I suppose that Kansas House Bill 2236 is as good a starting point as any. An education bill emblematic of our crossroads, and certainly representative of a culture in steep decline and disarray. I commend Rep. Rebecca Schmoe for introducing the bill, not because I agree with it — I most certainly do not, but because the bill’s subject matter tapped into a fond memory of my third-grade teacher at Prescott Elementary School, Ms. Collins.
She had that rare human gift that made her chosen profession of teaching inevitable. Her desk was situated at the back of class. She was soft-spoken. When she looked at you, she paused and looked into you — straight through the fabric and into the heart. I was 9 and can’t recall a thing I learned that year except that I meant a lot to her. Got a birthday card from her the next year; I had moved far away, to Georgia. Not sure how she got my address.
Just one Ms. Collins — among the 3.5 million U.S. public school teachers. Have you had a “Ms. Collins”? I hope so. That breed of teacher is on the endangered species list, and for reasons that have much to do with the time and energy invested in disappointing legislation like House Bill 2236. The proposed law would allow parents to arbitrarily dismiss their child from any class not to their liking and do so without effect on the child’s grades. Why? Because “parents have the right to direct the education, upbringing and moral or religious training of their children.”
Not only a right, but I would hasten to add, an obligation to do so. The overarching issues though, are complex with multiple interwoven threads. What emerges from this and similar legislation is that what was once that one-room community school house on the hill that brought together a community in the hope of a more fulfilling future, has morphed into a cultural battlefield fed by righteous armaments and strategic piety. And in the crossfire: teachers and students.
Stand back a distance and sweep your binoculars across the public education debris field. Survey experts, RAND Corporation, now dubs the occupation of teaching among the most stressful in the country with rates of depression three times that of the general population. The mental health crisis among students is well-documented; we must now recognize teachers among the walking wounded.
And as we would expect when classrooms are restaged as cultural war rooms, teachers are declaring mutiny because they did not voluntarily enlist as battlefield recruits. I salute them on their exit as they redirect their ideals to a job that requires less CBD oil. Across 47 states there are around 36,000 public school teacher vacancies; add to that picture another 163,000 who are bravely filling in as teachers but lack the proper credentials. Idaho has 134 vacancies. 40% of new teachers leave within the first 5 years.
I can well imagine that my treasured Ms. Collins would agree with the three-quarters of public school teachers who would not recommend the teaching profession to another. Perhaps she would differ and see what I cannot: “where there is heart, there is hope.” School administrators as well get tossed under the school bus as they attempt to shroud a demoralized staff with a veil of stability. According to Michael Jones, a teacher union president, what were once seen as teacher-professionals are more publicly viewed as “a never-ending supply of energetic martyrs.”
COVID-19 and public health policies that followed were the catalyst for parents to square off and reinforce their ranks. And now police officers must be present at most school board meetings. Critical Race Theory. Gender identity pronouns. Prayer. Intelligent design. Sexual orientation. Social-Emotional Learning. D.H. Lawrence. No shortage of classroom ammo for our latest cultural war. (Lest we forget the live ammo that arrives with schoolchildren, packed alongside their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches).
Our righteous classroom crusades come at a high price. That sacred relationship, the one between teacher and student, has been cast aside. What a great tragedy. To think that generations of school children to come may not have some of those indelible, life-vivifying moments as I did — that to her, there was no one quite like me, that my potential was boundless.
This column is dedicated to Ms. Barbara Collins, my third-grade teacher, who passed away Sept. 5, 2021.
After years of globetrotting, Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Renew News: usrenewnews.org