In her memoir Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neal Hurston paints an unflattering portrait of her early education in segregated Eatonville, Florida. Her teacher wielded a palmetto switch and was quick to use it on misbehaving or slow students. On one memorable occasion, white visitors came by the school unexpectedly and the fifth grade students lined up in front of the class to read aloud. Hurston describes how the students stumbled and muttered their way through a difficult passage in the textbook to the teacher’s growing embarrassment.
Then it was Hurston’s turn. She read her assigned paragraph in the story – the Greek myth of Persephone – fluently. Her teacher beamed and told her to continue. The visitors were so impressed that they became her benefactors, sending her money and gifts and stoking the confidence that would later propel her to a successful writing career.
In one way, her good fortune was serendipitous, but in a larger, more important way, it was completely predictable. Hurston rose above her peers that day not because she was smarter or harder-working than they were but because the book was a familiar one. Earlier in the school year her father bought her the book and she read it on her own several times before the fateful day that visitors came to her school.
A father who believed in education and had the money to buy her the necessary supplies made all the difference. Supportive parents; adequate financial resources – two ingredients that make every teacher’s job easier.
On this last day of Teacher Appreciation Week, if you haven’t reflected on the importance of the teachers in your life – or in the life of the children you know – I hope you will. Better yet, let those teachers hear from you. Teachers need to know that their sacrifices of salary, time and prestige are more than made up for by the positive, meaningful differences they make in students’ lives.
Once you have thanked a teacher you know personally, go a step better and become a vocal advocate for public education. The vast majority of children in the United States attend public schools and supporting those schools is critical, not just for the development of thoughtful citizens, but for the good of the community as a whole.
One way to be an advocate is to argue for equitable, fair funding for schools. Funding for education has been in the news recently in a series of broadcasts on NPR and in the release of the National Report Card from the Education Law Center and Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Among the major findings are that states have a wide range of per pupil expenditures, ranging from Alaska ($17,331) to Idaho ($5,746) and that 14 states provide less funding to their economically disadvantaged districts than to wealthier ones. Many of the lowest funded states, including North Carolina, use a very low percentage of economic capacity on education. Most telling, the report concludes that “low rankings on school funding fairness correlate to poor state performance on key resource indicators, including less access to early childhood education, non-competitive wages for teachers, and higher teacher-to-pupil ratios.”
Not every child has supportive parents or sufficient financial resources at home, but every student should have the larger community solidly committed to making schools the best they can be. Let your legislators know that funding public education is a critical investment. That message should be loud and clear – and not just during Teacher Appreciation Week.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.