New York Times columnist and author David Brooks writes a great chapter on education in his book “The Second Mountain.” He comments about his own experiences as a student at the University of Chicago and the lessons he learned. Through the short chapter, he outlines some of those lessons while championing the values in a great education. It is a great chapter worth reading and rereading.
This week teachers in area counties are returning to the classroom in preparation for the beginning of the traditional school calendar. Leadership changes have occurred in places and teachers have been hired. Soon, the curtain will rise on another school year. Physical structures of schools have changed over the years and so have students. Therefore, nothing replaces a good teacher in a classroom.
When Horace Mann developed the modern public school model in the 1800s there were things he could not envision such as the Smartphone or how extensive education bureaucracies tend to operate. Still, he knew one thing to be true. He said, “Education prevents both the revenge and the madness.” He understood the power in education to be “the great equalizer of the condition of men.” In his industrial age, education could lift people up. Those essentials are still there in any classroom. Education gives people tools for career and life. Teachers help to shape a person’s soul for life because it is simply different from other professions.
Teaching is an art, but it is also a way of service. Teaching is engaging students in order to help them to gain a sense of what it takes to make a living, but is also a lesson in how to make a life, too. As writer William Art Ward once said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” All of us probably have memories of each kind of teacher or instructor. They left us with something tangible which we could use over and over again. Maybe it was grit. Maybe it was a greater understanding of a common task. Perhaps it was wisdom we have passed on to our children and families and friends. Maybe we remember some teachers because they were the first to believe in our future success.
In this data driven culture where scores about this and that often determine a student’s educational directive, it is well to remember scores on tests are rarely a reflection of a student’s heart or character. We continue to champion the individuals who may not have made the best test scores or finished a doctoral degree, but led this country as political leaders and entrepreneurs. The best teachers give us rigorous things to do, support us in our endeavors, teach us about our failures and how we can grow, and continue to move us forward.
Great teachers stand in the gap for their students and engage them. Those teachers are humble and wise to work with students in ever engaging and challenging ways. They recognize students learn in different ways and work hard to tap into each student’s ability to learn. No one would say the practice is easy. Being able to use the teachable moments in intellectual and practical ways to affect students is a teacher’s aim.
As the school year begins as well as high school football, one is likely to hear the quote by former president Teddy Roosevelt from a speech he gave in 1910, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Roosevelt spoke directly to critics who frowned on men trying to accomplish good in the world.
Teachers have their cynics too; yet, they are trying to do good and make good on a promise their students will have the tools to make their communities, states, and nations better. Their arenas are their classrooms.
One of Brook’s recommendations for teachers is to give students things to love and appreciate. A great book, a great value, an improved character, a subject’s understanding, and life lessons go beyond any critic. If you don’t do anything else this year, thank a teacher.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies teacher at South Caldwell High School.