In many aspects of life, a single word connotes an instant internal picture.
When I hear the word “rose,” I think of a luscious, red, large-petaled bloom perched on a long, thorned, thick stem.
Say “roses,” and I picture a sprawling bush with many smaller, more pinkish blooms on thinner yet still thorned stems. I feel a warm summer day or a rush of comfort and love as I remember each anniversary’s blooms given to me by my husband.
The words “rose” and “roses” give me consistent visual pictures and internal resonance.
Now think of a profession; let’s say “doctor.”
While I know there are doctors of all specialties and appearances and workplaces, I still picture a person wearing a classic white lab coat with a name on the chest.
Stereotypically, I see a stethoscope around the neck, and I feel a slight aura of anxiety. Who doesn’t feel a little awkward sitting perched in varying degrees of undress on the edge of a paper-covered, raised-head chaise?
Say “doctor,” and I, despite some of those uncomfortable moments, visualize a person and have a feeling about someone who will encourage my wellness and help me feel better.
Let’s change professions and picture “teacher.” What comes to your mind?
To me, it’s a little harder to visualize a set picture. I first see an image based on a childhood persona and place. That person is a little — actually, a lot — wrinkly, has a stern visage with a demeanor of insistent rigidity; she is standing by the elementary school chalkboard that we all clamored to erase.
I feel the anxiety and embarrassment I felt back then as a first-grader working so hard on a paper that got thrown away because it did not have a name on it.
That image mixes with a more current composite of the faces, mannerisms and auras of my all-ages co-workers. Thrown into the mix are the disembodied voices or lectures of my online graduate school professors.
And I need to add in my own self-image of what a teacher is, based on what I know about what I do, every day, with many children.
So many images.
The feelings that rush over me are also different: that high school teacher I wanted to please, and did, and the ones I didn’t; the pleasure of working with a lot of extremely knowledgeable, giving people, all of us different in life stage, experience and skills; the bit of student anxiety that creeps in when a paper is due or presentation must be made — lots of feelings, depending on which teacher image I am holding at the time.
The image my mind creates when I say “teacher” is not nearly as straightforward as when I say “rose” or “doctor,” for sure.
Truly, like any other word — be it rose, doctor or teacher — there is no one set, defined vision.
Yet groups of people will talk about teachers as a homogeneous conglomeration of similarly focused, similarly talented or just plain similar people.
As people talk about teachers, the conversations tend to lump them all into a one-size-fits-all image and, because of prior experiences, we may view them grouped together in an us-vs.-them mentality. Many of those images do center on certain emotionally laden circumstances, often negative ones.
During our schooling days, teachers were the ones in control, the ones who wielded the power and the ones who controlled the grades — and much of our day-to-day lives was mandated by those all-powerful teachers in school.
When we talk about the importance of education, about the worth of teachers relative to tax dollars and how many days students are in the classroom and raise questions about teacher evaluation and qualifications, it can be too easy to have opinions about any of those ideas, filtered through the lenses of our prior experiences.
Instead of tarring and feathering the institution and the teacher with a common brush based on one of those very powerful memories of a circumstance gone awry, should we not be remembering the thousands of people who made a difference in the life of a child and espoused fairness over equality, choice over mandate and who opened doors to the world that a single experience could not offer?
A system of good-quality education does exist in our country and in our community, and we should all be working together to ensure that the images raised when the word “teacher” is said is a positive one, worthy of emulation and support.
A dead rose on a stem and an unconcerned doctor are not what we would dwell on.
Think of the teachers who did make a difference in your life and work to ensure that this generation of children has the opportunity to have excellent teachers in theirs.