School is still, at its heart, a dance of men and women of character – its teachers.

Margaret Ruff, a second-grade teacher at Hollis Elementary School, staples letters to the bulletin board outside her classroom last week. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A wise school head once exclaimed during a September faculty meeting: “I wish we could put a sign out front of the building saying ‘Only a School.’ ”

His humorous lament nonetheless contained an ironic truth. Any teacher can sympathize, given the web of pressures they feel to play roles other than educator. Add to this our society’s condescension toward their profession, and even great teachers catch themselves thinking, “I’m only a teacher.”

The work of teachers needs constant defending. Whether in their third or their 33rd year of teaching, they have experienced the pressure of any or all of the following roles: curriculum expert, scholar, psychologist, disciplinarian, traffic cop, marriage counselor, lawyer, clergy, mother, father; coach, offensive and defensive coordinator; referee; judge and jury, babysitter, chaperone, sage, bottle washer.

Sometimes we don’t even realize the roles we ask of teachers; often the request is inappropriate, manipulative or disguised. It is rarely honorific. Do most parents know how often teachers lament, “I wish I could just teach,” yearning for the clarity and singular purpose implied by working at “only a school”?

Too much is at stake. I’m reminded of what journalist David Denby once pointed out (“Buried Alive,” The New Yorker, July 15, 1996): The culture is too busy ensuring that its children “are shaped by the media as consumers before they’ve had a chance to develop their souls.”


Children should not go to the highest bidder! Developing souls takes time, contact, thought, labor, struggle, guidance – teachers, a remedy for what ails society. And amid the clamor for accountability and standards, we may be missing the simple, clear eloquence and mentoring of the teacher-student relationship. Teachers accept an implied call to step in and show wisdom, candor, honesty and durability when they are wont to be found elsewhere. Teachers stanch the consumerization and marketing of children.

Another school head of my acquaintance reminded his faculty of their genius and purpose. “The best schools are places where hearts and minds come together,” he told us before the start of school. “Certainly that is the case in this school, for you make it so. It is your responsibility to inspire your students – and you will, you always do, for you are inspired. You are inspired by that foolish, brave old dream of a better world, even as you are haunted by that dark fear of a worse one. So there are moral imperatives in your motives. But you are also lifted up by love and laughter, so that you want to do what you have to do. And it is in you to do it, for you are teachers, and that is the nature of teachers. You are, perhaps, the last idealists, and you still believe in your dreams.”

I was inspired, sitting in the faculty audience, and I’ve been inspired as a parent to think that someone could give such stirring voice to the responsibility and opportunity that teachers took with my children. Parents should know that the importance of good teachers has never been greater; the importance of telling good teachers that they are good, essential.

Consider this: Despite centuries of educational innovation, curricular fads and newfangled “isms,” teaching is still men and women brave enough to guide nascent intellectuals, artists, athletes, mechanics, computer geeks and musicians. School is still, at its heart, a dance of men and women of character. A school is its teachers. Perhaps there is an ironic, positive strength in saying that “A school is only its teachers.” And we should “lift them up on love and laughter.”

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: