The Everyday Heroism of Our Nation's Teachers

I didn’t want to send my kids to school this morning. After the shootings on Friday at Sandy Hook elementary, I suspect like many parents across the country I just wanted to keep my kids by my side and not let them out of my sight. With the horrifying news all over the media this weekend, I talked to our boys a little about what happened, mostly to assure them that they would be OK in their own school.

“Mr. Sikorski keeps your school very safe,” I told them. That’s their principal, and as I said it, I had to fight back tears thinking about the Sandy Hook principal who literally gave her life for her students. “Your teachers care about you and will keep you safe,” I reassured them. They seemed satisfied with my explanation and went out the door to the school bus this morning with confidence like any other day, but I could not get the image of teachers fighting for their students out of my head. These are the teachers we send our children off to every day, asking them to shape and nurture young minds. We never ask teachers to pledge their lives for our kids, but now we know what those trusted adults would do in the most terrifying of situations: an entire building of teachers and staff demonstrated just how clever, cunning, bold, fearless, and courageous they would be in defense of their students.

Reporter Dave Lindorff noted in a column yesterday that the Newtown, CT school board had a $1 million budget cutting plan last year and is currently debating eliminating the elementary school’s music and library programs. Yet those music and library teachers stayed with their students and protected them during the attack. And all of the Sandy Hook teachers are members of the American Federation of Teachers.

There are far too many people in the current corporate-style reform movement pointing fingers at teachers and their unions, blaming them for all of our public education woes. (The head of Tea Party Nation actually just blamed “radical” teachers and unions for the Sandy Hook massacre itself.) After a lecture I gave on our grassroots movement yesterday, someone in the audience came up to ask me, “But don’t we need to get rid of all the bad teachers?” Another person asked, “In light of Friday’s shooting, why aren’t you talking about the problem with school security?” Now we are hearing that the Sandy Hook shooter broke his way into the school and that the principal and staff had a well-rehearsed security plan.

When I look at our public schools, I do not see a security crisis (though surely schools ought to have a security plan and follow it). I do not see a crisis of bad teaching (though we surely ought to be offering “bad” teachers some assistance, and helping others to exit the profession when teaching is not their right life choice). I do not see a crisis of radical teachers or greedy teachers unions.

We surely have a crisis of gun control and mental health services in this country. But the real crisis in public education is about a lost belief in the public good. It’s a crisis of faith in the common good served by our schools. The forces of privatization feed on that lost faith, insisting that we close more neighborhood schools and hand others over to charter management companies, that we introduce more competition and choice, that we hold teachers and schools “accountable” for low student test scores by punishing them. It’s that lost faith that allows legislators to slash education budgets and forces school districts to eliminate music and library programs for our kids. When we stop believing in public education as a public good, we allow our public tax dollars to flow to private schools and giant international corporations while we demand more and more tests without asking if our students are really learning anything.

When I look at our schools, I see teachers heroically trying to teach our students – without the resources they need, with mind-numbing canned curricula and prepping for high-stakes testing forced upon them, in classrooms with ever larger numbers of kids. I’m pretty darn sure that the vast majority of our nation’s teachers are heroes every single day. That’s why I let my kids get on the bus this morning. And that’s why – even with tears running down my cheeks for those kids, those teachers, those families – I return to the fight for our public schools.


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