Thursday, September 27, 2012

No Respect

  Teaching has been a hot discussion topic lately. The Chicago teacher’s strike was the latest issue to gin up the opinion mill, though teacher pensions, the Wisconsin recall election, cheating scandals, charter schools, presidential primaries and more have also contributed to lots of pontificating with very little of it by actual teachers.
     The discussion is good for the profession, in a general way, but for my money it’s time for everyone who isn’t a teacher to stop acting like they understand what’s best for our profession. The public pays the bills, and they are entitled to provide input on what our outcomes ought to be. Like doctors, lawyers and accountants, though, it’s our job to decide how to achieve those outcomes.
     Like Rodney Dangerfield, we teachers spend all of our careers, either consciously or subconsciously feeling we can’t get any respect. If you’ve ever taught, you know what I mean. Beginning teachers notice this phenomena pretty quickly in their careers. Often, when you interact with parents, they may be nice to you, and perhaps even actively supportive. But underneath it all is an undercurrent of condescension. It is reflected so tellingly in the insulting maxim that passes for truth among the general public: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.
     Most people can’t really conceive of what it would be like to be, say, a police officer, or a doctor, or a nuclear physicist, or most other careers, especially what are considered professional careers. What those people do every day when they go to work is a mystery to us because most of have never spent time in the work settings for those careers.
     But most people believe they understand teaching, because everyone has spent years in a classroom as a student. Apparently that convinces them they know what teachers do, and most of them believe in their heart of hearts that, if they wished, they could certainly do it better. For them, teachers are pleasant, good-hearted people who just don’t have the drive to make it in the real world. There is the suspicion that we are hiding some unspecified defect that keeps us from wanting to take on a challenging career, a real career in the real world.
     Oh, they tell us how important we are, how we make a difference in children’s lives, how we ought to be paid more, but it is only lip service. What they really think is that they were once students, and that experience informs their belief that it isn’t really that difficult to teach. Perhaps it requires a bit of patience and a willingness to put up with childish behavior, which they just don’t have the personality for, but all in all, it isn’t difficult to do. And teaching certainly doesn't pay enough.
     Add to that the fact that the kids go home at 3:00, we only teach somewhere around 180 days of the year, and can’t be fired, it’s a wonder we aren’t paying parents for the privilege of teaching their children.
     Yet, if it is such a great deal, why aren’t more people lining up to become teachers? Type “teacher shortage” into Google and discover that most states have shortages, some critical, in a variety of locations and in particular subjects. Add to that the number of baby boomer teachers approaching retirement, and the question to consider is why aren’t more college graduates choosing teaching as a career?
     If it is such an easy job, why are teacher retention rates problematic? According to Forbes, 46% of teachers leave the profession within five years, a turnover rate that costs $7.3 billion a year. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reports that teacher attrition has increased 50% in 15 years, rising to 16.8% and over 20% in some urban schools, where sometimes the “teacher dropout rate is actually higher than the student dropout rate.”
     If you have to ask why, you have obviously never had to get up in front of a group of 30 children and attempt to be in control and yet pleasant, knowledgeable yet understanding, entertaining but efficient, all the while making sure that every one of those  30 students is learning what they need to learn. It’s not for just a 20 or 30 minute PowerPoint presentation, it’s all day. Not only that, but this presentation is only one of several needed to be given today, with a brand new batch starting tomorrow, and the day after, and so on.
     Teaching is an emotionally draining experience. It’s like being on stage all day every day. You have to be on your game at every minute, on top of whether the students are on task or not, on top of the material you are presenting, on top of your students’ learning and emotional needs at every moment, on top of whether they are getting it or not, on top of whatever new or different material for which the district or the state determines you must now be accountable, on top of what this new principal has suddenly decided is the next big thing. I went home tired every day I spent in a classroom.
     And students, especially the older ones, are an unforgiving audience. One misstep and you have lost some of them, perhaps a significant number of them. One wrong word can ruin days or weeks of all the right words, and shatter the trust you’ve built up. The worst is when they don’t care–nothing destroys your confidence and ruins your day like indifference. You work so hard to give them the best you’ve got and plan something terrific, and boom, they could care less. It’s a hard blow.
     Of course the highs can make up for a lot of lows. When it goes right, when you see the light finally go on in a student’s eyes after you have rephrased an explanation again and again, when a student you've relentlessly encouraged can do something correctly for the first time, when they achieve so much more than they ever thought they could–that makes up for the bad days. Still, like any job worth doing, the sacrifices make the successes all the more rewarding.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that teaching is harder than brain surgery. I’ve never done brain surgery, but I’m guessing it’s hard too. But it ought not to be a contest. Like a lot of careers, teaching is challenging, rewarding, and difficult enough to make it worth doing.
     Recently I read an essay about ethics in The New York Times, and I liked Howard Gardner’s definition of professionalism. He said that professionals were historically, “a cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner.” Like lawyers, doctors, and accountants, teachers “render complex judgements and decisions,” all day, every day, concerning what parents hold most dear, their children. Like those other professionals, we work at making those judgements in a “disinterested” and professional manner. Like them, the complexity of those decisions makes the job difficult. While the livelihood we earn is not as comfortable as theirs, it generally is enough to make us feel we are at least in view of the middle class.
     All we ask is a little more respect, maybe even a lot more respect.
     Remember, just because you were a student in a classroom, doesn’t make you enough of an expert to lead a class or grant you the chops to preach to teachers, trained and experienced professionals, about how we should do our jobs.

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