OZY Features Alderman on Building Monuments to Honor Educators

In a recent feature of OZY‘s special series, High School, Disrupted, the discussion surrounds the topic of building monuments in honor of high school teachers.

Building statues is one way communities decide on, and indicate to the world, what they value. There are statues of generals, presidents, reformers, ministers, Oscar Wilde and, in the Loire Valley, a jarringly naked statue of Leonardo da Vinci. What we don’t have are statues honoring the thousands of extraordinary teachers who, day in and day out, motivate American youth, keep them from dropping out, spend their summers crafting lesson plans and make a visible, lasting difference.

“If someone walks down the street and sees a statue of Martin Luther King, that communicates, well, this gentleman must have been pretty important,” says Derek Alderman, professor of geography, “but the power of that statue isn’t confined to that moment. Statues are fixed to the landscape, they hang around over time — and over time, those monuments influence people’s thoughts.”

Translation: If you build it, they will care.

OZY continues to say that it comes down to who gets treated like a hero. Maybe if teachers were lionized and literally carved into the landscapes of our neighborhoods, kids and parents would treat them less like overworked employees and more like esteemed experts. They might be valued more for their wisdom and dedication.

“Monuments and statues tell two different stories,” Alderman says. “The story of the past they’re referencing, and the story of how that monument was created — when it was created and by whom it was created.”

Often, he adds, communities get a new statue because activist groups push for funding and make it happen. Which means change starts at the community level: Pick a teacher (OK, a dead teacher) and start writing letters. If enough people declare their lives were measurably changed by an educator, maybe we can change the landscape too.