Year of the teacher

The thousand-yard stare of the teacher on winter break is a fairly haunting thing to behold. I saw several teachers at parties and bars over the holidays, and their eyes were uniform in their detachment. That is, they looked like soldiers on liberty; enjoying themselves in the adult world but fully aware that when the bell rings, they will be back at it on the frontlines, corralling a couple of generations whose minds and behavior have no precedent.

Think not? If you see a bunch of teachers out in the world in a pack and you ask what they’re talking about, as I did a few times last week, they will say, “students.” They might laugh, but their eyes reveal the work at hand, the work that’s never quite done. Get them alone and they will talk about good kids, bad kids, ADD, suicide, ridiculous parents and the competition between formal education and video games, computers, cell phones and the challenge to synthesize it all.

The will talk about the responsibility they carry 24/7, and the pressure they feel to prepare young people for this strange, volatile, exciting new world. While the rest of us go back to work or celebrate back-to-school peace and routine, the teacher’s job is to prepare hundreds of kids for the white-hot competition of life/careers/college, while at the same time making sure they take something away from the classroom that can’t be measured in grades or monetary success. 

Corral them, and teachers-in-the-trenches will tell you about the everyday happenstance of teachable moments, the constant challenge of having to do more with less and the dream ideal of nurturing creative thinkers. They will tell you about bad teachers who don’t love kids and shouldn’t be teaching, but they will also say that scenario is few and far between, because absolutely no one they know does it for the money. 

In the middle of December it was reported that, after a year-and-a-half of “acrimonious” negotiations, the Minneapolis school district and its teachers had reached a tentative contract agreement. (Minnesota teachers’ annual salaries average around $38,000.) In the same issue of the local newspaper was a wire story on the union-backed salaries of stagehands at the New York’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. 

Noting that the top paid stagehand at Carnegie Hall makes $422,599 a year in salary plus $107,445 in benefits and deferred compensation, reporter James Ahearn of New Jersey’s Bergen Record wrote:

“At Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, the average stagehand salary and benefits package is $290,000 a year. To repeat, that is the average compensation of all the workers who move musicians’ chairs into place and hang lights, not the pay of the top five. Across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, a spokesman said stagehands rarely broke into the top-five category. But a couple of years ago, one did. The props master,  James Blumenfeld, got $334,000 at that time, including some vacation back pay.”

Which is only to suggest what has been said a thousand times before, but bears repeating. Teachers are undervalued, even though by my lights there is no nobler a calling. It’s a difficult thing to name, but something about that pack of teachers out in the world, with their knowing, dedicated eyes, reminded me of one of my high school teachers. His name was Paul Graf.

I took history from him at DeLaSalle. I couldn’t tell you a thing about what he taught me about history, but sitting here with you right now, all these years later, I can tell you I remember him. He impacted me. He spent several hours a week talking about the collected works of Laurel and Hardy.

I don’t remember anything else about the class, but I remember the man’s passion for films, and history, which I suppose in some way gave me license to explore my own weird passions, which is what all the great teachers I’ve ever had did. I remember their standards, their enthusiasm, their humor and their indefatigable love of their subjects. 

I was lucky; those people helped make me a student for life just like all their thousand-yard staring counterparts are doing with our kids in 2011. 

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.