"What you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do."
- Norton Juster, in The Phantom Tollbooth
Last month I spent two long Saturdays scoring the Nevada State Proficiency in Writing. Frankly, I did it for the money, but more about that later.
The fourth-graders had written essays on their favorite characters from books, TV or movies. Sponge Bob Squarepants, a cartoon character, won by a landslide. Before you shake your head about their choice, consider that at 10, my list of favorite characters would have included Annette Funicello, Spin & Marty and RinTinTin.
In their essays, the students told me that Sponge Bob is well-liked because he is funny, kind to his friends and respectful. Other popular characters were Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and Aragorn. Arnold Schwarzenegger picked up a few votes as well. The children admired strong, brave, persistent characters who did the right thing.
I teach my students that characters reveal themselves through their thoughts and words. However, we can only truly know characters by what they do, by the choices they make. Actions speak louder than words. How does a character treat others? How does he show kindness? How does she show courage? Trustworthiness? Honesty? Fairness? We admire, despise or distrust them based on their actions. We are suspicious when what they say does not match with what they do.
When U.S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige referred to the 2.7 million member National Education Association as a "terrorist organization" it said more about his character than about the NEA. When the person charged with leading the nation's schools equates teachers with Al-Qaeda, he demonstrates the contempt in which he holds us, whom he calls the "soldiers of democracy."
Yes, Paige quickly apologized for his so-called joke, but I know I speak for many other teachers when I say that I'm afraid. Moreover, I'm glad I have the NEA to watch my back. When trying to change a bad law labels you a terrorist, we're all in trouble.
Until recently, I've felt somewhat ambivalent about my membership in the Ormsby County Teachers Association and NEA. I've wished the association could be more about advancing the profession and less about politics and negotiations. We are public servants, after all.
Most of us chose to become teachers for altruistic reasons. We believe - we know - we make a difference in the lives of our students every day. We do noble work in a just cause and we never expected to get rich.
Because of that, thriftiness is a common character trait among teachers. You will often find us at clearance racks, dollar stores or garage sales picking up bargains for our families, our classrooms and ourselves. Persistence is pretty common too. We demonstrate that trait - as well as considerable patience - every day as we repeat, "Did you check for capitals and periods? Is your name on your paper? Hats off in class, please. Homework goes in the basket."
For generations good teachers have gotten under our skin, made us think, taught us something new and made us do better than we thought we could.
Carson City teachers will demonstrate their persistence and patience again this year when the OCEA and the Carson City School District go to binding arbitration in April over an impasse reached during contract negotiations last fall. You could say that both sides are showing their character. The district says they wish they could pay us more, that, really, we're worth it.
However, no matter what OCEA has asked for in miniscule salary increases or language related to No Child Left Behind or benefit protection, the district - through its legal representative - has offered nothing. Nothing. His only response has been, "No." Not a penny. Not an inch. The district has chosen its priorities. Their actions speak louder than their words.
Soon some Carson City teachers may find it necessary to choose other, better-paying careers. Nevertheless, most, like me, will likely choose to persist. Most will attend meetings and parent conferences before and after school. We will take extra classes and come in on weekends even as our pay hovers near the bottom in the state.
Most will continue to arrive early and stay late because that is what it takes to get the job done right. We will even persist when the nation's teacher-in-chief accuses us of terrorism. We will keep teaching even if we have to take a second job.
We are teachers and when we believe students - or public officials - aren't doing their best, we look them in the eye and say, "We're disappointed in you. We know you can do better. Let us help you."
Lorie Schaefer is a reading specialist at Seeliger School.