Like many Americans, my access to a quality public education was the single most important determining factor for my access to the middle class (via a college education funded by subsidized federally-issued student loans, Pell grants and academic scholarships). And, for that, I can thank a teacher.
Or, rather, I can thank a lot of teachers — from Mrs. Chant and Mrs. Rose and Frau Cunningham (my English teacher, my volunteer program adviser and my German teacher, respectively), the three women whose work defines a lot of my high school experience, to my elementary school teachers like Mrs. Wejrowski, Mrs. Powers and Mr. Fuller, to my junior high teachers like Mrs. Muth and Mr. Smith who had the unenviable task of teaching science to 12- and 13-year-olds and actually seemed to like it, to my music teacher and orchestra conductor Mr. Dean, whose passing still makes me sad, and beyond. I had the occasional bad one, too, and I can’t say I remember all their names, but, for better or for worse, those teachers and many others are the reason I have the life I do (and the spelling and grammar to type this, obviously).
They taught thousands of me’s over the years, through years of budget cuts that caused the district to make anyone in a two mile radius (as the crow flies) walk to school (still a popular option) and changes to the cafeteria program that had our lunch ladies selling Pizza Hut and Little Debbie products for revenue, through contract negotiations and renegotiations and, more recently, salary cuts, layoffs and the loss of promised raises. They did it even though they, too, probably had student loans (from the Masters degrees the state required of them but rarely compensated them well for having), even though some people have such a horror of packs of teenagers that a local mall still doesn’t allow unaccompanied minors after sunset, even though they are the first people berated when a child’s grades are supposedly too low or reportedly artificially high or not enough kids do well enough at the state’s exams.
During the Wisconsin protests in 2011, I asked someone, “When did we start hating teachers?” I still don’t understand.
Dana Goldstein points out that, among other things, the ranks of the teaching profession are disproportionately filled with women (as are the unions, though that doesn’t stop some on the right from referring to them as “thugs”), so it’s hard to resist wondering about sexism and authority figures. You have to think about the role of economy jealousy, since we’re in an economy still characterized by unemployment and layoffs and teachers make decent salaries and have tenure (though, despite the tenure systems in place, teachers are far from immune), especially when you read this. It’s not hard to see it as part of the right’s long-running war on unions, especially if you note, as union organizer Mikey Bolt did to me, that public sector unions represent one of the largest remaining unionized work forces in the country. It clearly is part and parcel of the part of the conservative movement that denigrates education as snobbery.
But I wonder, too, if the move to try to break teachers’ unions, reduce salaries and fire more of them is just an inevitable result of the movement to reduce teachers’ educational autonomy by reducing what they do in a classroom to a student’s score on a multiple-choice test. By mechanizing the process of education, by turning teachers into automatons and children into designed-by-committee widgets produced on a schedule, we not only risk losing the very part of a student’s educational experience that has the most impact (critical thinking), but we allow ourselves to stop thinking of teaching as a skilled profession and teachers as any more than test-givers and child-minders. And once we do that, we allow ourselves to question whether they “deserve” the remunerations their unions have helped them achieve, those uppity (mostly women) teachers who have those supposedly easy jobs.
Do you want to try to teach 13-year-olds anything?
Because, let’s have a little truth-telling here: it’s not actually impossible to fire a teacher for cause. Nary a month goes by without some teacher, somewhere, under arrest and fired for inappropriate intimate contact with a student. What it is hard to do, because of unions, is fire teachers without cause. It is because of tenure that, for instance, it is hard to take Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) advice and bar unmarried pregnant and gay teachers from classrooms. It is, today, difficult to fire a teacher for teaching evolution — but it’s also difficult (but not impossible) to fire a teacher for referencing creationism. This is not about a school district’s inability to ever get rid of a (truly) bad teacher. It’s about their ability to do so willy-nilly, or based on standards few agree are actually valid.
And this whole fight seems to be about a bunch of bureaucrats, politicians and monied interests using a bunch of straw man arguments (“Remember that bad teacher you had in high school? It’s the unions that kept her around!”) to further an educational reform agenda that measures teacher performance based on students’ ability to successfully regurgitate memorized information rather than their teaching, because numbers are easy for politicians and bureaucrats to read and grandstand about than long-form evaluations that take into account actual teaching or learning. Because, again, teaching isn’t considered important, or difficult by too many people who aren’t doing it, wouldn’t want to do it and yet somehow managed to significantly benefit from it.
It’s the new “I did build that” — people think that the teachers who molded their intellects and methods of self-expression had nothing to do with their successes that resulted from it.
Well, I know I didn’t build this myself. A teacher helped.