Within a few hours’ drive of my small city is a much smaller town. I’ll call it Hadleyburg. That’s not its name, but I read of a noteworthy town by that name in Mark Twain (which wasn’t Samuel Clemens’ real name either, but I digress).
Human nature varies little from place to place, so Hadleyburg’s location probably doesn’t matter. And perhaps its size matters only to the extent that it is large enough to have its own high school. We will call that institution Hadleyburg Valley High School, because we have to call it something.
My major purpose today is to describe the vantage point from which I will tell my tale. That vantage point may not be precisely what you might suppose, if you know my politics.
My title tells you that my theme includes some happiness. Since long before the iPad first twinkled in Steve Jobs’ eye, I have enjoyed hearing and talking about great teachers. I had my share in the public schools. There are plenty more in the public schools my children attend. I’ve tried sometimes to find ways to thank and honor them, publicly and privately.
Party Isn’t Everything
Alas, my next point requires that I speak of parties.
Utah public school politics are officially nonpartisan. Unofficially, there are two distinct parties: the public school Establishment (the insiders) and the Outsiders.
The Establishment is a lavishly funded, well-oiled political machine, with its PTAs (or PTSAs), its union, and a generous number of teachers and administrators who are eager to promote candidates and issues in official settings, even if that is just a tad bit illegal. The Outsider party is diverse and mostly unorganized. It includes many parents, some teachers, and many other voters — or in the Establishment’s recurring formulation, “a few malcontents.”
I am somewhat inclined toward the Outsiders. But when they go toxic or extreme or put up half-baked, ideologically poisoned candidates, I tend to disappoint them by calling a wing nut a wing nut.
I am most definitely a political conservative, though rather less so on Utah’s skewed spectrum. So if you, my readers, weren’t so smart, you might be shocked to read kind words from from a conservative with outsider leanings — kind words about teachers and the public schools, that is. But you’re not one of those low-information humans. You don’t believe the steady propaganda about conservatives hating schools, teachers, students, kittens, puppy dogs, and the very idea of education.
True, I believe there are fundamental philosophical problems with our public schools, involving both political and educational philosophy. I speak of this occasionally not because I hate teachers, students, and education, but because the problems harm all three — and society as a whole.
Teachers as Insulators
Many wonderful things teachers do are obvious to anyone who will look. One crucial service is not. Fine public school teachers — even the average ones — do heroic work insulating their students, and therefore society, from much of the harm and folly which philosophers, rulers, and union power-brokers would impose. Thank heaven, helping students — loving them is not an overstatement — is in a teacher’s nature.
I had an early lesson in this from a fine public school teacher in Idaho. At 18 I read the Constitution and Bylaws of the National Education Association. (This was 32 years ago. We had to read things to keep our minds off the fact that we had no Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Halo, World of Warcraft, or fantasy football.) Most of my schooling in political philosophy was yet to come, but even then I could see that some things in those documents — even some of the core values — were contrary to the interests and principles of a free and healthy society.
I was scandalized, so I did what we often do when we are scandalized: I wrote a letter to the local newspaper. I cited some of the horrors I had read and wondered why any teacher would belong to an organization which declared and promoted those values.
I wasn’t in that fine teacher’s class any more — I had already graduated — but he soon found an opportunity to discuss my question with me. As another great teacher had done a year or two earlier, he described some of the beneficial, even necessary things labor unions often did for their members. But he didn’t stop there.
He explained that nearly all the teachers (read that NEA members) he knew had much different values from those described in the national organization’s official documents. He suggested that it was common for the mass of an organization’s members to have far better — or worse — values than their national leaders articulated. If I insisted on paying my dues only to organizations with which I completely agreed — in the sense of sharing every view and motive articulated in official documents or statements or settings — I would never belong to any useful organization at all. Ever. (He didn’t say, “including a church,” but he could have.)
His several examples of a teacher’s insulating effect did not include himself. They didn’t have to. He had been a favorite teacher of mine for my last two years of high school, and I had studied the teacher as much as his subject.
I did not fully embrace his wisdom that day, but it grew on me rather quickly after that.
Lesson 2 (and Done)
A later lesson in the insulating effect a good teacher provides came when I visited one of my children’s teachers, back when the math wars were conducted in the open. She showed me a large chart with a multiplication table. She kept it hidden, when she wasn’t using it. She was approaching a professional review which would determine whether she was granted tenure. She had been told by a school official that, if she was caught using a multiplication table to teach her students, she would fail the review. She felt the table was necessary for teaching math to her students, however, so she used it stealthily.
With that introduction, in future posts we will speak much more of Hadleyburg than of me.