Most nations, I suspect, don't celebrate school teachers the way Vietnam does, with a National Teachers’ Day.
On the surface, it may seem like a good idea – a little extra recognition for a noble calling that is often under-appreciated and underpaid, the latter of which is very true in Vietnam.
But a Vietnamese friend doesn't like how Teachers’ Day creates expectations for families to provide gifts regardless of the quality of the relationship.
"In Vietnam, we have a saying "If you want your children to be well-educated, then you should love the teachers" to emphasize the role of teachers in their children's educational development," Vinh explained. A respectful attitude is appropriate. But, "when it becomes a national day like this, it ruins the fairness of the educational environment, and it becomes a chance for corruption."
Most parents, Vinh explained, "fear that if they do not bring gifts to their son or daughter's teachers, then their children would be treated badly by the teachers." The low pay afforded teachers in Vietnam prompts many to moonlight as tutors, as many earn extra pay by leading private classes after school hours.
"The relationship between students and teachers should be very personal," Vinh explained. "And it should not be celebrated nationwide like it's happening now."
He has a point. Not all teachers, or all teacher-student relationships, are created equal. All of us probably have only vague memories of mediocre teachers; the standouts were either terrific or terrible. Some of the unforgettable ones better off forgotten. Do they deserve a Teachers' Day too?
But there are also exceptional teachers who inspire students to new levels of achievement and self-discovery. Occasionally there are real-life exemplars whose careers resembles the pedagogic heroes of films like "Dead Poets Society" or "Mr. Holland's Opus." More common, I think, are the quietly heroic.
Once upon a time in America, for example, a middle-aged first grade teacher named Mrs. Schreiber welcomed into her classroom a new girl who was part of the wave of Vietnamese immigrants.
The girl arrived speaking no English but was fluent by the end of the first year. Mrs. Schreiber and her husband – they had no children of their own – took the girl under their wing, and invited her to an overnight church camp the following summer. At the breakfast table the girl was happily surprised to see a small bowl of ice cream – and when she spooned a mouthful she realized it was butter for the pancakes.
A few years later, the girl would have another special teacher, a man named Mr. Bingert. The girl’s parents – slower to adjust to American culture and busy with a family that would grow to eight children – couldn't give her the encouragement that Mr. Bingert could. To her he was a father figure who reveled in her academic success. When she was in high school, she would learn that Mr. Bingert was gay and, after he died from AIDS, she would read poem she wrote in his honor at his memorial service.
The girl would grow up to become my wife. An old school photo of Mr. Bingert has an honored place in our home among our family portraits. Mrs. Schreiber is now a widow in her 80s and still going strong. Last summer, Mrs. Schreiber joined us and our three children out for lunch. It was a nice visit, and we hope that Mrs. Schreiber's zest for travel may even take her to Hanoi.
So it's not hard to understand why, in a culture influenced by the great teacher Confucius, there would be a Teachers’ Day. For the best of teachers, the calling isn't just a livelihood but a life.
So I can see how, on Teachers’ Day, many parents and students might feel like they are only going through the motions. Some gifts are meaningful; some are mere tokens. A ritual to show respect is never as meaningful as respect itself.