Stephen Horenstein
Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Teachers — our unsung heroes

'First Learnings' (Roni Neeman)

Today I wished my daughter Sara good luck on her first day of teaching.  I also reflected on my recent retirement from 45 years in that awesome profession. I remember the words of one of my mentors, the late Professor Seymour Fox, who said (here paraphrased), “We understand the need for solid training and accountability in many professions such as airline pilot and doctor where there are measurable standards of excellence. And yet, perhaps the most complex of those professions, teaching, has far far less standards and accountability in place.” Indeed, in our day, a teacher must be an educator,  psychologist, actor, strategic planner, improvisor, athlete (try standing on your feet for 7 hours), chronicler, master of experiential flow, multi-tasker, multi-directional observer and so much more! With all that, and perhaps first and foremost, a teacher must be a caring loving soul tending  to each student’s physical and psychological needs. A teacher must insure that students feel safe, that they are not hungry, that they are breathing fresh and clean air and that they are not taunted by their classmates.

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If we take a moment and analyze just what our teachers  are required to do (no matter at what level of instruction) it is beyond belief.  To boot, they are underpaid, underappreciated, often hounded by over-zealous well-meaning parents; they work long days, including evening hours at home to receive calls from students and parents as well as prepare for their next day’s class.

What Professor Fox once suggested is still true, i.e. that one of our most complex professions is often lacking accountability and an atmosphere of experience sharing.  In Japan they have solved the issue by building teacher observation and “exchange time” (here it might be erroneously called “free time”) into the regular days. Japanese teachers spend large chunks of time in productive dialogue and observing each other’s classes (something experts call “shadowing”). I witnessed teachers both in Israel and the United States who were unaware of what each other is doing.  Unfortunately sharing collective knowledge continues to be an untapped fountain of growth. Most often each teacher copes on their own, struggling with different “imponderables”, whether they be classroom discipline, illness, violence (verbal or otherwise), etc. The absolute worse thing a teacher can do is to send the student to the Principal (the very LAST resort!) as this can easily be seen through the student’s eyes as betrayal and the breaking of an informal contract (“Yeh, the teacher ratted on me”).  It is also, in a sense, an admission of the teacher’s “failure” to maintain “discipline”.

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To Martin Buber education was first and foremost the education of character. According to Buber the initial task of the teacher is establishing trust on a one to one basis with his/her students. The spinning out of an understanding, a “hozeh ishi” (personal contract) is essential in this process. Buber said that teachers were often more worried of parsing out information than educating character in their class rooms, i.e. the values of caring, cooperation and giving to the “other”. In our culture the pressure to succeed in the high energy workplace and to satisfy zealous bosses (or Principals!) and eager parents (I.e. college admission), Buber’s philosophy of education sounds almost antiquated.

A few years ago I heard a story of parents who were so worried their child would not get into the right Kindergarten. Recently a friend told the story of several New York Kindergartens that promised that their child’s first “education” would help them accepted into Harvard. What’s even more shocking is that parents actually believe this fable!  This amusing scenario is true.

The ridiculous cultivating of rote knowledge at the expense of creative play, socialization and social skills has become to dominate our educational world. The joy of learning often is substituted (even at the earlier ages) for almost super-human tasks (hence the need for medications!). This process is often parallel to parents who rush the age of first speech and/or early walking, while not taking care to let the child develop physically and mentally at his/her own pace. All these parental pressures are the sign of our times and it is terrifying.

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I urge us all, whether we are elementary, middle, high school parents, to do our own analysis of just what a teacher MUST do to survive in the profession. How can we as parents make it easier for our children’s teachers to function, survive and blossom? What resources can we contribute? What is our role at home in helping our children “unpack” their day? If we are retired teachers is our work finished? How can we share our life experience and wisdom with younger teachers?  In what forums (formal or otherwise) could this happen? What financial resources are lacking? Are students from lower income families lacking in basic materials for their education?

Here’s wishing all our students a most joyful first day of classes, and especially our unsung heroes, the teachers!  May you have the strength and wisdom to blossom and grown, for your responsibility is awesome.  Many of us have been there and know the challenges you face.  Good luck!

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About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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