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I am just a teacher

October 21, 2010
Victoria Robinson
Chicago Tribune
November 21, 2010

During my 20 years as a high school social studies teacher, society conveyed countless messages to remind me that I was just a teacher.

As an undergraduate, many of my non-teaching peers devalued my decision to pursue a teaching degree. Their favorite one-liner was "Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach." I understood their message -- I am just a teacher.

Adults were a little more subtle and respectful in their approach to my career plans. "Vickie, what is your major?" "I plan to teach social studies." "Oh." Then there would be a scratch of the head or a rub on the chin and the person would say, "I just imagined with your many talents and scholarship ability you would set higher goals."

I understood the message: I was wasting my time and talents on kids. I am just a teacher.

The public also sent strong messages about my value as a teacher. Along with signing my first contract, I took a vow of poverty.

Five years into my career, I sat next to a John Deere personnel director at a job fair where we were both recruiting. We discussed employment opportunities at John Deere. That day, I could have been hired for a position at John Deere for three times my teaching salary. I wouldn’t have to work weekends manning the ticket booth at football games, supervise the lunch room and break up food fights, or grade papers until midnight. But I loved teaching and I didn't take it.

The most hurtful public message was that I was to blame for just about every academic, social, economic and political problem in America. American students’ tests scores are inferior to students in other countries -- blame the teachers. American kids are disrespectful -- blame the teachers. The American work ethic is slacking -- blame the teachers. And if my student doesn't earn all A’s, it must be the teacher's fault. I am just a teacher.

I am just a teacher in a society where nearly 30 percent of the children eat their only hot meal of the day at school. I am just a teacher in a country where out of more than 49 million public school students, 4.5 million have special needs; more than one million are abused, of which half are victims of neglect; and an estimated 85,000 families experience homelessness each night.

Teachers think their subject is the most important in a room where each child thinks he or she is the most important, and somehow teachers make these two perspectives compatible. Teachers help students do more than answer questions -- they encourage them to question the answers. Teachers create a climate where time is precious, content is challenging, the tone is serious and the lesson is inspiring.

I wondered how many lives I touched in some way during my 20 years as a high school teacher. Using my best math skills and a calculator, I taught 4,050 students -- what a responsibility and privilege to be part of the growing and learning experience for these students!

I now have the responsibility for preparing current teachers who aspire to become principals. I share my passion and wisdom with them and hope they will proudly say, as I do, I am still a teacher!

Future teachers are going into a profession where they can make or break another human’s spirit. They must know this is a heavy role but also one so noble, so full of rewards, that no matter how many voices say “Just a teacher,” they will smile inwardly and think, "Those who can teach those who can’t."  I am a teacher!