Is a teacher a replacable widget?
I went to a retirement party this week. One of the retiring teachers, Mr. Gallerani, was ending a carreer of 42 years, all at the same school, teaching the same subject: social studies. He stressed study skills, expected attention from students (and got it), read widely in his subject area throughout his career and engaged students in his passion for the material he, himself, loved. Through the years, I’ve encountered students who went through the school where Mr. Gallerani and I both taught. Most remembered having me as a teacher because I taught everyone in the school about and with computers. But, even those who didn’t have Mr. Gallerani for social studies, remembered him. They had siblings who were in his classroom; they had friends who spoke of him; they went on the class trip to Washington, D.C. which he lead for over 30 years; they remembered him.
I’ve read that most who begin teaching also leave teaching instead of staying with it. “Teacher Career Choices”, a report of the National Center for Educational Statistics  determined that only 31 percent of those who went directly into teaching after graduation had stayed with it for ten years. Others did enter the job of teacher later, and the study is recent, so it doesn’t cover teachers like Mr. Gallerani.
Diane Ravitch, educational historian, has said, “Teacher longevity is very important. That’s the way a teacher changes lives. Not in a year or two, but by consistency, making a commitment.”
I remember some of the teachers who helped to prepare me. The ones I remember best were not short timers. They had a style which made them stand out, a style which they had developed over many years and which created a special, individual relationship with their students. It wasn’t that they were super friendly or grumpy/stern. It wasn’t that simple. They engaged me in the subject we were studying. They pulled reaction from me. They made me change.
I’d have to say that I cannot always tell you the specific things they did which made the impression, though a few stand out. I do remember that Miss Erickson, a high school English teacher, returned every written assignment to us the next day, carefully corrected and marked with clear recommendations. We thought she was nuts to stay up as late as 4:00 A.M. to do it.
I do remember that Mr. Semple asked us to tell him what he was thinking when he referred to a page of the Newsweek we were reading for classs. It amazed me that we didn’t get it in September, but by June, we were almost all raising our hands and it didn’t matter which of us got called to give the answer. We got it. I remember my chorus/choir teacher who simply glared at us if we were off key. He was heartbroken when our choir was split by a school board decision to ship those from one of the towns to another high school.
You get the idea. These teachers made me focus. They weren’t just delivering a lecture from yellowing note cards. They were educators, drawing/leading us out of our childhood ignorance and limited viewpoints. We remember teachers because they recognized what we needed and gave it to us.
Teachers who are young may come in with great skills, of course, but I challenge you to think back. Are the teachers you remember typically the ones who blazed hot for a couple or three years and then left? Are they, instead, the ones who were like my teachers and like Mr. Gallerani, a 42 year veteran, a fixture, a dedicated, beloved, respected teacher. He will be missed by the students entering his classroom next year even though they won’t know it. I hope that in September, the room is occupied by someone like him, someone who isn’t just filling the seat behind his desk. I hope the “new” teacher becomes a beloved, remembered veteran.
I hope public education doesn’t become dominated by short time, widget teachers. Students deserve better than that. Are you listening, policy makers, educational reformers? Are you listening, teacher bashing talk show hosts and politicians?
For the record, I stayed in the same school district for 36 years. I started as a science teacher in grades 7 and 8. I finished as the district’s computer coordinator.