This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 16, 2011 - I recently went for an eye examine. One of the technicians assisting and testing me told me she was a teacher. I learned she had taught in a North County school district and then in a St. Charles County school district. She remarked how much she loved teaching and the kids and had wanted to be a teacher from third grade. She taught high school, but I failed to ask in what subject.
Not far into the conversation, she related how the St. Charles County school teachers complained of or whined about their students. She felt teaching in St. Charles County was a plum position in comparison to her earlier post. Yet she expressed an apparently genuine affection for the students in the North County school district. When I said many do not realize what teachers deal with in urban school districts, she responded that so many of the students are neglected children and youth. She said she left teaching because she became burned out.
That conversation led to a thought bolstered by the nationwide teacher rankings and impetus to change pay plans. Teaching is not unlike medicine. Responses to teachers' methods and physicians' methods vary according to the students and the patients. Some are successful; many are not. Despite every bonafide attempt on the part of a capable and qualified doctor, a patient may decline more in health and may even die. Physicians who deal with autoimmune diseases experience such results perhaps more than others.
With autoimmune diseases -- such things as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, lupus, or Addison's disease -- the body is intent on destroying itself. My sister suffers from Crohn's disease, and it is relentless in its attack on her digestive system. She experiences periods of remission, but it is a killer.
So how is teaching related to autoimmune diseases and doctors who treat such patients?
Like physicians, teachers can diagnose problems students have and direct their best skills toward correcting those problems. However, far too many students live in poverty, in homes without quality parental time or supervision (perhaps the one parent works several jobs). These kids are not properly or sufficiently nourished and are living in squalor, forced to move frequently, surviving gang warfare cross fires, or suffering neglect of parents addicted to drugs or alcohol. They suffer society's autoimmune diseases.
The teachers attempting to treat or teach children who are suffering from society's autoimmune diseases face challenges the doctors do not face, they have to deal with several of these diseases and their sufferers simultaneously in one room while trying to also teach healthy students or those with less severe problems. Doctors see and deal with one patient at a time; and even at that, they still lose some.
Medically, autoimmune diseases are never cured. Only their symptoms can be alleviated or controlled, for a time. But in the end, society and legislators do not bash or punish the doctors who cannot prove verifiable and positive results. They are recognized as doing the best they can. Regardless of results, medical practitioners generally receive society's respect and admiration.
Unfortunately, teachers who face similar, if not more, challenges currently do not receive the same measure of respect. Some will experience success in treating the symptoms of specific autoimmune diseases, but they cannot totally overcome the environments fostering and promoting the diseases. Until some healing takes place in the homes of those students so afflicted, the efforts of those outside the home will produce mixed results.
Punishing and penalizing education practitioners will not improve the success rate against these serious American autoimmune diseases. Bashing and disrespecting teachers will only decrease the pool of capable and qualified personnel.
It is time for society and our legislatures, state and federal, to recognize the epidemic that has overtaken so many of our children and youth and their education. Autoimmune diseases attack bodies from within. They are not viruses or bacteria that enter from without. It is time to focus on society, the home, and the environment that produce, pass on, and down these genetic disorders.
The technician who tested my eyes also tested my spirit. The teaching profession lost someone who really wanted to teach and who loved the kids. What a loss!
Helen Louise Herndon is retired. She formerly worked as an executive assistant in the St. Louis Public Schools and a charter school.