The hardest job in America? Being a teacher, so said Sargent Shriver on October 13, 1972, in a speech given as part of his vice presidential campaign with George McGovern. Forty-two years after this remarkable speech, his words bear sharing.
Sargent Shriver begins by saying that it is the hardest job "not just because the teachers of America have been blamed and castigated for all the ills" of our educational system. When the fact is that teachers are not the causes of these ills but are victims themselves, "not just because teachers often work in archaic schools with inadequate facilities for both teacher and child," and "not just because a narrow officialdom has bogged teachers down in massive red tape wasteful of time and destructive of initiative" (did Sarge ever have to do student growth objectives, I wonder?) though all of these, and more, are "difficult, frustrating obstacles in your profession."
Shriver said that it's the hardest job because teachers are expected to teach students values that they are not seeing lived all around them and in the society overall. What are the values that Shriver believes are central to effective education? They are not controversial: reverence for life, honesty and truth, brotherhood/sisterhood and unity, desire, and respect for knowledge and education.
Why did Shriver believe these values were not a priority to educational policymakers and not first in the minds of children? Four reasons, each one as relevant today as in 1972:
- Much more money is spent on war than on education.
- Hungry, sick, and uncared for children are not a priority of the federal government. "This Administration doesn't even seem to comprehend that those problems are all handicaps to a child's education."
- Our national, state, and local politicians and educational leaders do not model these essential values.
- Too many communities in which many of our children live, which surround the schools, are characterized by poor housing and recreation, inadequate health care, joblessness, racial/ethnic discrimination, and hopelessness, which "all find their way to the school door. A child who is hungry, or sleepy or sick or on drugs cannot learn."
I hope you are as struck as I am by how Shriver's words from 1972 resonate in the present. He was not being prescient. He was describing his situation at the time with brutal honesty. He could not have known, and likely could not have imagined, that the conditions he spoke about would largely persist over four decades later.
What Did Shriver Recommend?
The context of the speech, of course, gives you Shriver's ultimate recommendation: Elect George McGovern to the White House and he would create the changes needed, with Shriver's assistance.
But we need something a bit more contemporary, and from the speech, we can extract three of Shriver's ideas that we can apply to the present:
1. Provide early childhood education. This ensures that especially disadvantaged youth have a "head start" that allows them to begin school less far behind. Shriver was not just advocating universal preschool. He wanted children to have the health and dental care of Head Start, and he wanted their parents to have education, parenting support, and job and housing assistance.
2. Create political coalitions to raise voices on behalf of those who do not have a political voice. Persistent, strong leadership in the cause of children's well-being is what creates political momentum. Shriver knew this from his prior successes in the War on Poverty and Head Start expansion.
3. Make schools places where the essential values are lived. Let children see, day in and day out, what it means to some every day for half a year to a place where life is revered, honesty and truth are cherished, knowledge and education are respected, and the diverse adults and children in and around the building involved with education experience unity.
There is a lot in Shriver's speech that was rooted in the politics of 1972, but there is much more that is rooted in enduring reality. The impossible conditions that so many teachers labor under, as enumerated by Shriver, as debilitating as they are, do not carry the emotional and personal weight of trying to get children to follow a path not lived around them.
So while we look to political and policy action to correct the larger systemic problems, let's look within and make our schools places that nurture children's social-emotional and character development in the best possible ways.
When the school doors are open, and everyone is eager to enter and look forward to returning the next day, we will have taken major steps to making the hardest job in America less difficult, and far more rewarding.