Philip Gulley: Best in Class

Everything I need to know about great teachers I learned in elementary school.

I was at the grocery store recently and saw one of my former teachers. She seemed fairly old when I had her, but she was exactly the age then as I am now, which no longer seems that old. In her many years of teaching, she had close to 1,500 students, but she still remembered my name, even though it had been 40 years since I sat in her classroom. As we stood in the produce aisle, she recalled walking me down to the basement to the speech therapist’s office once a week so I could learn how to make the “r” sound. Being a teacher, she asked me to say something that had an “r” in it. It’s nice to be remembered, if only for a speech impediment.

The encounter made me think of all the teachers I had as a kid. Most of them were good, some were average, and a few were terrible and shouldn’t have been permitted near children. My favorite was Mrs. Conley, who was grandmotherly and kind. I don’t remember any student ever getting in trouble in her classroom. Her students loved her so much that no one wanted to disappoint her by misbehaving. Teachers who think they have to yell at students to keep them in line aren’t good teachers. I knew a young teacher, Kate Comiskey, who was fresh out of college and could whip a roomful of unruly boys into shape by calling them “doll face” and “pumpkin.”

There for a while, when Glenda Ritz was running for governor, it appeared we might have a teacher as our next chief executive. The president pro tem of Indiana’s Senate, David Long, hastened to point out that she wasn’t really an educator. “Superintendent Ritz is a librarian, okay?” he said on a public-television program. My school-librarian wife, who helps teach 550 children a week how to read, took exception to Long’s comment and was rooting for Ritz. But with Ritz out of the race, it looks like my wife will have to settle for an ordinary politician. Still, the idea of a teacher in the governor’s office is intriguing. Anyone who can corral 550 rowdy kids can easily keep 150 legislators in line.

Every now and then I’ll hear someone say, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” If you say something enough times, many people will believe it no matter how absurd. Now we have a nation of folks predisposed to think teachers are inferior and somehow to blame for every social ill. Parents will plop their kid in front of a television seven hours a day, never encourage them to read a book, decline to teach them manners, and then fault a teacher when their child fails. There’s no other group of people working so hard to better the lives of children and receiving so little credit for their efforts. Everyone should be a teacher for one year to know what ingratitude feels like. In the 1980s, I lasted three days as a substitute schoolteacher before quitting to pick up roadkill for the highway department. It says something about the difficulty of teaching when scraping up dead animals from the pavement is preferable.

PhilGulleyTeachersI admit to a bias toward teachers because my mother was one. One of my most enduring memories is of her seated at a bedroom desk late each night, grading papers and preparing her lessons for the next day. I didn’t know until I was well into my teens that there were jobs that ended each day at 5 p.m. I didn’t think the day’s work was finished until you fell asleep at midnight at your desk. Those who can’t, teach. Yeah, right. The average teacher could run our state and think she was on vacation.

Public-school teachers and Republicans seem at odds these days, which strikes me as peculiar since most educators I know tend to be traditional people. It might have something to do with teachers’ unions and their tendency to favor Democrats. I don’t know when teachers first formed unions, but part of me wishes they hadn’t. I understand why employees of corporations unionize to safeguard their interests, but it seems unusual for teachers to do the same. It pits society and teachers against one another when their aim is shared—to enhance and strengthen that very society. I might be naive about this, and if I am, I’m sure a teacher will write and tell me.

Mrs. Conley was my fourth-grade teacher. Her first name was Bettie, but I didn’t know that until I was an adult. She was always Mrs. Conley to me. Students at Quaker schools typically call teachers by their first names, which never seemed quite right. But Mrs. Conley wasn’t a Quaker, and she would have keeled over dead if I had called her Bettie. She has a son who was also a teacher. His name is James Howard, but he goes by Howard. He wasn’t even my teacher (he taught in Plainfield, and I grew up in Danville), but I call him Mr. Conley whenever I see him. I appreciate the Quaker emphasis on equality and agree with our custom of not calling people “Your Excellence,” but I think teachers merit a little more respect than kings and queens, who were born into their position. Teachers have to earn their title, and they deserve to be properly addressed.

I’m not sure if government involvement in education is good or bad. In some places, it works just fine. But I don’t trust states like Mississippi, Alabama, and, uh, Indiana to make sure poor and minority children receive as good an education as rich white kids get. Our legislature decided the best way to promote public education was to hack away at teacher salaries. From 2000 to 2012, they took a chainsaw to teacher pay, cutting it 10 percent. Now the experienced ones are fleeing, and few new graduates want to teach here.

There are many reasons children don’t learn, but blaming teachers for it is like blaming ministers for the moral lapses of their congregants. Or blaming doctors when their patients continue to smoke, overeat, and eventually die. We have a lot of problems in our nation, 90 percent of which are caused by poor parenting. The remaining 10 percent are the fault of state legislators, whose firing I cheerfully support.

This article appeared in the October 2015 Issue.