All I Want for Christmas...

by John H. Thomas

This is a repost from Chicago Theological Seminary's blog of Rev. John H. Thomas.

While the old holiday song suggests that children might want two front teeth for Christmas, this year I’d like to suggest an alternative: “All I want for Christmas is a teacher.” Sunday’s New York Times* reported the stark impact of the recent recession on schools, namely, the massive loss of public school teachers since 2008. According to Labor Department statistics, public schools across the country employ 250,000 fewer people today than they did prior to the recession. Meanwhile, pupil enrollment has grown by 800,000 students. To maintain pre-recession staffing ratios, public schools nation-wide would have had to add 132,000 jobs.

What does this look like in the classroom? In Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a declining steel town forty miles outside of Philadelphia, the professional workforce of 600 prior to the recession has been cut by twenty percent. This means that some of the thirty students in one fourth grade class sit halfway into a coat closet. In a middle school social studies class one teacher handles twenty-five students, ten with special education needs, four who know little or no English, and several others who need advanced work to stay engaged. He used to have two aides to help; not any more.

All of this suggests to me that what children may really want for Christmas is a teacher! Think how much better a teacher would be as a Christmas gift than an expensive doll or a pricey electronic game.
  1. Toys get broken or discarded within months; a teacher will last for a lifetime. How many of us remember the gifted teacher who made a difference in our lives? Teachers truly are the gift that keeps on giving.
  2. Teachers really are “educational.” We love to label toys “educational.” It makes parents feel less guilty or anxious spending money at Toys R Us. But marketing can’t really make a toy anything other than a toy. A teacher, however, is not entertainment dressed up as education. A teacher is education, through and through.
  3. Teachers don’t need batteries. They come with amazing energy born of their passion for children. Of course, some do burn out, losing the spark that called them to this vocation. But that’s usually because no one took care of them and supported them, or because public policies have forced them to become test administrators rather than educators, or because politicians and so-called reformers have created a demeaning drum beat about them, blaming them for the fact that our poorest children struggle to learn. But take care of a teacher and he or she will hum along for a long, productive career.
  4. Toys don’t love the children who play with them. But teachers do. In one Chicago school this year the principal and teachers bought Christmas presents for their neediest pupils to ensure that everyone had a present. And they did this out of their own pockets! It’s a tradition that’s been going on for years. How’s that for a value added gift? A gift that not only children love, but that loves children back!

Of course, not all parents can afford to give their children a teacher for Christmas. They can’t send their children to an elite private school, or they live in a poor school district where low and declining property values depress school budgets, particularly in harsh economic times. Thirty-five miles from Coatesville the affluent Lower Merion School district has been able to increase its property taxes every year since 2008. Class sizes remain in the low to mid-twenties and elementary students get to study a foreign language. Coatesville and towns like it don’t get the press that Philadelphia or Cleveland or Chicago do for their draconian school budget crises. But there are more and more Coatesville’s today in an economy increasingly divided into winners and losers.

Some think the answer is cheaper teachers. Privatize the public school system with so-called public charter schools and you can circumvent teachers’ unions, paying far below professional standards. Or bring in a bunch of bright, enthusiastic college graduates willing to work hard for less in programs like “Teach for America.” While their zeal for service in poor districts may be laudable, the fact is they have no real training beyond a short orientation, no education degrees, and are able to teach only because the federal government waives the normal certification requirements. And, like cheap toys, cheap teachers don’t last long. Cheap teachers come and go, depriving children of the quality one expects from teachers who are well trained and who have years of teaching experience.

This year many of our children, whether they know it or not, want – and need – a teacher for Christmas. But unless our priorities change, unless we radically rethink how we allocate resources for all of our public schools, and unless we begin to recognize the real value of highly trained, well paid, experienced teachers, many of our children will find little more than the proverbial coal in their stockings.

By the way, the song “All I Want for Christmas” was written in 1944 by a public school music teacher who had asked his second grade pupils what they wanted for Christmas. He noticed that almost all of the students answered with a lisp because they had at least one front tooth missing. Chances are Donald Gardner wouldn’t be teaching these days. More and more school districts are laying off their music and art teachers, their guidance counselors, librarians and nurses. Local property taxes simply won’t provide this crucial component of a full education. And programs like Obama’s “Race for the Top,” on which much federal funding is based, don’t test whether children are learning how to sing or play a musical instrument. That’s more than sad in this merry season.

John H. Thomas
Christmas, 2013