Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine gave me a succinct lesson in economics and social policy. For whatever reason, he told me, society — judging by salaries and relative worth — values big law firm associates so much that they’re able to command the very top of the pay scale.
Editors, however, make only so much. Teachers … well, you get the idea. Whether for good or for bad, this acquaintance explained, teachers are at the very bottom of the heap. (Full disclosure: My wife is a Jewish day school teacher.)
It was an informal conversation, and my friend likely meant his remarks to be taken lightly. But there was an element of truth in the statement. As much as we, as a people, trumpet the value of education — so much so that it is always a presidential election issue — and say that our children are our future, we sure don’t seem to value the teachers responsible for imparting that education and guaranteeing that future all that much.
That’s why the contract approval by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers was so noteworthy. Say all you want about the cost — the $395 million package voted on during a meeting at Temple University’s cavernous Liacouras Center was almost three times the $150 million the district budgeted for the deal — the agreement recognizes the sacrifices the city’s public school teachers have been making in the four years their wages have been frozen.
Of course, the most likely entity to make up the shortfall between the teacher contract and the unrealistic budget — the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania — doesn’t appear all that eager to show our teachers some love.
“It makes it very difficult to take any request from Philadelphia seriously when they do nothing that appears to help themselves — and then they negotiate a contract which they admit is based on fantasy,” Steve Miskin, spokesman for the Republicans controlling the state House of Representatives, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
That’s a shame, not only because of legislators’ apparent disinterest in funding public education, but also because Miskin is right in one respect: Philadelphia’s school system has long been one of the most mismanaged in the country. Still, is it right for the teachers to suffer? And how is it possible for their pupils to not suffer when their teachers are underpaid and underappreciated?
This month, schools throughout the area have been holding rallies and assemblies to say goodbye to students for the summer. Last week alone, I attended the graduation ceremonies of my kindergartner and my eighth-grader — Esti, you’ve made it to high school! — as well as an awards ceremony for my fifth-grader. At each of the events, there were the customary speeches about the children’s accomplishments, as well as the necessary thanks for the dedication of the teachers.
At two of them, the principal spoke of learning as engaging in a process of acquiring holiness. That’s a tremendous analogy because it encapsulates the awesome transformation that can and should take place as children gradually become adults.
But for all of the adulation showered on the students — who all deserved it, I might add — it is vitally important to recognize that holiness, a condition of being characterized by separateness and dedication to a higher calling, is not acquired in a vacuum. Children are vessels, so when they are in school we, as parents and neighbors, look to teachers to be the conduit through which holiness might be imparted.
That doesn’t just hold true in a religious context. Public school can and should also be a place where public citizens are molded. It is where we, as a society, look to teachers to impart civic values, model civic behavior, inspire civic dedication and fuel civic discourse — goals all the more necessary at a time when people are more apt to rob those with whom they disagree of all semblance of humanity.
Teachers, then, have perhaps the greatest responsibility of any professional today.
They must nurture, educate, motivate, challenge, inspire, prod, discipline and manage, even as school budgets get slashed, infrastructure crumbles and public confidence in their mission plummets. Each and every one who commits themselves to that calling, despite the pay and the lack of respect, is truly a hero.
Let me be the first to say to all of the teachers among us, “Thank you.”
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]