Michele St. Martin on the teachers who changed her life

I have a confession to make: a cliché, no less. A teacher changed my life. His name was Brad Aamodt and he taught me junior high English and speech, and was the advisor for related activities. I'll never forget when my best friend's mother, a teacher in the same school district, told me that Mr. Aamodt thought I was a talented writer. He nurtured me: When I tried out for the class play and it was clear I had no acting talent, he made a place for me as "student director." And he and his pal, Mrs. Snyder, another English teacher, helped keep me on the straight and narrow, so to speak. Mrs. Snyder gave me a "C" in English and told my mother that my work was deserving of a higher grade but that she also knew I could do much better. She wanted me to earn my "A," and the next quarter I did. The faith that Brad Aamodt and Helen Snyder had in me made a big difference. They did more than teach me-they helped me believe in myself.

Good teachers are an incredible gift to a child. The best of them are able to offer the little ones hugs and the older ones knowledge wrapped in encouragement. I watch my daughter's kindergarten teacher and marvel at her patience and ability to make all the kids in her class feel special in a way that goes beyond words. In reading Kelly Westhoff's story on page 1 about the gender gap in teaching, I'm reminded that the most talented teachers do much more than impart knowledge: They provide patience, nurturing, understanding, and, I believe, have a genuine love for their profession and their students.

It must be love, because, as Westhoff reports, the "fringe benefits" of teaching include low wages, crowded classrooms, more expensive health insurance (or none at all), and, in the case of younger teachers with less seniority, the year-to-year uncertainty about whether or not they'll have a job in the fall.

I wonder how many potentially life-changing teachers are turned away from the profession today because the challenges seem almost insurmountable? While I'm cheered by reading the words of the teachers in Westhoff's story, and those of Carrie Lucking, who speaks her mind in "Women'sWork (page 12)," I also think of the public school teachers I know who send their children to private schools because they feel, because of their first-hand experience, that city school classrooms are too chaotic (read=overcrowded) for most kids to be able to learn. I don't know if they are or not, but this is what I've heard several different teachers say. Ironically, teachers' wages are so low that their kids qualify for healthy scholarships. These are kids who would add a lot to a classroom. The whole situation is wrong on so many levels that it makes my head spin.

How can we allow teachers-and kids-to be treated this way? Part of it, of course, is the sleight-of-hand practiced by Gov. Pawlenty, who's slashed and burned education funding in a variety of ways, while disingenuously claiming he's done just the opposite. This year, with new legislative leadership, perhaps we can begin to stop the erosion of education funding. And I hope the cities and small towns of Minnesota will get funding help from the state so that they don't have to balance their budget on the backs of property owners (one of the most regressive forms of tax). It remains to be seen if real change is possible with a bipartisan government. If not, those of us who care about education-isn't that all of us?-will be the losers.

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