Opinion: Teachers make Iowa better, all the way back to Mrs. Elliott in 1958

·7 min read

In kindergarten, Mrs. Elliott taught us to play nicely with others. She taught us that there was a time for play and a time for snack and a time for naps. She taught us about colors and numbers. More than anything, she taught us to love learning and that school was a place where we would learn a lot.

In first grade, Mrs. Flaten pulled our loose teeth. First-graders have a lot of loose teeth. Mrs. Flaten taught me patience one day when I raised my hand to tell her there was a mouse under my desk. Before I could voice my concern, she told me to wait. She would be with me in a minute.

The most important thing Mrs. Flaten did was teach me how to read.

In second, third and fourth grades, Mrs. Lybeck, Mrs. Blank, and Mrs. Graham built on that skill. For the past 63 years, I have used the skill of reading every day in every aspect of my life. Reading opened the world to me.

When I was in fifth grade, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Televisions on carts were rolled into our classroom, and our entire class watched the funeral. Our teacher, Mrs. Burns, taught us what it meant to be a citizen and grieve together during a national tragedy. She also taught us that our democracy would continue despite incredible violence.

In seventh grade, Mr. Corkery taught us geography, and we learned to read maps so that we would never be lost. Our fingers traced rivers and mountain ranges on globes with raised topography.

In 10th grade, Mrs. Larson led us in reading "To Kill A Mockingbird." In our classroom of white students, we began to learn about acceptance and hatred, bigotry and compassion.

In 11th grade, the Vietnam War was raging. Mr. Ponsar taught us about systems of government, anarchy, theocracy, fascism, dictatorships, and democracy. In biology, Mr. Ficken supervised as we dissected fetal pigs and discovered veins and brains and lungs and wondered about our own bodies. In home ec, Mrs. Goins and Mrs. Duritsa taught us about nutrition to fuel our bodies. In P.E. Coach Leinbaugh and Mrs. Holland taught us to get our bodies moving.

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Mr. Miller made marching musicians out of small-town teenagers. That was a miracle.

Mrs. Campbell kept the library in good order. It was a place where we could take our questions and pull a book off the shelf to find answers.

In 12th grade, Mr. Engen read the Des Moines Register with us every morning in a class called “Current Events.” We learned what our citizen legislators were doing at the state Capitol in far-off Des Moines and how it impacted our lives.

Daily these teachers and dozens of others guided us. More than anything else, they taught us how to think. We were silly second-graders, rowdy sixth-graders, seventh-graders bewildered by our changing bodies, and high school students attempting to look cool on the outside and incredibly insecure on the inside. The teachers seemed to accept this. For some of my classmates, the teachers were the only stable adults in their lives.

In our teachers’ presence, every classroom became a sort of neighborhood within the larger community of the school. We learned to adapt to the needs of our little neighborhood. In first grade one student had survived polio but required a wheelchair. We learned to make way for her wheels. In our classrooms, we became conscious of whose families had wealth and whose didn’t, who dressed in cool clothes and who wore hand-me-downs. Peer pressure and self-consciousness created pecking orders. We students could be cruel, but the presence of our teachers tempered this. This too was part of the learning, and it called us to a greater good.

Our teachers were also human beings. At the end of the day, they went home to prepare supper for their families and pay their bills and sometime before bed prepare for another day in the classroom. We were always a bit shocked to run into them in the grocery store, but they bought groceries too.

They were not saints. They could lose their tempers. Sometimes they said things that they may have later regretted. Some teachers were exceptionally kind, and others were not. But even in this, there was learning. Human beings can be difficult and disappointing. Understanding this would serve us well later in life with bosses and co-workers.

The work of the teachers, administrators, and staff created our school, and our school was our community’s pride. Our marching band participated in the Cotton Bowl Parade and community members followed them to cheer them on. High school wrestlers made it to the state tournament and the whole town cheered their achievement. The homecoming parade made its way down Main Street and everyone celebrated. School news took up pages of our hometown newspaper. It still does. As our small towns face declining populations, the local schools remain a source of community pride.

Today, teachers are being attacked. The 2022 session of the Iowa Senate opened with President Jake Chapman announcing that some Iowa teachers have a “sinister agenda.”

I have not experienced this, not in my teachers, not in my children’s teachers. When I heard these words, I thought of my teachers. I used their real names in this essay. These are the people who helped me understand the world and find my way in it.

That was their only agenda.

Today more than ever teachers are under pressure. Children bring the problems of their families with them to school. Hunger, poverty, and neglect are evident in every classroom. Classroom issues often require teachers to be social workers. Pressure comes from increased performance expectations often set by people with little or no classroom experience. Money is tight in every school. Student supply lists include reams of paper and boxes of Kleenex because schools can not afford to purchase them.

School shootings have increased the tension in schools and required security systems, sadly using funds that might have been used in the classroom. The pandemic has challenged the teaching environment. In 2020 when the pandemic hit, none of our teachers had been trained in college on how to teach via Zoom, and yet when they had to, they adapted quickly. They continue to adapt.

Teachers do not need to be threatened. They need our support and encouragement. They need adequate financial resources to do a near-impossible job.

Our world faces challenges as we care for our environment, embrace diversity, address health care challenges, and ensure, as our Constitution states, that all are created equal and are treated as such. This is a time to reinvest in education, to support our schools and give our students every opportunity to learn more and lead us forward.

Teachers play this incredibly important role. Teachers see our children as the adults they will become, community leaders, state legislators, farmers, and engineers, certified nursing assistants working at the local nursing homes, auto mechanics, maybe even teachers. They pour learning into their students, the way learning was poured into them.

That is their only agenda, to help their students become learning, thinking people, so that they can lead their communities into the future.

I am grateful to the teachers who taught my pharmacist and my accountant. I am indebted to the teachers who educated our truck drivers and nurses. We rely on a well-educated citizenry. Iowa has a long proud history of supporting education.

“If you can read this, thank a teacher.” Remember that slogan? If you have read this essay, you have a teacher to thank.

If you are a teacher, on behalf of the citizens of the state of Iowa, thank you.

Cindy Hickman is a United Methodist pastor. She credits Independence Public Schools in Independence with creating the foundation of her education and will forever be grateful for her teachers.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: Teachers make Iowa better, including Mrs. Elliott in 1958