Only a School, Only a Teacher

School is still, at its heart, a dance of men and women of character. A school is its teachers.

An experienced and wise school head once exclaimed to his teachers during a faculty meeting: “I wish we could put a sign out front of the building saying ‘Only a School.’”

Intended as humor, his lament nonetheless contained an ironic truth. Any group of teachers can sympathize with this exasperation at the web of pressures they feel to play roles other than educator. Add to this our society’s condescension towards the teaching profession, and even great teachers catch themselves thinking, “I’m only a teacher.”

The work of teachers needs constant defending. Whether in their third or thirty-third year of teaching, they have experienced the pressure to play several or all of the following roles simultaneously: curriculum expert, scholar, psychologist, disciplinarian, traffic cop, marriage counselor, lawyer, minister or priest, mother, father; coach, offensive and defensive coordinator; referee; judge and jury, babysitter, chaperone, sage, bottle washer. Teachers invented multitasking.

Sometimes we don’t even realize the roles we ask of teachers; often the request is inappropriate, manipulative, or disguised. Only rarely is it honorific. Do most parents know how often teachers lament, “I wish I could just teach”? They yearn for the clarity and singular purpose implied in working at a place that is ‘only a school.’ But one should never settle for being only a teacher. Too much is at stake.

We all know that at the present time our society is not going to allow us that simplicity. As David Denby once pointed out (“Buried Alive,” The New Yorker, July 15, 1996), the culture is too busy assuring that its children “are shaped by the media as consumers before they’ve had a chance to develop their souls.”

And Juliet Schor notes, “We have pretty much offered up our kids as a market to be exploited, with virtually no discussion, much less opposition.” (“Dematerializing our Kids,” Hope, November/December 2004).

Our children should not go to the highest bidder! Developing souls takes time, contact, thought, labor, struggle, guidance—teachers. They’re the remedy for what ails us as a society. And amidst the clamor for accountability and standards, we may be missing the simple, clear eloquence and mentoring of the teacher-student relationship. Teachers accept an implied call to step in and show wisdom, candor, honesty and durability when they are wont to be found elsewhere. Teachers staunch the consumerization and marketing of children.

If simplicity is denied, clarity is all the more necessary. Another school head of my acquaintance liked to remind his faculty of their genius and purpose. “The best schools are places where hearts and minds come together,” he told us one August before the start of school. “Certainly that is the case in this school, for you make it so. It is your responsibility to inspire your students—and you will, you always do, for you are inspired. You are inspired by that foolish, brave old dream of a better world, even as you are haunted by that dark fear of a worse one. So there are moral imperatives in your motives. But you are also lifted up by love and laughter, so that you want to do what you have to do. And it is in you to do it, for you are teachers, and that is the nature of teachers. You are, perhaps, the last idealists, and you still believe in your dreams.”

I was inspired, sitting in the faculty audience that day, and I’ve been inspired as a parent to think that someone could give such stirring voice to the responsibility and opportunity that teachers took with my children. Now that I am a school leader, I feel charged to ensure that this dream of a better world imbues my school’s life. Parents should know that the importance of good teachers has never been greater; the importance of telling good teachers that they are good, essential.

Consider this: despite centuries of educational innovation, curricular fads, and new-fangled isms this inspired role of ‘teacher’ has remained substantially unaltered. Teaching is still men and women brave enough to guide nascent intellectuals, artists, athletes, mechanics, computer geeks, and musicians. So school is still, at its heart, a dance of men and women of character. A school is its teachers. Perhaps there is an ironic, positive strength in saying that “A school is only its teachers.” And we shouldn’t miss an opportunity to “lift them up on love and laughter.”

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