Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 05 2011

An Attack On Teachers

I love reading articles like this one: “In Honor of Teachers“. The stories are always touching, it’s nice to feel supported and appreciated, and it sure doesn’t hurt to hear that your profession is “infused with nobility.”

But this article is one in a line of recent press that stands in blind support of teachers. It’s popular lately for politicians to cry out against “the scapegoating of teachers” and for people to demand that we stop blaming teachers for our failing education system. This is all very nice and good, and I appreciate hearing voices in my favor, but I think these people are actually going around supporting us in the wrong way. To make the education system better and promote the teaching profession, I think they actually have to get tougher on us.

You don’t hear anyone tell people to stop scapegoating bankers for our economic failures. You don’t hear anyone tell people to stop scapegoating Congress and the President for our governmental failures. Some people sign up to do a job that has a significant influence over certain aspects of society. They might not have caused the problems themselves, but they took a job with the potential to fix these problems. In doing that, they take on some personal responsibility. You’re supposed to hold them to it if they don’t make things better.

I want people to have that kind of faith in teachers, too. I want you to remember that I signed up to help fix education in this country, and I want you to trust in my ability to make things better. I want you to have the same high expectations for me that I have for my kids, so that you demand excellence from me no matter what else is going on. Poverty, parents, previous teachers, funding cuts… all these things might make my job harder, but they are not an excuse to lower your belief in me. I’d never let my kids tell me that their poverty means they don’t have to learn as well. For the same reason, I ask you never to tell me that the problems in our society mean I don’t have to teach as well.

If we want the best and brightest in this country to become teachers, we have to start treating the profession like it’s something only the best and brightest can do. Stop babying us and start demanding that we perform better than bankers, better than politicians, better than professional athletes, better than Navy SEALS. If you believe that my job is the most important one there is, then stop telling me that I can be anything less than the best. Not my best, but the best.

Just because I’m “noble” enough to give up a higher salary and easier hours does not mean I have a right to this job. Just because I take care of children all day does not mean you have to give me a gold star sticker for effort and leave me alone. Just because teachers are “so nice” and “so self-sacrificing” and “in it for the kiddos” doesn’t mean we don’t also have to be great at our jobs. I am an adult, and an extremely competent one at that. Treat me accordingly. If I can’t do my job better than anyone else, make me be better or take it away from me and give it to someone who can excel. Our kids are too important for you to do anything less.

Sure, a higher salary and better public perception would help get better people into teaching, but there’s no way they can come first. When you have a job that anyone can get, no one can lose, and people aren’t allowed to criticize, then you really don’t have a job that deserves a high salary and lots of respect. Society will have to pay us well when it refuses to settle for anyone who isn’t worth a fair sum of money. People will have to respect our work when they know how we must excel just to keep our jobs. Then the system would all function dramatically better.

Demand excellence and settle for nothing less. Then pay and treat the excellent teachers accordingly, while trusting that you’ve hired people who can make our education system better. Maybe then we’ll be able to sit back and stop scapegoating the teachers.

5 Responses

  1. olivia

    I understand where you’re coming from, but I disagree. I’ve been astounded by the lack of respect teachers get, compared to all of the responsibilities we have. Also, I think very few people realize how much administrative/logistical things teachers have to deal with on their own time–I feel like about 25% of the job is teaching. Maybe you’ve heard people saying this frequently, but to me it seems like it’s currently much more popular for people to decry teachers as lazy and ineffective. And since when are teachers immune from job loss? Here in Georgia, tons of teachers have been laid off due to budget cuts–really good teachers. Furlough days, delayed raises, etc–teachers are soaking up the same kinds of job difficulties that people in other industries are dealing with. in any case, I think respect has to come first, because otherwise who will devote his/her career to teaching?

    • mathinaz

      Thanks for your response, Olivia. I just want to clarify that I didn’t mean to include layoffs etc. when I said it’s a job no one can lose. I was referring to how hard it is (in places I’ve been, maybe not everywhere?) to fire teachers who aren’t good at their jobs. In so many industries, people who don’t do well lose their jobs and people who do well get promoted and make more money. Teaching is the only profession I can think of where we can complain that judgments might not be fair and our bosses need to do so much administrative work to prove their fairness that it’s not even worth trying to get rid of most people. Who is going to respect us when we can get lifelong tenure for simply surviving in the system for a couple of years?

      I agree that respect needs to come, but so many of us have already started teaching without it. Maybe it doesn’t actually need to come first?

  2. Lucas

    You’re right that we as a society have to expect the very best from teachers if we expect the profession to be infused with nobility. Some are outstanding, inspirational, and set the standard of excellence, and we should have the decency to recognize their brilliance, and enable them to exercise a more significant degree of leadership and chart a healthy course for the whole enterprise of modern education. Some may have a lot of enthusiasm, compassion, and dedication, but not a whole lot of competence, and perhaps they just need more help from experienced colleagues to achieve their full potential as teachers. Some, perhaps because they are burned out and just too tired to function properly in the classroom, do suffer from delusions of adequacy, and they should be politely but firmly encouraged to look for a more suitable job. However, just as teachers need to take personal responsibility, society also needs to take collective responsibility, and have the courage to ask the hard questions about how the system can be optimized structurally. You should not have to do the most important job in the world alone. For example, why do we not have more educational partnerships between schools and places in the community where students could easily obtain knowledge and experience that is of value and interest to them? For example, I work in a laboratory. Is it safe enough for a whole class of kindergarteners at once? No. But is it safe enough for a couple of relatively mature and responsible 11-year-olds who have a genuine interest in chemistry? Yes, absolutely. They could probably help me do original research. I would just have to be sure not to let them play around and open bottles of poison. Can you imagine how much more exciting that would be than your average chemistry period, and how much it would motivate you to learn the theory of the science you could see with your own eyes? I think what people really mean when they make the plea to stop scapegoating teachers is not that we should never hold people accountable, but simply that we have to take a closer look at what we can do better as individuals, as voting citizens, as taxpayers, and as members of the community before we are entitled to pass summary judgement on who is ultimately to blame.

  3. Elle

    A job that anyone can get and nobody can lose? What are you talking about? That’s so untrue.

    It is way past time to stop blaming teachers. Cultures who value education and respect teachers are surpassing the U.S. In Dallas ISD, the jobs of Caucasian and African-American English-proficient teachers are constantly threatened. Yet a principal can get and keep a job by merely having an Hispanic surname, even if he/she NEVER taught an academic subject! Teachers with Hispanic surnames are protected, even if they have little to no experience or poor performance. The only goal in Dallas ISD is to convert the whole thing to Spanish. And it’s a mess, as a result.

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