Teachers: Why them?

March 3rd, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  8 Comments

It’s been strange following the ways in which the conservative governors of our middle American states have turned so virulently on a paragon of traditional American virtue: the teacher. Regardless of where you come down on the political activities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana–brutal response to fiscal reality or brutally cynical political wedge issue–it’s been shocking to hear the vitriol directed toward the nation’s educators.

Frankly, I don’t really understand it. Certainly there are bad teachers in the United States, and I imagine there are ways in which the national union stifles innovation. But, really, teachers? The people caring for and our educating our children? It doesn’t track.

Now, using the Times as a source of American perspective is a dangerous thing. As an institution it feels compelled to display all sides of an issue, regardless of how preposterous one side might be. But does a broad cross-section of the American public really begrudge teachers their summer break:

Even in a country that is of two minds about teachers — Americans glowingly recall the ones who changed their lives, but think the job with its summers off is cushy — education experts say teachers have rarely been the targets of such scorn from politicians and voters.

Republican lawmakers in half a dozen states are pressing to unwind tenure and seniority protections in place for more than 50 years. Gov. Chris Christie’s dressing down of New Jersey teachers in town-hall-style meetings, accusing them of greed, has touched a populist vein and made him a national star.

I know that directing money at large bureaucracies doesn’t solve systemic problems, but seriously, as a parent, if there is one bloated, unwieldy, and poorly-performing institution I like seeing awash in money, its schools, particularly the public ones. So, let’s assume for the moment that our teachers really are the bloodsuckers that Republican elected officials would like them to be–they’re not, but assume it–wouldn’t paying them off be a worthy trade on behalf of our young? Balancing the budget on their backs is really just balancing it on our own.

Unless of course you’re wealthy enough to send your children to private school. But even then, no, that’s too simple. It’s still absurd.

Play nice, boys.


  1. Matt says:

    March 3rd, 2011at 8:57 am(#)

    Unless you are, or someone close to you is, a public school teacher, it’s hard to understand just how tough a job it is.

    1. Your day does not end when the bell rings at 2:30 or 3:00. After my wife finishes her office hours, she comes home and grades papers or creates lesson plans until 9 or 10 p.m.

    2. Your “three month vacation” is more like seven weeks off, and then you’re back at school. Even during your time off, you’re still working to prepare yourself for the new year.

    3. Taking more than a couple of days off during the school year, for any reason, is frowned upon.

    4. You endure a battery of psychological shitstorms from kids who have no interest in learning and whose sole purpose in life is to make your job a living hell…and then you must deal with their parents who are demanding to know why their child is failing your class.

    5. You must also deal with the fact that you are blamed for EVERYTHING that goes wrong in your school, no matter whose fault it is.

    I could go on, but you get the idea. Being a teacher is not a cushy job in the least.

  2. SCOTTSTEV says:

    March 3rd, 2011at 11:33 am(#)

    I’ll chime in here with some thoughts that certainly don’t combine into an argument. I’ve just started becoming a “customer” of public schools this year in a very good suburban system.

    1. In many cases, especially my hometown of Montgomery County, MD the teachers through their union have moved beyond simply an organization of professionals into a major (honestly, the major) political players. So, while that helps get their voices heard as professionals, it also makes them a target and opponent in the political arena. That’s why you might see opposition to “Teachers, Inc” in state and county politics, but individual parents love and support their actual teachers in their school.

    2. @Matt, I’m really intrigued by your statements 4 and 5. I wonder how much of the difficulty of the job comes to lack of control over the students and their parents. How much would performance and teacher job-satisfaction improve if schools were allowed to fire the most problematic students? Is that even something we want to consider for public schools?

  3. Summer Kumar says:

    March 3rd, 2011at 11:57 am(#)

    Great piece. I struggle with this myself. I am naturally a very progressive, left-leaning, pro-labor person (my family includes unionized coal workers and railroad men). As a dispassionate adult, I recognize all the tremendous work that teachers do and feel they should be respected and compensated accordingly. Many of my friend are public school teachers and I respect them immensely.

    But, at an emotional level, I’m ashamed to say I still have a strong anti-teacher bias. I went to some very low-performing public schools in Los Angeles and my own teachers were awful. I mean, really awful. I had teachers who didn’t show up for days, teachers who slept during class, who showed up visibly drunk or hungover, who flirted with the students, who knew so little about the material that they would ask me to teach for them. My geometry teacher was always one chapter ahead of us in the book and would ask me to help her grade homework. In biology we got through two chapters of a four-inch-thick book. My mom, who went to public school in L.A., had the same experiences, too – she still jokes about one teacher who slept through class with his feet up on the desk.

    I was a bright kid but felt I was totally on my own to apply to college, to prepare for the AP exams, etc. I essentially felt self-taught. And when I did get into a prestigious private university I was woefully behind all my peers, it took a long time to catch up.

    My point is certainly not that all or even most teachers are like this, but I wonder if some of Americans with these attitudes had negative personal experiences that impact how they feel. I try very hard not to let my own experiences affect my politics and I certainly do not vote based on them, but still – they’re there.

  4. Matt says:

    March 3rd, 2011at 12:17 pm(#)

    “Firing” the most problematic students would be a dream come true for every teacher. Before she was hired at her current school, my wife taught in the inner city. One year, she had a student (with a history of sexual violence stretching back to the fourth grade) literally stalk her, to the point where some days she refused to go to work. Due to the byzantine nature of district rules and state laws, it took almost the entire school year for this kid to be transferred to another school. There was a lot of advocating by her union to make that happen, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

    Her last year, she was caught in the middle of a fight between two boys, and was unintentionally shoved and hit–while pregnant. You would think that would be cause for expulsion. You would also be wrong. People like to complain that firing bad teachers is too hard to do; in a lot of ways, especially in the bureaucratic nightmares of large city school districts, getting rid of the worst students is just as difficult.

    I guess my point is that, without a doubt, just by filtering out the worst of the worst, you would see a dramatic increase in both teacher and student performance. What you do with those kids if they’re not allowed in school, I have no idea.

  5. Rick says:

    March 3rd, 2011at 4:27 pm(#)

    I taught high school briefly, and I too have mixed feelings on this issue. For me, it’s not the teachers that are the problem, it’s the unions that insist that longevity is more important than ability. All teachers are not equal. Some are great, some suck, and you can’t fire the sucks in most school systems (even here in Texas, a “right to work” state).

    By the same token, students are universally coddled. It is incredibly difficult to fire (flunk) a student. Idiots get socially-promoted until they are too far behind to catch up, and then the teacher or school gets blamed for their poor test scores.

    Further, I think we need to stop teaching every kid in America as if he needs college prep, and start promoting job training in high school. Shakespeare and calculus aren’t for everyone, and it’s a disservice to those kids, and the society they’ll soon be part of, pretend otherwise.

  6. Dad On The Run says:

    March 4th, 2011at 1:42 am(#)

    Liked the post, as usual… but I have to say, I didn’t care for the photo. The path to more respect for teachers doesn’t start with hot for teacher shots.

    Part of the reason teachers and their organizations are punching bags is because they are women. If we want children and politicians to show them some respect, we should as well.

    Now that my soapbox speech is over, I’d like to add I totally agree with your comments and find the conservative attacks on teachers and the general feeling held by many that teaching is somehow a cushy government job to be way off base.


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