Part 3 of a four part series
“Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” Ever heard that snide little one-liner? It pretty well exemplifies the opinion of far too many of us here in America when it comes to teaching. What other profession can you think of that regularly receives that kind of scorn? Look at how teachers are often portrayed in movies:
I mentioned in the first blog in this series an Oprah Winfrey show focusing on the education crisis in America’s school. The other night outspoken school reformer and former chancellor of Washington D.C.’s public schools Michelle Rhee was on Oprah again. Her take-no-prisoners approach to school reform had won her national acclaim but made her deeply unpopular in her district. She’s recently resigned her post at with the D.C. schools and has formed a new organization called Students First to clean up America’s schools. It’s an ambitious and laudable goal, but as I watched Michelle and Oprah talk, it became clear that the consensus once again seemed to be that the key culprits in our failing schools are the poor quality teachers. As difficult as it might have been to swallow, I wasn’t necessarily going to argue that point. However, I worried that behind this enthusiasm to hold teachers accountable is a profound disrespect not so much for individual low-quality teachers, but for the profession itself. The unfortunate truth is that most poor teachers either don’t know their deficits or are angrily defensive about them. The ironic thing is that good teachers are often the ones most aware of where they are still failing. I can’t picture a single one of the outstanding teachers I’ve known celebrating the persecution of bad teachers—they’d be too busy worrying over whether they’re one of them. And while, I’m not here to make any claims to greatness, I can say that as I’ve improved as a teacher I’ve become more and more aware of how much more improvement I still need to make to truly teach every student.
More and more I’m finding this “blame the teachers” mentality stinks of laziness. It’s a cop-out. Teachers are an easy target. If I’m a busy parent, an administrator burdened with state and federal demands, an unmotivated student, blaming the teacher is an easy out. Check out this NPR report on a school district in Rhode Island that fired (and then later rehired) all their teachers, and tell me if you don’t sense the same thing. Note in the piece how the school superintendent did nothing about the student who walked by him screaming. And yet he’s ready to blame the teachers. There's no question that there are issues with teacher quality in this district, but I'm not convinced that district officials are without culpability as well.
I have no issue with holding teachers accountable as long as there is:
A) a clear understanding of the serious challenges a teacher must deal with every day.
B) a practical plan for addressing those challenges.
C) and a basic respect for the work of an educator.
There must be a candid discussion of these three issues in any conversation about quality teachers. Unfortunately, all three are in short supply in this country today, and without them it will be extraordinarily to difficult to keep the best teachers in the profession and help struggling teachers either improve or find a better line of work.
So why do we hold teachers in such low regard?
Well, for one thing there is the popular misconception that teaching, especially at the elementary level, is “easy.” After all, look at the material they work with, right? But here’s the thing: teachers aren’t asked to read “See Spot Run” or add “2 + 2”, they are required to teach these skills to little people who have never read or added a sum in their lives, and for whom the task may be anything but easy. Trust me there’s nothing harder than trying to teach someone something that seems “easy” and “obvious” to you. It takes creativity, insight, and a deep understanding of both the content and the strengths and weaknesses of the child you are working with. Then keep in mind that every classroom contains students with a broad range of abilities, learning challenges, personal and family issues, behavioral problems, and even health problems! All of these factors impact how a child learns as well as how he or she should be taught for maximum benefit. In the classroom, you've got an hour at most to teach a subject and one size most definitely does not fit all.
Furthermore, before you can even begin to consider teaching you must first manage your classroom. Any parent will tell you that raising a kid is one demanding job. Now imagine you have anywhere from 15 to 30 kids who are forced to be in your house, required to learn certain things, and who may or may not love you and feel they need you the way your own kids do—that’s a teacher’s job. Management is one of the most demanding and stressful aspects of teaching.
Looks easy enough right? Looks can be deceiving. The best teachers like the best in any field make it look much easier than it is.
Secondly, our culture has a unique distaste for authority, and teachers more than perhaps any other profession represents the exact type of authority we dislike the most— lots of little rules (don’t chew gum, walk in line, raise your hand to speak) and an insistence on punishing and rewarding us for knowing information that we view as boring and pointless. As Americans, we deeply value our right and freedom to do what we want to do. We don’t like rules, we don’t like lectures, we don’t want anything infringing on our all-important fun (after all, in our increasingly entertainment-oriented society, whether a thing is “fun” or “interesting” has become one of our highest measures of its value). In light these cultural values, how can teachers, with their insistence that we read, read, read, and write, write, write have anything of interest or value to contribute to our lives? Of course we want our children to read and write, but we scorn the very people who insist that our children do these things and do them well—whether our children “feel like it” or not.
An image of teachers that is all too prevelant in our cultural consciousness.
Finally, if teachers need to be respected, then that respect must, in fairness, be earned. We all know that it it’s an extraordinary accomplishment to become a doctor or a lawyer, and because of the difficulty in achieving the goal, we respect those professions. As much as I hate to admit it there is an element of truth in that stinging refrain about what those who can do. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but one of the easiest to get into. If you can’t hack it in one of the tougher professions, you can usually still at least make it through teacher training. Think about it: how often do you hear about someone who dropped out of medical school or flunked the bar exam three times? Now think about how often you hear about someone who couldn’t hack it in teacher training and got cut from the program? Virtually never, right? That is a problem. Bottom line: if we want respect, we’re going to have to simply make it tougher to be a teacher. The top-ranked nations in education are pulling the top 3 to 5% of their graduating classes into education. Sadly, while there are many talented, top-flight teachers in our schools today, there are also more than a few that probably wouldn’t have been able to get into many other fields.
For teaching to be the best job in the world, the profession needs to be appreciated. I’m not really that excited about Teacher Appreciation Days—we have Appreciation Days for those that we ignore, take for granted, or disrespect the rest of the year. Let’s forgo the once-a-year tip of the hat, and seek to truly appreciate what teachers do every day all year long. If we can respect the work of a teacher, respect the extraordinary demands of the profession, and create a similarly extraordinarily demanding system for training teachers, then individual teachers will be more respected as well. Achieve that change in attitude, and heck, we might even decide to pay them a little more.
But that’s another blog. . . .
Coming Up Next: “Nobody Goes into This Job for the Money”
This video posted on Youtube by Michellle Rhee's Students First organization gives glimpes of teachers who deserve our respect. I agree with all they have to say and I try to represent these same attitudes and values in my own classroom. However, I couldn't help noting that one teacher mentions that our students are our future "doctors, lawyers, and politicians." Even among ourselves, when we think shorthand about what success means for our students, we tend not to think of our own profession. Here's to hoping that we can reach a point where for our students to choose education as a profession represents the highest kind of success.