It is no exaggeration to say that I grew up at school. Every day after I finished up classes at Centennial Elementary, I would hop on a bus to go up the hill to the old middle school, where my mother taught eighth-grade English literature.
Once school hours were over, the middle school became a playground for me and the other teachers’ kids. We would shoot basketball in the gym, tackle each other playing pickup football out on the front lawn, trade Pokemon cards in the cafeteria and, for several glorious months, pretend that a massive dirt mound used to renovate the baseball field was a castle in the center of our sprawling kingdom.
I didn’t think about why we had all of this time to play after school, why our mothers and fathers were staying long after school hours to grade assignments, clean their classrooms and prepare lesson plans, all without overtime pay. I didn’t understand why Momma was so tired at the end of the day, especially after her more challenging days. But even after days like the ones when she got her hands covered in students’ blood after breaking up a fight or when a gang member threatened her in front of the whole class, she would wake up every morning determined to educate young minds.
Momma’s sense of purpose is what keeps her going, which is necessary in the absence of other incentives. She has a master’s degree, nearly a quarter decade of experience and performs an invaluable service to society. Yet like most teachers her salary is incommensurate with her background.
Her situation is even more troubling now that, in addition to educating her students, this 5-foot-2-inch woman who studied Shakespeare and Chaucer at Brenau University is expected to put her body on the line to protect them. As is the case throughout the country, her school hosts periodic active-shooter drills, on one occasion accompanied by the sounds of mock gunfire.
She has also been trained to properly apply a tourniquet to prevent students’ blood loss from a shooting.
It is deeply disturbing for me to think about the psychological costs that our society now expects of her. But still she does all that is asked of her, and does it happily. Momma maintains that teaching is what she is meant to do on this Earth. The thousands of students she has taught over nearly two and a half decades can attest to that.
But rather than respect for their service, our society rewards educators with scorn. Pop icons tell young people that “only losers go to school,” and they believe it. The bureaucratic hoops of standardized testing have left many teachers feeling torn in all directions. Their already low incomes are suffocated by rising costs of living. And still, legislators across party lines place the blame of our nation’s dilapidated education system upon their already burdened shoulders.
This past week, Donald Trump Jr. added insult to injury by telling young people at his father’s rally in El Paso, Texas, that they “don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism.”
In our polarized society that values social media celebrity and bombastic personality over cogent, fact-based discourse, we must remember that such noxious words are unacceptable no matter who you are. But I fear that there will be people who believe them.
The danger of anti-education rhetoric becomes even more apparent when we look beyond the political quagmire of our time to see the pitfalls obstructing our future. The proliferation of flagrant falsehoods pedaled by the powerful has corrupted American society, all while the poor are increasingly crushed by rising costs of living.
Unprecedented technological advances threaten to upend every industry, hostile international actors seek to permanently disrupt American society and influence, and climate change has started to throw our world into chaos. Even with an educated, skilled populace raised with a sense of civic responsibility, America’s challenges are immense. Without such a population, they are insurmountable.
Recognizing what we are up against, Americans must value the people cultivating young minds. Teachers are not “losers,” trying to “indoctrinate” America’s children. They are professionals dedicated to creating educated citizens equipped for the future. For their passionate efforts directed towards this goal, educators should be fairly compensated.
Perhaps more importantly, it is past time our society treats them with the respect and appreciation that we owe them.
Will Morris IV is a graduate of Gainesville High School and recent graduate of Harvard University, where he studied history, East Asian studies and government.