Monday, September 17, 2012

"Teacher" is Not a Four-Letter Word

Professor is not a four-letter word, either.  Yet, for some reason, as I go about my humble, quite often thankless job in recent days, I tend to feel as though I should be hiding behind a shroud that simultaneously makes me invisible to anyone aware of my too-often-maligned profession and also projects in Las Vegas-style neon the success stories of my former students, and has maybe a scrolling marquee of positive student evaluations and classroom observations.  I feel as though I have to apologize for who I am AND prove to everyone that I've done a good job.  It is no accident that teachers and professors feel this way.  We are right behind Catholic priests in terms of public insults.  Even before the media backlash against religious leaders grew into a  tsunami wave of consensus, Charles Schulz was already reducing the classroom lecture to a horrid drone (the sound is the last one on the page, titled "Teacher speaking sound effect") that everyone found droll and understood immediately.  The New York Times Magazine dedicated its most recent issue to education and this article provides a fairly comprehensive view of the media backlash against teachers, explaining how we went from the noble educator imagery of the 50s and 60s, to the sleazy, incompetent concept of teachers we are so familiar with today, a la shows like "South Park" and "Breaking Bad."

When there is such a constant pile of information portraying members of our civil servants a certain way, I tend to believe that it is no accident.  Noam Chomsky explains that when we are given a point of view in the media, and no other point of view is represented in the media, it is done in order to manufacture consent with the idea that is being promoted.  That is, if we insult teachers enough in the media, everyone will begin to agree that teachers/professors are incompetent fools.  A simple Google search on teachers will bring up cartoons like this one and nifty teacher insult generators like this one.  Unfortunately, everyone has probably had a teacher or professor that he/she thought was either boring or insensitive.  However, I am certain that the majority of teachers and/or professors that folks encounter actually do their jobs.  Interestingly, we don't often remember the names of the teachers who did their jobs unless they appealed to us in some sort of special way.  We only remember teachers at the top and bottom of the spectrum, and too often we remember the ones at the bottom because it was so miserable to be around them, even though they were definitely in the minority.  Thus, it becomes quite easy to insult educators because when they do their jobs, we forget them, but when they are poor at their jobs, we definitely remember them and we hold a grudge.  Furthermore, we resent teachers who might make a mistake; if an educator flubs a date or fact - which could very well be because he/she is overworked or simply having an off day - we assume that the educator is entirely incompetent and should, most likely, be fired.  We are merciless with educators.

And that is where we find ourselves today.  Instead of accepting that education is an art form that has to be adjusted for every student that walks in the classroom and that is practiced in an infinite number of ways by different teachers, we want to standardize teaching to conform to a business model.  This section of The New York Times Magazine issue on education describes how University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was ousted by a primarily corporate-influenced Board of Trustees; fortunately, we learn that the faculty and students defended her and had her reappointed, but one wonders if such an action would happen at other schools where the faculty does not feel as empowered to fight back.  Indeed, in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has felt no qualms about saying that the teachers on strike do not care about their students and that they are selfish individuals.  As someone who has taught nearly 20 years, I can tell you that you cannot be an educator in the United States and be a selfish individual.

Not even the "bad" teachers can be selfish.  There are too many things to do!  Interestingly, someone who was accused of a selfish act in a song by the band System of a Down recently changed his tune when he bravely decided to try and teach for a year.  Tony Danza, of all people, tried to teach 10th grade English, and the result is this book, where he chronicles his exposure to the incredibly committed educators dedicated to an incredibly difficult profession.  As a result, he wants to apologize to all educators he has ever encountered.  It seems that, finally, some people are starting to realize that we should not degrade teachers anymore, that they deserve more.  In fact, this blog on the CNN website implores the people of New York City to treat teachers with more respect and not subject them to degrading public profiles of their supposed success, purely based on test scores.  That means, for example, that an educator (like me) who decides to work with populations who do not know the English language very well will inevitably receive a lower rating than someone who works in an area where kids are siphoned into a magnet school, for example.

Instead of praising educators for taking on work that, let's face it, very few people want to do or know how to do, we consistently insult them for not doing their jobs well enough and regularly threaten them with instability  by way of low salaries and department cuts.  Instead of finding ways to mentor educators into long and stable careers, we strike fear into their hearts by creating an atmosphere that implies that they could lose their jobs at any moment if they don't create magic in their classrooms at all times or succumb to standardization that has been created by people who are not in the field of education. You can find one of the latest threats here.

Classrooms are often places where magic happens.  It is incredibly exciting to hear a student share an insight that the entire class is inspired by; it is priceless to see a student go from timid and tentative to creative and proud; and it is absolutely wonderful to feel as though all your planning and hard work created an excellent lesson that everyone enjoyed and learned from.  But classrooms are also places where new lessons can flop, or where one student in a bad mood or even a faulty air conditioner can offset learning, or where monotonous memorization or skill drills must take place.  Students often don't realize until many years later that their very serious teacher or their very boring teacher had their very interests in mind.  And administrators, who prefer to be outside of the classroom and who work, oftentimes, with numbers alone, often don't realize that the figures they are collecting do not necessarily reflect the reality.

Teachers are flexible, and I hope everyone who has their eye on us can learn to be flexible, too.  Even though our counterparts in other countries work with 10-15 students in a classroom, we in the U.S. work with 25 or more students in our classrooms.  We work in classrooms that often do not reflect the current technology.  We work with students who cannot afford to purchase the books we assign.  We work with students who are in and out of class because of financial aid issues.  We work with standards that are given to us from folks who have never stepped foot into our classrooms.  We've done all of this for years and years.  Maybe, just maybe, someone might consider listening to our wisdom and insight, since we've managed to educate people under pretty much any condition given to us.  It would be even more incredible if we were allowed to determine, as a collective, what we believe makes a good teacher (instead of being told what makes a good teacher by people who do not teach) or a good classroom.

But the most incredible thing would be for people to respect teachers and professors.  A good friend of mine once told me that when he taught in another country, when he walked into a classroom, all of his students were standing and they did not sit down until he asked them to.  None of them thought to make an excuse if they missed an assignment because they knew, no matter what, it was their fault.  Parents sent gift baskets to his apartment and encouraged him to play an after-school game of pool with their kids, in order to create a better rapport.  He was, in general, seen as a professional and as someone to be trusted by the students, the parents, and the administration.  As someone who has a master's degree in education and a doctoral degree in English literature, and as someone who sees how much she and her colleagues give and give and give every day to their students and institutions, I don't think that kind of respect is too much to ask for.  Why, please tell me why, do other people think it is?