The extraordinary courage of teachers

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by LZ Granderson
(CNN) — Each day more than 55 million students attend the country’s 130,000 schools.

Each day, parents and guardians entrust some 7 million teachers with the education of our children.

And on a normal day, that is all we expect teachers to do — teach.

But on those not-so normal days we are reminded that for six hours a day and more, five days a week, teaching is not the only thing teachers are charged with doing. On those not-so-normal days, we are reminded that teachers are also asked to be surrogate parents, protectors, heroes.

Monday was one of those not-so-normal days.

The nation watched in horror as a 2-mile-wide tornado with winds up to 200 mph tore through Moore, Oklahoma. As sirens blared and the ground shook, the full force of the twister hit Plaza Towers Elementary School around 3 p.m. It was full of students, young scared children who had nowhere to hide as the tornado ripped off the roof, sending debris everywhere.

“We had to pull a car out of the front hall off a teacher and I don’t know what her name is, but she had three little kids underneath her,” a rescuer said. “Good job teach.”

And that teacher was not the only one whose body shielded children from harm.

A couple of years ago, as state and local officials were looking for ways to cut spending, a study from the American Enterprise Institute emerged in 2011, asking a provocative question: Are teachers overpaid?

Using abbreviated metrics — such as comparing private sector employees’ SAT and GRE scores with those of teachers — the study’s co-author Jason Richwine said the findings suggested that “years of education could be an overestimate of cognitive skills.”

A counterintuitive and insulting proposition. But in retrospect that shouldn’t be too surprising considering Richwine’s doctoral dissertation advocated keeping out immigrants with low IQs, which he maintained are lower than those of the “native white population.” He also co-authored an attack on immigration reform for the Heritage Foundation. And he resigned as the group’s senior policy analyst shortly afterward.

Nevertheless, as educators in Chicago voted to strike and benefits such as tenure came under scrutiny, the question that study proposed sparked a national conversation and helped turn 2012 into a year in which teacher-bashing became a popular past time.

But when I think of the importance of teaching in this country, when I think about the heroism demonstrated in Oklahoma, I find it impossible to overpay teachers.

We can certainly talk about the realities of the economy, debate the best method to evaluate effectiveness and discuss the drawbacks of unions. But anyone who characterizes teachers as overpaid is forgetting what we entrust them with each and every day.

Our children.

On a normal day, you don’t think about that too much.

But on a not-so-normal day, that is all you can think about.

Anne Marie Murphy, a mother of four, died trying to protect 6-year-old Dylan Hockley as Adam Lanza terrorized the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. When police found the two victims, Murphy was still holding Hockley in her arms.

And five other educators did not run away from the threat but gave their lives trying to protect students, trying to protect children.

How do you overpay for that?

Obviously no parent or guardian drops their children off at school thinking tragedy is going to happen. But perhaps we should be grateful that if something terrible does happen, that there are these angels in the building who will do right by our kids. Who will give anything — sometimes even their lives — to protect them in our absence.

One of the Plaza Towers teachers reportedly was lying on top of six students in a school bathroom to shelter them from the horrific storm.

I’m sure that is not in the job description.

So yes, it is fiscally responsible for a community to talk about loss of tax revenue and budget deficits. But we ought to be careful not to vilify this profession while doing so. Teachers are not glorified babysitters with summers off. Their profession fuels all others, and on a normal day that is amazing enough in and of itself.

But on a day that’s not so normal, we hope and pray that they are willing to do much more. And time and time again, in the face of terrible tragedies, we have learned that many of them do.

Editor’s note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and was a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

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