September 11, 2015

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

When teaching is a true profession, not just a job

Cynthia DewesThis time of year brings the usual beginning of school, which may cause anxiety for some. For an only child like me, it was always a time to look forward to because it meant friends. At school, I got to socialize with others and talk, talk, talk. In fact, I got a “U” for unsatisfactory in Deportment (behavior) at the end of the first grading period!

In those days, almost all the teachers were women. You might find a man or two in administration or teaching high school and shop classes, but that was it. Grade school was strictly the ladies’ territory, and unmarried ladies at that. If a woman married and got pregnant, she had to quit at once.

My first-grade teacher, Miss Conover, was a real gem. She kept discipline without any fuss, and taught all of us to read well. We sat at desks, and in the back of the room was a separate “cloakroom” where we hung our coats.

In those days of the Great Depression, Miss Conover quietly fed a few of the poorer kids before school in the cloakroom, at her own expense. She also dealt quietly with an epileptic child when he had a seizure, sweeping him into that same cloakroom before the rest of us noticed. That cloakroom really came in handy.

Miss Franz, my second-grade teacher, was equally good, as were most of the others I had. In fourth grade, Miss Hughes read to us daily about Mowgli in The Jungle Book and taught us fractions. When she was homebound for a few days with an illness, we performed our own version of the story of Charley’s Aunt at her bedside.

Our fifth-grade teacher, Miss Schlieter, was fine if you behaved, but she’d grab the bad boys by the collar and reinforce her scolding with a brisk shove.

High school offered more variety, since we had a different teacher for each class. My gym teacher kindly gave me “C”s just because I was pleasant, and made a pretense of participating in sport. Ditto for my chemistry teacher, a man who really didn’t expect much from girls in his class, and I verified his opinion.

Being more at home with words than with equations or sinking basketballs, my English teachers were crucial, and I had some of the best. Miss Heinem taught me English and Latin, which is so useful, especially for working with language and for talking back to “Jeopardy.”

The combination of personality, teaching methods and dedication displayed by my many teachers resulted in what I now realize was a superior education. They prepared the groundwork of basic knowledge and intellectual curiosity, which made for an interesting life. Their efforts provided their students with the tools they needed to get good jobs, or to continue on to higher education.

When I consider what made my teachers so valuable overall, it’s the fact that they were professionals. While it’s true that women at that time had a limited choice in employment (nurse, teacher, secretary), no one chose teaching because it was easy or paid well. They taught because it was their vocation.

Sometimes teachers of our time may feel disrespected. But I say, teaching is a noble profession, which ought to command automatic respect. Are you listening, kids?

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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