Sometimes I wonder if the words “I’m sorry” are what people want you to say. By people, I mean the ardent critics complaining that tax-payers should stop wasting money or–my favorite expression–throwing money at problems in the classroom, and instead ask educators to live within the means of a shrunken state budget. The ones who suggest that you’re not working hard enough, that you need to prove your worth as teachers before you earn more money. Meanwhile, it’s just you, the thirty-four kids assigned to your classroom every block, and an email from your principal reminding you that at the rate it’s going, your school will be devoid of copy paper within five weeks.
I’m writing you today to ask you to never apologize.
Do not apologize for the fact that education is expensive. Do not apologize for the fact that you deserve a better salary. Do not apologize for the benefits you still have left. Do not apologize for the fact that, although school might only be in session from 8 AM to 3PM, your workday begins and ends much earlier and much later. Do not apologize for the fact that you have summers off, because by God you’re not paid for that time and many of your friends, Dear Teacher, work second jobs to make ends meet.
Do not apologize for the fact that we, the taxpayers, will have to find the political courage to force this question: do we want lower taxes or better schools? Do not feel as though you can’t raise your voice in underscoring emphatically that we must have better schools, that without education we are sinking, that without good teachers and the means to keep them in their classrooms our public education system is lost.
I am writing you, Teacher, not really to tell you what you should and should not do, but rather because I am tired of being too complacent. We need more folks outside of the classroom to understand that education cannot afford austerity. We need to understand that taxes spent on education are investments, and we can leverage their untold returns in the future when we can call a mechanic who knows how to fix, or listen to a preacher who knows how to write, or live in a neighborhood full of people who are learned and a town that rallies around the sacred understanding that every generation is braided from its million yesterdays toward its thousand tomorrows, and every generation must learn well.
Do not apologize to anyone for having to do more with less, for shrinking your own household budget because you haven’t had a raise in years, and most certainly don’t say you’re sorry that you can’t go to the bathroom anymore because the teacher assistant who used to watch your class got laid off in July.
Instead, reserve an ounce or two of the passion you normally spend on the beauty of mitosis or Abraham Lincoln or the quadratic equation and remind the people of your community that YOUR CLASSROOM IS NOT ON THE AUCTION BLOCK. Your job is not to be done by the lowest bidder. TEACHING IS NOT CHARITY, it’s a profession, and we’ll soon be damned if we don’t start treating it as such.
P.S.: If anyone ever walks into your classroom, looks around for problems, finds one, and then throws a bunch of money at you, please call me. Together we’ll make it rain.
(Author’s note: The following was originally published February 1, 2012 on an earlier version of this blog and was part of a series of posts titled “Dear Teacher.”)