THE 2.5 million American public-school teachers are gathering their books, thoughts, and courage for another year in front of the class. Let's stop for a moment and give thanks for the women and men who will instruct, cajole, worry over, joke with, and help our most precious resource - our children. In the past five years, there's been more recognition of the importance and value of teachers than in the previous five decades. It's about time. Teaching has been undervalued and ignored.
A teacher with any integrity quickly finds that standing alone every day in front of 25 students of every race, creed, and background - and who arrive already hooked on TV - creates demands and requires patience that people in less children-intensive jobs don't always understand.
Tracy Kidder in his new book, ``Among Schoolchildren,'' writes: ``The task of universal, public, elementary education is still usually being conducted by a woman alone in a little room. ... If she is willing, she tries to cultivate the minds of children both in good and desperate shape. Some of them have problems that she hasn't been trained to identify. She feels her way.''
Since 1983, teachers salaries have increased generously. The average salary increased from $17,500 in 1983 to $29,000 in 1988. That's a lot, and it has eased the predicted teacher shortage (though not in math and science).
There's still a struggle over teachers' identity: Are they professionals, such as doctors or lawyers? Or does the nature of their work with young people make them unique public servants? We think they are a little of both.
As professionals, teachers deserve more autonomy and power. They also should be held accountable. Teaching is noble. But the recent trend to romanticize it shouldn't be allowed to sway the public's right to demand better efforts. Many types of work are tough and lonely - not just teaching. And few jobs have a three-month vacation built in. Plus, a husband and wife who teach today make over $60,000.
As public servants, teachers deserve and need more moral support from parents and the public. Some of our finest people - our unsung heroes - are teachers.