Okay, that might be going overboard, but has anybody else noticed that despite radically different methodology employed, the schools which educate their students best, according to most measures, are in the countries where the populace has the highest regard for teachers? The teaching practices and philosophies of Singapore, South Korea, and Finland (to name three of the most recent champions in world rankings) are very different. One common trait shared by all three? Teachers in those countries are much more highly regarded by their citizens than they are in the United States. We need to rescue the profession of teaching from its current status in the U.S. as menial public employee to a much loftier perch.
Teachers have to be performers, directors, critics, motivators, and technicians in order to succeed in their jobs. Oh, and bookkeepers, psychologists, efficiency experts, and subject matter mavens. Not to mention, security officers, community liaisons, coaches, and substitute parents. That’s quite a bit to expect from somebody, especially when many in our communities keep using the media to portray teachers as overpaid, inept, lazy, and greedy. Certainly, a few teachers quite comfortably wear all those negative labels; but in my experience with hundreds of educators over three decades, most teachers work hard, care about what they are doing, and provide excellent real-life role models for their students.
Good teachers leave a lasting impression on their students, and they contribute to students’ core values in ways which positively affect them for the rest of their lives. That seems significant to me and deserving of more love than has been afforded lately.
How respect gets increased will be a long-term task for everybody, but right now it probably has to begin with the teachers themselves. Yes, it is a shame that we have to stand up for ourselves; and yes, our culture has evolved in a way that doesn’t lend itself to valuing jobs that don’t create glamor, excitement, or riches. Maybe the perspective shift regarding the armed services in recent decades can offer some insight for enhancing the view of those in education.
If you’re old enough to remember the Viet Nam War, you know that soldiers were not held in high esteem back in the late 60s. Returning vets were reviled as “baby killers” and spat upon after enduring the horrors of war. Even those who supported military personnel had to low-key their positive feelings in the face of public outrage over what was not one of America’s finest adventures overseas. No, it was not the soldiers’ fault that they were let down by their politicians and generals, but that held little sway with most people. Some even found it shameful to admit to having served their country in this war.
Flash forward forty years, and now we have placed military personnel on a pedestal. Liberals, conservatives, hawks, doves, rich, poor—we all go out of our way to show that we support our troops. Yet, the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars have proven to be almost as unpopular as the Viet Nam war with Americans, and the more recent conflicts have had their share of war crimes and atrocities laid at the feet of U.S. soldiers, just as was the case in Viet Nam. This time, however, we seem to recognize that the work we set out for the armed services is both important and difficult, and that excesses and mistakes are inevitable with humans facing these kinds of challenges. We’ve learned to separate flawed policy from herculean efforts and to understand that the human frailty of a few should not detract from the courageous acts of the majority.
Obviously not nearly so dangerous or violent, but parallel in many other ways, teaching and teachers should garner a similar positive bias, just as soldiering and soldiers do now. Sure, some teachers will inevitably let us down in both their actions and their efforts. But that shouldn’t deter the public from going out of its way to support and facilitate the admirable work that most teachers do. We entrust our kids to these people, and we expect them to take on the most important work imaginable, preparing young people for the future.
It’s true that we have problems with the way schools function and how educational policies have played out; and politicians, unions, tax-revolt groups, and parents all share some responsibility for the difficulties school systems currently have. Unfortunately, the teachers in the classrooms seem to take the brunt of the blame, despite the fact that most are going above and beyond in their quest to educate. Certainly, we will have to deal with economic limitations and pension problems sooner or later, and the compromises that have to made will probably upset everybody. We can’t, however, allow these disagreements over peripheral issues to corrupt the fundamental relationship between teachers, their students, and the students’ parents. Anything that hurts the cooperation and work these groups have to do must be mitigated. A lack of respect for teachers as exhibited in many media sources and even on some school boards denigrates noble, important service, making it more difficult for teachers to do society’s vital work.
Inevitably, the chief negotiator for a teachers’ union and the school board contract negotiations head will disagree over many things—I was the spokesperson for my teachers in a couple of contract negotiations, so I know all about that. But after all the numbers are debated and the irritation has abated, everybody has to get back to the much more important task of making sure those returning students put their brains back to work as quickly as possible come September.
Perhaps it is the technological “advance” of having comment sections at the end of every news story which has exacerbated the appearance that the public’s attitude toward its educators has deteriorated, but much of the bombast in the media paints teachers in the worst possible light. I certainly don’t advocate hypocritical public relations fluff as a solution either; respect can’t be phony or saccharine. But we have to start changing the current dynamic of attacking the very people we expect to work so hard to educate our children.
With that in mind, I would like to give this figurative apple to all my teaching colleagues (both those currently working—like my two nieces and two nephews—and those who—like my mother, wife, bother-in-law, aunt, uncle, and me—have retired), those who taught me (I hope at least some of them are still with us), and any of you studying to be the next generation of teaching heroes. What you do/did/will do is a wonderful contribution to our world, and we appreciate it. Thanks, and keep up the good work. We (despite what you may read elsewhere) are with you.