Tribune-Star Editorial graphic

A thank-you letter sent by a grown-up former student may be tucked into a teacher’s desk drawer.

The note might share space with others like it, as well as photos of kids’ class projects, bags of candy used to reward students’ hard work, extra pencils and notebooks for youngsters who lose or cannot afford their own, and mementos offered by children on Teacher Appreciation Day or Christmas.

Thanksgiving week arrives with the value of Indiana teachers fresh in mind. More than 15,000 teachers, students and supporters rallied at the Indiana Statehouse on Tuesday to deliver their concerns about the state’s public education policies to state legislators. Lawmakers were gathering for their annual organizational day, ahead of the upcoming legislative session. The Red For Ed march purposely coincided with that event. The Statehouse grounds and halls were filled with folks who earn a living inside classrooms, auditoriums and gymnasiums, and on long bus rides to math competitions and track meets, and on treks to professional development seminars.

Teachers’ official work schedule runs 180 days a year, but many of those days last far longer than eight hours. They often grade unending stacks of students’ papers during family vacations, deep into evenings at the kitchen table, or at the corner counter in a coffee shop after school. Their cellphones ping with emails from worried or upset parents in the middle of dinner. Summer “breaks” frequently include planning for fall classes, rearranging a classroom, taking college courses to update their expertise, teaching summer school, or off-season coaching duties.

Teachers also spend an outsize amount of time and resources to educate themselves, given their incomes. They routinely dip into their paychecks to purchase those extra classroom materials, to donate to students’ field-trip fundraisers, or to contribute to needy families after a house fire or tragedy. 

Though they may instruct more than 100 young people a year, teachers stress about forgetting the name of a past student who greets them with a hug at a shopping mall. They wipe away kids’ tears, break up fights and cope with students’ anxieties stirred by life away from school. They learn to protect kids during the horrific possibility of an active shooter inside their building. In so many ways, teachers fulfill an unstated, and growing, expectation of shaping young people into productive citizens.

Indeed, teaching is a calling, not just a job.

On this Thanksgiving, the elected officials who decide education policy need to renew their gratitude for teachers in Indiana’s public schools. Words and rationalizations are not enough. Gratitude must be tangible. Lawmakers should acknowledge their own mishandling of Hoosier public instruction that caused 15,000 teachers and friends to flood the Statehouse.

Legislators must find a way to directly increase starting teachers’ salaries. Lawmakers’ dismantling of teachers’ experience-based salary schedule leaves young educators uncertain about future earnings, driving them away from their profession. The Legislature also needs to end its obsession with standardized testing and hitching teachers’ compensation and school ratings to those results. Those tactics have also demoralized educators. And, actual classroom teachers should be included in any state task forces and school policy forums.

Teachers shoulder the lion’s share of responsibilities for educating young Hoosiers. State leaders can write their own thank-you note to teachers by more properly compensating and equipping them, and the schools in which they serve. That would be a blessing to Indiana children.

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