In defense of teaching.

Teachers are used to working with less.  Primary school teachers are used to buying basic classroom supplies out of their own salaries; secondary school teachers are used to teaching with classrooms at double or more capacity; post secondary teachers at all levels are used to ever increasing demands from multiple masters (publish now, do committee work now, teach now, advise now…everything now, or preferably yesterday).  I’ve taught at all these levels, and most of the teachers I know accept their respective situations with a shrug and a sense of humor (there’s a reason the teachers’ lounge is the most important room in any school building for the people to whom it caters).

Very few of these circumstances have changed over the years.  When my father began his teaching career in the 1950s he was confronted with the same lack of resources as teachers half a century later, faced the same questions from people outside the profession who couldn’t understand why someone with intelligence and ability would want to use it in fighting a seemingly relentless tide of ignorance and misunderstanding.  His answer was always the same: if not me, who?  That reply, and the attitude it demonstrates, has sustained the entire educational system for literally centuries.

What has changed over the past twenty years, the last eighteen of which I’ve spent teaching in some capacity or another, is the increasing hostility to those within the profession who are responsible for sustaining it…not “educators,” which is often a code for people who took business and administration courses in college and didn’t set foot in a classroom until they were somehow expected to be responsible for assessing how it was run, but teachers, the ones on the front lines.  Teachers, we have been told, are an increasingly outdated class, a group of lazy ne’er do wells who get holidays and summers off and—if given that favorite whipping boy of the anti-education right, tenure—can teach their radical political positions (what those positions are is never explained, except it’s always part of the vast left wing conspiracy) with impunity.  That these criticisms come largely from people in business, who know as little about teaching as I do about profit and loss statements, or people whose own educational experiences wouldn’t exactly prepare them to make informed comments (like half term Alaska governors whose knowledge of geography begins and ends with Google Maps, for instance), is immaterial.  The fading educational system is the fault of those damned shiftless teachers, the ones indoctrinating our youth into further lazy habits.

Blame the teachers, goes the logic, and you’ll create accountability.  Demand higher test scores—which, against all evidence to the contrary, are apparently perfect indicators of the quality of a student’s education—and berate, harass and fire the teachers whose classes don’t perform, and you’ll see a change.  Stop coddling the unionized elite, who sip tea and sneer at the unwashed masses desiring only a chance at a better life, and you’ll have a leaner, more responsive work force, grateful for employment and willing to work any amount of hours to get the job done right.  It’s a compelling narrative, made more effective by the anti-intellectual sentiment which has always circulated in America.  It’s aggressive, and forceful, and satisfying.

It’s unfortunate that it’s utterly wrong.

First of all, solutions like the ones described above—test more and if the scores don’t get better, throw the bums out—oversimplify things to an incredible degree, a common tactic of right wing critics who don’t do nuance.  You’re either with us or against us, right?  Either students are good or bad.  There’s no in-between, no gray area, no difficult territory to navigate.  They need to test better.

But there are literally hundreds of problems with this argument—here are two:

1.  Students aren’t “good or bad,” if we even know what that means.  Students are good at different things, to begin with, and many of those things aren’t measurable in a strict academic sense.  How do you assess a student who can’t solve algebraic equations to save his life but is a natural leader, who is drawn to protecting those weaker than himself and whose presence entirely eliminates the problem of bullying in a classroom?  How about an exceptionally gifted writer whose physical skills—like not being hit in the face with a volleyball in gym class—seriously leave something to be desired?  Or an extraordinary musician who loves math and science, but left interest in English and history behind with her sixth grade graduation?

2.  Tests teach NOTHING.  They are useless for everything but a very specific form of assessment, determining how well a student performs on that particular kind of exam.  Of all the tools in a teacher’s arsenal, they are the least valuable in any real educational sense.  They serve a very, very limited pedagogical purpose.  Yet they have now become the mantra from business executives used to performance reviews and evaluations who need more data, more information points, more reasons to yell at, demean and threaten the teachers on whose shoulders rests the survival of education at all.  This creates an environment in which teaching to the test becomes the order of the day, and other far more important educational outcomes—like fostering creativity, intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn and grow—are cast aside as too “vague” and “untestable.”  Perhaps the greatest irony of this statement is that it never questions the sanctity of the assessment itself; the fault must be with the things being assessed.  This is wagging the dog with a vengeance.

But beyond the issues of oversimplification and the utter inability of tests to magically solve the problems of education, what is so galling about the new attack against the teaching profession is how it takes those most important to (simultaneously most ignored by) the system and demonizes them as a class…with literally no evidence to support the position beyond unproven and easily refuted anecdotes about the teacher who never comes to work and doesn’t treat Billy like he’s special.  This for a group of people whose qualifications put them on a par with educated people in any profession, but whose salaries put them on a lower middle class / high poverty track at best.  It would hardly be surprising if this relentless attack did drive away the most able into other jobs where respect is the rule, not the exception; it’s a testament to the passion and drive of most teachers that this hasn’t yet happened, but it’s foolish to believe things can continue this way without consequences.

What, then, can be done?  A few suggestions:

1.  Stop the attack on the front lines of education.  Develop a system of teacher evaluation based on scientific study and pedagogically sound practice—and incorporate teachers, who have been willing for decades to do this, into the process.  Get rid of the few bad apples, which certainly exist, but focus the effort on teacher development and support rather than enhancing mutual suspicion between teachers and the surrounding community.  (And stop the attack on unions, which is neither accurate nor related to the larger problems facing education.)  Think outside the box, and while you’re at it abandon the principles which may be applicable to profit-driven business but have nothing to do with a system which is about shaping human beings, not number crunching for the sake of a bottom line.  There’s plenty of that latter kind of thinking in every other walk of modern American life.

2.  Start thinking about how to make education more effective for students, not parents, teachers, administrators, or the rest of the peanut gallery.  Start by rejecting the “test everything” mentality and relegate it to where it belongs—a very limited, specific purpose in educational pedagogy.  Think about assessment in much broader terms—terms which consider students as the individuals they are rather than the categories modern education is all too eager to name them.  Bring teachers and parents together in the common service of the child, rather than the adversarial purposes of a political class which feeds on division and discord for its own ambitious purposes.

3.  Decrease class sizes.

4.  Have administrators come from the ranks of teachers again, rather than pursuing a separate track in which classroom experience is minimized and theoretical devotion lionized.

5.  Increase teacher salaries, from the embarrassing level at which they currently sit to the professional level which is appropriate.

6.  Most of all, tone down the rhetoric.  Tough talk is cheap, and in easy supply these days.  But when the microphone is shut off and the cameras stop rolling, the fundamental issues facing the modern student and teacher remain, and no amount of red-faced yelling and fist pounding will correct them.  If we all strive for the humility to know how and what we can do, and think of education as a collaborative effort rather than a large scale game of passing the buck, we might be able to start addressing the problems we face at their core. 

Those core problems have never been the teachers, in the 1550s, the 1950s, or now.  It’s high time we stopped treating them that way.