Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Teacher Appreciation Shabbat
February 8, 2013

The Debt We Owe Our Teachers

Art Buchwald was one of America’s great humorists. For many years he entertained and educated us with his columns which appeared in newspapers all around the country. In these columns, Art Buchwald would take a painful truth about us – a truth so painful that we did not want to face up to it – and tell it to us in such a funny way that we had to listen to it and take it seriously.

I’m going to give you an example this evening, and I sincerely hope no one is offended by this column. Everyone knows that education in America today is under serious siege. So many contemporary problems are laid at the foot of our teachers and our schools. And yet we also know that our education system – especially in states such as Oklahoma – is woefully underfunded. Who will go into education when salaries are often so shamefully low that a person cannot support his or her family on a teacher’s salary? While most people recognize this truth, we do little about it. So Art Buchwald wrote this column in order to make us realize the painful truth that we too often prefer to ignore. He called it “Night School at the Local Restaurant” and this is what he says:

“When SAT scores plummet in the United States, everyone blames the schoolteachers. But this is too easy. The average salary of a schoolteacher, after four years of college, is $30,000 a year. Because many teachers have to moonlight on another job in order to make ends meet, they are not getting enough rest to be sharp in the classroom.

I became aware of this when I took my nephew, Shawn, to dinner the other night. “Look, Uncle Art,” he said. “There’s my English Teacher.”

“Where?” I asked.

“The man coming over in the waiter’s uniform,” Shawn said.

“He’s your English teacher?”

“Sure. Hi, Mr. Peterson.” “Hello, Shawn,” Mr. Peterson said to my nephew. “What brings you here on a school night?”

“My uncle is taking me out for my birthday. How did I do my English test today?” Shawn asked.

“I haven’t been able to mark it yet. We had a big crowd here tonight at the restaurant. There is a meeting in town of the American Bankers Association and a conference of Lobbyists of America as well, and they’ve kept me running. What would you like to order, Shawn?”

Shawn studied the menu, and said: “What gives with the oysters, Mr. Peterson?”

“Nothing gives with the oysters, Shawn. Oysters cannot give. You are supposed to say: ‘How are the oysters tonight?”

“Well, how are they?”

“I would recommend them,” said Mr. Peterson.

“Ok. In that case I’ll take a shot at them,” said Shawn.

“You don’t take shots at oysters. You can only eat them,” said Mr. Peterson.

“C’mon, Mr. Peterson. Don’t spoil my birthday,” said Shawn.

“I’m sorry, Shawn. I forgot my place. As a waiter, I shouldn’t correct you.”

“Hey, Mr. Peterson. Is that Mr. Alfredo, our science teacher over there, carrying all those dishes?”

“Yes it is,” said Mr. Peterson. “He’s a busboy here, but as soon as he gets his graduate degree, they will probably promote him to waiter. The manager of this restaurant only uses teachers from our high school. He is an alumnus, so he tries to hire as many of us as he can. Miss Bellows, your math teacher, is the hatcheck girl, and Mr. Fallows, the gym teacher, is the bouncer at the bar.”

“Isn’t it degrading to work as a waiter at night and a schoolteacher by day?” I asked Mr. Peterson.

“Oh, I never tell anyone that I moonlight by day as a teacher. If you let people know that you are a teacher, they have no respect for you, and they don’t leave you much of a tip. But if you tell them that you are a waiter, they feel respect for you and tip you generously.”

“You teachers have a tough life,” I said.

“It could be worse. Most of the teachers at our school work the night shift at Federal Express. They never get any tips there.”

We gave our order, and, after Mr. Peterson left, I asked Shawn: “Is he a good teacher?”

“Better than most,” said Shawn. “You know Johnny Halloran, the kid that I play football with? Well, he and his parents discovered his French teacher, Mr. Dubois, working in a gas station. Mr. Dubois forgot to put the gas cap back on their tank, and Johnny’s parents were so angry that, when they got home, they called the principal and demanded that he be fired. They said that they did not want their son learning French from someone who didn’t even know how to pump gas.”

“What happened? Was Mr. Dubois fired?” I asked.

“No, because the principal had done the same thing at the gas station he was working at the night before, so he sympathized,” said Shawn.

We finished our dinner and asked Mr. Peterson if he would please call us a cab. He told us it would be no problem.

“I’ll call Mrs. Thompson, Shawn’s homeroom teacher. She hasn’t had a fare all night long, so she will be pleased to take you home.” End of column.
This satire is what our parents would have called “a bittere gelechter,” because we laugh at it, but then we recognize that it is no laughing matter that so many of our teachers have to have other jobs on the side, because of the meager salaries that we pay them for teaching our children.

My dear congregants and teachers, I share with you this Buchwald biting satire but I do not want – in any way – to demean restaurant or gas station or cab driving or Federal Express work. Rather, I want to contrast the situation Buchwald is addressing with a passage in the Shulchan Aruch – which is the great code of Jewish law. It holds that a teacher is not allowed to moonlight because, if he or she does, they will come into the class worn out and that is not fair to the children. The Shulchan Aruch says that any teacher who moonlights is robbing their students of the energy that they deserve to have from their teacher and, therefore, any teacher who works another job on the side is to be considered a thief.

When does this rule apply? The Shulchan Aruch states “this rule only applies where the community pays its teachers a decent salary. But if they do not, then teachers have no choice but to work another job on the side, and the blame lies, not on them, but on the community which underpays them.”

Contrast these two views on moonlighting – the one found in the Shulchan Aruch and the one which Art Buchwald satirizes in his column – and we have the difference between the way teachers are treated in our society and the way they should be treated.

In Jewish tradition, teachers are not just hired hands and surely not people who could not make it in some other field. Teachers do avodat hakodesh – sacred service and therefore deserve fair pay and great respect.

Teachers are the foundation of all we have as Jews. We are a book-centered people, and teachers are the ones who carry the key to the library. Therefore, without skilled and devoted teachers, we simply will not be.

This is why, when we wish to honor Moses, we do not call him “Sir Moses” or “Lord Moses” – we call him Moshe Rabanu, Moses our Teacher. And when we want to honor God, one of the names that we use is “Hamelamed et Amo Yisrael – which means “the One who teaches the people of Israel.”

Pirke Avot says that “whoever learns even one chapter, even one sentence, even one letter, must be forever grateful to his or her teacher.” And that is why we’re honoring our children’s teachers this evening.

In Numbers, chapter 3, we find a list of the children of Aaron, but listen to how they are introduced. They are called “the children of Aaron and Moses.” What does that mean? How can they be called “the children of Moses” when they are obviously only the children of Aaron?

The Midrash says Aaron was their father physically and Moses was their teacher. So why does the Torah refer to them as the children of Aaron and Moses? Because whoever teaches his friend’s child is considered as if he gave birth to him. A parent brings you into the world physically; a teacher brings you into the world of ideas – and both deserve equal respect. That is the traditional Jewish view of teachers.

We have entered an age in which jobs and careers are likely to be invented and to become obsolete faster and faster. There was a time – my parents’, your parents’, grandparents’ time – when a person graduated college and went to work for a company and stayed with the company for 40 or 50 years, until he got his gold watch and retired. Not anymore. Today that company is not likely to last for 50 years. Even the field in which the company works may not last for 50 years. So the average person who graduates college today can expect to have different jobs and different kinds of jobs in different fields during his or her career.

Therefore, in this new and fast-changing world in which we now live, the most valuable survival skill you can have is the ability to learn. And the best way to learn how to learn is to have great teachers who inspire their students by their own enthusiasm and their own love of learning. We need to acknowledge and thank and honor the teachers who inspire their students. Imagine if we had a program where no great teacher was left behind.

When Jews first came to this country, they rushed to register their children in school, because they considered education to be the gateway to America. So many Jewish parents worked very long hours and scrimped and saved to assure that their children would get a good education. Our priorities of that generation need to become the priorities for public education today.

And one of the basic things that we need to insist on to those who fund and run our schools is that teachers are sacred. Teachers are the ones who educate our children for the world in which they will grow up and, therefore, teachers deserve the utmost respect and at least a decent living salary. May this priority continue to be one of our most important contributions to American life. Amen

I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer
for much of this message.