It seems as though in the past few years every American has discovered that they not only understand teachers' job responsibilities and have a lisence to mock and criticize, but also many have developed an unwavering confidence that THEY could do a better job and know exactly how to fix the system. I'm not even just talking about the "experts" (more about them later). Even some of my friends and family members will mention in conversation how there isn't enough "adacemic rigor" in our elementary schools, and how we spend way too much time playing and doing "warm and fuzzy" things. Nevermind the fact that these individuals have't set foot inside an elementary school in decades. (BTW there are four teachers and a former teacher in my family. Just imagine what's being said away from the presence of teachers...) The public also seems to have decided that it's teachers that are bleeding this country dry financially, and that our bloated salaries are far from earned. You know, because we only work til 3 and all...oh, and get those "3 months" off in the summer. (IDK about you, but almost 2 weeks of my summer are already booked with professional development that is earning me neither pay nor grad school credit.)
You'd have to be living under a rock lately to have missed out on all of the teacher talk in the news...I particularly enjoyed this fox news video clip (sorry, the site wouldn't let me embed it, or else just couldn't figure out how on this one!) about the fact that Wisconsin teachers took sick days to lobby the capital for their union rights. Seemingly, the newscaster's biggest outrage with the situation is that teachers set an example for their students that lying is acceptable by calling in sick when they weren't sick. I see this, and I have to wonder: What kind of example for our children are we setting when we talk about how little teachers work, how they don't care about their jobs, and how they don't deserve their salaries and benefits? We are telling them that teachers are not professionals and respect for them is optional.
Teachers' jobs, benefits, union rights, and pensions are in more danger than ever before in so many states. But to me, at least, the most settling part of this whole debacle is that teachers seem to have somehow become America's most hated profession. Hated and degraded, actually. Just watch this (hilarious and blood-boiling) clip from The Daily Show...
I am not saying that teachers have the hardest job in the country. I am not saying that we should be paid more than any other profession. In fact, while a raise would be nice, higher pay isn't even the first thing on my teacher wish list. More than anything, I would honestly just like a little more RESPECT and UNDERSTANDING. Here's the thing:
I love my job. I do. I love teaching and I love my students (even when it takes a LOT of effort!!). I am so lucky to be in a career that is fulfilling and about which I am passionate. But I work really hard. Actually, really REALLY hard. And there are few things that make me crazier than the lack of respect myself and other teachers get in return for all of that hard work. On the one hand, part of me thinks that I just shouldn't let it bother me--who cares what people are saying about teachers? But on the other hand, it DOES matter. It matters because when students hear their parents saying negative things at home about teachers, they come to school with a lack of respect for them. It matters because when students don't respect teachers, learning stops. It matters because in an already difficult and emotional job, a general atmosphere of thanklessness just leads potentially great teachers to burn out that much faster.
I have a few specific issues I'd like to touch on here. One is the "cushy job" image people seem to have developed in their minds about teachers. In fact, this article even states that, based on a time-analysis study, most teachers work an average of less than 40 hours per week, excluding summer (as far as I read...although don't quote me please...). I have to ask, though, isn't it a little contradictory to proclaim that we are going to weed out the good teachers and the bad teachers, yet then lump ALL teachers together in this data? I just counted and on average I spend around 60 hours per week either in school or working on school-related tasks. The truth is, though, that I choose to put in a lot of that time. I definitely could get by with less. I could follow my teaching manuals verbatim. I could do more text-book reading. I could do more work packets. I choose to spend hours planning units and interacts and labs. I choose to read professional literature and analyze my literacy block and try to find better ways to reach my students. I put in time because I care about my students and care about being a good teacher. While I choose to do these things, it makes me crazy when people call what I do a 9-month 9-3 job. It could be that, but what would I sacrifice? I would not be the teacher I am if those were the only hours I spent on my work.
Another issue I'd like to address is the pretty vicious criticism the union has been taking lately. Wisconsin is just one example. The union does so much for us--it's way more than just benefits and tenure. It seems to me that very few people outside of education ever consider that one crucial role of the union is protecting us from false accusations. What I mean is, when you're working with children, ALONE with children, it's so important to be legally protected. Depending on where you teach, there is a very real possibility that a child might, in anger, go home and tell a lie about you to his or her parents. And that lie could get you fired without someone there to step in and protect you. I'm not even sure that I agree with tenure in its current form. There should certainly be more stringent requirements for getting tenure and holding it. And I have to wonder if we DIDN'T have tenure, would the public have less ammunition with which to attack teachers, especially those in low-performing schools? What if they were unable to say that our students struggle because, knowing that we cannot be fired, we choose to be lazy, and instead admit that there are deeper social problems at work here? While I may not be Miss Tenure Supporter, and I am grateful for my union and what it does for me. (Read more of my thoughts on tenure and unions in my review of Waiting for Superman.)
FINALLY, I am wondering when people will stop demanding teachers to take responsibility for their students' learning, and when they'll realize that we ARE and always have been. Teachers come to work everyday because of and FOR the children. Trust me, we care. Or we wouldn't be here. When will people see that in order for schools to be successful, parents and community members need to meet us halfway. I can't do much about the first years of my students' lives. I can't read to them at night or practice addition facts with them in the car. I can't make their homes text-rich environments or talk to them as babies. (Sad Statistic: A field study conducted in the 1980s estimated that, "by the age of 4, children of professional parents had heard on average 48 million words addressed to them while children in poor welfare families had heard only 13 million." (source) <--That statistic breaks my heart.
What it boils down to is that the achievement gap is GIGANTIC by the time our kiddos step through the doors to our schools in kindergarten. It means that, at the extremes, our poor students are coming into school knowing no letters or sounds and never having held a pencil, when our privileged students are coming into school already reading. I promise you that I am doing the best I can. But I am one person. And when my kids come into my classroom, they are already 10. I can do a lot to help them, but I can't change the past. Closing the achievement gap is not the responsibility of teachers alone. Likewise, the fact that it exists can't be blamed solely on teachers either. As blogger Mr. Teachbad points out, what are the odds that all of the crappy teachers just decided to flock to Detroit, Washington DC, and Harlem? Is it really believable that there are no crappy teachers in wealthy neighborhoods? Something sure the hell ain't right here. (Yes, I said ain't.)
Anyways, I hope you don't read this and think I hate my job. I love it. But I would love a little more respect. I'm betting that if I went back in time just one generation from myself to my parents' youth and asked their parents for their thoughts on teachers, the opinions would be exponentially different than what seems to be popular today. Didn't teachers used to be respected? In other countries, aren't they still? Don't get me wrong: I regularly hear from people how awesome it is that I'm a teacher, or get that, "Good for you!" from physician's assistants and the like as they ask me my occupation to add forms and charts...But at the same time, I also hear plenty of subtle, backhanded, almost unintentional comments regarding teachers and what are jobs actually entail, not to mention how well (or poorly) we do them.
We give our lives to teaching other people's children. If that job doesn't deserve just a basic level of respect, what does?