Lambs in Public Education
I am convinced that my third grade teacher Mrs. Sype was an angel who walked the earth in mortal clothing. In a roomful of nine-year-olds she never raised her voice and she loved her students. You could see this in everything she did. Every day after lunch we would happily snuggle into our desks and she would read to us from her favorite books. Day after day her soft voice would transport us from the magical world of James and the Giant Peach to the heartbreak of Where the Red Fern Grows. Every year for twenty-seven years when she got to the end of that story she would weep so bitterly over the death of those dogs that a student would have to finish reading for her. Every single year.
Mrs. Sype loved books, and because I loved Mrs. Sype I too came to share her passion. One day she pulled Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder from her personal stash and said I might enjoy it. From that moment on I was hooked. I spent every spare moment with Laura, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, and the Black Stallion. These books led me to The Hobbit, Gone With the Wind and many other dear friends. Over the years I poured through the library and soon found myself in the company of C.S. Lewis, Neal A. Maxwell, and Bruce R. McConkie. In all of these books I found humor and beauty and truth. These ideas distilled upon my soul like the dew from heaven. They fed my hungry mind and spirit.
Then, in the eleventh grade I came across a different sort of teacher. He was no angel, more like the offspring of Mr. Spock and The Absent Minded Professor with one white eyebrow that shot up into space quite violently to prove it. Mr. Tilzey taught physics to disaffected teens, a job which required a special skill set and Mr. Magoo levels of disregard for what was cool.
That class opened up a new world to my plaid flannel-wearing sarcastic teenage self. We learned about forces and energy. Built mouse trap powered cars and balsa wood bridges. We bounced lasers and made hydrogen balloons explode. And because I could not get enough of this excitement, I found my way to his classroom during lunch and after school. Once there, instead of being annoyed by the interruption, he instead took the time to talk with me and set me on the shoulders of some of the greatest scientific minds of all time. Einstein, Neils Bohr, Hubler, Kepler, and DaVinci. From that lofty altitude I began to see the handwriting of God scrawled across the cosmos and in the organization of the smallest particles. Once again nourishment for my mind led me to food for my spirit, and it was sweet.
While neither of these teachers were members of my faith, Mr. Tilzey got me asking questions, questions that led to an understanding of the physical processes of this world and how that links with spiritual progression. Mrs. Sype gave me the keys to answering those questions through reading literature and scripture. Those two teachers taught me that there is beauty and truth all around me, they added wisdom to the things my family had taught me, and in the process fed my mind and spirit in ways that have blessed my life.
Both of these gifted teachers were employees of our public school system, the topic of hot debate these days. I’ll be the first to admit that much in public education is a mess. As an administrator, a school board trustee, a band booster, and football Mama, I spend most of my days in the trenches. Bureaucracy, budgetary woes, political rhetoric, student apathy, security concerns, curriculum drama, standardized testing, secularism, and so on; it is no wonder that many concerned parents search for alternate options.
As a people with so many obligations and busy schedules, and the magnitude of the challenges of our current education system it is easy to simply stand on the sidelines and leave the issues to others. The problem is that when we do that, we leave the door open to influence from sources that are there for their own gain and not necessarily working towards the best interests of students. To improve the system we must engage and the stakes are high.
Life for so many of the children in our nation today is anything but a fairy tale. Parents with substance addiction, fractured families and neighborhoods, crime, hunger, and abuse in all of its forms are rampant in our populations. In my hometown schools and many others, there are programs where teachers watch for chronically hungry children who get their entire nutrition for the day in the lunch room. It is heartbreaking when you realize how many there are.
Then there are the single parents struggling to make ends meet, underemployment, poverty, and a plethora of other difficulties that is the daily reality for a great many children. Public school is a place that can be a refuge from the storm, a stepping stone to a better life. In some cases a good public education is their only hope for escape from a lifestyle which otherwise would perpetuate into adulthood.
Even without considering socioeconomic and cultural conditions we need to understand that the great majority of the upcoming generation is being educated in public schools. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that nearly 50 million students in the U.S. will attend public elementary and secondary schools this year. So even if you have no children, or they are grown, or you have chosen to educate your kids in some other way, public education is still your business. Public education is a driving force in what our society will become in the future.
This is not how it should be. Families should raise children not governments, but unfortunately too many parents have either deserted their posts and are not coming back or are living in situations where survival is all they have the energy to focus on. This puts schools in the difficult position of being expected to teach everything from honesty to history, from social studies to sexual education, and to do it in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.
Not all is doom and gloom. Along with the challenges are the kids who strive for excellence, parents who are involved and sacrifice time and means to volunteer, teachers who put student success ahead of big paychecks, coaches who inspire, art and music programs that change lives, and many, many people who just want to do the right thing but they need help. Lots more help.
As members of a church that take the charges to love thy neighbor and feed my lambs seriously, what could our responsibilities be in this less than ideal situation? Latter-day prophets have given us guidance in regards to this and other civic matters.
In 1986 Ezra Taft Benson said (empasis added),
We must become involved in civic affairs. As citizens of this republic, we cannot do our duty and be idle spectators… We must make our influence felt by our vote, our letters, and our advice. We must be wisely informed and let others know how we feel.
In October 2000, the First Presidency included in a letter to the general church membership on political neutrality the following statement (emphasis added):
As personal circumstances allow, we encourage men and women in the Church to serve in public offices of either election or appointment — including school boards, city and county councils and commissions, state legislatures, and national offices.
President Hinckley has said (emphasis added),
I urge you with all the capacity that I have to reach out in a duty that stands beyond the requirements of our everyday lives; that is, to stand strong, even to become a leader in speaking up in behalf of those causes which make our civilization shine and which give comfort and peace to our lives. You can be a leader. You must be a leader…
This leadership is sorely needed in the halls of our public schools. You can lead by volunteering to be a mentor, joining the PTA, and speaking out and showing up when policies in your local school are headed off the tracks. You can lead by running for office; you may not be elected but you can get a message out in the process. You can lead by writing your elected officials and by holding them responsible at the voting booth. By organizing groups to clean, and paint, and raise money for much needed infrastructure improvements. You can encourage bright young people to become teachers; you can become a teacher yourself. You can volunteer to be a room parent, a reading buddy, a friend. You can send an encouraging note to a teacher. You can pray for the kids and adults working day-in and day-out in public education. The options are as varied as the talents you possess and they are needed, terribly needed.
There are fifty million lambs in the United States alone who need teachers like Mr. Tilzey and Mrs. Sype. They need parents and community members who care about feeding their minds and in turn their souls. So, whoever you are: old, young, no kids, ten kids, home-schooler, charter founder, retired general, chicken farmer, executive, or janitor, you can lead and make an impact in the lives of the coming generation. If you don’t, the agendas of other interests who are not so selfless will, and we will all live with the consequences.
Feed my lambs, love thy neighbor — both are principles that require action — and those precious lambs are worth the effort.