"Who do you think you'll get?" was the tense question that preceded every school year for the children in my neighborhood. We were the Inkwell Generation, back in the 1940s before ballpoint pens, and we went through our elementary school years with ink stains on our fingers. We knew the possibilities awaiting us among the teachers -- the strict ones, the mean ones, the nice ones -- because the same teachers were there year after year. "Teacher turnover" was not in the language.
In the arguments today pitting charter schools vs. public schools, teachers' unions vs. public officials, parents vs. teachers' unions and public officials; arguments, as well, about how we actually should be teaching children, lost is this simple fact. Once we knew how to do this.
In New York City, the public schools were rock solid. At the center of it all were the teachers. They were respected in the community. Their value was understood. And you could count on them, they stayed in their jobs, they gave the schools stability, and since these were neighborhood schools, they gave the neighborhoods stability. Someone like Roslyn S. Yalow could attend Walton High School in the Bronx, an all-girls neighborhood high school, not even a so-called elite school, and go on in life to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Stability within our teachers' ranks came out of a negative. Many of the teachers gravitated to teaching during the Depression years and remained there, unable to find jobs in corporate America. During the 1940s and 1950s, the approved occupation for intelligent women from the lower-to-middle class was to be a teacher. Because of prejudice, intelligent men of their social class, and Jews, Irish-Americans, and Italian-Americans were not being hired for corporate jobs. When we came through, children of the working class, they were in place for us, people who at a later time might not have been teachers at all. Eventually, they phased out, they retired, people who became teachers because prejudice and economic conditions prevented them from being anything else. They were a unique generation of teachers, in a golden age of teaching.
We have lost that high regard for teachers and there is blame in abundance for that. For decades, teachers' union leaders have dealt with their membership as if it consisted of unskilled workers, with no distinction made about competence in determining salaries. These union leaders virtually have taken an oath to prevent termination of incompetent teachers. On the other side, public officials traditionally have waged angry battles with teachers over pay, congratulating themselves for how little they gave in, and in the process sullying the value of what teachers do. The public has been complicit. Customarily, people without children in public schools are disinclined to take a position on behalf of teachers and children who need political support. And we no longer even have a clear view of how children should be taught. When will education officials get the methodology straight?
You can argue the current opinions in education into oblivion. And when you are done, you have to get back to the importance of teachers. Teachers are the foundation. Nothing is more central. What worked once is that they were appreciated and excellent at their jobs. Even the worst of the lot for me, a mean, patronizing woman who taught 5th grade -- we'll give her a break on the name and call her Mrs. S____ , when Mrs. S_____ passed us on, we were ready for 6th grade.
We should move forward now by looking back -- to when teachers were respected, and by the very nature of their competence, gave our neighborhoods strength and continuity. They have to be given respect again, paid well enough for it to be a career, recruited from the best of young people today, with a sensible, unencumbered path to become teachers, and encouraged to be in it for the long run.
I grew up in a working class section of the Bronx in a single-parent household. With the basics provided by my teachers in public education, I ended up being a writer. Here's the thing about that -- given the achievements of so many others from families of modest means who came through the system when I did, there is nothing particularly unusual about me.
Last spring I stood outside my old elementary school in the Bronx and I watched the children streaming out, being met by parents, the older ones making their way home on their own. The same scene plays out every day across the country at neighborhood schools from Chicago to New Orleans, and Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. It was there in my school I sang and skipped to "Do You Know the Muffin Man?" as a teacher played it on the piano, there where I wrote in my friend Cecelia Klein's sixth grade graduation souvenir book, an early literary effort of mine, "Good luck, ya dumb cluck." Will the children coming through this school and others like it receive the same quality of teaching, the same quality of teachers as I and others of my time received? There is absolutely no reason why they don't deserve it.