Teachers deserve much credit

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 19, 2003

"School's out, school's out! Teacher let the monkeys out!" Such childish shouts have ended the school year for generations, but each year it's the "end" for some teachers. The automatic, routine greeting for a retiring teacher seems to be "congratulations," but I suggest "thank you."

Ann and I went to a reception for teachers at Neveln School, because one of them is a particular friend. She never taught any of our three children, but she has earned our profound respect by what we have observed as well as having heard. There were in attendance, nonetheless, a number of already retired teachers who had taught our children, and these will always be in our family's book of honor. (Not just any teacher, mind you, but these are.)

I told this retiring teacher that on such occasion, we joke to avoid the awkwardness of sentimentality. Nonetheless, I became serious for just a moment: We know what a teacher is supposed to be. We have seen you are this teacher, and we admire you and appreciate you. Thank you.

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I might well be able to say this, with equal earnestness and seriousness, to two colleagues who retired at the same time if I had had the same opportunity for observation. I hope someone else has done so. Indeed, I include them in my generalization from what I have observed to encourage us all to say thank-you to teachers of accomplishment. So, I won't embarrass Helen by mentioning her name.

"Congratulations" often rather much means: You survived. While survival is about all that can be expected in some teaching situations, too often it means just having gained tenure and seniority and then coasting the rest of the way. Such teachers manage to reach retirement eligibility without having been caught in something so egregious that even they can be fired.

Normal congratulations are due most retiring teachers, because most have truly achieved significant things in their teaching. Offering congratulations is never wrong.

Some teachers, however, have achieved so much that merely congratulating them is inadequate. Something must be added, and specifically thanking them for a job well done is a good start. We owe them.

Ordinary teachers just end a teaching career and fade away. Outstanding teachers accomplish education and are never forgotten. Retirement, for them, is not merely survival but an accomplishment.

There is this every teacher on every level must understand: You will never learn the full extent of your accomplishments. It's the rare student who recognizes the value of teaching at the time, and usually their parents do not. You just can't count on many former students hunting you up and saying thank-you. For every one who does, however, you need to multiply this many-fold to approximate the infinitely greater number who will one day want to say thank-you but never gets around to it.

Moreover, what we have learned from our teachers in the early years of school often becomes absorbed in that which more recent teachers contributed and we lose track of its origin. I wonder if college professors and high school teachers don't sometimes receive thanks that more appropriately should go to elementary school teachers. What was her name again? That nagging one who kept correcting my grammar?

Perhaps this is another reason I like to attend receptions for retiring teachers. When I say thank-you to them, I am also thanking those who have gone before them in my life.