Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ken Neal - Speech to Teachers Association
Approximately mid-1990's

Teachers: Why I Hate You, Why I Love You

Ken Neal, Tulsa World (1953-2009)
     In recent years - almost by accident - I have come to be a defender of education in general and teachers in particular. I didn't plan it. It happened as a logical outcome of what I like to believe is sincere and thoughtful consideration of Oklahoma, her people and her future.
     As a native son, I'm as sensitive as anyone to the generally low regard Oklahoma enjoys in the rest of country. I've been forced to try to defend our state in conversations with my editorial peers in national seminars and stand ready to continue to do it.  But in many respects, it's a losing battle. The blunt truth is that Oklahoma, by most measures, is at the tail end of the country.
     I won't bore you with recitations of where we rank among the states on a variety of measurements of what can be loosely called progress. In almost every instance, whatever the comparison, whatever the measure, Oklahoma is near the last. You teachers know how true this is in the field of
     In the past 10 years, the statistics and information have flooded my desk and that of anyone else who cares to pay attention. Oklahoma is the last frontier of the United States, a unique blend of her immigrant streams of Indians, poor Appalachian folk, cowboys and some midwestern farmers. One great accident of nature has at one time given the state wealth and at the same time held back the development of the state. That accident was oil and gas.
     Virtually since statehood, Oklahoma has thrived or suffered depending on the fortunes of the oil industry. For five years or more, we have been in the depths of a great depression caused by the collapse of the oil industry.
     The flaws that the oil and gas boom obscured now are at the forefront. There are many examples of how oil was our crutch. So long as the money flowed from oil, there was no urgency in building another base, whether in the economy or in what I want to discuss tonight: Education.
     One would have to be blind and stupid not to realize that Oklahoma's problems flow out of the attitudes of her people. Again, education is but one aspect of this attitudinal problem, but I am convinced that coping with the attitudes toward teachers, schools and education in general are the key to a better tomorrow.
     This conviction on my part and others like me accounts for why we constantly turn the microscope on you teachers and educators. We want you to improve, to do a better job with our children. It's unfair, I'll admit. Too often, we the people want you to do a better job without giving you the
tools to do a better job.
     Some of us realize you need more money, better buildings, better equipment and more support from the public to do the job we expect. But a great many Oklahomans look at teachers and don't believe your lot is so tough or that your pay is so low. The attitude is that until you do a better job, we're not going to put anymore money into schools.
     Unrealistic? Sure. The quality of education and teaching in the classroom in Oklahoma today is a direct result of years of neglect by the public. We are lucky to have the quality we have today, given the past record in support of schools.
     This is by way of telling you that I do not universally condemn the quality of teaching. I know there are many good teachers who teach out of motives other than the size of a paycheck. I am not so unfair as to suggest that teachers should teach purely for the love of teaching with no regard to pay. Only the ignorant among us take that position. But there are a lot of them. Your job - in addition to the daunting chore of teaching children every day - is to help yourselves in the eyes of a public that in general is not
     I have wrestled off and on for years with the public's generally low opinion of teachers. I hasten to add, lest any of you jump to remind me, that newspapermen are held in much lower esteem than teachers.
     Generalization is risky and I know that my personal experiences with teachers are not sufficient to justify broad generalizations. But I believe some of them are worth thinking about because I'm sure my experience is not unusual. In any case, I'm trusting that the horrors and the glories of my memories of teachers will be of some value to you when you step back into the classroom.
     Let me expand on the title of my talk a bit. Teachers: I love you, I hate you. I love to hate you. I hate
to love you, but I do.
     To this day, nothing intimidates me more than being in the presence of a teacher, not to mention a crowd of them. A 25-year-old first-grade teacher, one year out of education school, puts me on guard, even though she's younger than my daughters. Immediately, you see, she's "teacher." and I'm once again a small boy, anxious to please. I need her approval. I don't want to irritate her. I'm conscious of my grammar. An Okie raised speaking "Okie" struggles a lifetime to simply keep subject and verb in agreement, to put the 'g's
at the end of thinking, to say "think" instead of "thank" to say "can't" instead of "cayn't" and above all, don't lapse into saying "ain't."
     The 25-year-old girl becomes the symbol of authority, authority that wielded with fairness and understanding becomes affection; misused and handed down unfairly, it becomes a focus of rebellion. Let me try to illustrate.
     I can close my eyes and see the faces of all of my elementary school teachers, most of the junior high teachers and many of my senior high instructors.
     They account for my feelings of embarrassment, rage, injustice and rebellion. At the same time, they account for the opposite feelings of gratitude, of happiness, affection, even love. You teachers, I believe, often forget the great influence your actions and attitudes - even those you consider minor - have on your students.
     Like, for example, my fourth grade teacher who broke her word to me. I was a gnome in the 5th grade play, "Rip Van Winkle." After the play we were told we had done such a great job that there would be special parts for us next year. I took that as gospel. When next year came, there was another bit part for me. The teacher, in my mind, had broken her word. She had lied. She had broken faith with me, fully
justifying my dealing her whatever misery I could. I did. This teacher made no bones about having favorites. I wasn't one of her favorites and I set out to prove to her she wasn't one of mine. It was an unequal battle. I lost. In more ways than one.
     I spent a lot of time in the principal's office in those years. Later, the principal, Chuck Johnson, told me he was surprised that I hadn't dropped out of school. Mr. Johnson later on became one of my best friends and boosters. It might have had something to do with the fact I was no longer in his school.
     There was the second grade teacher who wouldn't let me go to the bathroom until it was too late; the junior high coach who believed I had stolen a basketball; the high school football coach who taught that real men didn't play in the band; who's idea of a man was the 115-pound 14-year-old who would kill himself trying to block the 195-pound 18-year-old; a man who weighed 265 and thought that accident of genetics
made him a man.
     Before anyone starts kicking coaches, there was Cecil Hankins, the man who wanted me to be his quarterback during my senior year. I decided not to play that year, much to the head coach's condemnation. Hankins called me in one day and told me he understood; that a kid my size had no business playing football and that he was looking forward to my playing baseball for him the next spring. No one will ever know how much it meant to me for Cecil Hankins, All-America at OSU and teammate of Bob Fennimore, to tell me that. 
     Then there were the teachers who consciously or subconsciously judged us according to where we lived in town and what our parents did for a living; they cataloged their students and fed the suspicion that the wealth or poverty of our parents dictated our future. Of course, in a general sense they were right.  One of the goals of teaching, however, should be to help children overcome their backgrounds. Never was this more true than in the ghettos of today.
     There was the time when a science teacher embarrassed my friend Charles Jestice to tears in class because he could not pronounce "solstice."  She kept on and on, to the delight and then the embarrassment of the class, trying to make him say it correctly. She was quite surprised when I piped up and told her to get off his back; that she ought to be ashamed for embarrassing him. Injustice, unfairness. Children feel these slights much more strongly than teachers think.
     There were other bad experiences, but you get the idea.
     Fortunately for me, these weren't the only teachers in my life.
     There was Blanche Peyton, the spinster lady who taught everything from beginning Algebra to Calculus and who today would be running some big computer firm. Blanche was the only teacher in those days who cared enough to call my mother after I made a D on an Algebra test. I dropped out of mathematics, for good reason. But Blanche always was my friend, calling on me for help in managing her car or other errands. In the process, she managed to convey her affection.
     There were two teachers, however, who more or less chose my profession and the direction of my entire life for me. To this day, I'm not sure whether to thank them or curse them because of the nature of the business they headed me into.
     In the 9th grade, I ran into an English teacher who wasn't overly concerned with memorization of grammar but with composition and thought. It was she who suggested I might make a living with words. It was she who contacted the school's journalism teacher and got me into a journalism class a year early. Her name is Mary Alice Beck. (Read her letter?) This letter, 40 years after the fact, is one of my prized possessions.
     Then there's John Ronnie Roberson, the journalism teacher who took the time to teach me, in and out of class. It was Ronnie who called the Tulsa World and got me a job as copy boy; it was Ronnie who enrolled me at the University of Tulsa; It was Ronnie who checked on me throughout my first semester in school and gently sought progress reports. It was to Ronnie I carried my grades in the first semester. He took them, four As, a B and a C and proudly announced to everyone in the cafe, "not bad for an old Sand Springs boy."

To read Ken's editorials from 1981-2007 follow this link:

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