What’s the Deal, America?

It might seem that I have exhausted the topic of the teacher’s strike. But, alas, I have not! There is one more central issue to the strike that was not addressed that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society and that was: Do we value teachers? This question is still resonant today. Just look at Oakland where teachers walked out two weeks ago (they settled a couple of days ago) and shortly before that, the teachers’ strike in Los Angeles as examples.

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Associated Press photo – February 21, 2019 – Community members supporting Oakland teachers’ strike

Those two labor actions were, in large part, about pay – teachers need second jobs to make ends meet. The 1968 dispute in New York City didn’t hinge on salary, but that isn’t the only measure of whether we value the profession.

One aspect of treating teachers professionally is to provide due process before reassignment or termination. The attempt by the Ocean Hill Brownsville school board to fire people who had tenure without a hearing was offensive to my father. He would not want to protect teachers who were lazy or incompetent, but they were entitled to be heard first.

There is a reason that the teaching profession includes tenure. Tenure existed long before there were teachers’ unions (tenure came into practice in the early in the 1900s; though there were attempts to organize earlier, the UFT wasn’t formed until 1960). The reason was to protect teachers from political influence or corruption. People understood there was a danger that a new principal could come in, fire the staff and hire their relatives or give jobs to the highest bidders. There has long been recognition that the education of our children held a special status that needed to be protected.

As with all things, though, there is a need for balance and there is a perception that things have gotten out of whack with it becoming a long and expensive process to terminate a terrible teacher. In 1968 my Dad had no tolerance for those who were taking advantage of the system, skating by, making no effort. He had his own scornful word for them, “deadwood.” I don’t know if he invented that term, but I heard it often enough when Dad expressed his frustration with a colleague. It is an effective metaphor:  decaying branches clogging up a stream. But, he didn’t believe the majority of the teaching force was “deadwood” or racist. Finding the balance between due process and ridding the system of deadwood continues to be a struggle. Remember the headlines on the front page of the New York Post not long ago? – with pictures of ‘rubber rooms’ for teachers that can’t be trusted in the classroom but can’t be terminated either. We need to find the right balance, but that still doesn’t answer the central question of how much do we value teachers.

Our attitude toward teachers in America is a funny thing. We have a kind of schizophrenia about them. One the one hand, we think anyone can teach, everyone thinks they know how things should be done in the classroom. After all, we’ve all gone to school. And then there’s the old saying, “He who can does; he who cannot, teaches.” Hardly a statement of praise. As noted above, teachers are underpaid and that continues to be a sticking point. It’s also been considered ‘women’s work’ dating back to the nation’s westward expansion when the ‘schoolmarm’ taught in one room schoolhouses. Women’s work has never been given its due.

On the other hand, we expect so much of teachers. When poor achievement scores are reported, teachers are blamed. In New York State we require that they earn a master’s degree within five years of their appointment. There are demanding continuing education requirements – I believe 75 hours every five years.

We simultaneously believe that kids right out of college can step into a classroom to teach (as in Teach for America and exemplified by Rhody McCoy hiring strike replacements who were fresh out of college subject to a single interview) and yet we complain that inexperienced, uncertified teachers are disproportionately assigned to poor, underserved schools, and offer that as emblematic of the inequity of the system.

A number of years ago I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman who grew up in Finland. If you read about successful school systems, Finland is often cited as exemplary. He explained that students who went into teaching were the best and the brightest; teachers there were expected to have the equivalent of a PhD, were as revered as medical doctors, and were paid accordingly. Not exactly a description of our situation.

So, what’s the deal, America? Can anyone teach? Or, is it a profession? And, if it is a profession, is it an esteemed one that we are willing to pay for? We can’t have it both ways.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Deal, America?

  1. Being one of the few people in our family who has never been a teacher in the public or private school system, I don’t know how much my opinion carries any weight. However, the under appreciation of teachers has always been something I don’t understand. If I remember correctly, Steve intended to teach following college, but found it too difficult to support a family on the salary offered and had to abandon the profession. That made me so sad when he told me. Here in Palm Beach County, a good portion of the School Board budget comes from real estate taxes. I have always voted for increases to real estate taxes when an initiative is on the ballot and it is noted the extra money will go toward education. I buy school supplies every August for the drives held by radio stations in the hope that my small contribution will mean a teacher doesn’t have to reach into their own pocket to equip their students. Mom, a former teacher, often said the most valuable investment in the country is the education of our children because they are the future. I believe that too. This thought also leads me to feel that teaching is one of the most important professions and is one of the hardest. I don’t think anyone can teach. I think it takes a special person who is dedicated and loves witnessing the flowering of young minds. If we are entrusting the welfare of our children (and the future of our country’s success) to teachers, why don’t we treat them with the honor and respect they deserve? Why don’t we ensure they have the tools they need to enrich our children to the fullest? It’s not just public opinion that devalues teachers, it’s also government that puts low priority on funding the education system. I don’t have any answers, and I don’t know how to address the issue of what to do with deadwood. Another thought provoking blog.

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    1. Thanks, Laurie, for commenting. I completely agree with you (in case that wasn’t obvious!). And I think your opinion carries a great deal of weight precisely because you aren’t a teacher.

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  2. Part of the issue is that people want an excellent education for their children but they don’t want to pay the kind of taxes that would support the education that they desire. And, of course, not everybody values education in the same way.
    None of that is an acceptable reason to treat teachers as less than the professional experts who deserve respect for taking on the difficult work they do. Separate from pay, getting treated with respect makes a difference. And being brought into any discussions about education policy is critical to make sure teachers feel valued, to get their important perspective and to make sure they buy in to whatever policies might be adopted.
    Thank you for the outstanding blog post.

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