My go-to teaching story for describing the student atmosphere where I worked is when I kicked a girl out of my classroom and she threw an open condom on my floor, shouting about how turned up she was before striding out the door. The thing about teenagers disrespecting teachers, though, is that if you sign up to be a teacher in America you’re asserting that being disrespected by teenagers is a major part of your job description. The unexpected is how much adults will disrespect you for being a teacher.
A few weeks ago, a video was making the rounds on the Internet showing how ridiculously demeaned and condescended to American teachers are – an example from none other than the district where I myself taught, Chicago Public Schools. There does come a point where you become a parody of yourself, Chicago Public Schools, and then as you stand in the way of everyone you were built to support, you go from being travesty to being tragedy.
What most people don’t realize is this Professional Development session made headlines because someone happened to record and release it, not because it’s unique. At all. Certainly, that session is on the far end of the badness spectrum, but teachers don’t go a day without some other adult wasting their time, looking down on them, treating them like second-class citizens and daft non-professionals – all while they still have hours and hours of actual work like planning and grading waiting at their desk that they wish they could actually get back to. This happened all the time.
One of my Assistant Principals, during a staff meeting, actually made the statement conversationally that he didn’t expect us to perform at unreasonably high levels, because if we could do that we would be “doctors and lawyers” instead. I want to take a moment to unpack that, because the implications didn’t seem at all unusual to him.
Implication 1: Professionals like doctors and lawyers are rightly held to a high standard of intelligence and action, but don’t worry, those who are tasked with educating the nation’s children are not expected to meet high standards. Teaching is a forgiving and easy job that doesn’t require intelligence and performance.
Implication 2: If you, as an individual, could meet the rigorous demands of an actual professional career like doctor or lawyer, you would be there, and not here. Teaching is for people who are too dumb or unmotivated to be a real smartypants like those people.
If this is the reality assumed by an Assistant Principal, who meant no harm or insult by his words but was merely tossing out a random truism he held as true, then I can’t imagine how low normal people’s opinions of teachers must be.
One of the nicest affronts my students ever cast at me (in between much worse, believe me) was that I didn’t belong in teaching and I should leave because I was too intellectual. Someone like me should go somewhere “good” where I could make money and be successful, not work in a shitty place like a school being a teacher, which is what dumb losers who don’t know anything do as a job. This is what American students believe. This is what they have been taught about how important their education is.
Unfortunately, they’re backed up by the grown-ups in society around them, not only in words (like my assistant principal’s, and a few other teachers there who thought I was stuck up because I used big words), but also in actions. This was at a Charter School where the HR representative at the school year kick-off was asked what the school was going to do about the extremely high teacher turnover rate and said “nothing,” because they “didn’t care” how high the teacher turnover rate was. I probably should have guessed how that school year would turn out for me.
When you have teaching colleges that accept almost anyone without any standards for admission and teaching-proficiency exams that require idiot-level knowledge and can be retaken several times, when your salaries and working conditions for teachers are so low that almost no one with the option of doing something else would choose it, when you prescribe test-based scripted curricula and talk down to your teachers until they feel like besieged and emotionally-drained hermits trying to become robots, and when you propagate a mindset that teachers just plain aren’t expected to be smart or respected professionals to be kept and valued, well… What did you expect?
If you don’t want smart people in school where their job is to educate people, and aren’t willing to actually pay and respect the position, then you have to admit either that education doesn’t matter, or that your grasp of reason and logic is so poor when you try to figure out how to add up several 99-cent items on a fast food value menu your entire head explodes in a cartoon shower rainbow of multicolor confetti (”Why when you add two 99-cent items the total ends in ninety-eight??– POP! BOOSH!”)
I personally know so many brilliant and dedicated teachers who are every bit as good – and better – than doctors, lawyers, professors, administrators, or politicians, and I can tell you the only reason they’re putting up with this bullshit is because they feel so much responsibility for those kids, and a calling to do their part in those kids’ lives. They are being punished for their dedication and intellect, in terms of salary, working conditions, and prestige, because of all the assholes who are okay with or even adamant about teachers being a mediocre people while they (these wonderful teachers) refuse to be mediocre.
Reform programs that work intensely in areas serving minority populations talk incessantly about the “soft racism of low expectations.” Expecting teaching to be mediocre and creating a system that conditions teaching as just that is the soft class-ism of low expectations. You tend to end up with the quality you ask for, and provide for. It’s time to ask for more out of the American education system; it’s time to provide more for our teachers.
(Further reading: Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got That Way is a good starting point for learning about education systems that value and select for highly effective educators and then provide them with salaries and respect equivalent with the valuable work they do)