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On Teacher Appreciation Day, Remember That Educators Save Lives

Teacher Appreciation Day isn't just about education. It's about intervention.

Mr. Dixon probably saved my life. He was a big bald man with a full grey beard, kind, mischievous eyes, and penchants for commercial fishing, poetry, and mid-1970s freedom rock. Luckily for me, he also taught photography and helmed the yearbook crew at Kenai Central High School. The school was perched on the spur of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and, at the time, I was perched on the edge of something — I’m still not sure quite what. But, thanks in large part to Mr. Dixon, I graduated in 1993. Would I have made it without him? Maybe. Possibly. I don’t know. Like many kids, I was fortunate enough to be looked after by a devoted educator.

If I talk about Mr. Dixon today, it’s often in terms of “my favorite teacher,” the typical obfuscation used for such conversation. But, in fact, the man was a savior. When we talk about appreciating teachers, it’s important to be honest about that because they deserve to be appreciated for more than teaching. They save lives.

Mr. Dixon worried about my mental health and helped me get better (not perfect mind you, but stable). The fact is that as a doped-up, high school junior lost in the wilds of Alaska, I could have easily slipped towards substance abuse or crime, or just lasting and unrelenting loneliness. I was headed that direction under my own power when Mr. Dixon showed up and asked where I was going. If it weren’t for long talks with the empathetic art educator in his dimmed, cluttered office after school, I’m not sure I would have considered it until arriving.

The teachers most often fetishized in popular culture are usually the ones that teach the ne’er-do-wells how to rise above their socio-economic status through the power of English or algebra. These are the teachers of films like Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds. And, obviously, there is merit in a teacher that can push a child who doesn’t believe in themselves to achieve academic success.

But the teachers who are less often championed are those helping kids survive. I didn’t go on to Harvard or solve an unsolvable math question or write a great novel (though maybe we’ll get there), but I have kids and a good life that I’m proud of. That’s a lot. That’s more than was guaranteed. I don’t think Mr. Dixon saw me as a generation-defining achiever. I think he cared about me and wanted to help me move forward. He saw a world where I was healthy and happy. He told me about it and I believed him.

Mr. Dixon got to know the weirdos who flocked to the photo lab, which was strewn with occasionally lewd copies of Interview magazine and blasted with the Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic. We trusted him with secrets that would have caused the school guidance counselor to blush. We felt free to be open with him about the messy chaos of our teen lives, and curse and cry. He did not flinch. Instead, he listened. He gave us books to read and music to listen to in order to help us gain perspective and feel like we were not alone. He encouraged us to seek professional counseling when necessary and talk to our parents when we were reticent.

To be absolutely clear, none of his work as an amateur therapist was in his job description. His duties were to teach us how to take and develop photographs, put out a monthly school newspaper and make sure there was a yearbook by the end of the year. That was it. But thank God he didn’t see it that way.

And thank god there are teachers like him quietly doing the work that public education has pulled back from over the years. Consider the NPR news report that suggests one in five students are suffering from poor mental health and that nearly 80 percent will not receive treatment. The reason? There are not enough professionals available for intervention. There is one school counselor for every 500 students and many of them only address students’ academic futures. Worse, there is only one school psychologist for every 1,500 students. If it weren’t for educators filling in the gaps more kids would slip through the cracks.

None of this is fair for teachers like Mr. Dixon. The emotional labor entailed in supporting a student’s mental health is above and beyond crushing work-loads and testing requirements, already done with paltry compensation. Despite the reward of seeing a kid make it through school, the chances for burnout are obviously high. It’s telling that Mr. Dixon gave up being an educator to go back to commercial fishing and professional photography. Ironically, the art was likely more lucrative and the fishing less grueling.

So when I see a teacher walking out and carrying a sign demanding higher wages, I stand in support. These educators do far more than teach our children skills. They are often the last line of defense between kids and oblivion. Some are obviously saving lives and for that they should be compensated accordingly.