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Honoring Our Educators

2011 March 29

“Part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.” — Nicholas Kristof

Imagine, if you will, this nightmare scenario: For thirty or forty years of your life, you will be expected to be at work by seven am. No gearing-up, coffee-drinking hour for you; from the first minute of active duty (which will be marked by an ear-drilling bell), you will need to bring your A-game. No pressure, but if you miscommunicate, the effect might ripple through the next decade of someone’s life, or further. Two or three dozen people — let’s say fourteen year olds — will scrutinize you, and later they will make fun of your appearance, and make up stories about your sex life. Sometimes they do it right in front of you, snickering.

You will be in a constant state of performance except when you are doing rote work, looking over two or three dozen nearly identical documents and scanning for mistakes until you can’t see straight. You will take your work home with you every night and into some weekends. The parents of those snickering fourteen-year-olds will also scrutinize you — some more harshly than the kids do — while others will expect you to do a hefty chunk of their parenting for them. You will have a moral responsibility to act as social worker as well as educator; you are the children’s first line of defense against abusive family members, for example. You will be at risk for burnout, but you deal with it because you like children, you like your chosen subject, and you feel like you are doing something meaningful with your life.

Then you go home, exhausted, open a newspaper, and see yet another headline calling you a spoiled brat, a leech, a glorified babysitter.

I’m thinking of my cousin Shannon, who extends her compassion to a classroom full of Special Ed students every day; my aunt Maria, who studied into the wee small hours for hundreds of nights in order to earn her Master’s degree while concurrently working her old job and taking care of three children; my cousin James, a very white dude who nevertheless taught me what dap was when I was around ten (back then “gimme some dap” was “potato me”) because his students had shown him. I’m thinking of my own mom, Debbie, who has taught both two-year-olds and middle schoolers —  the two most terrifying developmental stages you could pick.

None of these people got into teaching because they thought it would be easy, or they wanted summers off, or they thought they could milk the system. All of them put their heart into their jobs in a way I seldom see with other people.

Traditionally, our culture treats teachers much like it treats mothers: with a lot of empty praise and relatively little real reward. The state compensates for that by offering public school teachers good benefits in exchange for a relatively low salary. In union-friendly states like New York, those salaries are a little higher, but still not exorbitant by any metric, not when you consider the work involved. And I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the education I received in union-hostile North Carolina was of a much lower quality than the one I got in New Jersey, where the NJEA is one of the strongest educator’s unions in the country. There are good, idealistic teachers everywhere, and there are bad teachers everywhere, but there is a limit to how long a young, energetic teacher will stick around when she is being asked to teach forty kids at a time for a starting salary of under $28K. Truly apathetic teachers, in turn, do not tend to last long in such a demanding profession, and the ones that stick comprise a much smaller minority than some pundits would have us think.

In the editorial cited above, Kristof points out that many teachers’ unions have prioritized job security over pay, making it “difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.” He is right, but at the same time, teachers’ unions are wise to protect tenure policies. Public education is inherently subversive, and politicians have a stake in the values which future voters learn in school. There are serious free speech issues at stake where teachers are concerned. Teachers also make an easy target when budgets are tight, but they are simply not the same kind of workers as post officers or transit employees.  A school is like a family: it needs a measure of consistency, dignity, and stability in order for its components to thrive. Incompetence should not be protected, but neither should teachers be at the mercy of political whims, shuffled in and out along with shifts in the economy or the government.

Sometimes it is the very concept of collective bargaining, rather than any serious concern for the financial or educational future of a state, that prompts this sort of hostile rhetoric. In February, several leaders from the largest public employees unions in Wisconsin, including the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, announced that they were “willing to accept the financial concessions called for in Walker’s plan,” as long as they retained their basic collective bargaining rights. Walker refused. He was successful in passing his anti-union bill largely because he spun it as a budget-balancing initiative, but in the end,  money was not the issue, and, to add insult to injury, the “public employees are gluttons” narrative was reinforced yet again.

Chipping away at teachers’ ability to negotiate their benefits and salary is unwise, but acting as if the people who take up this vocation are somehow sponging off of society — this is reprehensible. On the contrary, teachers are the kind of people who make the world go round. Print it on a coffee mug, sure — but also stand up for them in the press and in policy.

One Response
  1. palio permalink
    March 30, 2011

    Andrea Greco has made her point carefully and thoughtfully. This is a brilliant essay, and the teachers who have nurtured her ability to write it should know their efforts bore such fruit.

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