By Arthur H. Gunther III
The average teacher’s pay amounts to about one cent per hour if you consider that for almost all humans, at least one educator proves to be our lifelong teacher, frequently remembered, still instructing us. Yet respect often does not come with the job, at least from government, from taxpayers, even from some parents.
Now, off the bat, there are some poor teachers, those who should never have taken the job nor kept it after failing to learn how to relate to the young and their minds. But there are also poor business people, poor law enforcement, poor clergy, poor everybody. It may be that some critics of our teachers, including one New Jersey governor, spotlight education because it is an easy hot-button issue.
In my time, the several teachers who still come to mind when I make crucial decisions, when I do math, when I read about history, when I seek to be honorable enough, were poorly paid, about $100 a week in the 1950s. Mr. Hopf supplemented teaching science with bagging at the local A&P. Mr. Gram, the English instructor who influenced my writing, had two gabardine suits, both gray. One morning he came to school in a car with a leaking radiator. And the next day, too. A lady social studies teacher lived in a rented room for her entire 40-year career, after losing her husband of one week in the Great War.
Each of these people not only managed to teach fairly large classes of students from mostly lower- or below-middle class, blue-collar families, half of them day-dreamers. Yet as our preliminary Regents exams in the eighth grade would reveal, they instructed us well enough. And to this day, I think of Mr. Gram when I write essays; Mr. Hopf when I read about science; the social studies teacher when I watch the History Channel. These three, and others, teach me every day, and sometimes I can still hear, and emotionally feel, the sting of a reprimand or the gentle persuasion of “Why not try it this way?”
Because my teachers, enough of them, are lifelong, now-a-day talk of overblown salaries, inflated pensions, poor teaching and failing schools rankles. There are problems everywhere — in government, in education, in security, in society — and blame is easily placed. We are all such quick and easy critics, especially with the tweets of Twitter beckoning.
Yet I would challenge Gov. Chris Christie, the Jersey governor who frequently blasts teachers for every sin under the sun and who last week refused to fund the legally required pension payment for them and other state retirees, to teach a month in most schools.
Give him the seventh grade, where hormones block out every third word a teacher utters. Give him and other critics a first grade where 90 percent of the students are learning English as a second language. Give them an urban classroom where there are no recent textbooks and where an empty seat in the third row once held the promise of a young girl shot killed by a stray bullet in her neighborhood. Give Christie and others brilliant students, who, yes, can learn on their own, but who need to be challenged by the brightest of instructors, not enough of whom are attracted to the profession.
And then send the governor and others to a factoid session where they are instructed as to how poorly most state pension systems are run; how special interest inflates some pensions and strangles others; on the almost total elimination of private pensions, which, is supposed to be adopted in the public sector as the Era of Greed marches along.
Were it not for at least one fine, hardworking, ever-instructive, lifelong teacher, the Jersey governor and the other critics who seek not the full story in a complex world, would not even be able to sign their names to no-funding bills for education.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.