Bill Maxwell: What Sandy Hook taught us about teachers

  • Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 12:01 a.m.

An irony of ironies is that our public schools — where most Americans send their children each morning — collectively serve as the scapegoat for many of our societal ills. Another irony is that our teachers, to whom we entrust the education and socialization of our children, are some of the nation’s most maligned public servants.

Many conservative politicians, think tank opinion shapers and other influential people establish their careers attacking teachers, portraying them as a pack of unionized incompetents and freeloaders. Many ordinary citizens — many who had positive experiences in their public schools — have contracted the demonize-teachers fever.


Not surprisingly, some of those attitudes prevailed in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. A nonprofit news journal called Nationofchange.org reported that shortly before the Dec. 14 massacre, school board members wrestled with cutting $1 million from the budget and were considering eliminating Sandy Hook’s library and music programs.

According to Nationofchange.org, an irate reader wrote a scathing letter in the discussion section of the local newspaper to a teacher who opposed cutting the two programs. I share a portion of the letter because its sentiments echo those of millions of other Americans:

“You, as a public sector employee, don’t generate ANY revenue. Every penny of the budget of your public sector enterprise is TAKEN from producers. It’s other people’s money versus money your organization EARNED. Your salary is not market based. Your salary, nor your benefits, nor your job, is in jeopardy during contracting economic times. If I want a raise I have to prove I have contributed more to the bottom line, and then it doesn’t matter unless the entire firm has grown the bottom line sufficiently to give me that raise. You are insulated from that reality. ... How is that fair? Especially in light of the fact that you don’t even generate the revenue that pays for your constantly rising salary?”

At Sandy Hook, instead of acting like moochers who sprint for the parking lot at 3 p.m., the educators who died were trying to protect the 6- and 7-year-old students in their care from the killer’s semiautomatic weapon. They were classroom teachers, a school psychologist, a behavioral therapist and a principal.

And they are heroes. According to police officials, Dawn Hochsprung, the popular principal, was shot lunging at the killer’s weapon. Mary Sherlach, school psychologist, was shot when she dashed into a hallway to warn children and other adults. First-grade teacher Victoria Soto died while sheltering her students in a closet, coming between them and the gunman. Anne Marie Murphy, a special-education teacher, was killed while placing her body in front of a rain of bullets to protect her charges. Rachel D’Avino was shot shielding her students. Substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau was shot before she could react to the gunman.

Teachers and other staff members who survived the rampage saved children’s lives. How many other civilian jobs do we have in which we are expected to give our lives for those in our care?

How about the teacher-bashing state legislators, members of Congress and governors? How many would use their bodies to shield others from a mad gunman?

What about business owners who are raking in millions of dollars from the school privatization movement? Would they put their lives on the line for schoolchildren?

Public school teachers are unique for the role they play in U.S. society. As natural first responders, they run toward danger to protect their students. Most teach because they see teaching as a calling.

These public servants should be praised and supported, not condemned.

Bill Maxwell is a Tampa Bay Times columnist. Email: bmaxwell@sptimes.com.

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