Column: Saying Thanks to Teachers

Thomas Jefferson valued public education – and we should, too
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Teachers in our country rarely get the respect they deserve – a uniquely American pathology. But this year they’ve endured not just indifference, but disrespect – and from Congressmen, no less.

Teachers are now blamed not just for falling test scores, but failing state budgets and rising healthcare costs.

There was once a politician who took a different view. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance – what some scholars believe to be one of the three most important documents in the founding of America, along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence – provided funding for public schools and universities. In it, he declared, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The idea is so central to American public education, the University of Michigan has it engraved on the façade of its central building, Angell Hall. But few of the people walking by Angell Hall even know the line is there, or why. Ignorance makes it easy to take what’s good for granted.

While Congress rewarded Wall Street’s “Masters of the Universe” with millions of taxpayer dollars after they ran the economy into the ground, the same politicians tell us the real economic villains are public school teachers, who educate our children for an average of $45,000 a year.

I don’t think George Orwell himself had the power to imagine such a twisted interpretation of reality.

The claim that teachers are under-worked, overpaid parasites could be made only by people who have never taught. I would be hard pressed to name any group that gives more and takes less from society than do teachers – who, after all, prepare us for what we’re going to do next. Even politicians.

Teaching is one of those jobs, like waiting tables or coaching sports, that everyone thinks is easy – until they try it. True, teaching is one of the easiest jobs to do poorly – but it’s one of the hardest to do well.

Part of this problem the teachers’ union brought on itself, by defending the worst teachers to the hilt, and not even allowing principals to watch their employees work without making an appointment months in advance. At my high school – Ann Arbor Huron High – one teacher set what I hope is a record by showing movies and film strips for 170 of the 180 school days.

But we also had college professors who decided teaching high school students was more important, and others who could have done anything they wanted – one of my English teachers had a law degree – but devoted their lives to teaching us.

And it wasn’t just out of noblesse oblige. When I was student teaching, I learned the job is not just demanding – it’s intellectually challenging.

But because the unions didn’t make the obvious reforms they should have made, now they’re at the mercy of overconfident, under-qualified politicians, who wouldn’t last a week in front of the classes I taught – let alone the inner city classrooms now packed with 35 students six hours a day, thanks to budget cuts.

I can still name almost every teacher and coach I’ve ever had – and I bet you can, too. But we’d have a hard time naming our last three Congressional representatives.

I learned about Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance from Ed Klum in U.S. history, the same year I read Orwell’s “1984” in Jim George’s class. I learned how to write from Dave Stringer and Andrew Carrigan. And I learned critical thinking from all of them – which is why it’s not too hard for me to figure out what Jefferson would probably think of those teachers, and the politicians who bash them.

Which brings me to my final line, something public school teachers hear far too rarely: THANK YOU.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. July 22, 2011 at 10:45 am | permalink

    Thank you. I do teach (middle school, special ed) in SW Detroit (well, they laid us all off but we should be called back). I am scared about what will happen now that the EM laws are in place and the union is all but busted (10% pay cut at least, and we are already paid worse than 96% of other teachers in SE MI). I have kids on my caseload who are blind, dyslexic, were born addicted, are living in foster care, don’t know their biological parents (not in and of itself a bad thing, btw), where English is not spoken in the home, who get their primary nutrition at school and the list goes on. Nevertheless, I absolutely love my job! The kids are awesome, they are usually happy, and it’s a blast to be able to teach them. I’m at the point in summer where I am starting to really miss the little buggers :) I hope they are all safe and happy and staying cool!

    PS: I have my law degree, too :)

  2. By Maria Huffman
    July 24, 2011 at 8:53 am | permalink

    Thank you for the expressing so well what we should all remember.

  3. By Lisa Brower
    July 27, 2011 at 8:33 am | permalink

    This made my day! Thank you…I only wish the right people would read this! I always say I’d love for anyone who bashes us to trade places with me for a week.

  4. By Al Newman
    August 8, 2011 at 12:52 pm | permalink

    Having retired in June after teaching for 36 years, I am looking to Latin America to live, for the cost of living makes living in the US on my teacher’s pension, shall we say, “difficult.” I have endured years of lip service: “Your’s (the teaching profession)is the most important job in the world.” True. But the cold, hard reality is that my salary never exceeded $60,000. Obviously, the market sees otherwise, and that speaks volumes about how much we value education. When students occasionally ask me how I “got into teaching,” I tell them that I suffer from a serious allergy: I am allergic to money. Gallows humor. Now, I search for a place where I can retire in semi-comfort. I do not believe that place is in the USA. So, to paraphrase the exit motto of Czech doctors, “Thanks. I am leaving.”