Don't Shoot the Teacher

In Grade Four there was Miss Smith, who began every classroom day by banging out I Love the Sunshine of Your Smile on the cranky old piano.

In Grade Six there was Miss O'Connell, a fiery redhead with a short temper and a magnificent embonpoint, a distraction to pre-pubescent boys.

In Grade Seven and Eight there was Sister Anne Francis, school principal, sister of a bishop and wondrous teacher.

Later in high school, there were Father David Bauer and Father Joe Penny; the former taught us the urgency of history , the latter taught us the joy and power of prose literature and poetry.

Of course along the way, there were some bad teachers; tired and frustrated most of them and burned out.

And yes they probably taught with one eye on their pension and retirement.

But for the most part, the teachers in my life were hard-working, compassionate, engaged and sensitive.

The good ones, though different in teaching methods and classroom style, all had one thing in common----they all put the young student at the centre of the system.

With the end of the school year this week and the opening of a summer comedy on Friday called Bad Teacher, I got to thinking about teachers and how we demean the profession.

Even though we pay lip service to the work teachers do, we tend to be highly critical of the way they do it.

Why, for example, do we rank teachers lower in the hierarchy of valued work than lawyers and doctors?

It's true doctors save lives, but I think an argument could be made that so do teachers. After all, we entrust our children to their care to equip them for the rigors and terrors of adulthood.

Yet there seems to be at the moment, if not a war, at least skirmish attacks on teachers and especially their perfidious unions.

A few years ago on the program, we broadcast an essay by Montreal school teacher John Saint-Godard called All That Time Off.

Which seems to be at the core of our criticism of teachers: fat pensions and all that time off.

Actually watching various teachers interact with my children over the years, I've been amazed at how much we ask of them.

Not just the teaching bits, but almost everything else touching on a child's life. They are, from nine to three, literally in loco parentis for our young.

Their days are full. They enforce discipline, contact parents, grade homework and tests, write report cards, monitor cafeteria behavior, encourage physical fitness, all the while mentoring our children and working to inspire in them a love of learning. Plus they have to deal with large and often unthinking provincial educational bureaucracies which are always looking over their shoulders.

Theirs is a professional life of multi-tasking carried to absurd lengths.

Everybody seems to agree that our various education systems need to be reformed but nobody seems to have any idea of how to go about it.

Let's start out by focusing, not on standardized testing and school rankings but on the teachers.

Administrators and principals should create an environment where the teacher does what he or she does best; teach---not be social workers or hall monitors but teachers.

Teacher unions could break away from the hegemony of the past and rethink the idea, for example, of hiring retired professionals from any number of occupations ---law, medicine, engineering----to teach young people about their field of expertise.

Instead of hiring retired teachers as fill-ins, they should give young teachers a chance to show their stuff.

Parents could get off the teacher's back and get more involved in the running of the school; patrolling playgrounds or cafeterias or monitoring study periods. Retired people could be used for these and other school chores.

If education is the magic engine that takes our children into a manageable and understandable future, the teachers are the engineers.

I hope they have a happy, refreshing summer that restores their energy.

Come September, they're going to need it.

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