Montana Voices: From out on the sidewalk, an open letter to Montana teachers

Mary Sheehy Moe

This month all across Montana, teachers are returning to their K-12 classrooms. It’s been decades since I left one of those classrooms, but I still miss that excitement … greeting colleagues after the summer hiatus, exploring re-arrangements of furniture or lesson plans, anticipating getting to know over 100 new students.

I miss it, but I also know I’m not qualified to do it any more. The tasks teachers take on now have expanded so much since I was a high school English teacher. The only school safety training I ever had was a fire drill. The word “assessment” never came up. We taught subjects, not children, and there’s a huge difference in attitude between the two.

One thing, though, was the same. A lot of folks who were not teachers were pretty dismissive of our work. “She’s just a teacher,” they’d scoff. “Never signed both sides of a pay check. What does she know?” Or the ever-popular, “Those who CAN, do …” Don’t you believe it, teachers. You’re doing the most important work in our society — because you are not only a teacher, but a teacher in a public school.

This week or last, some 11,000 Montana children walked into a public school classroom for the first time, while an adult who loves them watched from the sidewalk with all the age-old apprehensions. Those kids are as varied as genes and faith systems and heritage and living circumstances can make them. A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching them will not work. But you already know that.

If statistics for Montana overall apply in your community, 1 in 7 of those children lives in poverty; 43 percent come from low-income families.  One in 4 lives in a single-parent household. An ever-rising number are homeless and/or the victims of neglect or abuse. Many have never been read to, sung to, or taught to count. All these factors pose a heightened challenge for you when it comes to reaching and teaching them. But you already know that.

Every single one of those 11,000 kindergartners is leaving the only world they know for a brand new world, and no matter how excited some of them seem, at some point in that first week they feel lonely. Yet by the end of this year, you’ll have to pry them apart from their newfound friends. By the end of 10 years, those friends will be friends for life. Chances are, when those apprehensive adults left that sidewalk, they went down to a local café and had coffee with a classmate or two from their own school days, picked up a car part from the fella they used to watch scoring touchdowns, or chatted up the recent graduate bagging groceries part-time while she attends the local community college.

As Neal Postman memorably wrote, “Our public schools don’t just teach the public. They create one.” The public school experience is the only time Americans in this increasingly diverse country spend significant, formative time with other Americans who have nothing more in common with them than a given time and space. So much depends on the understandings they develop in those 13 years. The bonds they form then interlace the fabric of our communities and our state. As a teacher in a public school, you are literally creating the community of tomorrow.

So welcome this new generation of Montanans into your classrooms. Today they may cry as they leave their mothers’ arms. But by October, you’ll hear them squealing with laughter as they chase one another on the playground. And as you listen to that sound while you tidy up your classroom, think of it this way: You’re hearing America singing.

But those of us on the sidewalk count on you to do something even more important. A superintendent I admire called it “that magic that happens between a teacher and a student.” I think of it as turning on a light. All of us, at some point, especially when we are very young or old or ill or otherwise marginalized, are stumbling around in a dark room, a little bit lost, a little bit scared, a little bit sad. If you look at the data about poverty and addiction in our communities, you know that for too many of our children, it’s not just a little bit . It’s a lot. Two things turn on the light.

The first is kindness – not the “boo hoo, poor you“ variety, but the kindness that looks into a child’s eyes, sees an intriguing person there, and says to that person, “Won’t you come out and play?” Unlike my generation of teachers, you know how to recognize trauma. You know that behind a passive face can be, as a second-generation addict told me last summer, a child who just this morning rinsed the vomit out of her mother’s hair before hiding her needles, then woke up her younger siblings to get them ready for school; a 12-year-old who is doing everything she can not to tip anyone off anywhere about what is going on – or not going on – at home.

And you know that research shows the key difference between the child with the resilience to break out of that cycle and the child who doesn’t is a meaningful connection with just one adult.  Kindness. If that adult isn’t a relative, more than likely it’s somebody at school.

The second light-switch is discovery – sometimes of something within us, sometimes of something beyond us, but something that opens our eyes, our imaginations, our hearts. Whether you’re 7 years old or 70, engaging, exploring, or mastering a skill creates that heady experience Frankie Valli described as “the moment when everything else fades away and it’s just you and the music.” Maybe the music is chemistry. Maybe it’s carpentry. Maybe it’s history or cross-country or just plain reading. Once that light is switched on, there’s no switching it off.

I was reminded of those light switches when I watched a PBS feature about a retired English teacher last month. Flossie Lewis, 90 years old, was meeting with the now-adults she had taught decades ago. They remembered her fondly. One is an architect who said he now sees in buildings the poetry her teaching taught him to love. Another was a lesbian for whom high school had been a lonely, fearful experience.  “You saved my life,” she told Flossie. Student after student had a different story but the theme was always the same. As one of them put it, “Everyone else back then said ‘No’ to me … but you said ‘Yes.’”

Every now and then in this sprawling town with long streets we call Montana, I have those interactions now.  I know it’s hard to focus on, hard to imagine, as you pore over your roster of strange new names, but believe me: Some not-too-distant day, you will have that same experience. Students whose lives you touched during your career, maybe this year, will reach out someday to tell you that having you as their teacher shaped their life, changed their life, maybe even saved their life. There is no better award than that.

Teachers, every day for the next 180 school days you have the opportunity to change a life. Every day, the opportunity to switch on a light for someone stumbling through darkness. Every day, the chance to change someone’s “No” into “Yes,” to be the somebody at school who makes a child feel like somebody … at school. Every day, the opportunity to shape the community of tomorrow. Every day, the opportunity to hear America singing, to make the song beautiful, and to help every single young American in your classroom find his or her own voice in that song.

Go out and do just that.  Just teach. There’s no more important job in the world.

Mary Sheehy Moe retired from a 38-year career in K-12 and higher education in 2010. She has since chaired her local school board and served in the Montana Legislature. She is now a city commissioner in Great Falls.