Public education in America is going through a very difficult period, and at the center of it all is the modern view of teachers---which has consistently declined. That circumstance is creating a slowly mounting crisis, which we need to recognize and respond to.

Two months ago, when teachers in Chicago were on strike, columnist Bill Maxwell of the "Tampa Bay Times," who once taught in the Windy City, wrote an article titled "Why I Stopped Encouraging Students to Become Teachers," and he summarized the situation:

". . . the United States is virtually alone in the world in being profoundly contemptuous of its schoolteachers. The negative results — vengeful layoffs and firings, increased class loads, evaluations based on unreliable standardized tests, and the hurry up establishment of charter schools and vouchers —are damaging the profession beyond repair.

After analyzing federal surveys of attrition rates in schools nationwide, researchers . . . found that teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Nearly half of those entering the field to replace retiring baby boomers leave within five years."

Maxwell also mentioned "a core problem"— that "most teachers feel 'ordered around' and 'threatened' and 'bullied' by people who have never taught one day." In no other profession do the practitioners receive so little respect from the public, and of course, that promotes a growing disrespect from students as well, especially on the high school level.

My son Evan, and his wife Julie, who both teach science in one of the finest high schools on Florida's Gulf Coast, often express similar views. (Both are graduates of Macomb High School and WIU.) Underpaid and undervalued (like so many other teachers), despite remarkably successful students and the frequent teaching of honors classes, they struggle to maintain the idealism that drew them into the profession. Evan and Julie also point out that virtually none of their students plan to become teachers.

How different from my era in the 1960s, when the profession often drew the finest high school graduates, and many of us enrolled at WIU were headed into teaching. Americans generally felt that it was a vital and respected field.

All of this is not a brand new problem —just a worsening one. Thirty years ago, in an article titled "Teachers and the American Public" (written for the "Macomb Journal" and several other newspapers), I pointed to the "declining public esteem for teachers," which was reflected in both minimal salaries and disrespect by parents and others. And I asked, "How can a society that has low esteem for teachers demand high quality professionals in the classroom?"

As Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has pointed out more recently, in many countries that get better educational results than we do — such as China, Finland, and Japan — the pay for teachers is higher, and their status, or respect by others, roughly equals that of professionals in other fields. No wonder American students are academically below their counterparts in many developed countries. (There are other contributing factors to this problem as well, such as greater cultural emphasis on learning, and less anti-intellectualism, in other countries. But all these factors are interrelated.)

The teaching profession in America must reassert its competence and reaffirm its crucial impact on both the lives of young people and the future of our nation. And as a society, we must not only demand good teaching; we must respect, reward, and cherish our teachers.

Macomb could become a model. For generations we have been an education-minded town, with a noted normal school, then teacher's college, and then university that has produced tens of thousands of teachers, making an impact across America and in foreign countries. And partly for that reason, we have fine local schools. The Macomb School District and the WIU College of Education and Human Services ought to spearhead the development a major annual event that celebrates teachers.

While this week, in mid-November, is American Education Week, the best time for such an effort is early May, which is Teacher Appreciation Week, coming shortly before graduation. (Macomb also has no major festivals or events between Christmas and Heritage Days, as I have mentioned before, so we need some significant cultural events in the first half of the year.) A reception honoring teachers, an official declaration by the mayor, appreciative messages from parents and students, a newspaper issue focused on fine teachers (past and present), and other recognitions could do much to assert that Macomb does not follow the self-defeating national trend of devaluing teachers. In fact, we lead in the right direction.

Jacques Barzun, a long-time Columbia University professor and a brilliant cultural historian, who wrote "Teacher in America" and forty other books, once commented, "Teaching is not a lost art, but regard for it is a lost tradition." I hope the day will come when the people of our town explicitly and repeatedly say, as a community, "That's not true in Macomb, where education continues to succeed, and teachers are highly respected and always appreciated."

Teacher, author, local historian, and "Voice" columnist John Hallwas will be having a holiday season book signing today, focused on "Here to Stay" and several of his other titles, at New Copperfield's, from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m.