If you go to Google today, you will find a cute cartoon that will remind you that today is National Teacher’s Day. On a calendar full of observances, these should get a lot more attention. Although in many ways it’s like Mother’s Day, where we give special thanks on one day to a person most of us should be thanking daily.
Over the course of my long and eventful life, I have learned and forgotten many things. But one thing I have never forgotten is the name of each and every teacher I ever had. These were the men and women who propelled me forward, who opened vistas and dared a kid from a working-class family to dream big. I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college. I never would have gotten that far without the teachers along the way who helped me build a ladder for personal and intellectual growth.
I am a product of public schools, from kindergarten through college. It was here that I learned what it meant to be an American. HIstory and civics classes were important in this regard, but even more so was the spirit permeating the school houses. There was this sense, and it was palpable, that you could accomplish anything through education. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in a letter to John Adams of “a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents.” This he contrasted with “an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.” Education, especially public education, is how to best elevate the former and diminish the power of the latter.
I have always believed that teachers should be considered some of our finest patriots for they instill a renewal of America’s highest ideals in our children. What can be more important?
This is not to say that all teachers are perfect or we don’t have our challenges in education. Boy do we ever, and a lot of it can be based on the realities of a profound national inequality in our means of education. For starters, while official racial segregation has been illegal for more than 60 years, de facto segregation along race remains entrenched in our schools, even getting worse. A lot of this is a symptom of larger social forces, but if ever those shackles of inequity can be broken, it is through our schools.
We need more investment in early childhood education and more respect for our educators. In high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore, teachers are considered valued professionals along the stature of doctors. In the United States, we have fallen short in this regard.
So spend today and this week thanking the teachers in your lives and those of your children and grandchildren. Maybe look a former teacher up on Facebook and send a friend request, or just a short note of appreciation. But let us not stop there. We should demand of our political leaders that they not only honor teachers with rhetoric and boilerplate venerations, but keep this valued profession atop the list of our national policy priorities every day of the year.
Do you have a favorite teacher whose story you would like to share?
(a version of this essay was previously published)