A Life in Teaching
Over the course of Beth Dutton’s 40 years of teaching, she has learned that students love a challenge.
By harnessing that desire to rise to the occasion, the Vermont high school civics, government, and history teacher has helped her students create the first Youth Court in all of New England, the first permanent recycling center in her area, and the first community youth group.
“The kids know that a challenge is being thrown at them, and they pick it up and run with it,” she says. “They’ll do anything you challenge them to do if you love them enough.”
She has taught in Germany and New York, and has been teaching for 20 years at Vermont ’s Windsor High School (her daughter teaches middle school math and science nearby).
In addition, the 84-year-old has authored nine books and worked tirelessly to end all forms of discrimination—especially through her Holocaust History course—which resulted in first the Vermont-NEA and then the national Association awarding her Human and Civil Rights Awards. Here, Dutton discusses the hurdles that face future teachers.
What kinds of issues do you see as a challenge to tomorrow’s teachers?
Right now, the hardest thing I find is that so many of the students come to us with such heavy loads of baggage—broken homes, parents working. I don’t mean their parents don’t love them, they’re just so busy and involved with jobs and careers that they just don’t have the time to sit down and help with homework, talk about school, help them with personal problems, ethical issues. The kids just seem to be struggling on their own, and it’s very difficult to get through to them sometimes.
The problem for teachers in the future is going to be getting kids to open up and accept that the teacher is there for them. They just seem to have lost faith in adults. Now, given the world we’ve led them into, I don’t blame them. Gaining their trust is one of the hardest things new teachers will face. I face it with every new class.
And I think teaching them to accept people and have faith in the fact that people are good is a challenge today. Kids today are so cynical. They have every right to be, but breaking down that cynicism is one of the great challenges.
How do you get through to them?
I make my classroom open all the time to anyone who wants to come in and talk. Sometimes they’ll come in and cry or come in and laugh or celebrate a new friendship or a new dress. It’s a safe place to come in and open up and let loose, and I think that’s something I picked up from my daughter. Then they feel they can trust me, and after that it’s a lot easier to teach them. They know you don’t have an agenda then; you’re there for them.
How can teachers make a difference?
It sounds sort of soppy, but the teachers that really love their students are going to perhaps give them back a little bit of faith in the adult population and the world that they’re going to have to take over and lead one day. It’s not going to be a fun world that they take over. But you’ve got to be honest about it. They can pick out a phony every time. If you don’t like what they’re doing or saying, say so.
What do you love about teaching?
The thing that I love most of all, besides the children themselves, I love the challenge that they bring to me every single day. No matter how many times I look out at a classroom of 20 or 25 faces, I think, “Oh Lord, how am I going to get through to all of those people?” I believe very strongly in teaching them that people should be ethical and governments should be ethical, and these days, that’s not easy to do.
And you have to believe in the subjects you’re teaching, too. I love government and I love politics, and I love teaching people to be good citizens.