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Teachers: Heroes in a crisis--but otherwise under fire

The teachers at Plaza Towers Elementary School had a 16-minute warning.
Teachers carry children away from Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City, Okla, Monday, May 20, 2013. Near SW 149th and Hudson. (AP Photo/ The Oklahoman,  Paul Hellstern)
Teachers carry children away from Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City, Okla, Monday, May 20, 2013. Near...

The teachers at Plaza Towers Elementary School had a 16-minute warning. As one of the most destructive tornadoes barreled towards the school, educators evacuated the older children—the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders—to a nearby church. But the younger children sought shelter within the school building, and teachers stayed with them.

Sixth-grade teacher Rhonda Crosswhite was among those who stayed behind. She hid in a bathroom stall with six of the children and draped herself across them as the tornado struck. Students screamed and begged for her not to die. She shouted reassurances back and prayed. By the time the tornado had passed, it had completely shredded the school building around them. There were children who didn't survive. But Crosswhite and the children she protected all lived.

Crosswhite's story is already one of the best-known examples of teacher heroism to emerge from Monday night's devastation in Moore, Okla. There are others: educators at Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary pulled children out of the rubble, shielded them from harm, or just comforted them in the face of unimaginable destruction. Last December, several teachers and a principal at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., died along with students when a gunman entered the school and opened fire. Other teachers hid their students in classrooms and closets, helping them to be quiet and safe until the shooting stopped.

"You don't go into teaching for the money," Oklahoma Education Association president Linda Hampton told msnbc Tuesday. "You go into teaching because you care about the kids. You spend more of your waking hours as a teacher with those children than anyone does, and they become your children. And just like any parent, you're going to protect them at all costs."

Yet the role of protector during the hours in which children are in their care sometimes seems to have been lost in the public debate about education.

Rarely recognized as champions of their students, public educators are more often targets of small-government conservatives and education reformers. Teachers across the country have watched their profession chipped away by school closures, mass layoffs, budget cuts, and other measures. Pressure to deliver top test scores has led to backlashes in some areas of the country. And cheating scandals, in which some educators altered scores to help advance their schools or protect themselves, harmed the reputations of teachers nationwide just as many were struggling to keep their jobs.

Since 2009, local and state-level budget cuts have cost public educators more than 300,000 jobs. Tens of thousands more could disappear as a result of the federal government's across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester.

In Chicago, teachers are currently fighting what could be the largest round of school closures ever to occur in a single American school district with 54 schools on the line. In Michigan, more than 50 districts face budget deficits and the specter of a state-imposed Emergency Manager who could order further cuts. In 2011, teachers in Wisconsin lost the right to collective bargaining. And across the country, educators are being squeezed by high-stakes testing, concessionary contract bargaining, and charter schools which sap their student populations. These policies are usually implemented in the name of fiscal prudence and school reform.

"The biggest trend that has impacted [teachers] has been the cuts to education funding, and that translates into a whole lot of different things," including mass layoffs, larger class sizes and limited resources, said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel.

An equally significant issue for teachers has been years of education policy focused on test results. Teacher assessment tied to test scores, educators argue, undercuts traditional methods that emphasized a greater connection between students and their teachers.

"We see everything being standardized," said Xian Barrett, a public school teacher and community activist in Chicago.  The metrics being foisted upon teachers and students have little to do with a real education, Barrett said.

In Chicago, the city government has been locked in a prolonged struggle with labor and community activists over the future of public education; the Board of Education may soon close dozens of schools deemed "underutilized." For the city school system, which supports the closures, this is a simple math problem. There are no longer enough students in the city to justify keeping that many school buildings open, so the student population should be "consolidated."

“The changes we are making will allow us to focus our resources on our children and their education, and I look forward to parents and community members continuing to play a significant role in moving our work forward," said the head of the school system, Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

What Byrd-Bennett ignores, says Barrett, is that at-risk students need to be able to build stable bonds with educators. When students are uprooted from their older schools, it "has devastating effects on young people, and their future is very much in doubt."

Van Roekel was quick to stress that he does see value in testing and evaluations. However, he emphasized that those tests should not be imposed from above without any reference to the concerns of local educators.

"Nobody knows better what's happening in the classroom than the people who work there, the educators, so we need to trust them," he said. One-size-fits-all evaluations and high-stakes testing disregards the differences between different populations of students.

"I remember watching my two little boys when they were young, going to school, and thinking: Gosh, I'm giving the adults in that site the two most important things in my life," said Van Roekel. Any parent who sends a child to school, he said, gives teachers "the most precious thing in their life, their children, and we ought to respect and honor that profession."