By Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner
One of the great sadnesses of our current age is how politics has polluted so much of our public discourse and spread into realms that once seemed free of partisanship. That this occurs at a time when much of the Republican Party has adopted the posture of a bully and is gripped by extremist ideology and attacks on truth and justice makes it all the more dangerous and dispiriting.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the battlegrounds that our schools have become. We are living in an age when the number of books being banned is on the rise and the willingness to confront America’s complicated history is on the decline. We see intolerance worn as a badge of toughness, while inclusion, the great promise of what public education can be, is treated as weakness. We see a concerted effort to take over school boards, especially in deeply conservative areas, with true believers in the culture wars eager to inflict their small-mindedness, bias, and mean-spirited ideology on shaping how young minds are taught.
Teaching, already an underappreciated profession in this country, is becoming an even less appealing line of work. We have educators who have spent decades in the classroom now forced to look over their shoulders, wondering whether the books on their shelves or their carefully honed lesson plans will run afoul of the new draconian mandates. And we have young idealists with freshly minted teaching certificates wondering whether they can impart their excitement and new ideas into the students before them.
Some of these concerns are not new. When I was a student, for example, racial injustice in the form of legally segregated schools was a hallmark of public education. Schools have always been shaped by the larger societal forces that whip around them. Public education is, after all, about molding the minds and the mores of future citizens. Few institutions have more power in determining what this country will become than our schools.
But there have been decades of progress on what and how our children are taught, and today that wave of advancement is retreating in many parts of America. Sadly, there are so many examples of far-right ideology shaping curricula, on issues ranging from race to LGBTQ rights to science, that to call them all out individually is an impossible task. This is a broad movement not confined by school or district; much of the effort is being directed at the state level.
Republican politicians have learned that they can rally their base through bad-faith misrepresentations of school culture, which they depict as out of control with so-called “woke” ideology (which we wrote about in Steady here) and the bogeyman of “critical race theory,” which they totally mischaracterize — and which is taught in almost none of the schools where they have made it an issue. Nearly every parent wants good schools for their children, and Republicans are playing to fears they have carefully fanned to lure in voters even beyond their base. This was notably true in the last gubernatorial election in Virginia. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has cultivated his political reputation (and a likely presidential run) by attacking professional educators — and indeed the very idea that schools should be welcoming, tolerant learning environments.
The elections that lie ahead — not only the big, marquee ones, but more importantly, those for school boards and other local offices — will do a lot to shape what will happen in our schools in the years to come. But there is another force that is even more powerful, and as we mark the beginning of a new school year, let us recognize it: teachers.
While we should grapple with the political context laid out above, let us shift the tone of this piece now to one of celebration. Writing about teachers, singing their praises, honoring them as American heroes has long been one of my favorite activities. It never gets old, and it never gets less important.
I would like to use whatever platform I have to shine a spotlight of deep respect on these invaluable public servants. And I am pleased that if you search for quotes from me online, one of the most popular is this:
“The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’”
I believe every word of it. These aren’t empty sentiments. They come from my lived history. A while back here on Steady, I shared my own experiences as a student of public schools, including an emotional return to my elementary school in Houston.
For all the challenges our schools face, right now millions of children are learning about the world and themselves thanks to dedicated teachers. Teachers are going the extra mile, reaching out to kids in need, tweaking lesson plans to include new insights, passing their own inspirations to the young people before them.
The work is not easy — far from it. And it can be an incredible grind, especially when it seems that society doesn’t value it or is even outright hostile to teachers. With this as a backdrop, it is understandable that many are choosing to leave the profession. This is not a reflection on them, but rather on the nation that is allowing it to happen.
Teachers, you are our inspiration and our hope. You nurture the flames of our democracy. You literally save lives. You work miracles every day. Your resourcefulness, resilience, and creativity are boundless. We saw it during the heart of the pandemic. And we see it now. It is all the more reason you should not be taken for granted.
Dear readers, how many of you can close your eyes and be transported to a classroom from your past? Do you see a favorite teacher? Hear that word of encouragement or hard truth that shaped the course of your life? Teachers are the winds that propel our children’s sails forward. They are the North Stars that help guide us all.
I apologize if this reads as a bit trite. I can imagine red ink on the page from some of my previous English teachers marking my excesses. Sadly, those teachers are all now long gone. But in me, as in my classmates, as in all of you, the work of our teachers lives on.
We cannot thank our teachers enough. Each day the gifts they have given us are renewed. We should do everything we can to protect them and value them. A lot of this work must be done at the ballot box, but it can also be accomplished through words of encouragement and support.
To all the teachers out there: thank you.
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