Text: Job 28:12, 15-19
“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”
“Most of us end up with no more than five or six people who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.”
“Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”
Ms. Price was my kindergarten teacher. I have spoken about her before in sermons. For those who have not heard my stories of Ms. Price or weren’t paying attention the first time I told them, it is important to note that she was not only my kindergarten teacher, she was also my Sunday school teacher. Yes, I attended kindergarten at my church. I don’t know why but I’m thinking that maybe when I came along, back in the dark ages, kindergarten was not a part of the public school system. For whatever reasons, that was my experience and I loved my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Price. After all, we spent six out of seven days a week together. My memories of her is of a stern and caring older woman who expected much from us 5 and 6-year-olds in terms of behavior and learning (learning was serious business); and while she often used questionable discipline techniques (such as having us stand at the black board with our nose in a circle when we had misbehaved), I knew, and all of us in that 1967 kindergarten class of Sandy Plains Baptist Church knew that she loved us deeply, wanted us to learn, and would have done anything to protect us. I can still feel her arms wrapped around me drawing me into her bosom for one of her firm but loving hugs—the kind of hug that can make a child feel like they are suffocating—that let me know just how much she cared for me. She was the first person, and as it would happen, the first teacher in my life who would nurtured a place of belonging and understanding.
Beginning with Ms. Price, teachers would become the single greatest influence in my life, offering over many years a place of understanding and acceptance and encouragement—shaping me as a student, as a learner and as a person. In second grade it was Ms. Martin who told me that I had the best penmanship of any student she had ever taught. Her words gave me confidence and taught me to take pride in my school work. To this day, my handwriting matters to me. In the fourth grade, it was Ms. Reager. She was the first teacher who encouraged my spirited approach to learning—thinking outside the box and being curious. In junior high it was my history teacher, Mr. McSwain, who invited me and one of my friends to his home to ride horses. While history was always a challenge for me, the connection I made with him that day riding horses made me want to work harder at a subject that was not my best. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Niver who taught me that as learners we all have limits, but she did so with humor and goodwill. She never made me feel like a failure although after a year the only thing I could say in French was “Je ne sais pas.” And I can still hear her saying to me each class, “Fermez la bouche Nanette.” If you don’t know French, there is your homework for this sermon.
Beyond high school, teachers would continue to be the single greatest influence in my life, offering to me a safe place of understanding. My college and seminary teachers and professors opened my mind in ways that I didn’t know existed and offered me blessing after blessing after blessing with their words of affirmation and encouragement. Through the teaching/learning process they nurtured an imagination within me that taught me that life offers possibility after possibility after possibility. It is not an overstatement when I say that the teachers throughout my entire life—those I have named and others: Bob Poerschke, Alan Neely, Sam Balentine, Elizabeth Barnes, Dick Hester, Bonnie Stone, Lou Rosser and Mahan Siler—have shaped the core of the person I am today. So when I think about how teachers have shaped my life I think of Maya Angelou’s words, “I come as one, but I represent thousands.” Maybe not thousands, but for certain every teacher and every educator whose class I’ve sat in.
Today, our state is in a crisis when it comes to public education and supporting those who teach our children. Elizabeth Queen who is an MDiv student at Duke Divinity who compiled a document for the North Carolina Council of Churches titled “A Call to Action for People of Faith and Public Education”: “In the United States, the value of education is a given for most people. Research and overwhelming public opinion both attest to the importance of the classroom as a laboratory for learning and skill development. Education is a doorway to resources that improve both the lives of students and their communities by providing them with social and cognitive skills that equip them for successful participation in society.” Despite this, she goes on to say “North Carolina’s education policies often do not support [the] basic needs of students and educators. Chris Hill, Director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, noted that there are several threats to public education in North Carolina that widen the achievement gap between student groups and undermine the adequate and equitable education of all the state’s students.” It seems that in NC the value of education may not be a given for many children.
What are these threats that Hill names? First, the re-segregation of schools and the privatization of public education through private school vouchers, tax credits, and the explosive growth of charter schools. Second, the promotion of online education as a replacement rather than a supplement for classroom education excluding students in low-income areas who do not have access to personal computers and the Internet. This change in format also removes the important socialization aspect of education, which is vital for building skills that help our children succeed socially and professionally as adult citizens. A third threat that Hill identifies is the lack of revenue to fund public schools. He writes that, “over the past several years North Carolina’s investment in education has dwindled to shocking lows, allocating fewer and fewer state dollars to adequate classrooms and facilities, school supplies, teacher support, and other vital resources for student achievement. As of 2013, spending on education had fallen below our state’s 40 year average of budget funding allocated to education…” And just this past week on the heels of the Governor’s proposed budget, the Senate announced its own proposed budget. Here’s a partial summary of that budget.
- Cuts 7,400 teacher assistants to save $233 million, further reducing instructional time. This brings the total number of TAs cut over the past two years to 11,300
- Cuts 70 school nurse positions to save $3.5 million, well below the recommended staffing level
- Keeps funding for textbooks level at $23 million or $15/pupil for the second consecutive year
- Ends funding for the NC Teaching Fellows Program
- And does very little to increase teacher pay in any significant way
I know that I don’t have to tell you that here in North Carolina our public school students, teachers, school administrators and staff are facing a climate of diminished support. I asked the lectionary group this week why it is that every single adult who attended public school can tell you a story of a teacher or school counselor or school staff person who changed their life but when it comes to supporting and paying our teachers and valuing their work our society responds woefully and inadequately. Why? And why is this issue – education and how we support those who teach our children – an issue of faith?
Elizabeth Queen answers that question. She writes, “Scripture is not only filled with praise for wisdom and learning from the prophets to the disciples, but it is also overflowing with admonitions for God’s people to act with justice and equity because the God we serve is just. In addition to promoting wisdom, which is inherently valuable, education also serves as a powerful engine for overcoming poverty and promoting a healthy democracy that serves its citizens well. An educational system that leaves out the most vulnerable members of our community is simply unacceptable. Scripture is clear on this. God shows no partiality amongst God’s children based on income, race, geography, or any other characteristic, and people of faith must advocate for a just public education system that shows no partiality as well.”
Job would be the last place that one would think to turn to for a passage about the value of wisdom and learning. But right there stuck in the middle of all of Job’s suffering is this passage about wisdom and learning.
Where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?…It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal; the price of wisdom/learning is above pearls…
Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing is more valuable than learning. No one, no one, no one is more valuable to a society than its educators and its educated citizens—people who have been taught how to think for themselves. Nobody, nobody, nobody—not one child—deserves to be left behind because they don’t have access to a high quality education or to that one teacher who will challenge them, who will say to them “you are a good writer” or “wow, you read that beautifully” or “you have the best penmanship ever.” Every single one of God’s children deserves access to a Ms. Price or a Ms. Welch or Ms. Reamie Squires or a Mr. McSwain or a Ms. Grace Taylor who will teach them about English and history and math and science and the arts AND who will give them a place of blessing—a place of confidence—a place of hope—that place of understanding.
As a people of faith we have a moral responsibility to support and strengthen our public schools. And that is why what is happening in NC around public education is our business as a faith community.