A few weeks ago, just before the recent B.C. provincial election, I was at a dinner party and the discussion turned to the severe funding cutbacks that the current government has inflicted upon our educational system. As a result of these provincial cuts over the last four years, teachers have been laid off, class sizes have increased, and school programs and special needs assistance have been scaled back. Many of the people in attendance agreed that all of this has had the result of making the already difficult role of teaching our children even more challenging and frustrating. One man, though, felt that teachers are overpaid for what they do, and have too little accountability. He claimed that many of them only go into the profession to have their summers free, and the protection of a union job. Furthermore, he claimed, teaching is really just “glorified babysitting.” Granted, this may have been an extreme statement, but I do believe that his words express a sentiment that is all too commonplace in our society. As I said in my column last week, I believe that we, as a society, have an appalling lack of concern for our children, a lack of concern that is reflected in the way we fund our schools, and the lack of respect we display toward teachers.
Over the years I have known quite a few elementary and high school teachers as friends and acquaintances. Like everybody else, they sometimes are frustrated with their jobs — particularly when they are hamstrung by bureaucratic interference and political maneuvering, and faced with apathetic and/or belligerent parents. Nonetheless, without exception, they have been caring, dedicated educators, with a passion for their chosen profession and a profound sense of the responsibility that is entrusted to them.
From my discussions with these teachers, I have come to understand that there is a vital duality of purpose within our school system. One half of this duality involves the students’ connection to society. In the school and classroom, students acquire the practical skills and knowledge to function within and enrich the variety of workplace, social and further educational environments that they will encounter. In this sense, the role of the teacher is to teach our children to think logically and analytically, to cooperate as part of a group, to express ideas in a cogent and effective way, and to take an active interest in the workings of the world.
The other half of this duality involves the child’s connection to the self. It is a vital aspect of a child’s educational development that he or she gain self-knowledge — the understanding that will enable him or her to tap into individual gifts and strengths and lead a creative, fulfilled life. Under the guidance of a good teacher, a child is encouraged to develop personal values and a positive self-image, and is challenged and inspired to take personal chances and explore her own identity. Every child in the classroom has something special to contribute, a unique voice that should be discovered, developed and listened to.
The educational journey, then, is both outward and inward — a means of discovering the world and the self, and the connection between the two. It is only when both aspects of this duality are realized that a child is being truly and adequately served by the educational system. Whenever this balance is achieved, the result is an education that contributes to the individual’s ability to experience the richness of life with a sense of connection and joy. Anything less than a commitment to achieving this with every child who moves through the system is a breach of a very important contract of trust between society and children. By ensuring that this contract is fulfilled, we can help ensure a brighter future for humanity. It is for these reasons that the talented men and women who teach our children deserve our utmost support, respect, and the working conditions that will allow them to succeed.