The Teacher Appreciation Deficit

Thursday night, as I settled into my seat at Olympia High School’s end-of-the-year orchestra concert, my thoughts drifted back to earlier in the day when my thirty-four Masters Teaching Certification candidates discussed whether, as year-long interns, they felt sufficiently appreciated.

No surprise that most of them did not. Instead of partnering with them, they lamented that too many of their students’ parents ceded seemingly total responsibility for their  children’s education. I suggested that tough economic times seem to be bringing out the worse in an increasing number of people who seemingly view teachers—with their relative job security, solid health care benefits and retirement plans, and shorter than average work year—with antipathy and derision.

My doctoral dissertation was the story of a Global Studies high school in Southern California. Before putting pen to paper, I sat in on four classrooms for a few months. One dark fall morning, while I was interviewing one of the Global Studies teachers whose classroom I studied, he stopped me cold and said, “You’re the first person in twenty-three years who truly understands what I do.”

Most teachers do exceptionally good work in near total obscurity. Often, their administrators and colleagues don’t even have a feel for what they accomplish on a daily basis, let alone students’ parents or the public more generally. Ignorance breeds contempt.

Coaches, theater educators, and music educators are exceptions to the rule because their students sporadically perform in public. Typically, afterwards, the public praises their performances and applauds, sometimes as in the case of the Olympia High School end-of-the-year orchestra concert, lustily.

Absent audio tracks from their concert, there’s no way I can convey the brilliance of Olympia High’s orchestra program. It probably helps that I’m not a connoisseur of classical music, but at every concert I marvel anew at the excellence. Excellence that rests on parents like the GalPal who decided early on that our daughters were going to have every opportunity to excel at the violin, a network of outstanding private instructors, and Chip Freakin’ Schooler, the best orchestra teacher and conductor in at least this galaxy.

Of course privilege comes into play, but what better use of financial resources than artistic excellence? In fact, increasingly I wonder if beautiful music, dance, literature, design, painting, photography and related art forms are all that matter. Maybe we have it exactly backwards, cutting arts education in the interest of economic utilitarianism and consumerism.

CFS deserves his own post, but for now, suffice to say he embodies a critical ingredient to reforming education and improving teaching—off the charts subject matter expertise. A couple of tweaks to his life journey and I suspect he’d be conducting a major U.S. symphony right now.

Instead, he’s working tirelessly with fourth and fifth graders and middle schoolers at several different schools preparing them for the high school orchestras. His work ethic rivals his musicality, so much so it takes most of the summer at his family’s Lake Cour d’ Alene cabin to decompress.

I feel deeply indebted to CFS for the educational experience he’s provided Fifteen and Eighteen. At the end of the concert, each senior gave him a bag of chips, then took turns reading a touching poem to him, then gave him flowers, then new rosin rags, then a special tuning fork set to 2011 megahertz. Craziness, teenagers being touching.

CFS balanced appreciation for his students’ affection with selfless and pragmatic attention to wrapping up the concert. Pride in the students’ accomplishments, without the personal ego one might expect.

It’s the end of the school year. Tell a Chip Schooler in your community why you appreciate them.

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