Author’s Note: This is the sixth (and last) of a series of articles based on the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi beginning, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
I am the music teacher in an elementary school that serves approximately 500 children. Few people think of a school as a microcosm of society but that is exactly what it is.
Every day I see children whose emotions run the gamut from intense joy to deep sadness.
I see children who have lost one or both parents, some who have never lived with a birth parent but are lovingly cared for by other relatives or a foster parent. I see children from homes where parents attempt to be the best parents on earth. I see children from homes where parents think nothing of having fierce arguments in front of their children on a regular basis. I see children from homes where someone may not be happy that there is a child as part of the family.
I care for children who are facing the imminent death of a sick parent. I care for children who know that when they get home in the afternoon, they may witness one or both parents facing arrest before the night is over. I care for children whose only food may be what they get at school. I care for young children who, (because their parents may be recovering from effects of too much alcohol or illegal drugs,) get themselves up and dress themselves before school.
I teach children born with a learning disability that makes it impossible to comprehend information the way otherchildren do. I teach children with anger issues that cause them to behave inappropriately at times. I teach children who have seen and felt such abuse and/or neglect that it will shape the rest of their lives.
I have the opportunity to be the best hope of each of these children on a daily basis. I have the challenge to bring some joy into their lives.
I also teach children how to write because I’ve been publishing professionally for more than 35 years. Four years ago I started a literary magazine in our school. Any third, fourth or fifth grade student who wants to work for two extra hours in the afternoon three days a week can join. They learn how to write a story that can be published in a magazine we sell for $5 a copy in order to raise the nearly $900 it costs to publish it. Seeing their own stories, drawings and a picture of themselves enhances a child’s self esteem in a way that can’t be measured with money.
This spring the 35 hours I requested for this work (my salary for which is $550—and the only cost of the program to the school system) had to be turned down because of lack of after-school funds. That made me extremely sad. (Our new governor, I am told, doesn’t feel that funds for after-school programs is a high priority.)
Teachers have to fight sadness too. We constantly add more and more activities that take away time from actual teaching. We struggle with extra testing, pressure to get children to perform at an ever higher level, more statistical analysis of each and every student’s achievement, and plans for how we are going to fix the test scores after every standard has been nearly doubled.
Teachers are fighting for their rights. Some politicians seem to believe that teachers are the problem that needs to be corrected. Hard-won necessities like tenure, bargaining rights, and other benefits teachers have are now fodder for politicians to eliminate in order to promote their own 15 minutes of fame and next election plans.
If I were to retire this spring, my monthly retirement from the State of Tennessee would be less than $450 a month. Our legislators get $185 per diem (“per day”)–in addition to their salaries–for each day the legislature is in session. That makes me sad too!
Critics say, “If you don’t think teaching salaries are fair, just leave.” That’s a solution for me, but what about the children?
What if all teachers decide that it just isn’t worth it to take all the grief from parents, administrators, the media, politicians? What if all teachers decide that they are tired of having little time with their own families because the increasing workload at school is eating up their nights and weekends? What if all teachers get tired of taking care of every child with every behavior problem and way of disrupting class? What if all teachers get sick of having money taken from their school budget to build buildings and/or to give money back to municipalities as teachers get little or no raise for years on end?
What if school opened and no teachers came?
Most teachers love children and dedicate their lives to giving children a chance to become successful. It is their joy to see the light of recognition in the eyes of a child when he suddenly understands. It makes a teacher’s day to see a formerly sad child happily sing, “Don’t worry about a thing ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
Keep teaching? Sure. Some days I want to give up, but I never have.
What keeps me going in spite of all odds? The knowledge that somewhere some child has had a moment of joy, a song in his heart, some dancing for her feet, the ability to play a musical instrument that would never have happened had I not cared enough to give my days to children through teaching.
The next time you see a teacher, don’t forget to say, “Thank you.” Remember that he or she is shaping the future of our world—and each is teaching the child that some day will be taking care of you in your old age, should you live so long!