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Celebrating the Hard but Glorious Work of Teaching

The nightly news is full of reports from schools.

From the scenes of striking educators in West Virginia to the horror of the shooting in Florida, teachers have occupied my mind a lot these days.

Of course, I work in a school and teach a couple of classes, but my thoughts have been different these days.

I find myself thinking about the complexities of the profession, the myriad challenges that teachers face as a regular aspect of the job. I also think of the great teachers I’ve had.

The news makes me think of how complex the job is now, but the litany of great teachers reminds me of never-changing truths when it comes to being the person in charge of a classroom.

There’s a great story about Teddy Roosevelt Jr. that I’ve always hoped was true.

Roosevelt, president’s son and military man, at age 56 was the oldest soldier and only general to storm the beaches of Normandy.

After repeatedly requesting to lead the first wave to land at Utah Beach, his superior finally relented, knowing that Roosevelt would never quit asking.

Despite the fact he was in ill health, Roosevelt sloshed through that red-bubbling surf with cane in one hand and pistol in the other.

In addition to enduring withering fire from Germans, a great problem became obvious. They had landed on the wrong beach.

The Americans were more than a mile off course. With the enemy peppering every movement and the lives of American soldiers ending in sand-draped falls on the beach, it might as well have been a hundred miles.

Roosevelt assessed the error. His heart must have dropped and nerve wavered. But, swallowing hard and with eyes narrowing, he folded up his map and declared, “We’ll start the war from here.”

Teddy Roosevelt Jr. would have made a great teacher. His simple order that day is a staggering philosophy so suited to education.

Every day, teachers start the war against ignorance on a multitude of beachheads.

They start with kids from great backgrounds and great ability who need only a nudge to excel. They start with kids so wounded that they must backtrack years behind the kids’ chronological grades.

Teachers start with average kids, good kids, mixed-up-still-finding-myself kids. But what glorious work it is.

A teacher does triage daily. They are the first ones to see kids right after they’ve learned their parents are divorcing, a loved one has died, or a relationship has ended.

Teachers do a tightrope walk of treating kids as individuals but moving them forward in common cause, to be better citizens, neighbors and friends.

Every day, that delicate dance of compassionate accountability is on display as they say, “What you’re going through is tough, and it’s unfair that you have to experience this at such a young age. But I cannot allow you to swim in a sea of mediocrity. I am going to help you figure things out while requiring you to push forward. To do less would be to forfeit you to that damp corner of life where there is no passion, no light.”

It’s not an easy job.

But none of this diminishes the beauty of classrooms, the spray of lessons that teachers paint into the lives of every child. Their dirty little secret is that they love when kids struggle. Not in a masochistic way but with the understanding that real growth comes when discomfort is present.

The truly great teachers understand that when kids struggle and overcome, those kids are armed better to understand the complexities of life.

You see, it’s easy to focus on the home runs of a school community. It’s easy to see the students who go on to big-name colleges or win big scholarships, but a good teacher sees that student in terms of a young man or woman who braved the challenges that life and education presented and persevered.

Those same teachers see the student who continues to labor in anonymity and does not enjoy the grandeur of a good scholarship. But they know that any season is judged better not by its home runs, but by its games won.

Teachers love the student who overcomes landing on the wrong beach by simply having the grit to push forward no matter what.

The light-bulb moments are still magical and important, but it’s the streetlight moments, the lights that stay on forever, that make the real difference to teachers.

When they see one of their graduates and learn that he or she is living life well, they think of those moments years before when that graduate sat in class as a ball of tears and snot and needing triage.

They remember how that graduate responded to their heavy dose of compassionate accountability, and they smile in a way that no one can see. It’s the very definition of a heart warmed by pride.

Yes, teaching has become more complicated. It’s been sent on an undulating voyage through ever-changing standards, more demands on time, and the horror of blood-stained hallways.

As current events continue to buffet the national concept of schools, teachers should know this: The cacophony of chatter does not lessen your impact.

Teachers, you should know that the drumbeat of guns in schools, district report cards, contentious school board meetings and other teachers going rogue or going bad does not diminish your own narrative, your own lifelong conversation with your students.

Like Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr., you don’t always find yourself on the right beach, but you move forward nonetheless.

You do so because you have been drawn to the constellation of promises that only a classroom can truly embody. You have undertaken the glorious work.

Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. His column appears every other Saturday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A version of this article first appeared on the newspaper’s website and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on public education. Previous articles in the series are:

It’s Time for Christians to Stand Up for Public Schools by Anika T. Whitfield

Christians for Public Education by Mitch Randall

4 Ways Your Church Can Support Public Education by Michael Ruffin

Ministering in Our Schools Prepares Kids for Future by Suzii Paynter

Right Side of History: Removing Barriers to Education by Colin Harris

Why Privatizing Public Schools Threatens Education by Diane Ravitch

Pastors’ Group Supports Strong Education for All Kids by Charles Foster Johnson