Her name was Shirley Myers, and she was a gift in my life when I needed one. I was in middle school and a loner, unlike most kids that age, because my mother suffered from depression that meant she was hospitalized for long stretches. Ms. Myers was a calm teacher and a gentle soul and somehow, I started going to her classroom after school to talk with her. It was quietly comforting to be with her, and we formed a bond that got me through those lonely times.
She wasn’t my only good teacher. In high school, Desmond Jones, who scared everyone with his high standards and grim demeanor, taught me how to consider literature carefully and to write cogently about it in his English class. Vivienne Davenport gave me my love of language with her Word for the Day. They were delicious words like obsequious, sartorial, serendipity, and ubiquitous. We were required to learn their definition and to write a sentence using each day’s word. I think about her each time I use one of her many fine words. Doc Martin, slightly disheveled and occasionally distracted got me through Latin; later Spanish helped me become bi-lingual until I forgot how to conjugate.
In college I had fine teachers who taught me about literature, art, religion, psychology, sociology, and other subjects that interested me. And in graduate school I learned to do professional research, explore interdisciplinary methodologies in my chosen field, write for publication, and have confidence in my abilities. My advisor during that time is still a close friend.
Later I became a teacher myself. I taught at high end colleges and universities and at community colleges, and I now teach in adult learning programs because I love teaching no matter where I do it. I know the joy of watching motivated students consider issues they’ve never contemplated before, the pleasure of seeing their thinking and writing skills grow, their openness to new ideas, their new sense of confidence.
So I am deeply saddened, and worried by the loss of so many good teachers, at all levels, who are leaving their chosen, and often undervalued, profession. They are quitting for numerous reasons that are valid. They work under poor conditions, suffer high stress, heavy workloads and burnout, as well as insulting salaries and a lack of administrative support, and now more than 60 percent of them fear mass shootings at their schools according to a 2018 survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA) and reported by CNN earlier this year. CNN also reported that “one in three teachers say they are likely to quit and find another job in the next two years, according to a recent survey by the EdWeek Research Center and Merrimack College.
Briana Takhtani, a teacher who resigned and spoke to CNN, said she quit her “dream job” because of the pandemic and school shootings. “It just became too much for me to handle on a day-to-day basis and still feel sane,” she said. Her statement is reflective of those made by numerous other teachers.
The loss of qualified teachers is alarming in many ways. Some schools have had to cancel core classes, others are hiring people who lack professional teaching qualifications and, in some cases don’t even have a basic college degree. The impact is especially dramatic for children who need special education or bilingual teachers as well as those who live in rural areas.
One superintendent told PBS at the start of the 2022 school year that “it really impacts the children because they’re not learning what they need to learn. “When you have these uncertified, emergency or inexperienced teachers, students are in classrooms where they’re not going to get the level of rigor and classroom experiences.” In other words, a generation of children are not being prepared adequately for what lies ahead for them, not only professionally but intellectually, culturally, and psycho-socially.
As a story in The Atlantic revealed recently, “The education system is headed toward a cliff at a moment when it most needs to help students who fell behind during the pandemic. For nearly a decade, America’s students have been backsliding on the nation’s report card, which evaluates their command of math, science, U.S. history and reading.”
That’s a sobering reality. It makes me grieve for all the children who will never have a Shirley Myers, a Desmond Jones, or a Vivienne Davenport in their academic lives, and will never experience the difference they make. Teachers like those I was gifted with understood that as a Tibetan proverb says, “A child without education is like a bird without wings.”
I am ever grateful for having been educated in a time when they represented the finest members of the teaching profession and I fervently hope that children will fly again once the reasons for our educational crisis are adequately resolved.
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Elayne Clift writes from Brattleboro, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com