While many in the school reform movement wait for some mythical Superman to rescue public school children, my suggestion is that we should be waiting for someone like Ruthann Sheer. Mrs. Sheer was my teacher in sixth grade in middle school and was a shining example of the best of what the teaching profession has to offer. Small in physical stature, she was tough but compassionate, demanding but fair and always saw the best in her students. She believed that every child could excel and her classroom was a laboratory for life’s lessons. Teaching during a time when society did not embrace “diversity” as a civic imperative, Mrs. Sheer turned a blind eye toward race and ethnicity, and treated all students with dignity and expected us to do the same toward each other. What made this woman even more remarkable is that she met the challenges of the classroom despite having some lingering effects of a youthful bout with polio.
What I find troubling with the political posturing we are witnessing around public education is that we already know what really works in educating children. It is the presence of a dedicated and trained teaching professional like Mrs. Sheer in the classroom. The proof is in a generation of European immigrants who arrived on these shores, with language barriers and cultural differences, and found refuge in our public school system. Immigrant children who succeeded owed much to not only the dedication and sweat of their parents, but teachers who helped open the doors of opportunity to these new citizens. Similarly, black teachers in the Jim Crow south nurtured a generation of poor and impoverished children that produced the first wave of black doctors, lawyers, members of Congress, journalists and countless professionals. Despite the denial of their constitutional rights, black children in the segregated south succeeded because their teachers never lowered expectations.
It is why the current political attacks on public school teachers puzzles and disappoints me. The problems we see in public education are complex and the causes many, with blame to go around. Yet, the public views teachers and administrators as the culprits. So, why the demonizing of teachers by people who should know better? Apparently, for no other reason than their representation by unions and teachers’ right to collective bargaining. The irony is that if teachers unions were as powerful as their critics allege, we would compensate teachers at a level in keeping with the enormous responsibility they carry and the many demands we place upon them. We could weed out every bad teacher tomorrow, end tenure and impose rigid performance standards but we would likely still shortchange a profession that holds the future of our nation in its hands.
If we want dedicated teachers like Mrs. Sheer, we need to first acknowledge their worth and treat them with respect. The disdain for unions is unfortunate and shortsighted in the context of the current debate on public education. What is misunderstood is the positive role that unions have historically played in raising wages, increasing workplace benefits and job security, and growing our nation’s middle class. It is why teachers like Mrs. Sheer could perform their “magic.” They had the security of knowing that their jobs would not be subject to the winds of politics.
If high quality public education is truly our goal, we must support teachers, respect their right to collective bargaining, and make the necessary investments to bring a first-class education to all children in our state. At the same time, we must raise expectations of teachers and remove ineffective instructors from the classroom. It is time for all sides to come to the table in earnest to fix public education in our nation. The penalty we will pay in the not-too-distant future for our failure to educate our children is severe. Children in public schools deserve great teachers like Mrs. Sheer and teachers deserve our support.
Walter Fields is Executive Director of NorthStarNews.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/walter.l.fields. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.