Friday, June 19, 2009

In Search of Dinosaurs

My childhood memories of school teachers include smiling nurturing women, who dressed professional every day, smelled very nice, and wore an apple pendant and navy blue at least once a week. Most of them had gray hair and almost all of them could write straight on a chalkboard. By the way, I am a child of the 80's so some do not assume I grew up on "Little House on the Prairie".

The majority had high expectations of me, but I could not tell you who more than the other. The easy teachers who did not really care come to mind faster and were extremely rare. Desegregation was a settled issue for the most part and even though I was not in the most diverse area in the United States, my classmates were a mixture. I did not see many minority teachers but at least I saw a few administrators and teachers before I walked across the stage for graduation.

More than anything, I remember learning something new more often than not. For example, learning vowel sounds with my kindergarten teacher (so that we could read a book all the way in first grade) was a big goal for me. She made sure we had that skill down to a science. I think we called it phonics? We just drilled and drilled but it was fun. Suddenly Dick and Jane were running and not just looking crazy all the time. I was reading.

Why am I taking the reader on a journey of my childhood instead of just getting to the point of the title? Well, let me open our dialogue with a more pointed question.

Where did the teachers with the apple pins go? Are they on the endangered species list or am I being too dramatic? I do not see nearly as many as when I was child. These amazing veterans wore their apple pendants because they were proud to be a teacher. The profession was not viewed as the "other white meat" or a default when you burnt out in corporate America.

You see, there was a time teaching was viewed as an art. In fact, millions of kids like me (the ones who fought to clean the chalkboard then wait for the teacher to turn her back to write, "Ms. Smith is the best teacher ever!!!!") could not wait to send off applications to become teachers with our own chalkboards to write all over.

However, when I began my career, one thing I noticed right away is that those lovely matriarchs of education had transformed into colleagues who had to "get away" from campus for a smoke, drank way too much coffee, and depended on chocolate like a drug to get a high to make it through the week. I rarely if ever saw an apple clipped to anyone's shirt except if maybe the PTA gave us one and we wore it to express our appreciation for the breakfast. Before the end of the day it would be in our desk drawer next to some Advil and red ink pens we were supplied but told were too politically incorrect to use. Try purple.

In teacher training I was warned, "Beware of the Teacher's lounge!" How insulting to the veterans to say such a thing. What my professors should have been focused on was why the teacher lounge was filled with so many unhappy teachers. Why were they not wearing their apple pins anymore? Why were they warning the new baby teachers to hold on to their part time jobs at JC Penny's especially around the holidays? Why were their arms folded and faces stern during faculty meetings? And why were they grading papers while the principal was talking????? How dare my trainers warn me to flee from these veterans instead of learn from them. After all, they were my Ghost of Teaching Future!

Reader, today I find myself in a strange place. The lounge is empty not because it’s summer, but because teachers rarely ever use it. Instead most people prefer a secret hideout in a colleague's room (who they trust), a classroom of their own (if they are so lucky), or maybe even their cars (and it may be moving to the nearest Starbucks). Sure these modern American school teachers will come in to use the copy machine or other necessary tools; maybe even warm up lunch. For the most part conversation is light and polite and one could even get the impression that all is well in the land.

But give it some time and the room will grow eerily quiet. The busyness replaced with one or two younger veterans quietly typing on their laptops wondering, "Where have all the Dinosaurs gone"?

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