Teachers and Mountaintops

May 29, 2012 | Parenting & Politics

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It’s seven a.m. on a school day and I write from atop Mt. Pisgah.  The sun burns through the early morning haze enough for a glimpse of real mountains—snow-capped Cascades—that heft themselves over these hills. The steep climb and dew-misted wildflowers lift my spirits so high, I can’t help but sing. My husband should be here exalting in the fresh air found only on mountaintops, but he stayed up grading papers for his overfilled classes and needs the sleep.

All of the teachers need the sleep. As I watch vultures circle the valley below me, this teacher burn-out problem occupies my thoughts. If, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserted, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children,” then it deeply matters what we do for those who do for our children daily, namely the teachers.

The current trend only discourages. When leaders cut budgets, they also cut teacher morale, inspiration, and have I mentioned sleep? The only raise teachers have received in Oregon lately is to their stress levels. Every parent who has survived stomach flu or the holidays knows that negative feedback loop all too well; adult stress = kid unhappiness = more adult stress, and on it goes. My children’s teachers live with job insecurity, scant resources, and constant overwork in a system that increasingly forces them away from true education and toward test preparation and crowd control. With fewer school days, teachers are forced to ram information into their students at a frenzied pace.  How can they possibly relax enough to shine love and respect onto those precious beings we deliver to them every morning?

It could so easily be different. With a little rerouting of our tax money from the military ($700 billion) to education, our entire school system could blossom.  Imagine it. Well-funded, beautiful schools with courtyards and artwork. Plentiful music, PE, woodworking, lab supplies, guest instructors, field trips. Manageable class sizes. Teachers supported—through good pay, reasonable workloads, and “balance yourself” incentives—to approach their work as a sacred art. Personal equilibrium could be a job requirement. Imagine teachers at sunrise up on the mountain, or the equivalent of their choosing—the horse, bicycle, piano bench, meditation pillow, whatever energizes body and mind. Imagine them greeting our children rested, fully alive, open-minded, and in tune with their own and the world’s preciousness.  What temples of inquiry could schools become, where what truly matters to every child—a future of human and planetary health—were studied, and pathways to it co-created?

And what generosity of spirit, then, might those children return to us one day, today’s mountain climbers, tomorrow’s dependent elders? If we’ve done right by them—and by the adults who spend their lives shaping them—they will, in return, treat us as sacred, precious beings. Maybe, then, they’ll be not only able but willing–eager– to help us, somehow, back up to whatever mountaintop we can no longer summit without them.

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