each of these memories is a magic moment. We take them forward with us always.
“For [our son] you were this person. You were the teacher who gave him the wings to fly. You were the one who, through the respect you showed him, allowed him to blossom and thrive. Simply put, you were the one who saw him. For us, his parents, it was a joy to note his appreciation for you and his desire to be the best he could be so as not to let you down.
“We thank you for the endless hours you devoted to him, for your belief in him, for the values you imparted to him, and in particular for the personal example you set regarding fairness, patience and respect. You gave him the greatest gift of all: the ability to take on challenges without forgetting the truly important things – love for his fellow man and woman, acceptance of others, and honesty.”
While it’s true that of late Israel too often has appeared in the lower precincts of the educational indices of such groups as the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and studies like HBSC (Health Behavior in School-age Children) and other alphabet soup concoctions, we know there are many other teachers who are just as good.
Could the balance now be tilting in their favor? If it is, all of us should support them in their demands for everything they deserve and even then some, for only in this way will the best be attracted to teaching, and only in this way will more of our kids blossom and thrive and obtain the wings to fly.