The America Public School teacher is one of the most maligned, looked-down on members of society these days. People stereotype us as everything from lazy and money-grubbing to incompetent, under-educated, and not very bright.
This kind of stereotyping is the kind of nasty, negative culture that seems to be blossoming in American culture, and as the new year gets started, in the spirit of defying the zeitgeist, I'd like to suggest something really counter-cultural.
I know that not all public school teachers are cut from the same cloth, or even have the same philosophies of teaching or styles of teaching. These differences are, in fact what make teachers individually effective, no matter how hard they try to standardize us. But I do think there are certain qualities a public (as opposed to private) school teacher should strive to have that our society as a whole could stand to learn from.
Our society has become intolerant of differences, isolated and insular within our little groups. We tend to hang out with people who are similar to ourselves, religiously, politically, and racially. We live in income-defined neighborhoods and gated communities. Even online, where one might expect to find mixed salad of views, two things tend to happen. When people who differ from each other do meet up, their interactions and comments tend to be nasty, negative, and unproductive. Or they never meet up, thanks the the "internet bubble" which tends to suggest places to go online where we can find our own views supported.
In contrast, a public school classroom is a place of differences: different income levels, nationalities, religions and non-religions, races, and political views (often the views of the people at home). As a public school teacher, I work hard to make sure everyone feels accepted in my classroom, that our debates about issues are courteous and based on real reasons and logic, and don't degenerate into nasty comments and personal attacks. I try to create a space where differences are an asset, not a liability. When our Presbyterian-raised daughter was in middle school, and a student in my class, I remember seeing her walking down the hall, laughing and chatting with her Muslim friend and her Jewish friend. A public school creates a space for such friendships to happen, and I found the site both holy on some level that transcends any specific faith, but also a visual representation of what living in a democracy is all about.
As I noted above, our society has become nasty in its level of discourse. Middle-schoolers, and I supposed students of all ages, are not immune to the nastiness. Children can have a natural tendency to be nasty to each other, but I sometimes wonder of our current obsession with anti-bullying measures is ironic in the face of the public bullying our children often see modeled by adults in our society, from politicians and celebrities to pundits and their own parents. But a public school classroom at its best is a place where we attempt to teach students how to treat each other well. In our testing-obsessed culture, we tend to forget that some of the most important lessons we teach in school are the ones that aren't graded: how to treat one another, how to share, how to be considerate. For a longer treatment of this particular issue, go back and read Robert Fulghum's classic essay.
Our society doesn't really encourage thinking about both sides of an issue and coming to your own conclusions. It tends to encourage accepting someone else's extreme point of view, and then shouting it as if it were your own. In a public school classroom at its best, you are challenged to think for yourself, to take a hard look both sides, or even many different sides of an issue, and then come to a conclusion based on what you thought about.
A public school teacher who is fulfilling his or her mission is working to promote real thinking, but also real tolerance, real interaction, and the integration rather than the fragmentation of society.
When I welcome my students to class each period, I try very hard not stereotype them or to view them as the enemy. As we begin debating the issues raised by stories or essays that we have read, and when we begin writing about those issues, I don't tell them what I think. I question them about what they think, and then I listen. I encourage them to listen to each other, too. Being nasty, disparaging, and belittling is not an option.
I wish the adults who so often disparage public schools and public school teachers would visit real classrooms once in a while. I suspect that if they did, they might learn some lessons about how to think, how to listen, how to treat one another, and how to be a little more accepting of people and points of view that are different than their own.