Babysitters Indeed!

As the members of the Drama Club and I headed to the airport en route to Athens and a weekend drama workshop, I should have known something was up: One of my students was dressed in a very smart traveling cloak and outfit and had a large suitcase. The sign slipped by: it was very, very early in the morning of what would prove to be a terribly long day, and I just thought she wanted to be nicely dressed for the weekend.

The flight to Athens was smooth, and we were clearing immigration when this student began to walk rapidly away from the rest of us, suitcase in tow. Telling the others to wait, I followed, calling her name repeatedly and finally catching up with her outside the terminal. Waiting for her were an older woman who looked like her and a very big man.

The very big man advanced towards me, but my student stopped him, turning to me and saying, “This is my mother. I am leaving my father [in the country we had flown from] to live with her. I won’t be going to the workshop.” The very big man said, “That will be enough.” They left.

When I got back to my other students, they had been found by students of our host school. No adults were with them except the Greek-speaking bus drivers because it was naturally thought that their guests would not require, ah, special services at the airport to handle abductions. In those pre-cell-phone-pre-internet days I could only say that I needed to speak to a policeman. From a pay phone I called the school and was told to take the bus and make the report later. (It turned out that my missing student, being 18, was entitled to do what she had done.)

Phone calls to the Headmaster and then to the father followed that morning. Both were understanding, but I remained very upset. I had told the students that their classmate would not be joining us where we stayed and only later told them that she had decided to leave us. It was of course important not to convey my upset to the students, who were looking forward to an exciting weekend.

And that is what they got. Our host school, named after an English Renaissance poet and composer, was well known for its offerings in the humanities and for its dramatic productions, as would befit a school located in the Birthplace of Drama. The workshop’s production of excerpts from a tragedy was very impressive and inspired the Club in ways I will discuss below. I also took the students on our own school tour of the Acropolis. Even there a breath of trouble blew: a man followed us, seeming to stalk one of the girls. I kept myself interposed between him and the students, and we finally left because he continued to be troublesome without doing anything overtly threatening or assaultive. As we left, a drenching thunderstorm broke, so we ran for cover to a taverna in the Plaka, where we dried out over Greek food. The stalker was forgotten.

To the students it was an altogether splendid trip, but my reaction was more ambivalent. On a school-sponsored trip into town I had a fine discussion with the school’s classicist about translations, agreeing to disagree about the relative merits of Lattimore and Fagles—that  while examining relics from the Acropolis in an excellent museum. At a round-table of academics and poets held at the school I was able to ratify my choice of Rae Dalven’s translations of C. P. Cavafy’s poems for use with my students and to become interested for the first time in the work of George Seferis. I reflected on all this in light of the abduction, which I couldn’t separate from my total impression of the trip.

Was it worth it? Later that year the students mounted a production of excerpts from Oedipus Rex. The original impetus for the production and choice of play was theirs, as were most of the production and directorial decisions. They made masks for all the characters, choreographed the Choruses to take account of the strophes and antistrophes, and made a set showing a public square in Thebes. The boy who played Oedipus was very good and diligent enough to learn some very long speeches.

On another trip I got sick. Our Theory of Knowledge classes used to take an annual weekend trip to stay by the banks of a nearby river, where we would divide time between preparing and giving “ToK Presentations” and doing such things as river-rafting and hanging like spiders from ropes, etc. On this particular weekend I spent most of both nights either being sick or preparing to be sick, and the days left me barely the time between visits to the bathroom to supervise activities as lightly as possible, and to give suitable attention to grading the Presentations. The students didn’t need to know, and did not find out, that I had been sick. Even my colleague didn’t know of my illness till I told her as the bus drove up to the school at the end. There was no alternative except to abort the trip or to cast a pall over the proceedings.

It was during the Athens trip that I decided all good teachers are also good actors. We have to give the appearance of solidity to our students even when we are feeling somewhat fragile or brittle. It is not easy.

I therefore reacted angrily to news that parents in Wisconsin, in support of some political measures against teachers taken by their legislature and governor, were saying before TV cameras that teachers are “only babysitters.” This breathtakingly ignorant formulation has no basis in any reality I have been familiar with for the last twenty-five years. A baby-sitter is a fourteen-year-old who eats popcorn and calls his customers home if anything bad happens. A teacher, by contrast, goes with his students to Athens or the riverside and summons the sense and strength to guide those students even when difficulties and sickness intrude on the proceedings. I say nothing of the classroom, less glamorous and more important.

Another argument I hear out of Wisconsin is that teachers work “only” 180 days a year. Which 180 do they mean? The 180 days of contact time mandated by law? The days “in service”? The summer study? The weekend trips and abduction management exercises, usually without compensatory Acropoles? The evenings and mornings grading papers? The time spent on preparation for re-accreditation of self and school? My calculations show that I spend at least as much time at teaching as someone else spends at a job with a two-week vacation and ten paid holidays. Teachers who live an easy life undoubtedly exist, but I don’t know them.

In any case, why just listen to me? A report on “Lessons from PISA” has some keen observations about the esteem in which teachers are held in the US and, by contrast, in the countries whose students do best on the PISA (the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment) tests. There is much to interest us in that report, but the most gratifying moment must be the question asked of a young teacher in Finland, where the world’s best schools are found, and the answer he gave:

“What made you want to be a teacher?” asked the author.

The Finnish teacher’s reply: “Because it is the most honorable of all professions”


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