There hasn’t been a more inspirational educator during our lifetime than Ivan Welton Fitzwater, who in 2008 received the American Association of School Administrators Distinguished Service Award and who Texas Education Magazine listed among the top five speakers in America.

Before he died in 2010 in San Antonio at the age of 79, he penned the poem “Only a Teacher?” which speaks to the value and importance of the classroom instructor.

“I am a teacher!

What I do and say are being absorbed by young minds

who will echo these images across the ages.

My lessons will be immortal,

affecting people yet unborn,

people I will never see or know.

The future of the world is in my classroom today,

a future with the potential for good or bad.

The pliable minds of tomorrow’s leaders will be molded

either artistically or grotesquely by what I do.

Several future presidents are learning from me today;

so are the great writers of the next decades;

and so are all the so-called ordinary people

who will make the decisions in a democracy.

I must never forget these same young people

could be the thieves or murderers of the future.

Only a teacher?

Thank God I have a calling to the greatest

profession of all!

I must be vigilant every day

lest I lose one fragile opportunity

to improve tomorrow.”

His poem should be required reading for every new educator, reminding all about the primary mission in our public schools. The words also serve as a reminder as to how far we’ve come in education.

While technological advances of the last century are mind-boggling, there have also been giant strides in public schools. Many of our parents and grandparents living in the early 1900s were educated in a one-room schoolhouse where one teacher was responsible for five to eight grade levels and taught all subjects. In addition to preparing lessons and grading tests and homework, teachers were also expected to tend to the pot belly stove and clean their classrooms.

The average monthly wage for a female teacher in a one-room school was $25.99.

Unfortunately, school strikes have been one of the largest stumbling blocks to education over the past quarter century. Entire communities have been fractured by the jobs action, not to mention the faceoffs between parents, teachers and administrators. In the end, there must be agreement that weighs the amount of taxation a community must shoulder versus a fair wage and benefit package for educators.

Strikes have not been very common in our nation, even in the 13 states where the work stoppages by teachers don’t violate the law. One exception has been in Pennsylvania, where teachers’ strikes have occurred at least 740 times since 1968.

Since the passage of Act 88 in 1992 through 2006-07, 21.1 percent of Pennsylvania’s 603 school districts, IUs and vocational technical schools have experienced teachers’ strikes. From 1997 through 2013, there were 115 strikes in 80 districts located in 33 counties of Pennsylvania. Altogether the strikes totaled 1,177 days and affected 311,674 pupils.

Work stoppages, strikes and labor disputes produce no winners. There are a number of lasting negatives, however, such as the weakening of school pride that bonds a community, the amount of classroom downtime, the rescheduling of activities and revising of the school calendar.

As Fitzwater said in the closing line of his poem on teaching: “I must be vigilant every day lest I lose one fragile opportunity to improve tomorrow.”

We know too well that the senior class members in a school district involved in a labor dispute also face “a fragile opportunity” regarding their futures, and in our competitive world, that shouldn’t have to be compromised.

By JIM ZBICK | tneditor@tnonline.com