Teacher as the Enemy? Again?

My father used to say that there were three things people always thought were better when they were young: religion, sports, and schools. He was right that, in all three instances, there is often a hazy nostalgia for the old days when religion was meaningful and sincere, when noble athletes played for the love of the game, and when school was place of discipline and rigor. Like all nostalgia, such memories tend to be faulty and created primarily to reassure ourselves with soothing narratives about our own lives. Unfortunately, when it comes to education, they are narratives that also contribute to a political climate that is proving destructive to education.

Anxieties about education tend to rise in bad economic times when the middle-class begins to worry about whether the cultural capital schools are supposed to impart will continue to be transformed in the economic capital that keeps them in the middle class. As I’ve written about elsewhere, there is a perpetual education crisis in this country (though the crises of the past seem to be forgotten when the youth of yesterday grow up to be the productive adults of today). Unfortunately, this time around, it seems to be targeted more than usual at teachers.  And so I can’t help but rant a bit.

The rhetoric surrounding the recent strike by Chicago teachers as well as the release of the movie “Won’t Back Down,” reinforce a punitive, anti-teacher attitude that is continuing to wear down the teachers I know. In this particular narrative, contemporary teachers are money-hungry, lazy union hacks uninterested in the learning of their students. It’s fascinating to me that high pay for teachers is always seen as problematic in a culture that reveres high pay for corporate executives and others in the business world. (And don’t get me started on how teachers get paid too much for all the “time off” they have. There are any number of studies that demonstrate that most teachers work close to 60-hour weeks throughout the school year, more than making up for any “time off” they get over school breaks. What’s more, most teachers now are buying many of their own supplies for their students, something not exactly expected of those in the business world.) But, somehow, the representation of teachers has continued to deteriorate in recent years. Teachers often used to be portrayed as stiff and perhaps a bit drab, but still important. Now they are portrayed as the worst thing about schools (unless of course they are they one, heroic, “teacher who cares” who transforms students in a single year,)

Clearly, I don’t buy that teachers are the core problem in schools. Of course there are less-than-effective teachers in many of our schools. But it’s deeply discouraging that so many people see the solution to that problem to be to berate teachers, begrudge them reasonable pay, threaten them with hypersurvelliance and dismissal, and then hope they flock to the profession out of their commitment to children. It may be human nature to lash out at the personification of the education system, but it’s not going to make education better – it’s not even going to make poor teachers teach better (news flash: more testing does not make for better teacher – a topic for another day).

What the anti-teacher rhetoric keeps us from discussing are the systemic problems in the way we approach education. By focusing vitriol on teachers, we’re not talking about the growth of bureaucracies, at all levels, that mandate more and more paperwork from teachers – a problem that comes from policies from all political sides, by the way. We’re not talking about how the demonization of government that began under the Reagan administration has drifted down into the perception of schools. As a culture we’ve begun to bring into schools the myth that the private market and competition are always better in every endeavor in life and that everything can be quantified or it doesn’t matter. As a teacher who has worked with students of many abilities and many levels, I can tell you that the best teaching I’ve done, and the best learning my students have done, could not be quantified in any way. What’s more, my best teaching is not spurred by “competition” or “efficiency”, but grows from collaboration and support. Education that responds to a world in which flexible thinking and engagement and literacy is the key, does not emerge from rigid testing regimes and punishing teachers. I’m not the first person to say many of these things, I know. It just frustrates me so that we seem to be making so little headway against the anti-teacher rhetoric.

The irony here is that, for many of the conservative politicians decrying public education and calling of testing and punishment, have not learned the lessons of their own upbringing – or the upbringing of their children. The most affluent public and private schools spend their money on small class sizes, individualized instruction, and lots of arts, music, and creative ways of thinking about solving problems and creating knowledge. These affluent schools trumpet such approaches to education in their public documents and affluent families send their children to them with great pride.

Yet, as a culture, Americans don’t want to believe in culture. We want to believe that every achievement comes from individual effort alone. Material and cultural influences on individuals are antithetical to the punitive, Calvinist view of life that Americans cling to. It’s all about predestination – you show forth your true character through your grades and, if they are inadequate, you deserve to be  punished and shunned.

The sad part of all of this is that the teacher-bashing so fashionable right now won’t make teaching any better. For one thing, great potential teachers, like the brightest undergraduates I teach, shy away from teaching because it has been made to look like a thankless, embattled profession. What’s more, punishment is rarely the best way to get someone to improve their work. Of course there are weak teachers in many classrooms. Yet you’re not going to identify weak teachers only through standardized testing – lots of weak teachers can drill students on limited content to pass a test. We need to begin by creating more flexible, nuanced methods for assessing how teachers are doing in the classroom that include looking at a range of student work and observations of teaching. In addition, there needs to be more support for teachers in terms of mentoring, in terms of resources, in terms of smaller class sizes. And we need to be willing to pay for education, big time.

Yeah, ok, a guy can dream right?

Sorry for the rant. I wish it had made me feel better.

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