December 24, 2012

Heroic actions bring change in attitudes toward teachers

Christine Armario / The Associated Press

Hung on a building in the Connecticut town where 20 children and six adults were killed at an elementary school is a spray-painted sign with four words: "Hug a teacher today."

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In this Dec. 15, 2012, photo, Gary Seri, general manager at the Stone River Grille, hangs a sign reading "HUG A TEACHER TODAY" written on a table cloth in honor of the teachers who died along with students a day earlier at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.


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It's a testament to the teachers who sprang into action when a gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire. They hid students in closets and bathrooms, and even threw themselves in the line of fire. Some paid with their lives.

Their sacrifice was selfless and heroic, and most teachers say they would do exactly the same if they ever came face to face with a gunman in the classroom. At schools last week, many teachers got extra thanks from parents and students who were reminded in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., massacre of just how much they give.

"I really hope a lot of parents see teachers in a little bit of a different light about all that we do," said Hal Krantz, a teacher at Coral Springs Middle School, about 20 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

That gratitude for teachers is a respite from recent years in which politicians and the public have viewed them as anything but heroes. Instead, teachers have been the focus of increased scrutiny, criticized for what is perceived as having generous and unwarranted benefits and job security.

"I think a moment like this makes us appreciate and understand the degree to which we are dependent on our teachers to take care of our children in all kinds of ways, not just in what they learn in the classroom," said Paula Fass, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Over the last four years, a wave of reforms, prompted largely by the U.S. Department of Education and its $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition, has led states to strip teachers of tenure and institute tougher evaluations based in considerable part on student scores on standardized tests. The heavier emphasis on testing has led to a narrowing of what is perceived as the teacher's role in the classroom.

"Most of the talk about teachers lately has been, 'Should we judge teachers simply by children's performance on standardized tests?'" said Patricia Albjerg Graham, a professor of the history of education at Harvard University. "And while it's very important that teachers assist children in learning, it's also true that they help them get in the mood for learning and protect them and care for them while they're in school."

Graham began teaching at a rural school in southern Virginia in 1955 and said even then teachers viewed protecting students as part of their job. During the Cold War, teachers led students through drills in the event of a nuclear bomb attack. Today, they lead them through the halls on fire drills and even have to take threats like shootings into account.

"I'm certainly proud of those teachers that lost their lives or got injured," Krantz said. "It always makes you feel proud to be part of that whole society."

While teachers in the United States have seen their responsibilities increase, their salaries have remained relatively flat — at about $55,000 after adjustment for inflation — over the last two decades, and salaries for starting teachers are usually lower. And while teachers in countries that outperform U.S. students on international tests tend to be held in the highest esteem, in the U.S., teaching is often derided as a job of last resort.

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