Come September, all parents join in the annual back-to-school prayer, "Please let the kids get good teachers!"
We hope for miracle workers who will instill a love of language and learning. We think of Miss Dove, Mr. Chips, Miss Brooks, Mr. Kotter or "To Sir With Love." But we would willingly settle for pedagogues who use their power wisely. For the classroom teacher is one of the most powerful people in any person's life.
A great deal is said about parent control of public education. That is chalk dust! We can sack the school board, ban the books, change the curriculum, rewrite the rules. But we had better tiptoe around our child's teacher like a Marine in a mine field. Because the power to teach is also the power to destroy.
Let's be frank: teachers have pets. Sometimes they favor individual students. More often it is a particular type of student who fits the mental image of the pupil the teacher believes he or she was destined to teach. Some teachers warm to pigtailers who crave extra credit. Others love little boys who fail now but promise to pay off later. Some slave over slow learners. Others believe that they do their best with the brightest.
This would be fine if we could only fill their orders. Each teacher would be assigned only those youngsters whose sex, style and I.Q. meet the teacher's requirements. But, unfortunately, we can only fill classrooms with the kids we have already produced. The ideal combination of teacher and student is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.
Most teachers understand this and their wisdom prevails over their preferences. But there are enough teachers who let their preferences show to create two kinds of kids in every classroom: kids who curry favor and kids who court failure.
Kids who curry favor have had teachers who convinced them that school is a system you can beat. They carry the old "apple for the teacher" idea to a sophisticated level that is absolutely scary. They remember the teacher's birthday, bind reports in the teacher's favorite color, try to excel in the subjects dearest to the teacher's heart.
Although this is fine training for future flacks and executive assistants, there is something sad about a second grade cynic already savvy in pleasing the teacher.
Sad also are the kids who believe there is no way they can win. All of their stories sound the same, "Some other kid made a joke and the teacher laughed. I say something funny and I end up in the principal's office."
What can parents do when they perceive their children's unhealthy pleasure or unhappy pain in school? Very little. Parents tremble at the thought of confronting the guardians of their children's hearts and minds. We all harbor fears about leaving our kids to face the consequences of a parent-teacher conference gone wrong.
Is it any wonder that parents resort to prayer rather than protest?
Any day now, the first school bell is going to ring and the teachers are going to come out teaching. We are going to send our kids off with new notebooks and new hopes for the school year ahead.
Maybe we should post a sign on the schoolhouse door: No Pets Allowed.